Stompin' at Another Swell Savoy, in Magical Madeira

by Myrna Katz Frommer & Harvey Frommer

Coming out of the snowiest March in New England history, imagine what a pleasure it was to disembark from a plane on a morning that felt like the middle of June, swiftly exit a calm and orderly airport, and find a man named Jorge standing in the sunlight, waiting for you. He loads your bags into the trunk of a blue BMW, and off you go on a thrilling fifteen minute drive up and down the roads of a velvety green island with the glinting Atlantic to the south and steep hillsides with terraced gardens and red-tiled roofs to the north.

You pass a bustling horseshoe harbor with the masts of small craft swaying in the breeze and a single enormous cruise ship at anchor, careen down a palm-lined boulevard, and turn into a leafy courtyard.  There you step out before a gleaming modern structure: the nearly century-old premier resort of Madeira, the Royal Hotel Savoy.

The story of the Savoy is embedded in the larger history of Madeira, a volcanic island roughly equidistant between Lisbon and Casablanca which rises four miles high from a mountain range submerged in the depths of the sea. Although discovered by Prince Henry’s navigators and claimed for Portugal in 1420, Madeira has always had a strong connection to England, even to the extent of being offered by Portugal as part of a royal marriage package to Charles II.  The king turned it down; he needed money, not another island.

But his compatriots have long found the appeals of Madeira, with its year-round perfect climate and incomparable scenic splendors impossible to resist, and the Savoy is, in a sense, a little piece of England in an enchanted Portuguese garden that overlooks the sea. While it attracts its share of German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Belgian and of course Portuguese visitors, the Savoy’s tone and ambience is distinctly British, from its richly furnished Edwardian public rooms with classical pillars and polished marble floors, to the Palladian domed restaurant that looks like something out of Brighton, to its very name.

During the Second World War, England evacuated nearly 4,000 British citizens from Gibraltar to Madeira. The Savoy was filled with English families during those fateful years, and at a recent and emotional reunion, people recalled the heady times of living in a swanky hotel on an Edenic island while the world was at war. High tea was still served on the Savoy’s Lido back then, a seafront area that had been carved out of the rocks back in the 1920’s (Madeira’s shores are largely sheer cliffs).

Reaching it necessitated a steepish walk down, but once accomplished, Savoy guests could not only enjoy their tea and crumpets and sunbathe beside the breakers, they could swim in swimming pools that used sea water or in the mild and calm sea itself to a little island nicknamed “the Island of Love” for the amorous encounters it inspired.

A row of cabanas built to satisfy a local by-law which stipulated a changing facility for every ten sunbathers in a more “prim and proper” day are long gone. But they are recalled as an architectural motif of arched porticos in an elaborate structure under construction on the site of the Lido and extending some 26,500 square feet into the sea.  Opened in 2001, the Royal Savoy Resort is expansion of the Savoy complex consisting of 162 oceanfront suites and apartments marketed primarily as time-sharing properties, along with restaurants, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a jetty for sea bathing and boat mooring, and lush tropical gardens. A footbridge links the gardens of the original Hotel Savoy, which rises up the hill behind the newer complex to the roof gardens of the Royal Savoy where a panoramic lift descends ten stories to the Lido level.

Looking down from the Hotel Savoy at the construction underway for ... Resort  scheduled to open the summer of 2001

This is Lars’ third stint at the Savoy. He began as its food and beverage manager, then moved to hotels in the Caribbean and China, back to the Savoy as assistant GM, and then on to the South African hotel he had originally trained in. “I was on holiday in a fjord in Norway three and a half years ago when the cell phone rang,” he told us. “It was the previous owners of the Savoy. ‘Get on the next plane,’ they said. ‘We want to have a chat with you.’”

Together with his wife Eli and their two little girls, Lars returned to Madeira and the Savoy. Apparently there are no regrets.  “I’ve been to many places around the world where you feel welcome for a limited time. But there’s the sense that when they use up your talents, they’ll put you out, and that leads to some apprehension,” he observed. “Madeira is different. The people are very friendly. The typical island mentality is welcoming, ready to show the open door. For any ex-patriot, that’s the most valid environment to work in.

“People here seem happy in their occupations,” he added. “They don’t all want to be managers. I may say to a steward who is doing a terrific job, ‘Let me put you in waiter’s program.’ He’ll refuse. He’s content where he is.”

Savoy general manager Lars Hansen with his wife Eli and daughters i...

