by Natalie Bahadur
Bright, blinding, flashing lights beckon you closer. There’s an energy in the air. There’s the unmistakable smell of money and the promise of unrivaled riches. Lady Luck whispers you should take a gamble. Place a bet. Roll the dice. The faint sound of slot machines wafts through the air. Thinking of Las Vegas? Wrong!
This growing casino playground is not that brilliant desert mirage we’ve all come to know and love as Sin City. In fact, it’s all the way on the other side of the world. This money Mecca is Macau.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Macau is a delicious mixture of old and new. At every turn, there seems to be a juxtaposition of the two that surprises and delights. Past and present collide here, its rich history standing strong amidst the development and 21st-century progress that surround it.
The Portuguese settled Macau, the last European colony in China, in the 16th century and the island was handed back to China in 1999. Now, along with Hong Kong, Macau is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR), an area that straddles autonomy and inclusion in China as a whole, under the principle of “one country, two systems,” proposed by politician Deng Xiaoping.
Today, Macau is a wonderful combination of Chinese and Portuguese food, culture and customs, making it a unique and intriguing place for travelers to explore.
WHERE TO STAY
Casino hotels abound in Macau and the smaller, neighbouring island, Taipa. Though all are huge, impressive structures with distinctive selling points, not all are equal … but variety certainly means choice to accommodate most any taste.
However, the billion dollar MGM Grand Macau stands out among the others, from the moment you lay eyes on it. Its avant-garde design and colourful, mirrored exterior make for a warm welcome and the friendly staff echoes this sentiment immediately upon arrival. Recently opened (December 2007), this hotel boasts 35 stories, 600 rooms, 300 table games in the casino and 1,000 slot machines.
It sounds enormous and it’s certainly generous in size but it’s nothing compared to the mammoth size of The Venetian in nearby Taipa – which clocks in at a whopping 10.5 million square feet. It depends on what you’re looking for.
The Venetian can only be described as epic in sheer size and over-the-top-ness. But on a smaller scale, the MGM Grand offers up luxury in a more sophisticated and intimate setting. The lobby is bright and colourful and the adjoining atrium feels like something straight out of a fairy tale, almost like a storybook castle full of brilliant oversized flowers and butterflies hanging overhead. The rooms are generous in size and modern, too.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised and may not know which to do first—soak in the huge tub or flop onto the inviting bed to watch a Chinese soap opera on the large flat screen TV. The hotel has 12 restaurants/bars/lounges, a 222,000-square-foot casino (play wisely) and a spa that’s an absolute must.
The 25,000-square-foot Six Senses Spa offers up an experience that’s nothing short of luxurious. The spa menu has everything from body massages to facial treatments, Thai massages, hot stone therapy, acupressure and Indian head massage. After you’ve totally blissed out at the spa, head over to the outdoor pool where you can order freshly barbecued food and sip cocktails poolside as you gaze out on the view of the South China Sea.
Yes. The South China Sea.
WHAT TO DO
The Macau Tower
Dominating the skyline is the Macau Tower. You can’t miss it and if you’re brave, you might just work up the nerve to allow a group of total, albeit friendly, strangers, to strap you into a harness while you say a prayer and plunge from the top.
At 338 metres, the Macau Tower is the tenth tallest tower in the world (eighth tallest in Asia) and challenges daredevils the world over to take a leap of faith … literally. The bungee jump or Skyjump as it’s called, from the tower’s outer rim is from a height of 233 metres and is said to be the highest in the world. If you’re not a jumper, the breathtaking bird’s eye view of Macau is still worth the journey up.
If your sense of adventure falls somewhere in between jumping and staying safe behind the glass windows of the observation deck, visitors can still experience the thrill of suiting up, getting harnessed and walking along the outer rim of the tower for a spectacular view uninhibited by glass.
