Grand Portuguese influences

By Masami Mustaza

CLUELESS as I am, the only things I knew about Macau were its casinos, more casinos and Portuguese egg tarts.

However, in recent years, Macau has slowly transformed itself into a tourist destination. There are more casinos being built (at last count, there are 34), but the good news is that you can spend your money in other ways without feeding the slot machines.

A visit isn’t complete without delving into its history, which is evident in the landscape that makes up the Macau of today. There’s a familiarity of Malacca here as far as the Portuguese colonial architecture is concerned but the relics here far surpass Malacca’s heritage buildings in terms of numbers and grandiosity. It really is no small wonder that Macau has made it into Unesco’s World Heritage Site list.

HERITAGE TRAIL

The Taipa Houses-Museum is a great place to discover Macau’s Portuguese heritage. Formerly homes of some rich, influential Portuguese families in Macau, these five green houses, done up in distinctly different designs, have been converted into museums, an exhibition gallery and a venue for government officials to hold receptions.

Here, you get a glimpse of the past — how the Portuguese used to live, the things they held dear, what they wore and their occupations.

Museums of every kind are sprawled throughout Macau, including the Macau Wine Museum which showcases bottles of Portuguese wine from as far back as 1815.

The Ruins of St Paul’s, once one of the largest Catholic churches in Asia, now consists of only the southern stone facade after a fire destroyed it during a typhoon in 1835 or at least, that’s the official story.

My guide tells me another story. The fire, said to be the third fire to break out in the cathedral, started in the kitchen.

“After the third fire, they probably decided that the cathedral was not meant to be rebuilt,” says my guide.

Today, the Ruins of St Paul’s stands tall and proud as it overlooks the hustle and bustle of people in Senado Square, a tourist spot populated by shops of brands you’ll find in a typical mall.

At night, the Ruins is an eerie place despite the spotlights and the presence of tourists looking for adventure after hours. In the day, as you gaze from the bottom of the stone steps and the elaborate topiary, you could almost believe you are looking at the Cinderella Castle in Disneyland.

SHOP OR GAMBLE

If you want a souvenir that isn’t a key chain or a fridge magnet, the Macau Tourism and Cultural Activities Center (CATC) is not too far away.

Learn about Chinese tea culture at Something About Tea and sample some while you’re at it. Jasmine tea is so passe — Tribute Eyebrow tea sounds more like something you’ll want to get for your boss.

The CATC also houses the stylish Portuguese cafe Lusitanus, which serves Portuguese fare, gourmet food and knick-knacks.

The newly-opened Mod shop sells quirky souvenirs from Portugal and graphic T-shirts designed by Macau designers. Ach Brito scented soaps, a favourite of Material Girl Madonna, are also sold here.

Then there are the casinos. The City Of Dreams in Cotai is an integrated entertainment resort combining entertainment, accommodation, dining, shopping and a casino all under one roof.

You can choose to stay at either The Spa at Crown, Hard Rock Hotel or Grand Hyatt Macau depending on your taste (and wallet).

SPELLBINDING SHOWS

If you ever get bored of the casinos, the water-based House Of Dancing Water show guarantees excitement like no other. Personally created and directed by Franco Dragone, of Cirque du Soleil fame, the show relies on movement, music and water to tell a dramatic tale of romance and adventure.

Despite the lack of dialogue, the show is spellbinding with its elaborate setup. The stage easily converts from a large pool into a solid stage with actions taking place in the water, on the stage and from up high in the air!

You can also catch Dragon’s Treasure In The Bubble, a dome-shaped theatre which provides a 360-degree, totally immersive multimedia experience. It feels a lot like you’re sitting in an aquarium as you try to chase the dragon with your eyes as it darts across the dome. At only 10 minutes long, there’s no need for visitors to sit down. Children will enjoy this show more.

MAKAN TIME [Eat Out]

Finding halal fare proves to be an arduous task in Macau. Unless you have a thing for North Indian cuisine, it’s best to pack these essentials: bread, instant noodles and packets of Brahim’s.

During our stay in Macau, we dine at three North Indian restaurants — Spice Garden, Taste Of India and Indian Spice — and by the third day, we are groaning for something different. Truth be told, the food is fantastic and the spread fit for a king but when in Macau, one wants a taste of the local Macanese cuisine.

The good news is, this will change in the near future. Macau Government Tourist Office public relations officer Gigi Lam says the Macau government is looking at procuring food from halal sources for the many Muslim tourists.

HOW TO GET THERE

AirAsia flies daily from LCCT in Sepang to Macau International Airport in Taipa Island.