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The Crowne Plaza Resort Madeira and its Crown Jewel: The Wild Orchid

It was a busy Saturday night in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, and the boulevard lined  with oceanfront hotels was clogged with vehicles. We were in a taxi, despairing of getting through the traffic to make a dinner reservation on time when it suddenly veered into a big parking lot and let us off in front of a big white hotel that looked like something out of Miami Beach.  Oh well, we sighed. We had hopes of something more exotic having traveled from Newark Airport almost to the shores of Africa.

But But once inside, our jaws fell: it was as if we had stepped from dry land into the middle of the sea. Hundreds of tiny pinpoint lights in a ceiling maybe 40' high were reflected in a floor of great, gray marble rectangles like so many stars, while beyond a huge wall of glass framed the southern Atlantic. We could as easily have been on the deck of a great ocean liner as in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Resort Madeira, the spectacular, spacious property that opened the last month of the last year of the last century in anticipation of the new millennium.

Aside from a huge horizontal abstract that hangs behind the reception desk, the look of the Crowne Plaza is minimalist, spare and streamlined. Smooth marble walls and floors run for long distances without interruption to be punctuated only by an occasional sitting area of starkly modern furnishings. The hotel’s entrance is on its fourth floor. Above, the hallway of the fifth floor is a balcony that cuts a sharp diagonal line half way up one of the lobby walls. Its walls are painted azure blue and studded with little porthole-like windows. There are 300 rooms and suites in the Crowne Plaza Resort Madeira, all of which face the ocean.  But standing in the vastness of the lobby, one  has the overwhelming sense of the sea in its limitless expanse.

Later on we would learn this neo-modern hotel was designed by a pair of Madeirian architects, Ricardo Nogueira and Duarte Caldeira e Silva, whose credits include tennis courts, art galleries, social-housing, town and apartment houses, and scientific laboratories, and the furnishings in its public rooms and balconies are creations of  Philippe Starck, the French designer whose whimsy and inventiveness define such signature American hotels as the Delano in Miami Beach (there was a connection between Miami Beach and the Crowne Plaza after all) and the Grand Hotel in Tribeca. We would also learn we had entered only half of the resort complex, the one geared to vacationers. An adjacent mirror- image property, geared to the business traveler, has its own check-in as well as a range of conference rooms.

Public area in the streamlined, minimalist - click to enlarge
Public area in the streamlined, minimalist
Crowne Plaza Resort Madeira
Photo by Harvey Frommer

Both wings share luxurious oceanfront facilities accessed by a pair of panoramic elevators that descend from the hotel lobbies to a sea-level platform as large as the deck of a Navy cruiser. There, amidst lush tropical landscaping are four swimming pools and a diving center, a driving range and putting green, and five restaurants. There is a lively Irish-style bar pub, a continental brasserie, a cozy café, an informal Portuguese seafood restaurant, and our destination this evening, the crown jewel of the Crowne Plaza - the Wild Orchid.

Descending to sea level, we had noticed the contrast between the glassy- smooth interior surfaces and the rugged rocky cliff that is the hotel’s seafront exterior.  The Wild Orchid, named for the abundance and variety of orchids that grow in a state of nature all over the island, combines both themes in its brightly lit spaciousness and dramatic oceanfront setting.  It adds a third: the sunny, happy mood of Madeira which emerges in tables covered with bright yellow cloths, and barrel-shaped chairs made of wicker, a material typical of Madeira handicrafts, with cushions of colorful tropical design.

A man in a tuxedo was playing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on the grand piano as the young maitre d’, who looked like a 1940’s matinee idol, handed us an extensive menu and list of wines dominated by Portuguese vintages with a few French champagnes. Since joining the European Union in 1986, Portugal has been improving the quality and range of its wines; there was far more to choose from than Lancers and Mateus Rose. Upon the recommendation of the handsome maitre d’, we decided on a Morgado de Sta. Catherina, a white from Bucelas, the small grape-growing region northwest of Lisbon. Something like a Chablis, the perfectly chilled Bucelas was an excellent choice, dry and exquisite.

The Wild Orchid’s menu features an international array of dishes from boullibaise to salmon lasagna to what it calls “beggars bundles” which are won-tons stuffed with seafood and served with a sweet and sour sauce, to Chateaubriand with Bearnaise sauce. But its focus is on fresh fish and produce, and we were determined to focus on local specialties. Our first course was a smoked fish platter that included mussels, salmon, whitefish – and surprisingly, tuna. We’d had grilled, canned, even raw tuna before, but this was the first time we encountered a smoked version which was recognizable nevertheless and something we’ll be on the lookout for from now on.

Codfish, which regularly appears on Portuguese menus, is native neither to the waters of the mainland nor Madeira. Dried and salted, it can be kept for long periods of time, but before preparation it must be soaked in water for two days, with the water changed every so often, to get all the salt out.  One of us decided on the Wild Orchid’s version of this typical dish which was baked with a sauce of peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil. Served smothered with the vegetables, it was one memorable codfish. The other chose to have sea bass which is a local fish.  A second wise choice, it was roasted in an oyster sauce with fried garlic.  A crisply fried cereal product that looks like a cross between French fries and onion rings accompanied both selections.

The Wild Orchid has every claim to being a multi-starred restaurant. Beyond the comfort and aesthetics of its setting and the delectability of its dishes, the service was attentive, professional, and unobtrusive. Main courses arrived simultaneously covered with silver domes which were removed in unison. The kitchen is presided over by an internationally trained chef who has worked in well known restaurants in Paris and Cancun as well as with the legendary Paul Bocuse in Lyon. But like the architects of the Crowne Plaza, he is a native Madeirian, and – the maitre d’ told us – happy to be home.

We concluded this excellent dinner with a dessert of creamy passion-fruit pudding and began to leave. On our way out, we smiled gratefully at the pianist who had so enhanced the entire dining experience with his rendition of some of our favorite songs. In response, he began a bouncy version of "New York, New York." How did he know? Outside the surf of the south Atlantic, so close to the shores of Africa, was beating against the shore. Yet suddenly, it felt like home.

Crowne Plaza Resort Madeira
Estrada Monumental 175-177
9000-100 Funchal
Madeira, Portugal

Phone: 351 (291) 71 77 00; Fax 351 (291) 71 77 01  

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  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

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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