April 23, 2024

This may be Ronaldo’s Island but there’s more to Madeira than the football star’s hotel | Holidays in Madeira

A the statue of Cristiano Ronaldo above the crowd of fans queuing to have their photos taken with him. One young man quickly takes his turn with a leather satchel slung over his shoulder. I am watching from the roof of the Pestana CR7 hotel in Funchal, Madeira.

This CR7 is less like a hotel and more like a safari into a narcissist’s mind. Ronaldo is everywhere. Signed shirts from his appearances for Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal adorn the walls. Ronaldo’s face is on the front, bathroom mirrors, on the main suite door and above each bed. This is Ronaldo Island, after all. The airport is even named after him.

The hotel has quirks: there are dummy CCTV cameras in the bathrooms, focusing on the shower only for novelty factor. I cover mine with a towel, just in case. Fortunately, I’m only here for the CR7 experience; I am visiting my uncle in Machico, the historic capital of Madeira, half an hour’s drive from Funchal. If you come here, after worshiping the Portuguese megastar, tour Funchal, tackle the glass viewing platform on the Cabo Girão skyscraper, get out of the city and explore.

Children standing in front of the Cristiano Ronaldo statue outside the CR7 hotel in Funchal, Madeira
Children standing in front of the Cristiano Ronaldo statue outside the CR7 hotel in Funchal. Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Getty Images

I am lucky. My uncle Pete, (not my real uncle but a former care worker who looked after me in a children’s home) is retired here and is looking after a villa with one of his friends, so I cover accommodation costs. However, there are good deals all over the island, especially if you come out of season, and Madeira has a subtropical climate with sunshine all year round. There is never a bad time to visit.

Pete acts as tour guide for the week, and with his 15-year-old sidekick, Lulu, we head out in a rickety old Renault Clio, humming and covering the island’s steep highways, through long mountain tunnels, and along dusty dirt tracks.

Madeira is on a dormant volcano and the fertile soils have created a lush landscape. We drive past rows of beautifully landscaped trees, African tulips with their bright red flappy flowers and tall eucalyptus interspersed with clusters of purple bushes and palm trees.

“You see how the mountain looks like there are steps?” Said Pete, gesturing at the staggered terraces of the mountains. “They are farms.” The landscape forced local people to farm vertically; they mainly grow bananas for mainland Portugal and grapes for Madira wine.

A panoramic aerial view of the village of Lombo Galego high on a mountain.  Madeira Island, Portugal
A view over staggered terraces on a mountain in Madeira. Photo: Cristian Mircea Balate/Alamy

Off the road there are plenty of paths to hike, caves to explore, beaches and pubs. Outside of Funchal, it’s all reasonably priced. In fact, it is a steal. A pint on parts of the island costs a few euros, and almost every bar serves drinks with a large portion of pickled lupine beans, monkey nuts and sometimes chicken wings and salted fish; you could probably eat your fill for the day here for the cost of a pint in London’s West End.

After touring the island by bike, Pete and I go on a whale watching trip on the Atlantic. The water is choppy, waves crashing on the boat and drenching me. I have a feeling this isn’t worth it, as we’ve spent an hour and still haven’t seen a hint of a fin. Then, on my edge, I see a bottlenose dolphin jump out of the water and suddenly we are surrounded by dozens of them. Our skipper drops anchor and invites us to swim, while a few people slide over the starboard to get a closer look. I do not accept. I can’t swim and I can see the cute rascals just fine from my little perch on board. After we have had enough of us at the cologne, he swims and we go to the shore.

Dolphins jumping from the sea off Madeira.
Dolphins jumping from the sea off Madeira. Photo: Getty Images

Back on land and it’s time to explore Machico. Pete is on first name terms with most of the bar owners in town. “Every pub here is proud of its dot,” he says. Poncha is a fruity cocktail usually made with honey, sugar, lemon and orange juice and the spirit aguardiente. “Try this, it will blow your socks off!” says Pete. “Wait do you have one?” I ask as my throat burns. “Not a chance.”

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View of Machico, Madeira
View of Machico from the road to town. Photo: Daniel Lavelle/The Guardian

This traditional version is known locally as the Fisherman, after the fishermen who invented it to warm their ruts on the high seas. Many bars have their own spin on the drink. I tried the English tomatoandtangy iteration made from tomatoes and brandy, then the Tangerine, made from tangerines and whiskey. ​​​​​​I even found a bright green Korean poncha made of ginger, served exclusively on the Machico promenade.

Note that these drinks range from 17-70% alcohol by volume. Joel, the absurd owner of a sports bar in Machico, spends almost an hour pleading with me not to try his ponchas. I thought this was a strange sales strategy, but he says it’s because he can’t guarantee where I’ll wake up the next day. When I finally try it, he runs behind his bar and frantically grabs the clock for last orders. “Vamos,” he cried.

Pete loves it here and I can see why. The mountainous landscape exudes tranquility, the locals are friendly, the cost of living is lower than in the UK and the pace of life, especially in Machico, is perfect for retirement.

If pina coladas, sunrooms, kitsch and miscellaneous holiday items are all you’re after, then you can find that in Madeira, but this island has more. In fact, it has a little something for everyone.

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