MACAU, CHINA — Glitz, glamour, fantastic light shows and huge casinos. That’s the initial impression for a first-time visitor to this tiny region of China. However, that’s not all this Vegas of the East has to offer.
For instance, where else could you stroll down narrow alleyways that throb with the bustle and energy of Chinese street life and enjoy a meal in a traditional Portuguese café before heading off to see a show as glamorous as any in Las Vegas?
And there can’t be many places in the world where you can see giant pandas, go Bungee jumping, eat in one of 18 Michelin-star restaurants and visit a host of UNESCO-listed buildings all in the same day.
It was my first visit to Macau, designated a Special Administrative Region of China 20 years ago. Before that it spent more than 400 years under Portuguese rule and its influence is still evident in the historical European architecture, Art Deco buildings and Colonial mansions. Besides Portugal itself, Macau is also one of the best places in the world to eat Portuguese food.
Left: Egg tarts are the national dish in Macau. Right: Wall art in the Old Town sector still dazzles first-time visitors.
I was determined to see and do as much as possible during my short visit and on my must-see list was an old-style Cantonese tea house. No sooner said than my local guide was leading me along the streets in the direction of Long Wa Tea House.
“The best and oldest tea house in Macau,” she proudly told me as we clambered up a rickety flight of stairs to meet the smiley boss. He doesn’t speak English but showed me the abacus he uses to tot up the bill. Tea here — options include jasmine, iron buddha, oolong and pu-erh — comes with a bowl of water so customers can rinse their cups after they have finished. If you want more tea, you can refill your pot yourself at the boiler. Traditional teahouses like this have been a focus of social life since the time of the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279).
Much as I would have liked to linger longer, it was time to head off to have a gander at Macau’s most iconic building, the 17th-century church of St. Paul. The wooden building burned down in 1835 and all that remains nowadays is the granite façade. The fact that this is all there is left of this once majestic structure doesn’t deter the hordes of tourists and locals that come here and it is a popular spot for selfies and as a location for wedding photo shoots.
While there, we made the steep climb up to the adjacent UNESCO-listed Fortaleza do Monte, which forms part of the Historic Centre of Macau. A tough climb, but it is worth the effort to see the far-reaching view of Macau and the Pearl River Delta spread out far below. The fort covers an area of about 10,000 square metres and includes a public park, observatory and the Macau Museum.
Just 30-sq-km in size, Macau is made up of three areas — the Peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane connected by an area of reclaimed land called the Cotai Strip, which is now home to some of the world’s largest integrated resorts. While here, I discovered giant precincts, including the City of Dreams, Galaxy Mega Resort and The Parisian Macao, which contain multiple attractions, including the world’s largest wave pool and the world’s highest Ferris Wheel.
Above: The lovely pagoda in Sun Yat-Sen Park, left, and the A-Ma Temple still draw a crowd in Macau.
I saw a fabulous show, The House of Dancing Water, at the City of Dreams. This is the world’s largest water show and is housed in its own 2,000-seat, custom-built theatre. The attraction cost a mind blowing $250 million (U.S.) to create. The action-packed extravaganza is a 90-minute non-stop whirl of daring high-dive acrobatics, aerial stunts and colourful water jets blasting up to 18 metres high in sync with the music. Totally mesmerising. If you go to Macau, make sure it is on your must-see list but beware, your jaw will ache at the end from the number of times it has dropped.
Although Macau’s ancient neighbourhoods are densely packed labyrinths where nothing much seems to have changed for hundreds of years, this crowded city has plenty of green spaces. Locals go there to practise their tai chi moves, sit at tables playing board games or just to relax.
Sun Yat-Sen Park is different from most parks I’ve seen because it has a foot-massage path which winds alongside a feng shui grove of trees believed to bring good luck. If you cross the twisty footbridge over the lotus pond, you will be sure to get rid of any evil spirits who happen to be following you — that’s because, as any local will tell you, the spirits can only travel in straight lines.
I visited a couple of temples, too. The A-Ma Temple, which dates back to 1488, was built in honour of the Chinese goddess of the sea, while the tiny, incense filled Pak Tai Temple was named for an emperor said to be able to withstand flood and fire and who, according to legend, conquered the Demon King who set about terrorising the universe.
Above: Vegas-style shows like The House of Dancing Waters, above, pack them in each night.
And every visitor to Macau should try the city’s edible icon, a Portuguese egg tarts. These creamy delicacies with a caramalized pastry top are based on Portugal’s traditional pastel de nata — they taste best straight out of the oven from Lord Stow’s Bakery, a tourist attraction in its own right. The tarts are worth queuing for — and indeed it is testament to their deliciousness that there is always a queue.
Macau has an extraordinary heritage, lots to interest and intrigue visitors, overwhelmingly friendly people and excellent hotels. In fact, all things considered, this is one great place to visit.
JUST THE FACTS
• How to get there: Air Canada and Cathay Pacific offer direct daily service to Hong Kong from Toronto and Vancouver and Macau is accessible via the new bridge or by high-speed ferry.
• Where to stay: Gilly Pickup stayed at the Sofitel Macau At Ponte 16 (http://www.sofitelmacau.com). All the major chains have properties in Macau and the prices vary greatly.
• More on Macau: http://en.macaotourism.gov.mo