January 31, 2024
A Visit to Les Suites Hotel at The Cliff Bay in Funchal, Madeira
Atmosphere rules – Yes? Absolutely!
You are on a relentless search for your dream house. Stepping into the next agent’s offering, a moment of joy and warmth floods your body – you instinctively know this is the house to buy. You experience the brick and mortar’s invisible energy, making you feel wholly relaxed and at home – its atmosphere – its ambience feels oh so right.
The house is bought without hesitation but… remember… you make that choice after experiencing that inviting and beckoning aura.
Flip the coin over and see what happens when you reach your pre-booked and untried hotel – the one you’ve paid for upfront – the one you are lumbered with if it is rubbish. Your choice emerges from due diligence, listening to friends’ and websites’ recommendations and ploughing through online brochures, enticing you to stay at this or that hotel. But you choose your future short-stay home – without knowing its all-important atmosphere.
Tenterhooks rule entering the hotel reception. You are tired, perhaps suffering from jet lag, wanting a relaxing bath and a stiff drink, crossing everything that this is the hotel. And what should happen? You stare disbelievingly at your new surroundings with your insides shouting, Oh, no! This place is awful!
A giant sigh of relaxation and calm envelops you – simply because the hotel’s warm and inviting ambience hits its mark.
One unique and luxurious hotel perched above a sheer cliff on a Garden of Eden Island does this by the bucket load – it is your holiday blotting paper with oodles of atmosphere waiting to be soaked up and enjoyed.
So, let’s go on holiday and fly to the impossibly beautiful Portuguese island of Madeira or Arquipélago da Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean and experience a giant slice of its number one luxury hotel: let’s check out Funchal’s Les Suites at The Cliff Bay, which will cause you to issue a massive sigh of relief when you arrive and to give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back at having made a brilliant choice.
Unbelievably, technicolour Madeira’s idyllic 289 square miles (748 sq km) is only 540 miles (869 km) due west of hot-pot Morocco’s Marrakesh but has a most agreeable and enjoyable sub-Mediterranean climate waiting for you.
Your 25-minute taxi ride from Madeira’s Airport to Funchal and Les Suites will introduce you to the fascinating mix of the island’s stunning coastline and the Madeirans’ foresight to carve hundreds of tunnels through their mountainous volcanic geology to provide you with a highly efficient transport system.
Your taxi draws up outside Les Suites’ hotel reception – an exquisite example of Madeira’s 1900s grand villas carefully and sympathetically restored by Portobay Hotels and Resorts, a surprising company headed by Presidente and CEO António Trindade. Why surprising, you ask? Well, if we step back to early 20th-century Funchal, there were two large villas, one a posh tea house – Chalet Pires, and the other – Chalet Reids, a private residence, which became a private Portuguese bank, Banco Espirito Santo. They sat in a scenic, lush ravine, facing the sparkling sea atop a spectacular vertiginous amphitheatre cliff.
Now, time-machine forward a hundred years. The beautiful villas still exist, but in any ruthless developer’s eye, they were crying out to be demolished and replaced with an enormous hotel or apartment monster – a seemingly logical business decision to maximise a great site.
Now for the surprise part.
Step in Portobay Hotels and Resorts – a company run by two principal shareholders: descendants of Madeira’s famous Blandy’s wine and Ocean Islands. The company purchased land bordering today’s Vidamar Hotel and, in 1995, opened its distinctive and luxurious 5-star The Cliff Bay hotel.
Fifteen years ago, the two grand villas and a winery in varying degrees of disrepair became available adjacent to Portobay’s hotel and bordering Villa Cipriani. But, against the usual development grain and mystifying many businesspeople, the company snapped them up not to demolish the villas but to stop a 120-room high-rise development and ensure the survival of the site’s beautiful surroundings and the peninsula’s tranquil atmosphere. Instead, the company insisted their English architect, James Ward, conserve and convert one of the iconic old buildings into a new hotel reception and the other into a celebrated restaurant.
James Ward Atelier Lda’s architectural practice worked closely with PortoBay’s board member, José Carlos Silva, who had a decisive planning and follow-up role in Les Suites at The Cliff Bay. This highly successful team seamlessly married the grand old architecture with cool, subdued contemporary design. As a result, the two precious buildings became the focus of a new 5-star low-rise luxury hotel development of a restrained number of twenty-three units that opened in 2012.
Two sumptuous suites, each having a private lift, are blended into the top floors above the reception in the conserved villa, Chalet Reids. The remaining twenty-one suites and comprehensive guest facilities cover seven levels skilfully designed with convenient connections to Portobay’s sister hotel, The Cliff Bay, and hidden in the landscape from the roadside at considerable expense and blended into beautiful-tiered gardens – a delight to experience in the sparkling Funchal sunshine. As a result, the architecture is one with a stunning environment without rudely shouting, “I’M HERE!”.
