Don’t get me wrong. If you like to gamble then you’re absolutely in the right place. The gambling in Macau is simply off-the-hook.
Macau’s 35th casino opened recently, the Sands Cotai Central, a mere $4.4 billion venture. Not really that shocking since Macau’s gambling revenues skyrocketed last year to $33.5 billion, more than five times the amount earned by Las Vegas Strip casinos. In the past, Macau has often been referred to as the “Las Vegas of the East” but at this rate Vegas might soon be known as the “Macau of the West”.
Not being a much of a gambler (I find it hard to keep smiling if I’m down even $100) I was wondering if there would be enough to keep me busy for three days during a recent trip to Macau. I’m happy to report that this compact city (an easy to navigate 11 square miles packed with close to 600,000 people) offers plentiful attractions and activities, as well as some wonderfully luxurious non-casino accommodations and no end of fabulous Macanese foods to try.
Macau was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century (the last European colony in China) but was returned to China in 1999, resulting in a fascinating chop-suey blend of East meets West cultures, religions, cuisines, and architecture.
Macau consists of the smaller islands of Coloane and Taipa and the Macau Peninsula which are all are linked together by three bridges offering many scenic views of the South China Sea. Like its neighbor, Hong Kong, (just an hour’s turbo-jet ferry ride away) Macau is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China benefitting from the principal “one country, two systems”.
Here are my top 10 fave things to see and do in Macau:
1. Ruins of St Paul’s: (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) built in 1602 by Jesuits. Sweeping stone steps lead up to the dramatic stone facade, covered with intricate carvings, which after three separate fires is all that remains of what was once the largest Catholic church in all of Asia. It’s almost always crowded with tourists, locals and hawkers due to super panoramic views and its proximity to Senado Square, but it really oozes atmosphere at night when it’s floodlit.
2. Macau Museum: located across from the Ruins of St. Paul inside the foundations of the Monte Fort. Opened in 1998, this surprisingly interesting museum depicts the different nationalities harmoniously living together in Macau over the past four centuries despite their diverse traditions, customs and cultures. After visiting the museum, visitors can walk the walls of Monte Fortress (check out the cannons) where one can overlook the whole city. The cannons were used only once in 1622 when the Dutch colonialists attempted to invade Macao and were roundly defeated.
3. Senado Square: has served as Macau’s city center for centuries. This pedestrianized square (the site of many outdoor festivals and celebrations) paved with a unique black and white wave-patterned mosaic, is lined with popular cafés, fashionable shops and balconied, rainbow-colored colonial buildings.
* Snack time: Head to any of the ubiquitous Pasteleria Koi Kei shops in the nabe, which feature Macau’s “most popular food souvenirs”. You can sample almost everything before you buy (graciously encouraged) but standouts include slabs of the “filet of piglet” jerky (much softer than American jerky) crumbly almond cake, crunchy light egg roll cookies, and the peanut or ginger candy.
4. Temple of the Goddess A-Ma: the oldest (built in 1488 to commemorate the Taoist goddess of seafarers) and most picturesque temple in Macau is made up of incense-drenched, red-hued prayer pavilions on four levels linked by stone statues, winding paths, moon gates, praying visitors and fortune tellers.
*Lunch time: A few blocks away is the homey Café Litoral Restaurant, a perfect place to try authentic Macanese cuisine. It’s one of the few restaurants owned by a woman, Manuela Ferreira – an accomplished cook and hostess, who wanted to share her cherished family recipes, handed down over generations.
Start off with either the red or white sangria and try not to load up too much on the homemade rolls, served with an interesting little tub of anchovy spread. Take a deep breath and dig into the codfish salad, oxtails in red wine sauce, curried vegetables, fried shrimp rice, chicken giblets a Litoral (an acquired taste), red snapper layered with tomato and peppers and the highlight of lunch: a big ol’ finger-licking, scrumptious mess of spicy African Chicken, which comes smothered in a sauce of onions, garlic, chili peppers, fresh herbs, coconut, peanuts, white wine and a hefty handful of butter. Sweetie lovers should end with either the egg yolk soufflé or the silken coffee pudding.
5. Macau Science Center: upon entering the dramatic, silvery, cone-shaped I.M. Pei designed building (reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York) you’ll be greeted by an exceedingly congenial and highly intelligent robot.
Plan on spending at least a couple of hours exploring the many educational (but still great fun) hands-on exhibits in the fourteen galleries that cover everything from space (including a same-scale model of the Shenzhou-VII spaceship) to sports (full of challenging fitness tests for kids of all ages).
*Don’t miss the Space Theatre of the Planetarium, the first digital system in the world to be simultaneously equipped with ultra-def (8000 x 8000) and 3D visual effects.
6. The Macau Tower: At 338 meters, the tower offers the world’s highest bungee jump, if you’re up to the challenge. You might want a little liquid courage (try a Macau beer or 12 or perhaps a big swig of “Ginginha”, a special Portuguese cherry brandy -high in alcohol) before taking the plunge. Not quite that daring? Then you can harness-up and walk the outside perimeter. Complete wimps can still share in the God-like views from behind the glass observation deck.
