As your car takes you through in the in out drive of The Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel you might be forgiven for thinking you had arrived at a large cliff top villa not a local legend with over 180 rooms. It is beautiful in an understated way, there is that famous pink stonework and a lobby that a concierge will appear from to open your door and welcome you. The overall impression is understatement this I was to find out is the key to its success.
As you walk inside the 20th century ebbs away and old school luxury takes over. I found out later that the ‘front’ of the hotel that you is actually the rear of the hotel. The front when the hotel was opened in 1891 was in fact facing the sea as all the guests in those days arrived by boat and later by sea plane, it is only comparatively recently that motor cars have been the mode of appearance.
The hotel has a lot of history and like all quality hotels discretion is their better part of valour. So I’ll only be quoting the odd repeatable story in this piece. Churchill used to stay here to paint. There is a sumptuous suite named after him with it’s own access to the beautiful gardens. George Bernard Shaw was a guest too and has the same suite accolade. If a building could be judged by the guests who have stayed in it then this hotel would pass with flying colours. It has also hosted just about every member of European royalty who continue to call in regularly.
The pace at Reid’s is gentle. You might find yourself drifting off to sleep by the pool facing the Atlantic and embracing its cooling breeze or playing tennis in one of the four courts (they have table tennis for the less energetically inclined). The spa is always popular and they accept children over eight so mum and daughter time could be raised to a new level. You might just want to wander about the public spaces. This place is vast and on many levels. You enter at street level, which is floor six! The building was enlarged in the early 1960’s from the original 28 rooms to its current size. The spaces meet seamlessly but the extension allowed for all sorts of extra areas to be added. There are secret steps that lead down to the sea where you will find many private spots to sunbathe or read in total peace.
All the rooms have a full or partial sea-view our room was in the ‘new’ garden wing and had a large balcony to espy the harbour and Funchal. We had breakfast there one morning. M looked like a movie star with her dressing gown and sunglasses (you will need sunglasses as it’s bright and sunny). The hot food arrived in a kind of mini oven to keep everything warm. After the waiter had set up our table and laid a creaseless tablecloth and the necessary cutlery he warned us to use a tea towel (provided) to remove the plates. He was not wrong, this was the most intact and hot breakfast we have ever experienced in a hotel. Brilliant and tasty food, they will cook anything from the usual full English, croissant and pastries (all cooked in house) to a selection of the most incredible fruit from the island.
There are many treats and unexpected luxuries for the guest, we noticed on the way to dinner one evening there was a billiard room. After a sumptuous meal at the Les Faunes restaurant we called in for a game of snooker. It turns out that M had a yet untapped skill that includes thrashing me at snooker as I instructed her every move. But being a gentleman here is easy, the template was made with the foundation stone of Reid’s and is as strong today as ever. I shan’t retell the score, all I will say that it was a conclusive win for M!
We did manage to drag ourselves away from the hotel (you will find it hard) and visited Monte up in the mountains, a small town with botanical gardens that are world class. The best way to arrive is undoubtedly by cable car. You can take this spectacular ride from the sea front, it takes about ten minutes and the views are stunning. You can descend in the same way or if you are feeling brave you could try the wooden toboggan option. Guided by ‘drivers’ you are thrust down the mountain road at considerable speed. This practice originates from the old system of moving the stores and fruits up and down the mountain, pulled up fully laden by oxen and ridden down.
The old town of Funchal is also worth a wander through, full of little eateries and interesting art galleries and brightly painted houses. History updated on every corner. We even found a most unusual shop everything it sold was made of cork. You might think this is limited to a few items but we were astounded to see; umbrellas, aprons, wallets and many other items. There is more to cork than sealing a perfect tipple.
It’s the little details that I always look for in a quality hotel and they are here in abundance. From being addressed by your name by everybody to the evening turndown which is performed by ghosts as far as I could work out. You pop out for a moment and it’s done on your return, I never saw anybody anywhere near our room.
The food was also faultless and there is variety as well. On our first evening we ate at Cipriani an Italian restaurant housed in an old lodge in the hotel grounds. Make sure you ask for an outdoor table. We were positioned with a view to Funchal and watched the day end with twinkling lights coming alive, as the sky became deep cobalt. The moon rose as if on cue to complete spell. The food here is impressive a stand out dish for me was duck risotto with orange. Pan-fried duck with perfect rice (that had the right viscosity to move round the plate with gentle help. The taste revisited that seventies classic duck a l’orange but was updated with more zing and character.
