Madeira: Port visit to Portugal's famous island where Winston Churchill and Gregory Peck frolicked

One of the most remarkable things about Christiano Ronaldo is that he learnt his sublime soccer skills on his home island, Madeira.

The lonely Atlantic island is famed for many things.

Its soaring mountainous ravines. Its verdant, fecund botany. Its whales, dolphins and birds. Its cuisine (sweet wine, the namesake yellow cake, and its tiny but succulent bananas).

What Madeira is decidedly short of, however, is flat land large enough to build a full-sized soccer pitch.

If you do spot anything level larger than a tennis court, chances are it has been artificially constructed.

The prime example is the "new" foreshore park facing the harbour at Funchal, Madeira's capital and one of the most stunning ports in the world.

In 2010, devastating floods streamed off the mountains, creating mudslides, destroying hundreds of houses, and killing 42.

With a grant from the European Community (the Madeiran archipelago - closer to Africa than Europe - is part of Portugal) islanders bulldozed the vast debris left behind into the Atlantic Ocean and created a memorial foreshore.

By coincidence, Ronaldo's own museum - CR7 (his shirt when playing for Portugal) - is also on this foreshore (it contains awards he has won in his glittering career).

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Ronaldo is now the poster boy for Madeira's tourism industry. But in decades gone past, other celebrities stayed here.

The island's most illustrious hotel, Reid's (now Belmont Reid's Palace), has a wall of photos showing famous guests including Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Gregory Peck. Check it out for afternoon tea or a sundown cocktail on the terrace.

Today Funchal is one of the busiest cruise destinations on the globe: around 400 cruise ships will visit in 2019.

Locals claim the approach by ocean into Funchal is rivalled only by the entrance into Rio de Janeiro. That may be a touch boastful (New York? Hong Kong? Santorini? Sydney?), but it is certainly breathtaking.

If you've never been to Madeira before - and only have one day in port, as most cruise passengers will - there's no need to venture further afield than Funchal and its surrounds. Madeira is one of those places best explored at your own pace.

Funchal's glorious old town is an easy 15-minute stroll from where the cruise ships dock, and you could spend your entire time joyfully in the old town.

Here you'll find ancient churches, museums, markets (Mercado dos Lavradores is a must-experience, with women still wearing traditional Portuguese costume as they sell their perfect fruits and vegetables), its Parisian-style boulevard (Avenida do mar) and cheap outdoor cafes (a filling lunch of home-made fish soup near the Cathedral cost me Euro4.50).

When I first visited Madeira in the 1980s, you reached the famous botanic gardens at the hilltop suburb of Monte by bus, taxi or on foot.

Now the cable car, Teleférico do Funchalince, whisks 800 passengers an hour for an unforgettable 15-minute journey - over red-tiled rooftops, homes desperately clinging to ravines, and an increasingly unbelievable view of Funchal harbour.

The plucky way down the mountain is still the one recommended by Ernest Hemingway: Carreiros do Monte.

Two "land-gondoliers", dressed in white cotton with straw boaters and rubber-souled boots, pull-then-push you on a two-seater wicker sleigh with oiled wooden runners down a snowless twisting laneway.

The whole experience lasts six minutes and costs around $A45. But be warned: the 2km ride doesn't take you all the way back to Funchal.

Having done it when I was young, I opted to join one of the two hop-on, hop-off bus companies (one yellow, one red) which follow almost identical routes.

Make your first stop Camara de Lobos, the tiny fishing village made famous because it was one of Churchill's favourite scenes to paint.

Although it's now crowded with tourist buses, the fishermen are still there, playing cards after their night-time catch. It's a great place for a morning coffee.

But be back at the bus stop for the second stop. After a switchback ride in a smaller bus, you'll arrive at Cabo Girão.

Locals claim it's the highest sea cliff in Europe (Norwegians beg to differ). But it certainly has the highest cliff skywalk.

I defy you to look down through the transparent glass floor and not be scared when some joker shouts: "Watch out! It's cracking!"

TRIP NOTES

CRUISE

Many Regent Seven Seas Cruises stop at Funchal (Madeira), including their Grand Atlantic & Azores, 14-night Lisbon to Miami cruise, with fares from $A8180. See rssc.com

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traveller.com.au/cruises

visitmadeira.pt

Steve Meacham was a guest of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

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