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Madeira’s Metamorphosis: The Island Gets Cool And Beckons Food Lovers

“Ann AbelSenior Contributor
I know the difference between expensive travel and the truly luxurious”

Octávio Freitas’s project is agricultural. As the head chef of one of Madeira’s major hotel groups, Freitas is used to overseeing the food made for some 700 rooms’ worth of people. His passion project—which he calls “my heart, my dream”—operates on a much smaller scale.

Opened two years ago and a few miles away from Ponta do Sol in the town of Calheta, his Socalco Nature Hotel (the name means “terrace” in Portuguese, a reference to the landscape architecture) has eight standalone houses and ten rooms smack in the middle of vineyards and organic gardens (which are themselves often mixed together—sustainable agriculture in practice). While some are compact and a bit tricky to reach, they’re comfortable and serene, and one has the bed nestled into a natural grotto.

Freitas’s aim is to combine rural tourism, a gastronomic studio (read: restaurant) and farming into a single experience. Motivated guests can get their hands dirty with farm chores, join the chef for cooking classes—or watch those classes in bed, as the scenes from Freitas’s show kitchen are live-streamed into guests’ rooms—or get involved in the vineyards.

In the end, most guests are happiest to involve themselves with the super-fresh food while seated in the dining room. Breakfast is far above par for the island, lunch can be simple sandwiches or salads, and dinner is where things really shine. The menu changes every day but generally begins with house-made long-fermentation bread, and continues with three courses and dessert, focused on products from the garden, local fishermen and nearby farmers.

Freitas calls it a restaurant with rooms—“the main course is to sleep here”—and a nature hotel on the ocean. That’s not wrong, but it leaves out a final element of what he has put together with Socalco.

All those vines everywhere? They aren’t merely decorative. Freitas planted them only in 2020, but with Madeira’s subtropical climate, things grow fast. During my visit, in July, he celebrated the release of his first vintage, a dry white (on an island that’s known for the sweet stuff), called Galatrixa, after for the islanders’ misspelled slang for lagartixa (“gecko” in Portuguese, as in the cute little lizards all over the property).

The wine’s aroma is redolent of bananas, the main crop on the island and the plants that anchor the steep hills. But the flavor is far more complex, volcanic, oceanic and mineral, but also floral and tropical. It’s above expectations for a first release of a wine, especially one from such young vines.

Freitas is rightly proud of it. It might not win any awards, but it’s clearly a calling card for the new Madeira, a product from an island that’s reinventing itself.

25-08-2022 in Forbes