Chatting with architect James Ward, he described his earlier work with Portobay Hotels and Resorts and explained the challenges of Les Suites’ site and complex design:
“My first project in Madeira was the interior design of The Cliff Bay Hotel, which opened in 1994. At the time, I was a partner with de Brant Joyce and Partners in Harley Street, London. Under the guidance of project architect Joao Conceiçao, The Cliff Bay was the first five-star hotel built in Madeira since the 1970s and built on a spectacular site. For Les Suites, our design philosophy was to blend the existing 1900s villa buildings and The Bay Cliff Hotel with the new complex. The planning challenge was to connect not only the new suites to the reception at The Cliff Bay but also to Chalet Reids and Chalet Pires, plus the locations of the Avista Bar, restaurants, and terraces – and to do so in the most efficient way possible. The team, including me, architects Steven Caldeira and his sister Mary, and interior designer Andreia Pinto, were keen to introduce natural light into the hotel corridors. The solution to this problem was to create an indoor garden lit by a circular oculus in the pool deck. This feature floods the garden with light and allowed us to plant palm trees since it is open to the sky and the rain.”
James explained that three buildings were on the plot when Portobay Hotels and Resorts purchased it for their new development. “The first, Chalet Pires, was built as a small villa but in poor condition, having been empty for many years. Because of Les Suites’ multi-floor planning complexity, the reconstruction of the building kept to Portobay Hotels’ conservation ethos, with its handsome façade and room layout retained to include the necessary kitchens for the new Avista restaurant. Chalet Reids, the second villa, was also about one hundred years old but in much better condition, except that the original lessee, Banco Espirito Santo, had removed most of the original ceilings. When replanning the villa’s interior, we created two new suites and the main Les Suites’ reception. I was a fortunate architect since I had a client who wanted to build the most exclusive luxury hotel in Madeira and was willing to pay for top-notch materials of the highest quality in Les Suites’ construction; these included walnut interior timber panelling manufactured by a local Funchal company, and natural white marble for its bathrooms, which is not the case with most recent 5-star hotels. The third building on the site was a neglected Adega or winery with a chimney at its centre. The structure was so unsafe and in such a poor state of repair that demolition was the only option for us. We carefully planned the multi-floors of the new building to reduce their visual impact, especially from their height and intrusion into the beautiful site.”
Portobay Hotels and Resorts appeared to take a tremendous financial risk in building Les Suites. However, they had the visionary foresight and extensive and successful hospitality experience to know the precise requirements of their future clientele – a unique luxury hotel offering a subtle, subdued and relaxing atmosphere.
And what has happened? The shareholders are over the moon since the company’s love of their beautiful island and conservation commitment has paid off handsomely.
When guests experience Les Suites, they can also use the comprehensive facilities at their sister hotel; these are a stone’s throw away by strolling down the pretty tiered gardens or dropping down to Les Suites’ third floor and walking undercover to pop up in The Cliff Bay.
Once there, you can enjoy the fabulous fare at Il Gallo d’Oro restaurant, a thoroughly relaxing deep massage, or a dip in the crystal-clear sea.
And how does Les Suites generously tick one of the essential boxes ensuring your holiday is a dream? With mouth-watering cuisine! So, what wonderful gastronomic recipes can Les Suites conjure up for their guests?
Let us drop into Les Suites’ famous Il Gallo d’Oro – the Golden Rooster restaurant in The Cliff Bay and sample their outstanding menu.
Il Gallo d’Oro is the only restaurant in Madeira to have been awarded two Michelin stars in 2008. The restaurant is Italian by name but oozes Madeiran and French influences in character, and it was completely refurbished in 2021 when interior designer Andreia Pinto teamed up with architect James Ward. Diners can enjoy their fabulous fare while the wonderful seascape of the Atlantic Ocean.
The glorious menu offered to clients results from generously mixing Il Gallo d’Oro with famous French chef de cuisine, Executive Chef Benoît Sinthon, a member of the influential Disciples Auguste Escoffier. He was born in 1972 and lived in Gardanne. His grandmother encouraged the young Benoît to become a world-beating chef. He must have listened to her since her grandson has built a worldwide high-cuisine reputation, creating a career in an impressive tally of respected establishments: Relais & Châteaux La Côte Saint, Restaurant Fleur de Lys in Madeira’s Hotel Savoy, Relais & Châteaux, Casa Velha, Reid’s Palace, Casa Velha do Palheiro and now the crowning glory, the two Michelin Stars, Il Gallo d’Oro at Les Suites.
Benoît oversees thirteen talented chefs at Il Gallo d’Oro and thirty at four restaurants covering Les Suites and The Cliff Bay. He and his team will set your taste buds alight, working their culinary magic on fresh and tasty ingredients to conjure a kaleidoscope of cracking fish, meat and vegetarian dishes that will satisfy every discerning palate.
