When Macau’s 40-year gambling monopoly was liberated from the grips of billionaire entrepreneur Stanley Ho in 2002, it opened the floodgates to any developer with enough fiscal clout and moxie to play the game. The payoff is a mother lode of glitzy casino hotels mirroring the Las Vegas Strip.
In less than a decade, the former Portuguese colony has gone gaming gangbusters. Once little more than an afterthought among Hong Kong day-trippers testing Lady Luck at the Hotel Lisboa, the city is now referred to as "Las Vegas East" and celebrated as the entertainment capital of Asia.
Marquee players such as the MGM Grand, Wynn Encore, the Venetian, the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental and the Hard Rock have irrevocably altered the 11-square-mile territory’s complexion. Cobblestone streets lined with pastel colonial buildings and religious monuments stand in the shadows as living testaments to the old Macau.
But make no mistake, Macau’s rich lineage trumps the neon development. And that’s what hooked me into a return visit — although sifting for these cultural nuggets requires more focus than when I first ferried over from Hong Kong 25 years ago.
» Getting there: While there are no nonstop or direct flights from Honolulu to Macau International Airport, China Airlines, Korean Air and Japan Airlines operate routes from Honolulu throughout China, Southeast Asia and Korea. From those destinations you can connect to Macau via Air Macau, Jin Air, Shanghai Airlines or China Eastern. You can also fly to Singapore, Thailand or Malaysia and connect to Macau via Air Asia, Cebu Airlines, TransAsia, EVA Air and JetStar.
» Another option: Transit into Macau from Hong Kong International Airport with TurboJET Sea Express. Bags are transferred automatically to your ferry and are collected in Macau where you clear customs and immigration. And for Hong Kong day-trippers, the Cotai Strip CotaiJet departs the Hong Kong Ferry Terminal every half-hour.
» When to go: From late September to December, the average high temperature is 77 degrees. January to May sees cooler weather with varying rainfall, while summer months are considered both hot and humid.
WHERE TO STAY
» The Venetian:
» Four Seasons:
» City of Dreams:
» Galaxy Macau:
Macau lends itself to touring on foot. Within a short distance, classic China Coast shop-houses and 18th-century baroque churches are sprinkled amid colonial palaces and stone fortresses. In 2005, UNESCO named 30 buildings and squares collectively as the Historic Centre of Macau World Heritage Site.
My first stop among these is the Red Market, a 75-year-old institution buzzing with locals who shop as a daily ritual. Stalls are jam-packed with colorful Pearl River Delta produce, fresh fish hauled in from the South China Sea and a global collection of exotic spices.
Intrigued with Macau’s culinary tapestry, I took part in a cooking class with a handful of wannabe chefs. Armed with 400 patacas (roughly $50) and limited on haggling time, we scrutinized Thai chili peppers, capsicum, ginger, king prawns and whole chickens — the provisions for prepping African Chicken and Portuguese Seafood Rice with chef David Holliday at the Westin Resort.
Nowhere does Macau’s role as a gateway for cultural exchange play itself out more splendidly than in its cuisine. When Portuguese seafarers settled along China’s southeastern coast in the 1550s, they infused local dishes with culinary influences from Europe and their settlements in India, Africa and South America.
This eclectic epicurean stew results in distinctive Macanese fare, with our African Chicken recipe considered a signature.
After slicing, dicing, cooking and gorging, we were relieved that the only requirement at our next stop was to soak in scenery. Macau Tower, heralded as the destination’s ultimate rush, is the 10th tallest free-standing tower in the world. This marvel is tricked out with a slew of shops and eateries, plus vistas sweeping into China.
The prominent skyscraper is most celebrated, however, by adrenaline junkies who bungee-jump from a platform perched outside the 764-foot-high observation deck. The less daring can harness up for a handrail-free "skywalk" that circumnavigates a 6-foot ledge. We were perfectly content watching the outside insanity over afternoon tea safely served in the revolving 360* Cafe.
For more grounded action, Macau Tourism Activity Center’s Grand Prix Museum exalts its Formula 3 Guia Circuit, where more than 300 professional drivers take it to the streets each November. Conceived in 1954 as a treasure hunt route, the course incorporates hill climbing, long straightaways, twisting thoroughfares and hairpin turns.
Showcasing the event’s history, an exhibition hall is loaded with cars that are veterans of the competition. We raced toward simulators to test our skills and experience the sensation of driving 125 mph.
Revered as the symbol of Macau, the Ruins of St. Paul’s is the remnant of a 17th-century Portuguese cathedral dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle. The church burned to the ground in 1835, leaving only its imposing facade, which is adorned with an intriguing mix of images — the Virgin Mary flanked by a peony (representing China) and a chrysanthemum (representing Japan), a Chinese dragon, a Portuguese ship and a demon.
With a grand sweep of stairs leading to its hilltop perch, the UNESCO World Heritage Site also houses crypts of the Jesuits who established and maintained the cathedral.
At the base of the site is "Snack Street." Aptly reflecting its moniker, the narrow alley leading from St. Paul’s to famous Senado Square is chock-full of snack shops. As if we needed coaxing, vendors lured us with free samples of goodies such as ginger candy, almond cookies, sesame-coated peanut candy and jerky.
No matter how deeply we immersed ourselves in Macau’s culture and history, its gaming presence was impossible to ignore. The once laid-back outpost now booms with hotels and casinos.
To help accommodate Macau’s growth, a land reclamation project created the ueber-entertainment cosmos Cotai Strip that connects Taipa and Coloane islands as a single land mass. And that’s where we hit the fun and games.
With the opening of the Venetian and Four Seasons on the high-energy Strip, Las Vegas Sands Corp. made a Guinness-worthy footprint. Not only did the company develop the largest single hotel complex in Asia, but it’s also the third-largest building on Earth — roomy enough to hold 90 Boeing 747 jumbo jets.
Physically linked by a walkway of designer boutiques, these two hotels are as different as night and day. We chose to stay at Four Seasons and play at the Venetian. The Four Seasons’ oversize guest rooms deliver equal parts style and comfort. The most pleasant surprise, however, was that the casino is tucked off a corridor rather than slamming guests the moment they step inside.
As for the 3,000-suite Venetian, this $2.4 billion flagship dwarfs its Vegas counterpart in size and foot traffic with up to 86,000 visitors daily.
Other statistics are downright staggering as well. Complementing those trademark canals are 350 international retail options within the 1-million-square-foot Grand Canal Shoppes, more than 30 restaurants and lounges, a 550,000-square-foot casino and a 1,800-seat theater staging "ZAIA," Asia’s only Cirque du Soleil production.
Cotai is also home to City of Dreams, an off-the-charts conglomeration of high-end recreation and accommodations. Hard Rock takes the prize with retro-chic rooms.
Further boosting Cotai’s inventory will be the new Galaxy Macau. With plans to open early this year, it features three properties with a combined 2,500 guest rooms. Decadent touches include the world’s largest rooftop wave pool surrounded by a sandy beach dotted with private cabanas. And in November the 4,067 Sheraton Macau will thunder in as Starwood’s largest property in the world.
There’s no denying that Macau’s skyline will continue to burgeon with gaming pizazz. But its rich past fused with contemporary diversions escalates its status among savvy globe-trotters.