Travel: Macau

By Wendy Gomersall

There are some places in the world whose name you know, but you just can’t quite place on a map. Macau’s a bit like that. Its location hasn’t helped.

This little Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the vast People’s Republic of China sits at the mouth of the Pearl River downstream from Guangzhou. It is also just an hour’s ferry ride from another SAR, one that until now has rather overshadowed its tiny cousin – Hong Kong.

These days, though, Macau is shaking off its backwater image, and turning into the Las Vegas of the East, an intoxicating destination in its own right.

Modern Macau reflects a diverse mix of influences: a dizzying range of American-style fun-packed hotels and casinos with world-class entertainment, rubbing shoulders with fascinating Chinese temples and restaurants, next to elegant and ornate buildings reflecting the location’s colourful past.

A Ma Gao – “place of A Ma” – was named after a goddess who, according to legend, saved some local seafarers. Macau, as European merchants called it, was developed as a trading post by the Portuguese from the 1550s, but by the late 1800s, it had been overshadowed by the then-British Hong Kong.

China has just marked the tenth anniversary of the return of Macau to the motherland by giving the Macanese a gift Edinburgh residents will be familiar with – two pandas, for whom a state-of-the-art home is being built. There’s talk of a panda theme park, but even without this addition to its list of attractions, Macau has plenty for tourists to enjoy.

What’s more, Brits don’t need a visa to get here – as long as you come straight on by ferry you can bypass immigration at Hong Kong and they’ll even collect your luggage from baggage reclaim for you.

With a resident population of around 600,000, Macau covers just 29.2 sq km, and is less busy than Hong Kong, though every day its numbers swell from the many thousands of Chinese who come across the border.

The SAR comprises Macau Peninsula, which is connected to mainland China, the islands of Coloane and Taipa, and a reclaimed area called Cotai, all linked by bridge.

The Cotai Strip is home to a batch of brand-new, super sparkly Las Vegas-style hotels, complete with massive shopping malls and tempting casinos, all glitz and glamour.

And as in Las Vegas, the resorts feature hi-tech entertainment, much of it free, aimed at luring in gamblers. Mesmerising foyer shows include a giant Tree of Prosperity with shimmering 24ct gold leaves, swimming dragons and dancing fountains, and virtual reality tigers pouncing and prowling around you.

Ponte 16 also houses the Michael Jackson Gallery, which showcases 40 pieces of memorabilia including that famous white rhinestone glove worn by the pop legend. I’m sure it’s a draw for some.

Look at Macau’s ever-changing skyline and the hotels seeADVERTISEMENT
m so familiar. There’s the Venetian Macau, a mirror image of the celebrated Las Vegas hotel, complete with gondolas; a Wynn, MGM Grand, Four Seasons, Sands and Grand Lisboa, Mandarin Oriental and the enormous Galaxy.

The fabulous Grand Hyatt Macau is one of the most chic and tasteful, with a dynamic entrance foyer set around some hypnotic modern art installations. If you like luxury, you’ll love it.

The resort is part of the brand-new City of Dreams complex, which also has a Hard Rock Hotel, Crown Towers hotel, shopping mall with top-end designer labels and a vast casino, sectioned off according to how much money you can afford to lose. There are patently some very wealthy Chinese around, and even the tables with the highest bets are often occupied.

It is also home to the newly opened US$250m extravaganza called The House of Dancing Water, a spectacular created by Franco Dragone, the man behind many legendary Las Vegas performances. Tickets to the show are already like gold dust.

Fortunately, entry to the Grand Hyatt’s heavenly, huge outdoor swimming pool is free, so you can perform your own water show. The resort also has a very nice spa, plus a selection of top-class restaurants if you don’t want to venture out for dinner. It also makes an extremely comfortable base from which to explore all of diverse Macau.

Go walkabout and it’s hard to remember where you are sometimes; Europe, the exotic East or the States. The Portuguese gave the region its street and square names – Rue de Felicidade, Largo do Senado – given in two languages on signs.

It’s also responsible for the imposing Guila Fortress and Lighthouse and the region’s many enormous baroque churches and European-style buildings and squares in the historic centre, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

Here you’ll also find the ruins of St Paul’s, the slightly eerie bare façade of a building dating back to the early 1600s, and Macau’s most familiar landmark, a stone skeleton perched over a sweep of stone steps – it’s the place to stand for your souvenir photo.

The Chinese have contributed picturesque shop houses selling oriental medicines and stalls selling sticky pork belly and whole dried fish, as well as ornate Taoist temples big and small filled with burning incense – you can even have your fortune told at the A-Ma Temple, built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

There are also tranquil gardens designed according to feng shui principles, with big plants and trees, ponds full of carp and turtles and gatherings of old folk playing board games, singing or playing music, or practising tai chi as their daily exercise. The Lou Lim Loc Garden is one of the best.

It’s nice to watch dozens of happy pensioners stretching and bending in the sunshine.

You’ll find museums celebrating everything from Macau’s Grand Prix history to Portuguese wine, the historic Mandarin’s House and Dom Pedro V Theatre, the first western-style theatre in China.

Macau’s restaurants offer a variety of tastes, too, including every nationality imaginable inside the big hotels, from fast food to Michelin-starred plates. In the old centre there are eateries galore serving delicious Chinese food, Portuguese cuisine and a mix of both, Macanese food: pasties de bacalhau (cod fishcakes) and galinha Africana (spicy African chicken) are favourites.

Pasteis de nata – egg tarts – are another local delicacy, best eaten straight out of the oven at the famous Lord Stow’s Bakery on Coloane, the greenest and quietest part of Macau with the most-popular beaches. Then have a cuppa in a private booth at the Cultural Club, formerly the Tak Seng pawn shop and now a museum, shop and teahouse selling a wide and exotic range of beverages and sweet nibbles.

And if you’re at all worried about the calorie intake, you can always join the pensioners later for a spot of tai chi.

THE FACTS

Return flights from the UK to Hong Kong start from £519, see www.cathaypacific.co.uk Turbojet ferry tickets from Hong Kong to Macau start from £27 return, www.turbojet.com

Rooms at the Grand Hyatt Macau from £125, tel: 0845 888 1234, visit www.hyatt.com For more on Macau see www.macautourism.gov.mo

This article was first published in The Scotsman, 19 February, 2011.

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