David Whitley offers a guide to getting the best out of a short visit to the Las Vegas of the orient.
12.00:may have long surpassed Las Vegas as the world’s gambling capital, but mercifully the charms from the pre-dice, cards and roulette wheel era have survived intact. The ferry journey from takes around an hour, and once immigration is cleared, almost all hotels will have a shuttle bus ready to take you to where you’re staying. After dumping the bags, the afternoon is best spent enjoying the old city. Macau’s past as a Portuguese trading colony gives it an odd look. The faces and signs are mostly Chinese, but the pastel-painted churches, cobbled streets and mosaic-tiled public squares betray Mediterranean roots.
Lunch on the go can be grabbed at either a little noodle stall or one of the numerous outlets serving Portuguese egg tarts on Rua de Sao Paulo. A classier option is the Lusitanus Café on the first floor of the
Macau Tourism and Cultural Activities Center.
The Center is conveniently located at the bottom of the steps that lead up to the ruins of St Paul’s. All but the façade of this theological college burned down in 1835, but the spectre-like remains make for an arresting (and much-photographed) sight.
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BOOK YOUR OWN ADVENTUREThe following sites are usually my first port of call when booking a trip - so I recommend them as somewhere to start when booking your own holiday.
HOTELS: Hotels.com (£) or Agoda (£)
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CAR HIRE: Car Rentals (£)
GUIDE BOOKS: Amazon (£)
TOURS AND ACTIVITIES: Viator (£)
Depending on how much time you have to spare, a number of the churches are worth diving into – especially Sao Domingos. The sunshiney, Spanish feel and wedding cake-like altar seem thoroughly un-Asian. It’s also worth checking out the Lou Lim Leoc and Camoes gardens.
15.30: The Fortaleza do Monte, set up as a primary defence point for the Portuguese exclave, is a great spot for getting a 360 degree view of the city. But what’s inside the walls ends up being more interesting. The Museum of Macau is genuinely excellent, and spreads over three levels. Parallel timelines chart Western and Chinese developments in philosophy, invention and culture, while interactive displays tell the story of Portuguese occupation, the tea trade and the value of Chinese porcelain to the Western merchants. Reconstructed houses showcase the marriage of Portuguese and Chinese tastes, while the top floor shines a light on contemporary life in Macau. There’s a delicious richness and complexity for such a tiny peninsula.
18.30: Partly through the gambling money, Macau has become a real dining hotspot. Robuchon au Dome inside the Grand Lisboa hotel is the hottest ticket in town, with three Michelin stars, but the Imperial Court inside the MGM Macau has two stars of its own – and offers great value Cantonese cuisine with a few creative twists. Booking and getting in early are advisable for the top drawer affordable feasting
21.30: The huge casino resorts of the Cotai strip may resemble those in Vegas, but the gambling feels very different. It’s worth taking a mooch around the humungous Venetian resort for some world class people-watching. Aside from the ludicrous Grand Canal and St Mark’s Square replicas – complete with gondola rides – the Venetian has a massive gaming floor. The atmosphere leans towards frustrated table-banging rather than drink-happy whooping, but it’s worth observing just to see how seriously the mostly mainland Chinese clientele take their games of luck. The size of some of the bets being placed is eye-popping.
09.00: At the southern end of the Cotai Strip, the Seac Pai Van park is good place for a stroll. A couple of walking trails are mapped out, while explanatory signs on the trees make it a semi-educational experience. The walks head up and around the hillside, but aren’t strenuous. Some parts of the park – especially the cages with monkeys in – are a little sad, but all the stops have been pulled out for the two VIP guests. Giant pandas Kai Kai and Xin Xin arrived in 2011, and they’ve had a special Panda Pavilion built for them. As enclosures go, it’s enormous – with both indoor and outdoor areas designed for unobtrusive viewing of the cute couple as they go about their daily business (which, to be fair, consists mainly of munching bamboo). Those travelling with kids or soft-hearted adults should scrupulously swerve past the gift shop on the way out – the dangers of coming out with a pair of stuffed toy pandas under the arm are severe.
11.00: A number 21 bus should take you to the antidote for yesterday’s church-hopping. The A Ma Temple is the oldest surviving building in Macau – parts of it are over 600 years old and were there before the Portuguese arrived. The name Macau comes from it (A-Ma-Gao means “place of A Ma”) and it still attracts large numbers of genuine worshippers amongst the tourists.
