Two and a half years after moving to Hong Kong, I finally just made my way to Macau, that ‘other’ Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, for a girls’ weekend out. Frequently cited as the Las Vegas of the East, with significant Portuguese influences, I was curious to see if it lives up to all the hype. So after a roughly 1-hour, easy-breezy Cotai Waterjet ride across the Pearl River Estuary, my friends Jen and Ginny and I embarked on a couple days of well-earned debauchery (well, not quite – but explore we did)!
The Grand Hyatt Macau served as our comfortable base for the weekend, situated right in the popular City of Dreams complex, on the Cotai Strip where the majority of larger hotels and casinos are located. [The Strip was created with reclaimed land in adherence to Macau’s fervent land reclamation policies, to bridge the previously separated islands of Taipa and Colôane.] While not in-your-face luxurious, the Hyatt is a relatively newer and more contemporary option in the area, offering very professional, friendly service and a low-key afternoon tea in the lobby lounge. The lovely woman who checked us in even remembered my name the next day at check-out. And we were extended both a room on the highest floor available (31 out of 32) and a late check-out at 2 pm (these were both upon request, and I suppose my Platinum membership from years of accumulated travel didn’t hurt). All in all, this was a pleasant hotel experience.
It’s a quick walk (through a string of luxury shops, the requisite casino, and holiday decor, of course) from the Hyatt to the 2000-seat theater that hosts the House of Dancing Water show. A spectacle that lavishes in its customized stage, House features a pool containing 3.7 million gallons of water (that’s the equivalent of 5 Olympic swimming pools, in case you’re curious), 239 water jets, and hydraulics to create a less watery stage on the spot.
Overall, the show is dramatic and admittedly boasts pretty impressive acrobatic and daredevil talent. It is clearly modeled after the incredible Cirque du Soleil, fusing circus arts with contemporary dance, theatrical music, special effects, and a dreamscape backdrop.
Although the House of Dancing Water show was created by Franco Dragone, who is largely responsible for the incomparable Cirque du Soleil’s early success and rapid expansion in the 1980s and 90s (even directing their now-legendary water show in Las Vegas entitled ‘O’), we found the so-called historical, love story narrative in House to be a bit lacking, without any clear thread of cohesiveness. This seems to be a common takeaway by many guests, who often leave in a slight haze of bemused confusion. The depiction of Africa has led some to question whether there might even be some ever-so-slightly-racist nuances (although I suspect the show instead intends to historically allude to tribal Africa). By contrast, Cirque’s shows, while highly fantastical, generally exude greater sophistication and refinement than House of Dancing Water. For House, best to let the idea of a compelling story go, and just focus on enjoying the visuals. For photographers, the show is like candy (but note that flash photography and videography are strictly prohibited).
Tip: If you really want to immerse in the House of Dancing Water, book yourself a seat in the front rows, where you don raincoats that likely only partially shield you from all the splashes.
Create a spectacle of your own at the famed Macau Tower. From 223 meters up in the sky, you can experience a vertiginous walk out onto a glass platform to take in panoramic views (and of course, views down to the ground). Or bungee (bungy, in local spelling) jump if you dare from 233 meters up, the highest such commercial jump in the world! A controlled SkyJump alternative allows you to experience a descent from the same height but without the nerve-rattling free fall and rebound of a bungee jump. Physically fit folks without acrophobia can now also embark on a roughly 3-hour climb all the way to the tower’s highest point at 338 meters. But if your goals are less (literally) lofty, then just enjoy the gaming center, or shop and dine to your heart’s content.
Tip: Entertaining but tamer ostentation can also be found in other iterations throughout Macau, such as simply walking through the sprawling Venetian Macao complex or watching tropical fish swim by inside the columnar aquarium at the MGM Macau.
Unlike some other casino-centric cities, Macau also has a more culture-focused side, owed in large part to its history as a Portuguese colony until 1999, before control of the territory was returned to China. The historic area was thankfully named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, which should protect it from Macau’s otherwise-pervasive tendencies toward massive development (which as always, brings its controversial mix of local erosion and escalating real estate prices, but also employment opportunities). UNESCO protection should also help Macau maintain some of its uniqueness vs. other urban centers of hedonistic pleasures.