The Ruins of St. Paul’s
The Ruins of St. Paul’s are an imposing piece of history, looming high above Senado Square (more on that shortly!). Built between 1582 and 1602 by Jesuits, it was once the largest Catholic church in all of Asia. But the church was destroyed by fire in 1835 and all that remains now is the façade. It’s a popular attraction in Macau, partly because of its central location and proximity to Senado Square.
Senado Square is a must-see spot. It’s a popular public square and sure, it’s touristy but there’s also a local flavour here, more Portuguese than Chinese, though definitely a blend of both. Paved with a colourful assortment of stones in a wave pattern, the streets feel like old world Europe and show off a Portuguese sense of style and design. Beautiful old colonial buildings flank both sides of the streets and it’s easy to forget just where you are.
For pedestrians only, the square is full of cafes and fashionable shopping and visitors can easily while away a relaxing day here, sipping on fresh fruit slushies under the hot afternoon sun. From glassware and artwork to designer clothing and bags, this outdoor square is a worth exploring. When you get hungry, there are endless options from savoury dim sum to those sweet and delicious Portuguese custard tarts, pasteis de nata.
The massage business is a burgeoning industry in Asia and Macau is full of places to sit back, relax and get pampered. But be aware. We’re not talking about luxurious spas that cater to your every whim in a pristine environment, with the faint tranquil sounds of classical music filling the air. Sure, there are lots of hotels that offer up the flawless spa experience we Westerners have come to expect.
But for something a little more (ahem!) local, wander the streets and you’re sure to stumble upon a massage parlor that offers up a limited but reasonable menu of services. Foot and full-body massages are the most popular options but seriously, think twice before getting naked. (Bed bugs, anyone? I’m just sayin’ … ) A foot massage is likely your safest bet. For about $10, you can relax for an hour and get your tender tootsies ready for more exploring.
Much like Thai food, food in Macau is known for its exceptional blend of flavours: sweet and sour, salty and bitter and sometimes even mingling textures like crunchy and smooth, just to keep things interesting. And let’s not forget the most obvious marriage of flavours: Macanese cuisine is part Chinese, part Portuguese. Whatever the secret, the food is delish!
Restaurants abound in Macau. Many purely Chinese restaurants and many purely Portuguese; while you’re visiting, be sure to visit a place that serves Macanese food, that delectable blend of both. Restaurante Litoral is a good place to start but be sure to arrive hungry. The options are plentiful here and you’ll want to try traditional favourites like African chicken and minchi (minced pork). And always, always leave room for dessert. I’ve already mentioned the Portuguese custard tarts, haven’t I?
It’s known to Europeans as the Monte Carlo of the East and to Americans as the Asian Las Vegas. What you call it may depend on where you hail from but either way, Macau has earned its place as one of the world’s most renowned gambling destinations and people the world over are coming here to make a date with Lady Luck. It’s not like the locals here are big gamblers, but the never-ending construction of one casino/hotel after another is luring gamblers from as near as Hong Kong and mainland China and more and more from as far as Europe and North America.
Whether you’re a gambler or not, there’s an energy here that’s tough for any girl to resist. You don’t have to blow the down payment for your new home you’ve been saving to join in the fun. It’s more about being a part of the action, even if only as an onlooker.
Get dolled up, enjoy a few drinks and after you’ve blown your limit (or hey, hopefully you’ve won big!), enjoy the fun of watching others. So much easier when it’s not your money on the line! The best part about staying at a casino hotel is that when the night draws to a close and you’ve had your fill, your beckoning bed is just across the casino floor and up an elevator. OK, maybe that’s not the best part but you know…it’s a good one.
Macau is delightful for its old-world charm and its unexpected mélange of Portuguese and Chinese cultures. It’s charming, the people are wonderfully friendly, the food is scrumptious and there’s something about looking out on the South China Sea that’s just…well, it’s just special if you’re not from around those parts. Seriously. You should go.
*For more information, visit www.macautourism.gov.mo.
Your Tour Guide (About the Author):
Natalie Bahadur is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She’s a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. She is an avid traveler who loves the thrill of visiting new places and daydreams about where she’ll end up next.