“My cuisine inspiration originates from seasonal Atlantic Ocean flavours, classic Madeiran and French culinary cooking and a more relaxed Mediterranean cooking style. Fish from the coast, seafood, home farm vegetables, fresh aromatic herbs and spices, Madeiran traditional terroir, with a twist of creativity using new culinary techniques – but always respecting the flavours, which makes the experience of those who visit us extra special and unforgettable.”
Benoît’s philosophy is devoted to freshness in his dish ingredients, with as many locally sourced in Madeira, Portugal, or his native France. These are evident in his favourite signature dishes – foie gras, pineapple, Madeira’s honey Bolo de Mel, and roast pigeon, accompanied by eucalyptus sauce and crackers infused with grilled Madeira limpets.
Benoît told me a hotel guest story that succinctly illustrates his special relationship with clients who fully appreciate his cooking genius.
“One day, a South African couple stayed at Les Suites after arriving at Funchal in their private executive jet. At the end of their first day, they ate at Il Gallo d’Oro and adored my foie gras, pineapple and Bolo de Mel de Cana Madeira cake. They stayed for a few days and returned to Il Gallo d’Oro three times to eat the same foie gras. The guests had never eaten foie gras like mine, which they thought was amazing and had unbelievable flavours. The day before leaving, the client’s executive jet cabin crew asked me if it were possible to prepare two portions of the foie gras for their boss as a surprise parting gift – and if I could teach them how to make the dressing on the plane for their lunch. A great idea that was special and memorable.”
The kitchen of Les Suites’ Avista Ásia restaurant is located within the rebuilt Chalet Pires 1900 villa – and under the guidance of Executive Chef Benoît Sinthon. Choosing to eat in the restaurant’s relaxed dining room, you will experience the nearby spectacular vertiginous cliffs through its vast picture windows or melt in comfort, sipping a delicious coffee within the intimate atmosphere of the sun-drenched terrace.
Add the following celebrated chefs, Rui Pinto and Pedro Camacho and be blown away by their oriental culinary and gastronomic experience that combines techniques and ingredients from Asian cuisine with fresh products from the island of Madeira: Tuna, scallops, or Madeiran fruits brilliantly mixed with Japanese wagyu, nori, or yuzu will dazzle your taste buds together with fresh and tasty seasonal produce. These ingredients are the highlights of the Avista Ásia kitchen, where sushi and sashimi combine with delicious fish from the island.
To completely spoil you with exquisite culinary choices, Chef João Luz oversees a Josper Grill within Les Suites’ Avista restaurant. This unique grill is turned to a high temperature to infuse cooking ingredients with the unmistakable and distinctive flavours of the oven’s glowing embers, giving your future dishes a juicy and mouth-watering consistency.
Let us leave (grudgingly!) the subject of the hotel’s fabulous cooking and find out why Les Suites is Les Suites and why it is loved so much.
Meeting with the affable General Manager António Pais, whose responsibilities cover three Portobay Hotels and Resorts: Les Suites, The Cliff Bay, and PortoBay Serra Golf, he chatted with me in the hotel’s sunny reception. Sinking into a comfortable sofa, I looked out from the original 1900s Chalet Pires grand villa interior onto the lush palm treed gardens awash with spectacular colour. Knowing the islands of St Lucia, Granada and Antigua, the outside view whisked me back to the Caribbean. If you want to avoid travelling that far, Madeira is a gorgeous substitute, with only a pinch off four hours of non-stop flying time from London or Basel to Funchal. If you are heading east across The Pond from New York, Funchal is a smidgeon over seven hours away with no stops. And you have the promise of a luxury home-from-home hotel when you land.
It was clear from António’s story behind the creation of Les Suites and The Cliff Bay that all aspects of running the hotels rely on ensuring a continuation of their high 5-star standards throughout the complex processes, working faultlessly behind the scenes – a non-stop efficiency that broadcasts a calm, relaxing and enjoyable atmosphere to every guest, ensuring their return in the future. António illustrated with pride the epitome of this successful marriage of business and pleasure, describing how a couple began a love affair with Portobay hotels. They could not imagine staying elsewhere for their holidays and notched up a grand and record-breaking total of 765 Portobay nights – Yes, 765! Wow!
Every morsel of Les Suites at The Cliff Bay is dripping in luxury, so drop into www.portobay.com/en/hotels/madeira-hotels/les-suites-at-the-cliff-bay/ to see the full range of fantastic rooms and the hotels’ comprehensive and luxurious facilities waiting for you – and of course, the hotel’s warm and inviting atmosphere. Disappointment is not an option.
So… here we are. You are teetering on edge about setting foot for the first time on Madeira’s most pleasant shores – so let me do a micro-quick recap of what is on offer to get you on your way. It is a no-brainer: when in Madeira, choose Funchal’s Les Suites at The Cliff Bay if you want your cake and melt inside eating it.
A: Les Suites at The Cliff Bay, Estrada Monumental, 145, 9004-532 Funchal, Madeira Island, PORTUGAL
Written by Peter Sissons – 29.01.2024