Even if you plan to venture to Macau mostly to party or gamble, this historic quarter of the city is worth a wander. If you must see a casino in this area, check out the over-the-top, whimsical Hotel (and Casino) Lisboa, built in 1970. The more modern Grand Lisboa is right across the street.
Then center yourself at or near Senado Square a few blocks away, and amble your way through the narrow streets and alleys up to the classic ruins of St. Paul’s (the façade remains of a church after a 19th-century typhoon and fire) for a slightly elevated view of the area. If time permits, there are other sights radiating in almost all directions from here, as well.
But while St. Paul’s and a number of other historical sites (such as fortress-set Macao Museum, Guia Lighthouse, Lou Kau Mansion, Mandarin’s House mansion, Moorish Barracks, and A-Ma Temple) help give the area its visual appeal and may serve as anchors, simply wandering around is more than half the fun. At times, you may feel momentarily like you have stepped into a small European town, with its Portuguese-influenced tilework, fountains, wavy mosaic streets, and colonial, pastel-hued architecture.
The happy in-the-street chaos, temples, curio shops, and meat in sheet form that tend to permeate Asia will remind you just where you are, though. And that’s not a bad thing – you are in Asia, after all, and a big part of the charm of Macau is the mashup manifestations of its unusual Portuguese-Chinese fusion of cultures.
Tip: If you have time, check out Frommer’s 2 suggested walking tours of the main historic area.
Take a break and enjoy some of the other local snacks – this is a big part of the reason you’re here. So join the queue at sweet shops such as Lord Stow’s Bakery or Margaret’s Café e Nata (the latter of which was somewhat inexplicably closed when we attempted a visit during their ‘opening hours’ and has suffered a few recent reports of apparent rudeness). Let loose your Pavlovian response as the smell of freshly baked, Portuguese-style egg tarts waft toward you. Slightly different in appearance and taste from its neighbor’s equally famous egg tarts (those in Hong Kong spun off from the Portuguese version), these tarts are caramelized on top similar to a creme brûlée and have a flaky crust. They are always served warm, so the custard is sure to melt in your mouth. As for whether the Macau or Hong Kong egg tarts are better, of course that is a matter of personal taste. I think both have earned their place in my stomach.
Tip: If you live in Hong Kong and just want a small taste of Macau, you can save yourself a trip and try the Portuguese egg tarts at Lord Stow’s only HK branch inside The Excelsior Hotel.
Bite-size almond cookies are another local favorite and are quite ubiquitous on the streets here, although I found them to taste a bit like almond-flavored chalk. Not bad, but as they are quite dry, I view these as optimized if dipped briefly into a hot cup of tea. Their heartier composition over egg tarts make them a more practical take-home gift though, and tins of these are common companions on the ride back to Hong Kong.
Tip: If you seek an alternative area that still offers traditional Portuguese-tinged fare and is less developed and toured than the main historic quarter, investigate the small Colôane fishing village back across the bridge, with its own nearby branch of Lord Stow’s and also a well-loved Portuguese restaurant, Restaurante Espaço Lisboa.
Beyond the sweets, heartier Portuguese fare can be found at several other establishments in Macau, notably at favorites like the beachside Fernando’s, Antonio in Taipa, or Carlos near the Docks. Portuguese cuisine does not smile on vegetarians, as it is dominated by meat and seafood. For those who can enjoy it, it leans toward simple preparations with rich, robust flavors, such as clam and chorizo sausage stew cooked in a cataplana (a kitchen gadget akin to a pressure cooker or Dutch oven), with hearty doses of garlic and onion, in a rich tomato base. Grilled codfish with potatoes and garden vegetables, spicy African chicken, and steak with white wine sauce, ham, and egg are other popular options. Portuguese wine to help wash it all down can be enjoyed for a song.
Tip: Antonio (mentioned above) offers a few limited vegetarian options to better accommodate diners of varying preferences.
