July 17, 2013

A Taste of Macau

Macau If you’re taking an Asian cruise to or from Hong Kong, add a few days in Macau before or afterwards for a colourful extra dimension to your trip.

Words: Sally Macmillan

It takes about an hour to skim across the water from Hong Kong to Macau on the TurboJET high-speed ferry and, depending on the time of day you arrive, a few more minutes to go through customs and immigration.

We met Joao, our guide from the Macau Government Tourist Office, outside the ferry terminal. As he ushered us past groups of smokers to our comfortable 4WD, he explained that smoking had just been banned in public buildings, which has interesting implications because in China (of which Macau is a part, albeit a Special Administrative Region), it is customary to offer cigarettes to someone when you meet them.
Macau's UNESCO World Heritage-listed town centre
“We want to be a healthy city,” says Joao, who was born and bred in Macau and whose heritage is a mix of Macanese (Chinese and Portuguese) and Russian. His ethnic background reflects, in part, that of the former Portuguese colony, which was returned to China in 1999 after more than 400 years of Portuguese administration.

Today, Macau is a fascinating mix of East and West, old and new, dense urban development and open green countryside.

The Ruins of St. Paul's refer to the facade of what was originally the
Church of Mater Dei built in 1602-1640, destroyed by fire in 1835
We visited on Easter Sunday, so it was fitting that we should start our tour at the 17th-century Ruins of St Paul’s, the façade of the first church built in China by Jesuits. Reinforcing Macau’s assimilation of disparate cultures is the Na Tcha Buddhist temple, built within the walls of the original church.

Our walk through the narrow cobbled streets in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Historic Centre revealed picturesque piazzas flanked by European buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Joao entertained and educated us with his extensive local and cultural knowledge – if you don’t have the luxury of a personal guide, I would recommend hiring self-tour headphones from the tourist office.

As you can’t investigate everything in one day, we looked around the Museum of Sacred Art and Crypt, then stopped at Ou Mun, a classic Portuguese coffee house that was serving Easter buns with its excellent strong coffee.

Looming over the entire city is the 58-floor Grand Lisboa Macau, a hotel entertainment complex built to represent a lotus flower. It’s loathed by many but impossible to ignore and houses three Michelin-starred restaurants as well as the world’s biggest entertainment centre in its glittering globe.

We crossed to Taipa on one of three massive bridges that link Macau to the ‘islands’ of Taipa and Coloane, which are now joined by Cotai, a strip of reclaimed land. On the way, we passed Macau Tower, which boasts the highest bungee jump in the world at 338 metres above the ground, and the historic former Hotel Bela Vista, one of the few buildings that I recall from a fleeting visit some 20 years ago.

Fisherman's Wharf
Cranes dominate the skyline and are visible signs of the wave of construction overtaking the region – high-rise public housing and a series of massive hotel casino resorts catering to the seemingly insatiable influx of gamblers from mainland China.

However, Taipa village on the island’s east side retains its old-world charm. Rua do Cunha is a food street where you can eat at little Chinese, Portuguese, Macanese and Thai restaurants, and in the colonial promenade, Avenida da Praia, you’ll see a row of five grand, green-painted, 19th century houses that now form the Taipa House Museum.

Heading south to Coloane, we drove past the championship golf course that hosts the annual Macau Open, and the 20-hectare Seac Pai Van Park, where two giant pandas, Kai Kai and Xin Xin, live in a purpose-built high-tech pavilion. For years, Coloane’s countryside and beaches have offered a relaxing escape to frazzled Hong Kong city-dwellers, and the former fishing village still attracts weekend visitors in search of a leisurely Portuguese lunch.

Famous Macanese egg tarts
The yellow-and-white chapel of St Francis Xavier dominates the mosaic village square, which is flanked by arcades of open-air restaurants shaded by banyan trees. There’s a history of piracy here as well as fishing, but the local farmers have decamped to mainland China, where they allegedly make an excellent living exporting produce back to their homeland.

Joao took us to lunch at Restaurante Espaço Lisboa, a traditional fisherman’s house in a tiny backstreet of Coloane village. The two Portuguese owners stopped at our table for a chat but were too busy fixing a leak in the fridge to sit down and have a drink with us – which was a shame, as we had a bottle of deliciously light vinho verde on the go.

House of Dancing Water
Lunch included a platter of ham and olives; garlic prawns served with garlic infused oil; bacalhau (cod) and potato; clams and pork sausage and, to finish, a freshly baked Portuguese egg tart.

On our way back to the ferry terminal, we made a whistlestop tour of The Venetian Macao, the world’s biggest casino. The experience was quite mind-boggling (shades of The Truman Show) and I wish we could have stayed to see Macau’s spectacular night-time shows, particularly The House of Dancing Water. Make sure you make time to see a bit more of Macau!

For more details, call (02) 9264 1488 in Australia

Address: Alameda Dr. Carlos d'Assumpção, nºs 335-341, Edifício "Hot Line", 12º andar, Macau
http://www.macautourism.gov.mo    e-mail: mgto@macautourism.gov.mo
Tel: +853 2831 5566 | Fax: +853 2851 0104 | Tourism Hotline: +853 2833 3000

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