The Ruins of St. Paul’s.
One of my friends called my trip to Macau a busman’s holiday. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Macau, joined at the hip to China’s mainland, is largely thought of as the Asian Las Vegas, but it is also really a fascinating place with a long history and deep culture.
Portuguese traders first settled in Macau in the 16th century and administered the region until it reverted back to China in 1999. However, the Macanese retain autonomy, separate passports and freedom of movement not enjoyed by mainland Chinese.
Many of the locals still speak Portuguese, in fact, and the Caucasian population here is fluent in Cantonese, the local dialect. I speak some Cantonese, and if I do so in Hong Kong, it startles the natives. That’s not the case in Macau, where my attempts barely merit a shrug.
So why would someone from Las Vegas want to visit here? First and foremost, it is a unique 21st-century destination with incredible cuisine, great hotel deals and a variety of sights. This is more than a booming casino town; there are museums, churches and grand gardens. There are interesting old neighborhoods such as Taipa, graced with Portuguese tiles (calcatas) that line the streets in place of cobblestone. There’s a fascinating shopping district called Senado Square, where anything from anywhere is sold, and it looks like a walking street in any European city.
My favorite cultural amenity in Macau is cuisine, which includes Chinese, Portuguese and Macanese—the last is a fusion combining the first two. It’s cooking you don’t get across the channel in Hong Kong, and it’s laughably cheap.
My first night in Taipa, which retains a Portuguese character, I dined at O Manel on garlic bread, grilled sardines, broiled lamb chops and Portuguese wines from the Douro River. The meal at the tiny neighborhood restaurant was rustic and satisfying, and I slept off the jet lag efficiently.
I had lunch the next day at O Porto Interior, my first Macanese meal. It started with tempura (really a Portuguese dish adapted in Japan during the shogun period, and commonly considered Japanese) and finished with serradura, a pudding of ground crackers, cream and condensed milk that one can make in a blender in two minutes. In between, there were enormous garlic prawns eight inches long, a mild chicken curry, and Portuguese fried rice, an amalgam of Chinese sausage, egg, garlic, peppers and rice—irresistible.
The second reason to visit Macau is that it’s interesting to see a Through the Looking Glass view of Vegas. The casino culture is different here, and certainly livelier. The tables are more crowded, the patrons louder.
I first visited Macau before the handover and experienced a rundown city. It’s different today. Construction cranes rise everywhere you look, helping build more hotels, casinos and shopping malls, and gaming tables at casinos are often three-deep with bettors.
The new Venetian, a part of the City of Dreams built on a landfill, has a gaming area four times the size of the one in Vegas. Wynn and MGM Grand are showplace casinos that rival their Vegas mother ships both in grandeur and luxury. Galaxy, a $14 billion resort scheduled to open its doors in 2011, looks to out-do any resort on Earth.
Gaming executives in Vegas may be scratching their heads about lost revenue, but all they need do is look across the Pacific. Macau gets at least 30 million visitors a year, half of whom drive in for the day from a place on the Chinese mainland. It’s a little further from here, but as the Governator says, I’ll be back.
When to go: The weather is cool and beautiful from mid-October to mid-March.
Getting there: Restricted fares from Las Vegas to Hong Kong begin at about $1,100. The best connection is probably Cathay Pacific’s nonstop flight from Los Angeles. Hourly hydrofoil service to Macau is available at Chek Lap Kok Airport. The trip takes 50 minutes, and the ticket prices begin at $15 for Tourist Class seats.
Where to stay: The Wynn Encore Macau, where the flower-filled lobby leads to a variety of beautiful rooms designed by Las Vegas’ Roger Thomas. Room prices begin at around $160. The Grand Hyatt, a new hotel in the City of Dreams that is about half the price of the Hyatt in Hong Kong, with lush appointments such as a spa and upscale chocolate shop. Rooms from $145.
Where to eat: O Manel (Rua Fernão Mendes Pinto 90, Taipa, 853-2882-7571), which has Portuguese cuisine such as grilled sardines, and leitao, succulent roast pork. It’s about $15 per person. O Porto Interior (Rua do Almirante Sergio 259-B, 853-2896-7770), a place for Macanese specialties such as tempura, curry chicken and Portuguese fried rice. About $20 per person.