For a more upper-crust experience of local cuisine, head over to Vida Rica at the Mandarin Oriental Macau. Surprisingly empty when we were there (except for the couple adorably getting engaged next to us), Vida Rica offers a classy dinner with both Portuguese and Chinese selections. I opted for an all-cod meal, which I probably should have varied – but it was all quite enjoyable, with more subtle flavors and refined cooking techniques than at other local spots. I admit some food envy of Ginny’s choice of stuffed grilled squid with chourico-onions, rainbow potatoes, and coriander infused shrimp sauce, with a delicate squid ink tuile as its visual pièce de résistance.
The staff here is very knowledgeable, happily offering recommendations along the way. This is an elegant but not overbearing dining experience, one that will encourage a 4-hour dinner (as we had). Just don’t fill up too much on the delicious warm tomato bread, accompanied by your choice of 4 (!) different butters (citrus, chile, unsalted, and salted), so you save room later for at least one of Vida Rica’s sumptuous desserts, such as our selection of the mango mille feuille with lime sherbet.
Tips: Be sure to strut your stuff on Vida Rica’s elevator bank runway, lit underfoot, and take a gander at the mirrored restrooms. And before you leave the Mandarin Oriental, take a moment to inspect the gorgeous, ‘rearranged landscape’, porcelain dress sculpture downstairs crafted by Chinese artist, Li Xiaofeng.
While I have no prior baseline for Macau, and there were certainly tourists and gamblers out and about, Macau overall just seemed to be a bit more low-key and less thronged with revelers than I expected, particularly for a weekend. A majority of visitors typically hail from mainland China, especially frequenting the casinos – however, that has been waning somewhat as luxury spending from China has been on the downturn lately. So perhaps that explains some of the relative quietude. Or perhaps it is because the winter holidays are right around the corner, and would-be travelers are either nesting at home or prioritizing other locales. Or maybe this weekend was just some kind of anomaly. After all, it is hard to ignore that tourism to Macau tripled between 1999 and 2009. And Macau has become the world’s dominant gambling haven, putting Vegas in its place years ago. Even with fewer properties than Vegas, Macau’s gambling revenues outweigh those in Vegas up to ~6-fold, depending on what source you pull. And from a development perspective, it shows no signs of slowing down, with its gargantuan version of The Venetian serving as a formidable icon, City of Dreams now firmly in place, and Studio City just opened – to name a few. Just driving around (or even peering out of your hotel window), it’s impossible to miss the endless shells of quickly rising buildings and cranes working into the wee hours to create the latest and greatest hotel/casino/entertainment/dining/shopping complex. However, I do think Vegas did a better job at creating a main strip that almost guarantees stumbling from one property to the next, with ample opportunities to celebrate even on the street with fellow party-makers.
In a grand attempt to further increase the volume of visitors to Macau (and cross-pollination with Hong Kong and the Pearl River West area of the mainland), a massive, to-be-42-km-long, Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HZMB) is in the works. It won’t be completed until at least 2020 at the rate things are going, with technical and other ongoing challenges. Regardless, the standard ferry and TurboJET hydrofoil options make getting to Macau efficient for those of us not sporting our own wheels. And the journey is a brief and easy one, save for a little choppiness that can occasionally warrant the seatbelts and for some, perhaps also the sick bags that the staff pass around at the beginning of each launch. If you tend toward a bit of seasickness, bring along some Dramamine and a friend to keep you calm, just in case. But rest assured, if strongly turbulence-and-really-any-kind-of-bumpiness-averse Ginny and I are any indication, anyone can make this ride without too much trouble.
So…is Macau worth a trip? If you’re coming from afar for a short while, I suggest saving yourself the time and spending it instead on another more compelling part of Asia. After all, there are so many other corners of this continent to explore, and only so much vacation time to spare.
However, if you already live in or plan to spend an extended period of time in Hong Kong, southern mainland China, or perhaps Taiwan, then certainly give it a go at least once, whether you intend to simply party or explore the historic areas (or preferably both). It does have the goods to sustain an entertaining weekend or 2, and even luxuriating in Macau can be done for less than in pricey HK. Macau is a fun setting for an escape especially from hectic HK, made even more memorable by run-ins with friendly locals and fellow visitors, and most importantly, the company of great friends.
All images © 2015 deb fong photography, except where noted