Our experiences confirmed Lars’ observations.  We were taken by the consistent pleasantness and infectious warmth of all we met. The mood of the island seemed upbeat and happy. On the Azores, we had noticed a kind of fatalism that comes, we were told, from living on an isolated island.  In Madeira, we saw no sign of it.

There is virtually no crime in Madeira, and the “tourist trap” environment one confronts in so many island vacation locales was absent as well. In restaurants and shops, on the streets, in public parks, we never had the sense of being solicited, hassled, overcharged.

Madeira’s capital Funchal, aptly named for the fennel herb (funcho in Portuguese) which grows wild and fills the air with the aroma of licorice, climbs from the harbor up the embracing hillsides. It’s a busy and well maintained little city with enough azulejos, the Moorish-inspired, blue and white tiles, on building fronts to remind us we were in Portugal, an abundance of flower-filled plazas and parks, and a seafront promenade lined with open air restaurants.

Beyond its 15th-century cathedral and a collection of excellent museums, an interesting Funchal site is the Old Blandy Wine Lodge where wines under the Blandy label are produced. Originally part of a monastery, then a courthouse and a prison, the complex of wooden structures and open courts was purchased by the British family in 19th century and transformed into the wine lodge it remains today where visitors can follow the production process and actually see the barrels of grapes that age above ground.

Overlooking Funchal   where the aroma of licorice fills the air

Four million liters of this historic dessert wine, which gets mention Shakespearean plays and was drunk to celebrate the American colonies’ declaration of independence, is still produced with grapes grown in the western part of the island.

Produce from all over the island makes its way to Funchal’s Mercardo, or marketplace where three levels lined with rows of brimming stalls overlook a large square-shaped court that opens to the sky. On the lower level, fish vendors beckon customers, rewarding them with an elaborate choreography of scaling the long black local fish called “espada.”

In preparation for wine tasting at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge

Elsewhere a profusion of calla lilies, opulent hydrangeas, birds of paradise, an incredible variety of orchids, and a South African bloom called king protea – that looks something like a fuchsia artichoke and lasts as a cut flower for weeks — vie for space with an abundance of produce: all kinds of melons and squashes, potatoes and beans, citruses and apples and kiwis and plums, but also custard apples, miniature and very sweet “silver” bananas, passion fruits, and little red vegetables that look like cherry tomatoes with wrinkled skins and have a sour, tangy taste.

Lars had told us Madeira was resisting the European Union’s demands for uniformity in the size and look of produce, and as a result, the island is losing out on subsidies. Somehow we could understand the attitude. This independent streak seemed to jibe with the optimistic mentality that marks Madeirian life.

Historically a pessimistic aspect of Madeirian life had been the limited number of jobs available for the local population. So many young people were forced to emigrate to Portugal, its former colonies, and elsewhere to find work that more Madeirians live abroad than on the island.

Today Jose Manuel Berardo is a wealthy businessman with international holdings, but in 1963, he was one of those emigrants. The youngest of seven children in a family that had lived in Madeira for many generations, Berardo left school at the age of 14 to join his father working for a wine company. Five years later, he was on his way to Mozambique.

From there he moved on to South Africa where at first he labored on the land and then got into selling food products to mining communities. Investing his accumulating capital in the purchase of abandoned mines, he made use of new technology to get them going again. The boy who was forced to leave his island home to seek his fortune became the man who today owns mines and gold refining plants as well as a diverse collection of international investments and properties. One of them is the Hotel Savoy.

It was his older brother Jorge who encouraged Jose Berardo to return home where he has established a range of philanthropic enterprises including an organization that supports 500 local  students. “My  brother remembered how traumatic it was as a kid to be forced to go to a foreign place to make a living, ” Jorge told us. “And so he set up this program to help young people get skills that will make them employable.”

We were having coffee with Jorge in Monte Palace, a four story gabled structure inspired by the romantic castles along the banks of the Rhone. An engaging man, quick to show affection to complete strangers, Jorge was as expansive as the light-filled country house of spacious and high ceiling rooms up in the hilly hamlet of Monte. Though filled with art and antiques, it was comfortable and inviting with plush upholstery that begged the visitor to sink in.

