The Portuguese port of Funchal. PHOTO / Arlene Appelrouth

The Portuguese port of Funchal. PHOTO / Arlene Appelrouth

BY ARLENE APPELROUTH / AJT //

Have you ever noticed how much variety there is in the way people acknowledge or celebrate the passing of time?

Some people enthusiastically broadcast each birthday and anniversary, inviting friends and relatives to party with them, while others let these special days pass quietly without words or fanfare.

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My husband Dan would fall into the former category. He has successfully planned many surprise birthday parties and often hosts events celebrating other milestones. This year, he wanted to take a cruise for our wedding anniversary.

It isn’t a big anniversary, but he wanted to take a big trip; I agreed, with one caveat.

“You plan it,” I said.

Most of the time, I’m the designated travel agent, but I didn’t want the responsibility this time around. I didn’t want to decide where to go, what ship to cruise on, how long to cruise or whether to book an inside cabin or one with an outside window.

“Surprise me,” I said.

And surprise me he did. He booked a 16-day trans-Atlantic cruise that would originate in Fort Lauderdale and end in a city in Italy (Civitavecchia, which I couldn’t pronounce).

“We’ll stop in four ports and be in Funchal on our anniversary,” Dan said. This immediately triggered memories for me.

Funchal is in the Madeira Islands, which are 600 miles from the Portuguese mainland. We had spent part of our honeymoon there – how special and romantic it would be to revisit that magical place on our actual anniversary.

We set sail in April. When the ship docked in Funchal, the view from our balcony was awesome. Looking out at the green cliffs and hills, I saw red-tiled rooftops on quaint houses, which dotted the landscape like a beautiful oil painting. I stood looking at the city, wondering if we would be able to locate the hotel where we stayed 42 years ago.

Neither of us remembered the name of the hotel. What I did recall was that it was a modern structure and a high-rise of 15 floors. I was positive it was a white building, and I knew that the grounds featured beautiful gardens and the dining room was on the top floor.

We both remembered looking out of the window during dinner and seeing clouds – not far off in the sky, but right outside the window where we ate.

The first thing I did was go online. I Googled “Madeira Islands hotels” and was astonished to find almost 200 listings.

So then I Googled “hotels in Madeira Islands more than forty years old,” but that didn’t help. By then, it was time to disembark for our six-our stop-off, so the clock was ticking.

We took a bus from the port to the center of town. I didn’t see any tall buildings, but there were cable cars that went to the top of the hillside. It made sense that if we were looking for a dining room in the clouds, a good place to start would be the highest point on the island.

According to a brochure that I picked up, we traveled three kilometers in the cable car and on “a journey between heaven and earth.”

Nice writing, I thought during the 15-minute ride.

At the top, we found signs to botanical gardens, a church and a hotel. A taxi driver offered to drive us, but we opted to hike. When we got there, we discovered that the hotel had only three floors, but we went in anyway.

“Maybe we should pretend this is the right hotel,” Dan suggested.

It wasn’t a bad idea, but I was determined to find the right hotel. We went to the concierge, Dulce, and shared our situation with her. She volunteered to help.

“Could it have been the Grand Hotel?” she asked, and told us that it was at the top of the hill but had been converted to a school.

But when had it been converted to a school? Dulce checked for us: 1961. Obviously, it wasn’t the Grand at which we’d stayed. And it wasn’t the Savoy, either, or any of the other hotels she checked.

Dulce honestly didn’t know any hotels in Funchal that were high-rises. But I mentioned to her one key fact: I had no recollection of being able to see the ocean from our hotel. Dan added we didn’t have to drive far from the airport to the hotel.

“Could it have been fog outside the window, rather than clouds?” she asked.

Dan and I looked at each other. Maybe, we agreed.

The three of us enlisted the help of another concierge. After giving him all the details, he said it was probably the old Atlantis Hotel, which had been demolished 15 years earlier in order to extend the roads to the airport.

Dulce seemed as happy as we were to have solved the mystery. And even though we could not go back to the hotel, being in the Madeira Islands again and sharing our memories made the day extremely special.

Arlene Appelrouth earned a degree in news-editorial journalism from the University of Florida and her career as a writer and journalist spans a 50-year period; she currently studies memoir writing while working on her first book.

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