At the Pestana CR7 hotel rooftop in Funchal, Madeira, an eager crowd forms a line, eagerly waiting to capture a moment with the towering statue of Cristiano Ronaldo. Among them stands a young man, his excitement evident as he carries a leather bag on his shoulder. From this vantage point, I observe the scene, witnessing the anticipation and enthusiasm that surrounds this remarkable experience.
This CR7 is more like a tour through the mind of a narcissist than a hotel. Ronaldo is in many places. On the walls are signed clothes from when he played for Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Portugal. Ronaldo’s face is on the front of the building, in the bathrooms, on the door of the main bedroom, and above each bed. After all, this is Ronaldo Island. Even the airport has his name on it.
There are fake CCTV cameras in the bathrooms that look at the shower for no reason other than to be funny. I put a towel over mine just in case. Lucky for me, I’m not just here for the CR7 experience. I’m going to see my uncle in Machico, which is the old capital of Madeira and is a half-hour drive from Funchal. If you do come here, get out of the city and go exploring after you’ve worshiped the Portuguese megastar, seen Funchal, and dared the glass viewing platform on Cabo Giro’s skywalk.
Pete is our tour guide for the week, and we head out in a rickety old Renault Clio with his 15-year-old staffy, Lulu. The car huffs and puffs up the island’s steep roads, through long mountain tunnels, and along winding, dusty dirt tracks.
I see a bottlenose dolphin jump out of the water, and then all of a sυdden there are dozens of them all around us. Madeira is on a volcano that has stopped erupting, and the rich soils have made it a very green place. We drive by rows of trees with beautiful landscaping, including African tulips with bright red, flappy flowers and tall eucalyptus trees with groups of purple bushes and palm trees in between.
“You see how it looks like the mountain has steps?” Pete says as he points to the uneven slopes on the mountains. “It’s a farm.” People there have to farm vertically because of the way the land is set up. They mostly grow bananas for the Portuguese mainland and grapes for madeira wine. Off the road, there are a lot of trails, caves, beaches, and taverns to discover. Outside of Funchal, everything is cheap. It’s a great deal, in fαct. Parts of the island have pints for a couple of euros, and almost every bar offers drinks with a big plate of pickled lupins beans, monkey nuts, and sometimes chicken wings and salted fish. You could probably eat here for a day for the price of a pint in the West End of London.
Pete and I ride our bikes around the island and then go on a whale-watching trip on the Atlantic. The waves are crashing into the boat and soaking me. The water is rough. Since we’ve been here for an hour and haven’t seen a single fin, I’m starting to think it’s not worth it. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a bottlenose dolphin jump out of the water, and all of a sυdden, there are dozens of them all around us. Our captain drops the anchor and tells us to go swimming. Some of us slide over to starboard to get a better look. I don’t join in. I can’t swim, but I can see the cute kids just fine from where I’m sitting on the boat. When the pod gets tired of us looking at it, it swims away, and we go back to land. Back on land, it’s time to see what Machico has to offer. Pete knows most of the people who own bars in town by their first names. “Here, every bar is proud of its poncha,” he says. Poncha is a fruity cocktail that is generally made with honey, sugar, lemon and orange juice, and the spirit aguardiente. “Try this, and it will blσw your socks off!” Pete says. “Hey, are you going to have one?” My throat hurts, so I ask. “Not a chance.” Locals call this version “The Fisherman” because it was made by fishermen to warm them up while they were out on the high seas. The drink is made differently in many bars. I tried the Tomato Inglés, a spicy version made with tomatoes and brandy, and then the Tangerina, which is made with tangerines and whiskey. I even found a bright green Korean poncha made from ginger that was only sold on the waterfront in Machico.
I can see why Pete likes it here. The mountains are peaceful, the people 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 all you want is pia coladas, sun chairs, kitsch, and other holiday items, you can find them on Madeira. But this island has more to offer. In fαct, everyone can find something they like about it.