The entry to Monte Palace

One of the art and antique filled but nevertheles inviting rooms at Monte Palace

We sat in a little yellow sunroom off the parlor and before a garden abloom with azaleas. Below a wooded area of eucalyptus and mimosa trees overlooked the sparkling sea in the distance. “In the nineteenth century when this house was built, people came up to the mountains of Madeira looking for a place that would cure tuberculosis,” Jorge told us. “Later on it became a hotel that was managed by a husband and wife. They died, one soon after the other, and the hotel was up for sale.  That was in 1944. There were no takers, and it was abandoned.

“More than forty years later when Jose returned to Madeira, he took it over, restored it, furnished it with antiques, piece by piece. He created the surrounding gardens and set up a foundation to insure it will always be maintained.”

To stroll through the vast, many-layered garden that embraces Monte Palace is like walking through a dream. Plants, trees — including Sequoias from California, flowering specimens from all over the world have been transported here and thrive in the rich volcanic soil. Walkways lined with volcanic rock are punctuated with sculptures from ancient to modern times and Azulejos dating back as far as the 15th century –some are a series of panels depicting events in Portuguese history. There is a vast collection of prehistoric plants from South Africa, a lake with black and white swans and brilliantly colored koi fish; there are peacocks, Zen-like retreats with bridges, pagodas, and Buddhas. And this entire wonderland is open to the public.

A glimpse of the gardens around Monte Palace

Jose Berardo often uses the facilities of Monte Palace for special events like the annual party he throws for the students he supports. As one of the two owners of the Savoy, he stages events connected with the hotel as well.  Recently the European ministers were hosted on the property.  At a party for the designer Pierre Cardin, guests entered at the top of the garden, and as they descended through the grounds to the house, they encountered trios of musicians in period costumes playing classical music. A lake at the bottom of the garden had been covered with a platform turning it into a stage for a concert performance.

Jorge Berardo encouraged his brother Jose to come back home to Madeira

Although my brother and I came from a family that was poor economically, we got strong values from our parents,” Jorge said. “They taught us what is the idea of having things and hiding them. The point is to share with everyone, to let everyone enjoy. That formed my brother’s philosophy: not everyone can buy, but everyone can enjoy.”

With Madeira’s excellent road system, it is easy for the Savoy to organize and coordinate events at Monte Palace. We reached it, however, via a direct hoist up the mountain on a cable car. This, Madeira’s  newest means of conveyance, affords the most glorious of views. Lars had told us that the earliest tourists to Madeira were drawn to its higher elevations which were accessed by a now defunct railroad. The return to sea level was often accomplished by the Monte Toboggan, a unique form of transport which still exists as a popular tourist activity. People sit in what looks like a little settee but is actually an open wicker basket of sorts resting on wooden runners while drivers push the basket down the two mile steep decline from Monte to Funchal.

Today the bulk of Madeira’s tourist facilities hug its southern oceanfront coast, but the mountainous interior with its panoramic views, charming little towns, extravagant flora, and wealth of hiking trails some alongside abandoned canals is getting a well deserved second look. The recent expansion of  Madeira’s airport to accommodate wide-body aircraft positions the island to enhance and transform its potential as a tourist destination, much as the opening of the airport did back in 1964.

“Before the airport, guests arrived by sea,” Lars had told us. “The big ships would stop on the way from Southampton to Capetown and back again. Everybody would get off the ship and come into the hotel, and everyone in the hotel would move onto the boat. It took a week or two to get from Southampton to Madeira. People traveled with big steamer trunks that they put into big wardrobes.

“All through those years, everybody was on full board,” Lars noted. “People ate six meals a day. Hotel dining rooms were like those on the ships — they accommodated everybody. The Savoy’s  held one thousand people at a time.

But then the airport opened, and little by little everything changed. There are no longer the long summer holidays; it could be a weekend break. Dining habits change; people don’t want all those meals. They went from full board to half board and from there to bed and breakfast.  And restaurants opened up all around the hotels. So there was no longer the need for the huge dining room.”

Today, the Savoy’s main restaurant is the Cupula. It is open for breakfast and dinner, specializes in elaborate buffets, and seats a mere 250. There are other options: the Library Garden and Terrace, and al fresco service on the patios and around the pool ––twenty-first century dining concepts.

But not all traces of a more leisurely and elegant past have disappeared. The Fleur de Lys remains up on the Savoy’s eighth floor, and it was there we reserved a table for our last night on this enchanted isle.

It was still dusk when we arrived. From a corner table that afforded panoramic views to the south and east, we watched the lights come on in hillside houses like the glow of hundreds of fireflies, and the sea turn from violet to navy blue. Candles were lit throughout the formal yet comfortable room with its widely spaced tables and upholstered chairs.

