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An island with style

Mention Madeira, and chances are the next question will be, "Are you staying at Reid's?"

It is one of those select few hotels to have become renowned establishments: Reid's in Madeira, the old Shepheard's in Cairo, the Cipriani in Venice, Raffles in Singapore, the Oriental in Bangkok, the Peninsula in Hong Kong.

They are the sort of hostelries frequented by the seriously rich and famous _ very old-fashioned, grand hotels. In Reid's main dining room, the majority still wear evening dress, though it's no longer de rigeur. Winston Churchill used to stay at Reid's, as has nearly every crowned head in Europe and a goodly portion of the British aristocracy during the century since it opened as Madeira's first hotel. It is hugely expensive, rather like a yacht _ if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it.

Reid's guests appreciate its exclusivity and refined, understated style. Non-guests may treat themselves to dinner in the main dining room or in the hotel's gourmet restaurant Les Faunes ($67 per head) to the more informal Villa Cliff next door ($27 each) or take afternoon tea on the terrace overlooking Reid's famous gardens and the sea, having made reservations and, naturally, smartly dressed.

Of course, many other fine hotels in Madeira share the same coastline. There being no beaches worthy of mention, seawater swimming pools fill the need, and every major hotel has one or two, sometimes three.

Madeira's mild climate year-round could easily lull the visitor into a state of somnambulant well-being, gazing from a deck chair at the sea, but resist.

A wander through Funchal, capital of Madeira, takes you beneath the lacy violet blossoms of the jacaranda trees lining Avenida Arriaga, past the statue of Joao Goncalves Zarco, the Portuguese discoverer of Madeira, past the quaint fort and the pastel rococo Banco de Portugal to the Cathedral, which was completed in 1492.

Madeira is noted for its lace and embroidery _ not inexpensive _ and several lace factories are open to visitors. Other shopping treats are pretty Portuguese pottery and silver filigree jewelry. To my mind the best buy is women's shoes at Zapataria Charles on the plaza beside the cathedral.

No visit to Madeira is complete without sampling the fortified wine for which the island is famous. Guided tours through the San Francisco Wine Lodges in the center of Funchal include tastings of malmsey, the sweetest Madeira wine to be consumed with coffee; bual, not so sweet, to be drunk with fish or desert; verdelho, to be drunk with soup or as an aperitif, and sercial, the driest, to be taken as an aperitif.

Not surprisingly for an island, Madeiran cuisine is focused on fish and seafood, particularly, a local fish called espada, tuna fish, cod (bacalhau) and sea bass. Another local specialty is beef on skewers _ espetata.

Two excellent restaurants in Funchal are Dona Amelia for dinner ($27 each, including wine) and A Soleira ($14 each for a large lunch).

Funchal's Farmers' Market is well worth browsing through one morning for its straw hats, wicker baskets and variety of exotic fruit.

In the fish market, huge tuna fish are laid side by side on marble slabs to be hacked by long machetes into thick steaks. Thin black espada fish span the marble tables like so many shiny belts, and there are crates of octopus, mussels, squid, mackerel and sardines.

The Botanical Garden is a mecca for ambitious gardeners, every plant labeled with its Latin name, but the prettiest, almost enchanted garden is Quinta do Palheiro a few miles east of Funchal.

At any time of year Palheiro presents breathtaking displays of vibrant color: fields of orange proteus, its camellia collection and orchids used as herbaceous borders.

Adjoining Palheiro, the Blandy family (one brother owns Reid's, another the Madeira Wine Co.), has built a truly beautiful 18-hole championship golf course designed by Cabell Robinson. Opened in September 1993, it is set amid magnificent scenery: flowering trees and shrubs from all over the world ranging over hills, ridges, valleys and a lake.

A little farther east, Campo de Golfe da Madeira, another 18-hole championship course, open since October 1992, was chosen by the PGA to open the 1993 Volvo European Tour. Nine more holes were added in 1993.

Madeira is also an island for walkers. This volcanic island, 35 miles long and 13 wide, is veined by a network of narrow irrigation channels, known as lavadas, along which are well-mapped paths.

Cars and petrol being expensive, tours of the island are dear. An all-day tour to Porto Moniz, the northwest point of the island, costs $46, including lunch; to Quinta do Palheiro and a short lavada walk, $24; to the wicker village of Camacha and to Machico Bay where the discoverers of the island first landed in 1420, $27. Cars rent for $37 a day; taxis cost $67 a day.

Much of the same terrain can be covered on Madeira's excellent public buses that leave from the Funchal seaside: to Porto Moniz, Seixel on the north coast _ good for lunch, the pretty village of Sao Vicente, the wicker village of Camacha, Quinta do Palheiro.

Don't miss the countryside. Villages of white houses with red tiled roofs dot the green terraced hillsides beneath brooding peaks. Waterfalls give free showers to passing cars, and from almost any high point the sea gleams in the distance.