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Savoring Madeira’s Natural Beauty the ‘Savoy Signature’ Way

Saccharum Resort & Spa

Saccharum Resort & Spa

Madeira’s Savoy Palace Hotel and Saccharum Resort & Spa offer the best of travel to Portugal, through the eyes of an interior designer Nini Andrade Silva, chefs and staff who know it best.

There’s something exciting about planning travel to Portugal, at a destination relatively few American travelers are familiar with—Madeira.

Some throw around the word “authenticity” when describing this sort of destination. However, when it becomes a buzzword appearing in every third advertisement, a savvy traveler has to question whether they will experience a place like Madeira in a meaningful way—as the locals do. Having visited a variety of island vacation destinations over the past two decades, I was looking forward to seeing how Madeira stacked up between a culture-rich island like Curaçao and others that exist just because of tourism.

Although Madeira is considered an equivalent of Hawaii among Europeans (especially German and British visitors), it has its own distinctive geography, geology and climate. It’s also unquestionably Portuguese in its culture—even with some interesting parallels to Hawaii, including old sugar industries, volcanic soils, pineapples and its internationally imported sweet dessert wine. The island’s Portuguese and British historic roots also ensure that nobody—from the avid outdoor traveler to culture vultures and foodies—will find themselves bored.

Savoy Palace Hotel

The Savoy Palace Hotel

With everything I look for in a destination—inspired gastronomy, interesting museums, distinctive geography and a certain pride of place expressed by the locals—Madeira exceeded expectations. This is thanks in part to the Savoy Signature Hotel Group, whose best property, The Savoy Palace Hotel, which opened in 2019, justifies the extra effort required for an American to get there. The outdoors-y Saccharum Resort & Spa in the beachside hamlet of Calheta, meanwhile, serves as a sweet base camp geared toward active and wellness-driven travelers but has much to offer everyone.

The Savoy Palace’s architecture and interiors are informed by the legacy of its predecessor, the former Savoy Hotel that stood on the same site, while offering an ambiance in tune with current lifestyle trends. Interior designer and native Madeiran Nini Andrade Silva, in tandem with RH+ Arquitectos, set out to create luxury lodging that delivers a definitive sense of place, even if one were to stay on the property and its adjoining Savoy siblings exclusively.

“My design speaks about my references and memories, not only of my personal history but about the history of Madeira Island,” said Andrade Silva. “This project, an homage to my homeland, brings together a number of standout elements from Madeira’s traditional art, history and culture, such as the exuberance of the surrounding landscape, man-made elements like the levadas (old irrigation channels), tunnels and traditional arts such as Madeira‘s renowned embroidery, wickerwork and the production of one of the best fortified wines in the world. These specific features underlie the metamorphosis between the conceptual inspiration and the interior design project.”

“My design speaks about my references and memories, not only of my personal history but about the history of Madeira Island,” said Andrade Silva. “This project, an homage to my homeland, brings together a number of standout elements from Madeira’s traditional art, history and culture."

The Savoy Palace Hotel

What helps keep the newness of The Savoy Palace—Madeira’s only member of ‘The Leading Hotels of the World’ consortium—front and center? The management continues to tweak the formula atop the collaborative foundation set by Andrade Silva and RH+ Arquitectos, and the concept is further enhanced by Savoy’s “Premium Experience” packages, refined to perfection at the new flagship hotel. 

Palatial perks include dibs on larger rooms and suites on top floors with ocean views, exclusive access to quiet breakfasts and snacks in the Jacarandá Lounge, a regularly restocked in-suite minibar, premium amenities (Chopard and Guerlain), adults-only private pool area, indoor garage with direct hotel access, unlimited phone privileges and for those booked in presidential or three-bedroom suites, complimentary transfers to other properties and the airport. And on top of it all, complimentary unlimited access to Laurea Spa water features. While the spa services are extra, they are executed in a way one would hope to find in a five star property—especially after a long and somewhat complex air journey to the island.

The Savoy Palace Hotel

The Savoy Palace Hotel

The exquisite attention to detail in the interior developments and landscaping underscore what makes Madeira special. On the grounds, there are 200 native plant species evoking Madeira’s lush forests, famed “levada” hiking trails and botanical gardens, particularly Monte Palace, that have charmed European visitors. The Savoy Premium Experience, however, brings greater depth to Funchal and the rest of the island. Dedicated “guest experience” personnel went out of their way to show me why Madeira shouldn’t only be a paradise for Europeans.

Another “Premium Experience” benefit is having priority when making reservations to three primary fine dining restaurants, all of which were conceived by award-winning chef Carlos Gonçalves and intended to shine a light on how Madeira’s long-standing culinary traditions will be carried forward even as international influences find their way to the island. Galáxia Skyfood & Skybar has the vibe of an 80s disco (as it existed in the former Savoy Hotel), but boasts a tasting menu expressing ideas of how the culinary scene may develop. On several evenings during the week, Jacarandá Club transforms into an “izakaya/kaiseki” hybrid with a range of Japanese dishes crafted with Madeira ingredients. 

