Both the first and last chunk of China to be governed by Europeans, Macau is the perfect amalgam of Portuguese and Chinese cultures. Today, it’s better known as Asia’s number-one gambling destination – in fact, Macau now takes in more gaming revenue than Las Vegas. Arriving here by boat, it’s impossible to ignore the towering casinos. However, side stepping the slots allows you to visit areas that better represent this Special Administrative Region’s unique cultural heritage.
Winding, cobblestone streets lined with 16th-century Portuguese architecture in the Unesco World Heritage Historic Centre are a highlight, as are the ruins of St Paul’s – a complex that once included St Paul’s College and St Paul’s Cathedral. Both were built in 1602, though largely destroyed by fire in 1835. All that now remains is a stone fa?ade now, but this imposing structure is still worth visiting.
Like Las Vegas, Macau is also home to various stage spectaculars. Directed by Franco Dragone (best known for his work with Cirque du Soleil), The House of Dancing Water cost a whopping two billion HKD to produce and involves over 80 performers, a watertank-cum-stage more than five times larger than an Olympic-size swimming pool, 258 automated water cannons and 32 master scuba divers.
While VIP seats (from 1,125RMB) afford the greatest views, it’s more fun in the splash zone (450RMB) at the Dancing Water Theater (City of Dreams, Estrada do Istmo, Cotai, +853 8868 6868).
Macau offers great opportunities to eat tropically inflected Portuguese food. A Lorcha (289 Rua do Almirante Sergio, +853 2831 3193) is an intimate, casual eatery full of long tables packed with locals of all types – on our visit, Hong Kong actress Astrid Chan was casually chowing down with her husband and daughter. Order the succulent oxtail stew and the Macanese coconutand- turmeric chicken, then wash it all down with a Portuguese Super Bock beer or passion fruit Sumol soda. The endless wicker baskets of freshly baked rolls are delicious too.
For impeccable (though sometimes outlandish) dim sum, stop by The Eight at the Grand Lisboa hotel (Second Floor, Grand Lisboa, Avenida de Lisboa, +853 8803 7788), the brainchild of casino magnate Stanley Ho’s fourth wife. The overwhelmingly gold decor is initially off-putting, but the two-star Michelin food is top-notch. Try the porcupine-like charsiubao, its floury dough shaped delicately into spines.
For Macau’s famous egg tarts, the renowned Lord Stow’s Bakery (1 Rua da Tassara, Coloane Town Square, +853 2888 2535) bakes them with a velvety custard centre and strong, caramelised, crème br?lée-like finish on top.
A more off-the-eaten-track option is Margaret’s Café e Nata (Gum Loi Building, Rua Almirante Costa Cabral, +853 2871 0032), owned by rival – and Lord Stow’s ex-wife – Margaret Wong, whose egg tart recipe was bought by KFC for a reportedly multimillion-dollar licensing deal. Don’t leave Macau without trying them.
Unlike Las Vegas, Macau’s casinos avoid plying their gamblers with free drinks, so you’re better off having a cocktail elsewhere. For a relaxed atmosphere, fancy drinks and a beautiful night view, the newly opened Sky 21 (Floor 21, AIA Tower, 251A – 301 Avenida Comercial de Macau, +853 2822 2122) is flawless. Alternatively, the 38 Lounge in the underrated Altira hotel in Taipa (Avenida de Kwong Tung, Taipa, +853 8803 6868) offers a glorious nighttime vista.
There are only really two viable options for clubbing: Club Lotus in the Venetian complex (Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, Estrada da Baia de N. Senhora da Esperanca,+853 2882 8824), complete with piano bar, or Club Cubic in the City of Dreams complex, Macau’s take on Alice in Wonderland. Think huge mushrooms on the dance floor and candy arches.
Make sure you don’t get lured into staying at Macau’s most famous hotel/casino, the Venetian. Though it’s worth stopping by for some time at the tables and a spot of guilty shopping, it’s generally overrun with tourists exploring its indoor recreation of the Suzhou of the West, Venice.
Instead, if you have some money to spend on accommodation, try the newly opened Galaxy Macau (from 975RMB per night, www.galaxymacau.com
), a partnership with the Banyan Tree and Hotel Okura. As well as top restaurants and spas, the Galaxy has a huge artificial surf beach, a nine-screen 3D cineplex and over a dozen live entertainment acts.
Alternatively, the Grand Hyatt Macau (from 1,325RMB per night, www.macau.grand.hyatt.com
) enjoys a fantastic location in the City of Dreams and has the added benefit of club tower rooms far removed from the noisy casinos. Those on a tighter budget should head to the Hotel Taipa Square (525RMB per night, www.taipasquare.com.mo
), a well-located four-star in Taipa district that features an outdoor swimming pool.
Return tickets to Macau cost from 2,914RMB return with Air Macau. Alternatively, stop by Hong Kong for a similar price and ride the comfortable TurboJet ferry, which departs every half hour from Shun Tak terminus on the Hong Kong side. Super class ferry tickets cost from 237RMB (weekdays) and 253RMB (weekends and holidays) and the journey between the two regions takes around an hour.
If you do take the ferry, you’ll have to wait in long, disorganised queues before entering. So take the lane next to the electronic and diplomatic passport channel, as sometimes security waves foreigners through. One-way Sky Shuttle helicopter rides from Hong Kong (3,010RMB per person) and Shenzhen (3,900RMB per person) are pricey but crazy fun, and take just 15 minutes.