At this advanced stage in life it’s terribly embarrassing to admit to fellow travelers that we are, in fact, Cruise Virgins. We’d never seriously given the notion of “cruising” any real thought. Not for us … or so we thought until we found we could travel from Miami to Barcelona, Spain on an eleven night cruise for less than the cost of airline tickets, PLUS a balcony stateroom, PLUS meals and then we said, “Sign us up! We are ready, ready, ready to lose our virginity.”
This particular ship, The Norwegian Epic, was a repositioning cruise on its last trans-Atlantic voyage from Miami to Barcelona, Spain; its new incarnation would be sailing through the Mediterranean. The fifteen decks contained a maximum capacity of 4,200 passengers but on this trip there were (just!) over 3,100 onboard, with an average age of 59 years. (It was rather nice to blend in.) The eleven-hundred crew members worked diligently to make sure our time aboard was a pleasurable experience. The major pastimes of the guests appeared to be eating, sunbathing (in rather chilly temps on the upper deck) and gambling although there were evening shows with a hypnotist, comedians, musical acts and karaoke for those so inclined. There were art auctions, meet and greets for the singles on board and Friends of Bill W. and Friends of Dorothy gatherings. And, of course, outrageously priced booze for the thirsty ship passengers. However, the star of the show was the F-O-O-D: well prepared, varied and plentiful. The buffet and food bars were extensive and overflowing. Pushing back from the table, to our consternation, became a major preoccupation.
Since this was our maiden voyage on a modern floating hotel/casino we were comforted by the fact that the ocean – an impossibly deep, dark impenetrable blue – was relatively flat so there was no upset to our overworked stomachs in the area of sea-sickness. At worst, the swells were eight to ten feet so pitch was relatively mild. The constant thrum of the diesel-electric engines underfoot was a bit disconcerting but soon lapsed into one of those background events of which one is only subliminally conscious.
We had only one port of call to intrude upon our days at sea and, early on the ninth day the island of Madeira, Portugal, began to slip past us on the port side. Shortly after 6:00 AM bright klieg lights shone through our open balcony windows from the pier dispelling any future notions of sleep. Having purchased our shuttle passes the day before to take us into the downtown area of the capital city, Funchal, we tagged up with Joe, a fellow traveler from Cincinnati and decided to hire a taxi. Our mojo was good because the first driver we approached, Silvestre, spoke beautiful English and offered his taxi service, a lovingly tended Mercedes-Benz 220D, at a reasonable rate. We discussed the options and sights we wanted to see, struck a deal and grabbed some Euros from an ATM. (Note – ATMs are ubiquitous and much cheaper to use compared to the usurious exchange rates charged by the cruise ships.)
And a further aside about the present economy of the island which is based primarily on tourism. In an average year over 360 cruise ships will dock in Madeira and disgorge their passengers who, like us, will descend on the place in mobs to eat, drink, buy souvenirs, and take the quaint tram-way to the botanical gardens and see the island’s other sights. A whopping 70% of the euros generated in the economy come from the guests who flock to this magnificent speck of land. The remaining mainstays of the economy are from produce which is cultivated in the coastal areas and ranching in the highlands around the smaller villages. Fishing provides food for local consumption.
Funchal (a Portuguese name for a fennel plantation) and the island of Madeira were first established around 1452 and the fertile lands in the coastal and upland areas provided the impetus for future settlements. It’s a small island but a handful of hours is insufficient to see all it has to offer from its numerous historic churches, museums and markets to the scenic vistas and countryside reached through roads winding their way through the hills. Actually, the entire island was scenic and the wow factor was high. (Of course, now we have to admit that we’re Europe Virgins too!) The homes were immaculately painted, yards and vegetation trimmed. The hillsides above and below the road ways were stacked with terraced fields which had been under cultivation for centuries; testament to the longevity of the settlement. Life on this island looked to be slow-paced and comfortable.
One of our stops was at Camara de Lobos, a small fishing village where fishing boats had been pulled out of the water in the late morning and cleaned, filleted fish hung in the sun to dry. Aside from its antiquity and quaint factor its claim to fame was that after the Second World War, Winston Churchill visited to sketch and paint the harbor. A café in his honor still operates near the wharf. The village also houses the church of Saint Santiago, a deceptively small and modest structure from the outside with beautifully painted plank ceilings and a gilded altar to admire upon your entry.
Climbing away from the water we topped out at Cabo Girao and the overlook upon the highest cliff in Europe. Past the cliff the small village from which we had just departed could be seen. The entire sweep of that corner of the island came into view with thin gossamer clouds streaked in the sky, contrasting and merging with the ocean from which it rose. Traveling a bit further we stopped at the view-point of Pico dos Barcelos for another vista. We were not alone as buses, taxis and cars lined the parking lots and the tourists, most likely from our cruise ship, waited to get their photos of the not to be replicated panoramas.
Since we’d hired our very comfortable ride in the Mercedes and a knowledgeable driver we decided not to take the gondola cable cars up to Monte, a parish a few kilometers east of Funchal and famous for its botanical gardens as well as the option to make one’s return to Funchal in the 19th century basket sledges. The baskets are attached to skis and were adopted as a quick way to take the townsfolk of Monte down the winding mountain roads to the city. They’re guided by two runners, dressed in white and wearing the typical hats known as straw boaters.
The Church of Our Lady of Monte, built in 1741 and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1818, was reached by a climb up many stairs. Although a beautiful church, what made it stand out for us was that it is the final resting place of Emperor Charles I of Austria, the last of the Hapsburg rulers who died on the island of Madeira in exile after the dissolution of the great empire following WWI.
We discovered that our short time on terra firma was fast evaporating. Reluctantly we headed down the mountain toward the harbor where we were deposited at the gangway to our ship. After a quick parting photo of our chauffeur and his Mercedes, we again embarked on our voyage having glimpsed but a fraction of the phenomenal island of Madeira.
By Richard and Anita