Palace on a cliff

Palace on a cliff
HISTORIC ACCOMMODATION: Built in 1891, the hotel today has 128 rooms and 35 suites, three restaurants, two heated outdoor pools and a gym.

For those who enjoy the old world elegance of Singapore's Raffles Hotel, you'll feel right at home in Portugal's Belmond Reid's Palace Hotel.

Reid's was built on a high cliff overlooking the bay and harbour of Funchal, on the isle of Madeira, in 1891 - four years after the Raffles became an icon of Singapore. The late Victorian architecture is very similar with colonnades and high-ceiling dining and reception rooms. The difference is that the Raffles is painted white, while Reid's trademark is pink.

Incorporating all the facilities of luxurious modern hotels plus those special extras - history, character and style - it is hardly surprising that Raffles and Reid's are listed in Andreas Augustin's Most Famous Hotels in the World. While the Raffles is known for its creation of the Singapore Sling and its high teas, "Tea at Reid's", at 36 euros (S$57), is an event, not only for the blends of tea on offer, delicate finger sandwiches and cakes, but the pianist's sweet melodies.

All of Reid's 128 rooms and 35 suites, which were refurbished by interior designer Graham Viney, have panoramic views over the bay. Rooms also have spacious balconies or terraces with expansive views of the Atlantic or the hotel's sub-tropical gardens. The bathrooms are marble and suites have embroidered bedspreads. There are three restaurants; two large, heated outdoor pools and a gym. From Spring to autumn, guests can choose to either swim in a seawater pool at the bottom of the hotel's cliff or dive off a pier into the sea. Afterwards they can relax in the spa or have lunch by the pool.

Both hotels have attracted luminaries from around the world ever since they opened more than 120 years ago. Reid's guests included British prime ministers David Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. It also drew authors John Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw, Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carre, among others. Inventor Guglielmo Marconi stayed at the hotel as did actors Lillie Langtree, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Roger Moore, Peter O'Toole and Geraldine Chaplin; singers Bette Midler, Kiri Te Kanawa, Cliff Richard and Sandy Shaw; and composer Benjamin Britten. Royalty, too, graced the hotel including Edward Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), Britain's Prince Phillip, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain and Reza Pahlevi, Shah of Iran.

Raffles' Palm Court was a source of inspiration for writers such as Somerset Maugham, who would sit under the shade of the frangipani tree amid the delicate orchids and other magnificent tropical plants. Similarly, when he stayed at Reid's, Maugham would wander through the lush gardens with its exotic flowers, bushes and trees and mull over ideas for his short stories and books.

It's a lot of work to maintain standards, and Ciriaco Campus, Reid's general manager, said that some 220 staff, including 35 managers and eight chefs, service the guests. The cheapest off-season room costs 285 euros rising to the most expensive Presidential, Churchill and Bernard Shaw suites which are priced at up to 2,500 euros a day.

Madeira, about 700 km west of Morocco's coast, is a fertile island with a temperate climate - temperatures are mainly 18 to 26 degrees Celcius throughout the year. The island has been a haven for mainly British tourists for over 100 years and its capital Funchal was a stopover port for ships on their way from Cape Town in South Africa to the ports of Europe. Reid's remains a late Victorian landmark for ships and the increasingly popular giant cruise liners.

Many guests return each year, with one enthusiast holding the record of 52 return visits while an elderly man lived at the hotel from 2001 until he died in September last year, said Mr Campus.

The hotel's busiest season is Christmas and the New Year, especially since Funchal's fireworks are regarded as one of the most spectacular in Europe.

Reid's offers exclusive walking tours on paths alongside Madeira's "Levadas" - the irrigation system that was developed in the 16th century by the first settlers - through the island's wooded mountains and magnificent botanical gardens. Indeed, Reid's own spectacular garden is upkept by 10 gardeners and a horticultural consultant. Other excursions include deep-sea fishing, whale watching, swimming trips with dolphins and the tasting of Madeira wines. The hotel caters to all sorts of requests. One of the most unusual from a middle-aged guest was a private gym for his own use, said Mr Campus.

Mr Campus disclosed that Reid's was not immune to the 2008 to 2009 Great Recession, despite its high net worth clientele. Last year, however, the hotel was fully booked for the Christmas season by September and the estimate for Easter and summer is at least 75 per cent full. The average throughout the year, however, was just 40 per cent and the British clientele accounted for almost half the guests.

Reid's owner, Belmond, formerly Orient-Express Hotels Ltd, has embarked on an intensive marketing campaign in the United States, Brazil and Dubai to attract more clients. Reid's has been a popular holiday resort for Russians, Ukrainians and other East Europeans, but sanctions, the oil price slump and the collapse of the rouble slashed the intake considerably in the past 12 months.

In the meantime, Reid's is following the line of Raffles and other leading hotels and is encouraging conferences in its ornate ballroom, dubbed the House of Commons in honour of the numerous UK politicians and premiers who frequent the hotel.

So far Madeira is off the beaten track for Singaporeans and other Asian tourists and business people, but such is the beauty of the Portuguese island that it could become a popular stopping point after visits to London, Lisbon and other European cities.

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