In its volcanic terrain and endemic wildlife, a writer from Hawai‘i finds home away from home in Madeira, Portugal.
When I first heard Madeira called “the Hawai‘i of Europe,” I shrugged. I figured the small island chain 600 miles off the coast of Portugal had a few sunny beaches and a surf break or two. End of story. But after spending two weeks there last summer, I can confirm the existence of a Hawaiian doppelgänger in the Atlantic: a volcanic archipelago with subtropical forests, black-sand beaches, and waterfalls that pour straight onto cliff-hugging coastal highways.
Reaching the seaside capital of the region, Funchal, required ricocheting down a steep hill into a labyrinth of mostly one-way cobblestone streets. Downtown Funchal was a confusion of terracotta rooftops, whitewashed terraces, and picturesque lines of laundry hung out to dry.
So far, so European.
At an outdoor restaurant, I ordered the special: grilled sardines with sweet potato. Simple and perfect, it reminded me of my favorite dish in Hawai‘i: pan-fried ‘ōpelu at Manago Hotel.
Next I drove north, through the forested heart of the Madeira Island, the largest and most populated of the archipelago. When Portuguese sailors discovered Madeira Island in 1419, the 286-square-mile extinct volcano was inhabited only by birds, lizards, and insects. Endemic laurel trees covered the mountainous terrain crowned by jagged peaks more than 6,000 feet tall. The first settlers cut down the forest and carved terraces in the steep hillsides to grow wine grapes and sugarcane. Farmers and enslaved Africans dug levadas—aqueducts—to channel water from the wet, windward forests to the dry, leeward farms.
Madeira’s Wine Country
In the 1800s, a fungal blight wasted Madeira’s vineyards, devastating livelihoods and leading to widespread famine. William Hillebrand, the renowned botanist who had moved to Madeira Island from O‘ahu, suggested that suffering islanders find work in Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations and helped broker their immigration. Ships sailed between the two island chains from 1878 to 1911, delivering around 16,000 Portuguese men, women, and children to the Pacific. Most came from Madeira or the Azores, another archipelago 600 miles north of Madeira; a few families came from Northern Portugal.
Left, image by Simon Marsault. Right, image by Said Karlsson.
To Hawai‘i’s cultural melting pot, the Portuguese contributed sweet bread, malasadas, and bean stew, but the most enduring gift was the ‘ukulele. The toy-sized Hawaiian guitar is a derivation of two Madeiran instruments: the mâchete and the rajão. While most Hawai‘i residents vaguely know that the ‘ukulele originated in Portugal, few Madeirans remember their claim to the ‘ukulele’s fame.
When I mentioned the ‘ukulele’s roots to Tomé Mendes and Joaquina Freitas, they expressed surprise. The young couple owns Jaca Hostel, a lovingly converted old family home in Porto da Cruz, which was my home base for the few days I spent exploring the small coastal village.
International Surf Destination
Porto da Cruz occupies a dramatic, rain-chiseled valley that strongly reminded me of Kahakuloa Valley on Maui. Forested sea cliffs loomed over two rocky black-sand beaches separated by a small promontory. Each morning, I scampered up to the point to watch the sunrise spill golden light onto the foaming surf.
As predicted, Madeira has surf breaks, some of which are good enough to attract international attention. Jaca Hostel caters to visiting surfers, as well as to hikers who meander along the levadas and scale the island’s scenic peaks.
Freitas recommended I try caramujos, her favorite local dish. The bowl of black sea snails—the splitting image of Hawaiian pipipi—came to the table with a pin for digging the tiny, chewy creatures from their shells.
I sopped up the garlicky juice with another Madeiran specialty, bolo do caco. The flat, round bread is cooked on a caco, or heated stone. It looks and tastes like a giant English muffin and is scrumptious slathered in garlic butter. I regret not trying the lapas, which looked like a delicious pile of ‘opihi.
The greatest similarity between the islands is their wilderness. Images by Jonas Vandermeiren.
From Porto da Cruz, I cruised along the north shore. The coastal highway crested dizzying cliffs, disappeared into tunnels, and passed cascading waterfalls. I returned to Funchal via Pico do Arieiro, Madeira’s third-highest peak. From the windswept summit, I gazed into the deep-green accordion folds of the island’s mountainous wilderness.
This is where the similarities between Hawai‘i and Madeira got downright bizarre.
Pico do Arieiro is home to several endemic species, including a short-eared owl, a ground-nesting petrel, and multiple flightless insects. The summits of Haleakalā on Maui and Maunakea on Hawai‘i Island have Hawaiian versions of these creatures: the pueo, ‘ua‘u, and wēkiu bug. Even more uncanny? Madeira and Hawai‘i each claim just two native mammals, a bat and a monk seal. Madeirans call their seal lobo marinho, meaning sea-wolf, while Hawaiians named theirs ‘īlioholoikauaua, meaning the dog that runs in rough seas.
Following these discoveries, I began to fixate on Madeira’s differences: the lilting music of spoken Portuguese, the pretty grey and white cobblestones, the awe-inspiring architecture. After French pirates sacked Funchal in 1566, the survivors built a wall around the city. Remnants of it remain, along with a few stone forts complete with drawbridges and several gorgeous medieval churches.
Madeira is famous for its sweet wine, served chilled before dinner or sipped as an aperitif. When Madeirans relocated to Hawai‘i, they must have missed their grapevines most of all.
We know they missed their bakeries; they built fornos (brick ovens) wherever they landed in which they baked soft, doughy loaves of Portuguese sweet bread. For reasons unknown, they did not bring along bolo do caco, nor the delectable custard tart known as pastel de nata—a tragedy that ought to be remedied.
This brief, tantalizing taste of Madeira made it clear to me that regular communion between the two archipelagos needs to be reestablished. Long separated families could reunite. Madeirans would likely enjoy exposure to Hawaiian music and surfing.