7. Guia Fortress and Lighthouse: built in 1638 to defend the border with China, the fortress can be found perched on the highest point of Macau, which means you’ll get stellar panoramic views from the original cannon platform. Check out the old Chinese frescos (dating back over 300 years) that were discovered during a recent restoration of the Guia Chapel. The best way to reach the top of Guia Hill is via the Guia Cable Car which you board near the park gate of the Flora Garden, formerly the grounds of the Flora Palace. These European- style formal gardens house an aviary, a small zoo, and a tree-shaded refreshment patio.
8. Red Market: If you’re a farmer’s market fan then you’ll want to visit the bustling Red Market which is loaded with fresh (as in the butchers slit the live chicken necks right after you buy them) produce, fish, meat and old Chinese housewives doing their daily shopping.
Afterwards you can shop your way down Avenida Horta e Costa, a long street filled with up-scale clothing and electronic stores that starts at the Red Market and extends as far as the Flora Gardens beneath Guia Hill. But if you’re shopping for bargains then keep going until you hit the historic “Three Lamps” (Rotunda Carlos da Maia) area which is full of tiny shops selling all sorts of goods at discount prices.
9. Taipa Village: a charming, photogenic area lined with pastel-colored Portuguese houses, quaint Chinese shops, Portuguese tiled streets, an old covered market with hanging baskets of flowers and old-fashioned street lamps and a slew of ethnic restaurants lining Rua da Cunha (aka Food Street).
Take a detour over to visit the unique Taipa Houses Museum (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which is made up of five two-story, sea-glass green summer villas, built in 1921 for wealthy Macanese. The homes are filled with furnishings, personal artifacts, and photos typical of the early 20th century. You’re sure to encounter at least one wedding couple doing a photo shoot, overlooking the peaceful lake and garden nearby.
* Time out for dinner at the Michelin recommended, Antonio Restaurant, famous for its Portuguese seafood stew, melted goat cheese with special black bread and acacia honey, fried codfish cakes, Portugese duck rice and the charmingly flamboyant (particularly with the ladies – word is that he’s been married eight times, though it could be nine by the time you finish reading this) Chef António Coelho. Oenophiles might want to ask for a tour of his cellar, where he keeps his secret stash of world-class wines.
10. City of Dreams: offers all the glitz, glamour and razzle-dazzle one would expect with a moniker like this. This Vegas-style mega resort consists of three hotels: the jazzy Hard Rock Hotel, the Grand Hyatt with a huge outdoor swimming pool complete with a submerged lounge, or the elegant Crown Towers- a perfect pick for “high rollers” as well as numerous fine dining, entertainment, upscale shopping and relaxing spas options.
Here are my suggestions for a fun filled overnight that even non-gamblers will enjoy:
Best Dim Sum – Dramatically appointed with bold red decor and crystal lights, Treasure Palace Chinese Restaurant is renowned for its authentic Cantonese fare (livened up with fresh, modern accents) and totally scrumptious, particularly when sided with a little of Chef Tam Kwok-Fung’s flavorful X.O. sauce) but the chef really shines when it comes to exquisitely prepared dim sum, accompanied by an eclectic selection of organic and floral teas. The giant abalone chicken bun, truffle and root vegetable dumplings and deep friend crab-cakes are just a few of the signature dishes (and deservedly so) from the extensive dim sum menu.
Spa at Crown Tower – If you did not listen to me and lost your shirt at the casinos, luckily you won’t need it as you bliss out at the luxurious 3,500 sq. meter spa. Sophisticated spa facilities include vitality pools, a Hamman steam room and experience showers with separate facilities for men and women. The spa menu has everything from a jet-lag reducing Deep Tissue Realignment to a Bora Bora wrap which ends with a massage utilizing hot seaweed packs. I wish I could report with more detail but I fell sound asleep five minutes into my treatment.
Entertainment picks include the action-packed, blockbuster extravaganza, “The House of Dancing Water “, enthusiastically performed by 80 international cast members. For my taste, however, I was more impressed by the more intimate “The Dragon’s Treasure”. This visual spectacle was featured in the 360 degree 3D Audio, dome-screened Bubble Theater, where I was taken on a fantastical journey into a supernatural realm of the four Dragon Kings.
Where to stay: Hands down, the very best hotel (if you do not want to stay in the hustle-bustle casino district) is the five-star Mandarin Oriental. The only problem here is that once you walk through the glass doors to a warm welcome and enter your spacious guest room overlooking the serene lake, take a long nap in the luxuriously comfy bed, or book an appointment in the gorgeous Oriental Spa before sampling the gourmet Asian cuisine featured at the glamorously Vida Rica Restaurant, it’s almost impossible to tear yourself away to do #1-10!
How to get there: Ferries run from Hong Kong every 15 minutes 24 hours a day with a reduced schedule from 1:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. The trip takes 55 minutes one way. Tickets run HK$142–HK$1,650, depending on class.
Visitor Information: The Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) has branches in Hong Kong and at the ferry terminal in Macau.
Mandarin Oriental http://www.mandarinoriental.com/macau/