Cecilio Martins, Fleur de Lys’ debonair maitre d’, presented us with an elaborate menu that included some local specialties but leaned to the more classical offerings. A traditionalist in the world of haute cuisine who’s been at the Savoy since 1968, he guided us through a grand dinner that was not lacking in elements of nostalgia. Following his recommendation, we began with a delicious salad of rock lobster, a small crustacean found in the local waters, that was cooked just right and served out of the shell.  It had been a long time since we saw French onion soup gratinee on a menu, but it is a staple at the Fleur de Lys, and true to form, the soup lover among us had to have it. His pronouncement: “sublime!”

A shooting flame at the other end of the restaurant caught our eye. It Cecilio Martins preparing duck a l’orange tableside, a dish he had encouraged us to try. Though we could not remember when last we had this one time favorite, throwing cholesterol concerns to the wind we decided to go for it.  From our front row seats, we watched him pour the cognac into the sauce and flambé it with dramatic flair. The duck was crisp on the outside, succulent on the inside, and somehow so apropos to the mood at hand. For dessert, we were treated to another pyrotechnic performance as Cecilio prepared Crepes Suzette and tropical fruits flambé.

Cecilio Martins, Fleur de Lys’ debonair maitre d’, displays his pyr...

The Savoy’s French-born executive chef Jean Claude Boffy stopped by our table as we were having coffee. Boffy trained in France and had worked in some of the finest kitchens in Europe as well as the Intercontinental Hotels in Athens and Rio, the Palace in Muscat and the Sultanat in Oman before coming to Madeira in late 1999. He can do everything from the Escoffier style to the more modern and leaner styles of cuisine. Looking to the future, Jean is enthusiastic about the restaurant to open in the Royal Savoy Resort. Cecilio, however, wants nothing more than to continue serving in the time honored elegant manner so typical of  the Fleur de Lys.

Like its maitre d’ and executive chef, past and future intermingle comfortably at the Hotel Savoy. A lobby wall displays  a collection of black and white photographs that illustrate the history of the property which began life as a private dwelling and was turned into a 30-room hotel 1902.  Among the pictures are those of guests arriving in little boats that took them from the ocean-going vessels to the shore, visitors being carried from the harbor to the hotel in hammocks slung on the shoulders of porters, Carnival Night during the 1940’s, Dennis and Margaret Thatcher honeymooning at the Hotel Savoy in 1951, and its mid 1960’s renovation into the current post-war modernism design.

The Hotel Savoy’s Executive Chef Jean Claude Boffy

Like its maitre d’ and executive chef, past and future intermingle comfortably at the Hotel Savoy. A lobby wall displays  a collection of black and white photographs that illustrate the history of the property which began life as a private dwelling and was turned into a 30-room hotel 1902.  Among the pictures are those of guests arriving in little boats that took them from the ocean-going vessels to the shore, visitors being carried from the harbor to the hotel in hammocks slung on the shoulders of porters, Carnival Night during the 1940’s, Dennis and Margaret Thatcher honeymooning at the Hotel Savoy in 1951, and its mid 1960’s renovation into the current post-war modernism design.

While change has and continues to dominate the Savoy story, for Lars Hansen, a constant theme runs through it as well which he predicts will persist as the hotel moves into its second century: a service-oriented ethos that pervades every aspect of its operation.  “There are 337 rooms in the hotel and a staff of 450. And I know each one of them,” he told us.  “They are enthusiastic about their jobs and communicate that feeling to our guests, many of whom return over and over again. Some even leave their vacation clothes here. When they come back, they’re greeted like long lost friends. The maid remembers them; she gives them a hug.

“As I always tell the staff, you can have a hotel with gold chandeliers and diamonds in the floors,” he adds. “But what it all comes down to is how people are treated. It’s the feeling of warmth that makes the difference.”



Royal Savoy Hotel
Avenida do Infante

Funchal, Madeira
phone: 351-291 222 –31/39
fax: 351 291 122 103


About the  Authors:  Drs. Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who  successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship.  Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in  the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It  Happened on Broadway,  It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami they teach what they  practice as professors at Dartmouth College. They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining  as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United  States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More  about these authors. You can contact the Frommers at: Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU Web:

This Article is Copyright © 1995 – 2017 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights  reserved worldwide.

Photos: Harvey Frommer 

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