Among the restaurants, Pau de Lume, which opened in Spring 2022, is the standout. The centerpiece of the airy garden setting is a Josper charcoal oven (lit by matches, hence the restaurant’s name), whose fire, embers and smoke add a defined Portuguese sensibility. Just like Andrade Silva and RH+ Arquitectos have done with the property aesthetics, Gonçalves honors the past and the future. The paella-like dishes (especially a smoky vegetarian variation with eggplant, peppers and sun-dried tomatoes) are exceptional, as are simple-but-flavorful grilled meats, a shareable grilled octopus with kimchi sauce, truffle and yuzu mayonnaise, and the dessert kitchen’s variations on a banana trifle and a millefeuille, localized with raspberries and fruit from the island. 

Madeira

Pau de Lume

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As good as the Savoy Palace’s restaurants are, missing out on the dining scene—especially in “Old Town” Funchal’s compact but lively restaurant district—would be tragic. One great way to suss out the best of the batch is to take one of the amazing walking tours by Madeira Food on Foot on your first or second day. Rather than fill participants up on an endless run of food samples, the objective is to dole out an abundance of history and culture at every stop to add context to what is sampled. That said, the guides (including founder Jaqueline Freitas) are not shy about offering their picks for the best restaurants that are not included on the tour in Funchal and elsewhere. 

Madeira Mountain Expeditions, meanwhile, offers 4×4 adventure tours covering the island’s varied and unusual terrain. My tour with guide and co-owner Ricardo included a visit to Quinta do Barbusano that proves the volcanic soil vineyards have more to offer than fortified dessert wine. A tasting of red and white table wines harmonize beautifully with a simple but satisfying traditional meal that includes buttery and garlic-y bolo de caco bread and Espetadas Madeira (a.k.a. steak on a skewer).

Thirty minutes and a world away from Funchal, Savoy’s Saccharum property makes a mighty first impression as it presents itself from the road as an extension of the mountain it abuts. Andrade Silva fills the interior space with a clean, spare palette of fresh greens, pale beiges and browns, while the infinity pools mimic the steep, terraced cliffs that define Madeira’s unique geography. In the main lobby and halls, there is clever repurposing of sugar cane processing plant machine elements, various found objects and wooden floor carpeting design and upholstery sets the tone for the kind of back-to-nature guest it intends to attract.

Saccharum Resort & Spa

As Saccharum was originally conceived as an outdoor adventure/wellness-oriented destination, the convergence of industrial chic, tropical elements and minimalism makes perfect sense. Unique features include the 1419 gallery, which has displays of century-old photos, machinery parts and vintage rum bottles. The adjoining lobby bar, even by day, features soft, rum-colored lighting emitted from chandeliers made from the metal parts of rum barrels, which also can be found in its public second floor and eighth floor restaurants.

While the spa is Saccharum’s marquee amenity, the girly glam found at Savoy Palace is swapped out with straightforward simplicity that continues Andrade Silva’s exploration of Cahleta’s natural and man-made attributes. The set-up clearly appeals to both active men and women looking to spend more time outdoors and then hit the spa for a post-flight sauna circuit session, a pre-hike swim or a post-ride massage. Signature Savoy pampering and luxury can be found where it counts—The superb massages and treatments perfectly executed by the spa’s therapists. 

My suite was compact, but efficiently laid out. Brown chaise seating and a desk are merged together and built into the wall. Sugar cane photography wallpaper, modular storage and a king sized bed complete the interiors. Over a third of the room’s space is dedicated to its outdoor terrace, not only complimenting Madeira’s unusual landscape, but also allowing for great daytime views and for soothing sounds of the Atlantic Ocean to pour in at night.

Saccharum Resort & Spa

Saccharum Resort & Spa

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Although much of the resort falls into the four-star category (and is family-friendly to boot), selecting the “Savoy Selects” premium package enables the Saccharum to ascend to a five-star experience. From there, this ideally located base camp becomes more like glamping, with full access to private pools only for premium guests as well as access to the private 8th floor club with made-to-order breakfasts as well as excellent restaurants at neighboring properties. 

Saccharum’s dining highlight is Trapiche, which features a separate vegetarian and vegan menu with simple, flavorful dishes. Onda Azul, at Savoy’s Calheta Beach Resort across the street, serves a fresh array of traditional Madeiran, Mediterranean and vegetarian dishes along with a nice selection of Madeiran and Portuguese mainland wines.

“Designing a hotel encompasses a good understanding of a guest’s identity, goals and needs,” says Andrade Silva, reflecting on the very different moods she’s created for the Savoy Palace and Saccharum. “Balancing these elements (with) creativity and innovation results in a recipe for sure success.” 

Saccharum Resort & Spa

Saccharum Resort & Spa

“As such, when you set the mood for a hotel, you have to take into consideration new and different ways to create each area and each piece. Innovation in hotel design is born from a flexible way of thinking even as I stick to the rules and practice what I have learned through the years. When I design, I always have a message that I want to get across to the viewer, and my goal is to see that (it is) powerfully materialized in my projects.”

STAY AND PLAY

Madeira is becoming increasingly accessible to American travelers, thanks to Azores Airlines’ direct weekly flights from JFK-New York to capital city Funchal, as well as United’s Newark-Funchal route and TAP Airlines via Lisbon.

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