Frank Barrett tours Madeira


Does  Cristiano Ronaldo come here often, I asked a local who was drinking in the Reid Palace’s cocktail bar. 

The man smiled: ‘Well, he has his own hotel now…’ 

Really? Would the world’s best footballer and Madeiran native never have cause to visit his home island’s oldest and most prestigious hotel?

Situated just above Funchal’s port, Reid Palace (pictured) has always been ‘the’ place to stay in the capital Funchal, having been in business for more than 125 years

Situated just above Funchal’s port, Reid Palace (pictured) has always been ‘the’ place to stay in the capital Funchal, having been in business for more than 125 years

Grand hotels are sometimes much grander than the places they serve, summing up in one bite the essential charm of a destination. Take, for example, Raffles in Singapore, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, or Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental.

The same is true of Reid’s in the capital Funchal. It’s been in business for more than 125 years, and for the past 20 years it has been owned by the Orient Express group (now renamed Belmond).

Madeira, 300 miles off the African coast, has a surprisingly short history. It was discovered by Portuguese explorers en route to the Americas and India just 600 years ago. 

The island has long been a favourite with the affluent British, partly because it was a popular stopping point for ships sailing between the UK and South Africa.

Situated just above Funchal’s port, Reid’s has always been ‘the’ place to stay. Financially devastated by both world wars, the hotel showed a knack for bouncing back. 

Its recovery after the Second World War was hastened by a cunning plan to lure Winston Churchill, whose patronage immediately guaranteed brisk business.

Frank forked out £4 for a selfie with a Ronaldo dummy at the island's museum dedicated to the Real Madrid football star

Frank forked out £4 for a selfie with a Ronaldo dummy at the island’s museum dedicated to the Real Madrid football star

Long before Churchill came, ‘Madeira’ had slipped firmly into the English language. In a word association test, if you were to say ‘cake’, I would say ‘Madeira’. 

When I was growing up we seemed to enjoy an almost permanent supply of Madeira cake. When I first visited the island a few years ago, I expected to be inundated with it. 

I discovered, however, that the cake is called ‘Madeira’ not because of where the cake comes from, but what it used to be taken with: Madeira wine.

The island has long been a favourite with the affluent British 

The tipple has always been popular with the British – in Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of Malmsey (another name for Madeira wine). And comic duo Flanders and Swann had a song called Have Some Madeira, M’dear, about an elderly rake trying to get a young lady tipsy.

But these days, the island’s biggest claim to fame is not wine but the Portuguese and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo – although even his most ardent fans blanch at the local government’s decision to name Funchal’s airport in his honour. 

It’s not as if Funchal is short of Ronaldo memorials. Last year saw the opening of both a Ronaldo museum and a Ronaldo hotel and restaurant. Both take the name CR7 – the footballer’s initials combined with his shirt number.

The hotel looks perfectly fine but the museum may be the most extraordinary act of hubris since England last entertained the idea that they might win a major football competition. 

One of the irrigation canals in the island's mountains, a popular spot for walking and hiking

One of the irrigation canals in the island’s mountains, a popular spot for walking and hiking

The idea for the museum apparently came from Ronaldo’s brother Hugo, who was appalled to see the star’s huge collection of medals and trophies strewn around his Madrid home.

Hugo thought it would make more sense to keep them in a place where fans could see and enjoy them – and pay handsomely (the entrance fee is £4.25). I forked out another £4 for a selfie with a Ronaldo dummy – afterwards I couldn’t help thinking that I was the dummy.

Fortunately, there is much else to see on the island. It’s a great place for walks, particularly next to the irrigation canals – the llevadas – up in the mountains.

Funchal has become noticeably more cool in recent years too, with new hotels, restaurants and bars, and an expanding arts scene.

But few of the tourists on my easyJet flight seemed to be coming for the chance to discover local artists; they had backpacks and walking poles. 

And as an island, of course, Madeira has plenty to enjoy on and in the sea. Next to the cliffs of the Garajau Nature Reserve, you can dive into impressive underwater canyons.

Twenty minutes drive west of Funchal is Cabo Girao, Europe’s highest clifftop skywalk – walk along a glass floor and look down to Atlantic rollers 1,900ft below. Further out at sea, pilot whales can often be spotted.

The region is also famed for its Madeira wine

The region is also famed for its Madeira wine

If the sea is a bit too cool, Funchal has lidos where you can splash in saltwater pools and catch some rays on a terrace.

And then there is Reid’s Palace: it has such a glorious location with two separate swimming pools – one with saltwater – and secluded gardens overlooking the sea. On Monday nights, it offers a dinner dance (probably something not seen in the UK since the 1960s).

The one slightly disturbing thing about Funchal, however, is the iPhone weather forecast. 

For weeks before our trip, we glanced at our mobiles and saw only predictions of showers and modest temperatures. Every day. Almost all day. 

Our hearts, not surprisingly, were filled with gloom. We were travelling in mid-February and escaping the UK’s own cold and rain.

But when we disembarked at Funchal, instead of the cold and rain trumpeted by the iPhone, it was warm and sunny. This continued for days. The iPhone said rain, but each day the sun shone long and hard. Fake news!

If I worked at the Madeira tourist office I’d investigate whether the app had been hacked by Visit Tenerife. 

Besides if CR7 can’t keep the sun shining, the world’s greatest footballer is losing his powers…

TRAVEL FACTS

Belmond Reid’s Palace offers double rooms from €400 (£346) per night, including breakfast. Visit belmond.com for further information.

EasyJet (easyjet.com) offers one-way fares to Madeira from Edinburgh, Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester from £21.24.

For further information, go to visitmadeira.pt/en-gb.

 



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