Madeira – Dreamers get lucky – Reid’s Hotel

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Reid's Palace Hotel
Reid's Hotel

 

 

Arriving by ship at the Atlantic Ocean island of Madeira, it is Reid’s Hotel that commands one’s attention. It’s perched high on a cliff, overlooking both the ocean and Funchal, the capital city. It demonstrates that dreams can come true. William Reid was a 14 year old cabin boy from Scotland, when he first stepped ashore on the island in 1836. He was penniless, so he entered the wine trade and made a fortune exporting Madeira wine. He bought the present rocky site of Reid’s Hotel and had it covered with many tons of rich soil. Nature went to work and eventually the site was a magnificent sub-tropical garden instead of a bleak rock. Finally, he started building a grand hotel on the site in 1887, over half a century after he first arrived on the island. He died before its completion, but his sons finished off their father’s dream. Reid’s Hotel opened for business in 1891 and has long been recognized as one of the world’s finest.

When someone chases a dream with determination, unforeseen events so often conspire to help. In other words, you get lucky! In the 1880’s, huge quantities of gold and diamonds were discovered in South Africa, thereby creating some very wealthy people needing to travel regularly between South Africa and Europe. At that time, air travel was something for the future. Wilbur and Orville Wright’s earliest contraption did not take off until 1903. Therefore luxurious ocean liners began to ply the route between the port of Southampton, England and the port of Cape Town in South Africa. That’s a voyage of over 7000 miles. There had to be somewhere for these ships to break the journey and there, midway between the two ports, sits Madeira. Ocean liners began to deposit wealthy people on the island for a visit of a few days. They all stayed at Reid’s and loved it….which was just as well, because it was the only place in town to stay, while their ship re-supplied itself.

Now my point is this. When William Reid was spreading rich soil over the rock he had just bought and planning his hotel, he could not possibly have foreseen the existence of those wealthy customers. The gold and diamonds had not even been discovered. Gold mining in South Africa did not even start until 1886. Why did he even expect a demand for a five star hotel on a tiny island in mid-Atlantic? However good a businessman he may have been, where did he expect his hotel customers to come from? Madeira is 360 miles off the North African coast and 583 miles off the south western tip off Europe. It’s on the same latitude as Atlanta, Georgia. The island is only 30 miles long by 13 miles wide. Who on earth would want to go there, particularly before the days of air travel? And how did William Reid know about the future discoveries in far away South Africa that would make his dream succeed? Yet succeed it did and the list of celebrity guests over the past century or so is formidable.

 

Terrace at Reids Palace Hotel
Terrace at Reid's Hotel

Long ago, I enjoyed afternoon tea on the terrace of Reid’s Hotel, overlooking the ocean. It helped compensate me for a disappointment. We all know that only one tenth of an iceberg emerges above sea level. Madeira is just like that. The surrounding ocean is extremely deep, but volcanic activity has thrust upwards from the ocean floor a slim finger of material. The top of the finger broke the surface of the water and became the island of Madeira. The highest point in Madeira is over 6000 feet above sea level, but the ocean floor is several miles below sea level. When I visited Madeira, I donned my mask, snorkel and flippers and drifted along the surface looking downwards at the miles of ocean between me and the ocean floor. Now surely that should be a spectacular view? It’s not. It’s just dark. So I retreated to the terrace of Reid’s Hotel. That was a spectacular view. Bob