The temple spreads over a steep hillside, with numerous shrines built along the winding paths and legions of incense sticks creating a distinctive aroma. There doesn’t seem to be much excuse needed to set off lots of firecrackers within the grounds, either – which is either entertainment or senseless noise, depending on your perspective. The Maritime Museum opposite the temple is worth a browse if you’ve got the time or don’t fancy the more hair-raising activities later on.
12.00 – 12.30: Not far up the road is the Restaurante Litoral, widely regarded as the top place to try Macanese cuisine, which takes in influences from all over the former Portuguese empire. The menu pulls together the best of Europe, Africa, Asia and South America to make dishes that have distinctive flavours and kicks. At Litoral, the recipes are all based on old-fashioned home cooking, and there’s a warm feel to the place.
14.00: Walk off the lunch by strolling through some of the quieter, more upmarket areas of the peninsula towards the reclaimed land that surrounds the lakes. The target is unmissable – the Macau Tower is a 338m giant. It’s very much size over beauty – the mass of concrete hardly screams elegance – but, if skies are clear, the views from the observation deck are rather splendid. That’s unfortunately rather a big ‘if’ – Macau’s air quality is not its greatest selling point. More adventurous types won’t have come for the view anyway – the Macau Tower is home to the world’s highest commercially-operated bungy jump. Bungy pioneer AJ Hackett’s operation here sees daredevils plummet to earth from 233 metres up.
A couple of marginally less terrifying options are also available. The Skyjump sees you fall from the same height and at speeds of up to 75km/h, but you’re in a harness and the fall speed is managed so that you land slowly on your feet rather than continually bounce around. The Skywalk X involves a walk around the perimeter of the tower – again at 233m up – with no handrail to hold on to or barrier to stop you falling. Again, you’re harnessed to avoid calamity. It’s wise to make reservations in advance to get your preferred timeslot.
16.00: You’d be forgiven if you fancied a drink after that, so the Wine Museum is a good option. It gives a surprisingly thorough overview of wine history – did you know the first grape vines came from Georgia? – and offers a sampling of some Portuguese wines at the end. In the same building is the Grand Prix museum. At Formula 3 level, the Macau Grand Prix is seen as the blue riband equivalent of the Monaco Grand Prix in Formula One. Inside the museum are a few cars, and displays on the drivers who have previously won the race – including Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. But it’s the simulators that make it worth going for – the opportunity to crash your way round the circuit is both fun and alarming.
18.30: Again, dinner will need to be early – so head to a big local favourite. A Lorcha serves up Portuguese and Macanese dishes in an evocative European style building.
20.00: The homegrown competitor for the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil shows is the House of the Dancing Water. Massive amounts of money have been poured into making this aquatics and acrobatics spectacular at the City Of Dreams complex. Expect a serious wow factor.
22.00: For a nightcap, the Vasco Bar and Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel – one of the few big names without a casino attached – has the right touches of style and class. Smooth live music helps the cocktails go down nicely; you don’t have to be a high-roller to enjoy life’s finer things in Macau.
Buses cover all the parts of Macau you’ll probably want to go to – maps are available on the Macau Tourism website. They’re ridiculously cheap, but require exact change. The old city is best walked, while taxis are reasonably priced for getting to the Cotai Strip.
When to go
The hot, humid summers (late May to mid-September) are best avoided. September to December is probably best for pleasant warmth, although the winter months (December to February) are mild if you’ve an extra layer to throw on.
Where to stay
Of the casino resorts, the Venetian has most going on – and surprisingly good rates can often be found booking in advance.
The Mandarin Oriental offers peaceful luxury with characteristic design flair, a well-regarded spa and top grade service.
Where to eat
Robuchon au Dome. 43rd floor, Grand Lisboa, Avenida de Lisboa; 00 853/8803-7878; grandlisboahotel.com
Imperial Court. Avenida Dr. Sun Yat Sen; 00 853/8802-3888; mgmmacau.com
A Lorcha. 289 Rua do Almirante Sérgio; 00 853/2831-3193;
Restaurante Litoral. 261A Rua do Almirante Sérgio; 00 853/2896-7878; restaurant-litoral.com
Lusitanus. Macau Tourism and Cultural Activities Center, Largo da Companhia de Jesus, 2-6; 00 853/2836-5977
Macau Government Tourist Office. 00 853/2831-5566
This story originally appeared in Vacations and Travel magazine. Details accurate as of January 2012, when it was researched.
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