Children and teenagers are very well catered for. There is a children’s authentic thatched house in the grounds constantly supervised so your precious ones can be part of organised games, splash about in their own shallow pool then escorted to lunch or dinner. They can be looked after until 9pm free of charge while you do what ever you like (but I bet it’s nothing more strenuous than lying by the pool). Aspiring Lewis Hamiltons can burn their frustrations off in the teenage gaming room. Here you will find a Wii, Play Stations, even a mixing desk and drum kit to play with. The gaming set up is perfect with two comfortable chairs to each device. Maybe mum and daughter time could be rivalled with dad and son time on the latest Grand Prix circuit?
The daily programme sheet that outlines what is happening the next day is available late in the afternoon. It gives the feeling of being on board an ocean liner. Trips and events within the hotel are detailed. During our stay they held a pool party to celebrate the end of summer. It was a blast with a jazz band and lots of dancing and super BBQ food served by the pool. This was really just excuse for a party, as the summer never seems to end here. They have lots of parties.
Being a small island it is still worth having a look around to discover the diversity on offer. The north coast has tremendous cliffs with drama to match. Along the coast are sleepy fishing villages untouched by time and the most incredible churches. The hotel offers a way of seeing this in style, old style to be precise. A small fleet of vintage cars are available for hire with a chauffer to drive you around the beauty spots for a few hours. What could be cooler than cruising along in 1959 Rolls Royse Silver Cloud or a Morris Cowley from 1930’s? Or possibly dolphin watching from a catamaran or a jeep tour to the east coast might take your fancy? There is much to do on the island and Reid’s can organise all of it for you.
Afternoon tea is another very pleasant distraction. Served on the terrace overlooking the ocean when sunny or just inside if it’s raining the sandwiches are very generously filled (you can have as many as you like) and the cakes are sublime. This really is The Ritz and The Savoy rolled into one and placed on a jewel in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. The British tradition reigns supreme here with scones baked fresh and plenty of high-grade tea varieties to choose from.
Wandering around Funchal it would be a mistake to miss a tour of the world famous Blandy’s Madeira Wine Lodge. Started in 1840 by an intrepid Scot (as was Reid’s Hotel) the whole story of the wine making process is explained as well as the chance to taste some of their excellent wines.
The main dining experiences are the evening meals. I would advise going half-board as we did. All the evening meals were of a very high standard and we were looked after with charm and style. One of the hotel’s restaurants Les Faunes was the highlight. Served by the immaculate Nelson our waiter, the meal unfolded in the best style with little extras not mentioned in the menu. Before our starters came we were given a beautiful concoction of prawn tomato and cucumber. Crisp and refreshing it was a good amuse bouche. My crab with confit apple, watermelon jelly and tamarillo sauce was sweet and piquant. M chose an old favourite, Tomato gazpacho with a basil cream. Served properly with finely chopped extras added after it was poured, it was divine.
A pianist helped the evening along. Reid’s has more pianos than most hotels there seemed to be one around every corner. Before dinner we relaxed in the impressive cocktail bar. One wall dedicated to an Art Deco inspired mural created with silver leaf. Needless to say they know how to make cocktails here – a perfect mojito with not too much ice so plenty of room to swizzle your straw in. They also knocked up a fantastic little number for M with no alcohol called a ‘Why Not’.
The mains (we both had the same for a change) were from the classic stable. Beef tenderloin with sautéed foie gras escalope and appropriately a Madeira sauce. Superb texture of the large cut of beef was swimming in the sweet Madeira and the foie gras just melted on the tongue.
The wines of Madeira and Portugal are omnipresent on the island, there are others to choose from but I’d stick with what they do best, their own. Desserts are a match for the rest of the menu my strawberries and rhubarb in jelly with pistachio, sugar coated churros and a zingy yoghurt sorbet pressed all the right buttons for me. M said she didn’t have room (but she did) and seasonal fruits with a delicate sabayon which had been lightly grilled, a good touch from an accomplished kitchen that had ‘fresh’ written all over it.
Our time was all too short at Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel and was coming to an end. The last meal was that perfect tea which we enjoyed looking out over a rather stormy sea. The weather is changeable by the hour here so although there was a downpour it was sunny earlier and brightened up after the tempest. During our short drive to the airport I remembered something a member of staff had mentioned in passing “When George Bernard Shaw stayed here he took up dancing lessons at the age of 71” and apparently was heard to say afterwards “I have never learnt so much from anyone before”. Trying something new whatever age you are is often not easy but I would try Reid’s if you haven’t, after all they have a lifetime’s experience at making people feel at ease and you might pick up a few new moves – they still have tea dances!
We flew with www.monarch.co.uk