Culture shock in Macao
Macau, or Macao, might be small but it packs a real punch as a tourism hotspot
My first visit to Macao was long before it was reabsorbed into China in 1999. Back then, we went to a viewpoint in the Portuguese enclave to look across the short distance across to the then-closed world of the Middle Kingdom.
Today, Macao is part of China, but remains unique. Macao is small enough that it’s easy to see in a few days.
It consists of a peninsula and some islands (less than 30 sq. km in all) at the mouth of the Pearl River, southwest of Hong Kong. Like its neighbour, it’s an autonomous part of China: it was a Portuguese enclave for almost 450 years until it reverted to China two years after Hong Kong.
It’s now a Special Administrative Region, so it retains its own legal system and has its own currency (the pataca) and locals hold Macao passports.
There are several reasons visitors are drawn to Macao. The best known is to gamble: Macao is several times larger than Las Vegas in terms of gambling revenue.
Unlike Nevada, the gaming takes place behind closed doors so it doesn’t appear as ubiquitous as on the Vegas Strip and therefore may be better suited to the non-gambler who just wishes to use the facilities that casinos present.
Other drawcards for the many other visitors include the chance to explore Macao’s beguiling past as a cultural melting pot – and to eat the unique cuisine that has come about from melding diverse elements from China and Europe.
In both these areas it certainly does not disappoint. While almost all of Macao’s 650,000 population is Han Chinese and only two per cent are Portuguese, there’s still a strong Portuguese influence across Macao.
That’s not only in the signage and the architecture, but also in the food.
Marco Polo is credited with returning to Europe to report on the great wealth and culture of China. From the 16th century, Macao and Hong Kong were the sole trading links between China and the world. Britain dealt through Hong Kong and Portugal through Macao.
Both trading territories grew to be fabulously rich – Macao still has one of highest levels of wealth in the world.
In 2005, the whole historic centre of Macao was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list. No wonder it has appeared as the backdrop in many movies: Indiana Jones, James Bond and Johnny English have all visited.
A short walk from the port takes you past the building where Ian Fleming met the role model for Goldfinger and on to Senado (or Senate) Square with its distinctive wave-patterned mosaic.
The narrow, meandering pedestrian way leads past innumerable shops and food stores to the facade of St Paul’s Church, first built in 1580 and destroyed by fire in 1835.
The church is Macao’s most notable historic feature, and the richly Italianate structure is perched, picturesquely, at the top of a permanently crowded set of stone stairs.
The best viewpoint over the city is from the top of the 338 m Macao Tower where there are observation decks and restaurants plus several adventure activities.
If you’re really brave you can take the highest commercial bungy jump in the world. From up here, you can see that Macao remains a rather disjointed destination.
There’s old Macao at the tip of the peninsula from where a couple of long bridges lead to Cotai where most of the casinos are located. Cotai is effectively dehydrated ocean: much landfill has been added to fill in the area between Taipa and Coloane islands.
Further out lies relatively undeveloped Coloane, invariably referred to as ‘Macao’s lungs’ where you’ll find the cleverly designed Macao Giant Panda Pavilion where visitors can see giant pandas living in close to their natural habitat.
Macao International Airport lies offshore on more reclaimed land. Looming over all, mainland China is as close as an adjoining suburb.
Choosing accommodation in Macao comes down to why you’re here. If it’s for history you should stay on the peninsula, the old part of town.
For those seeking absolute luxury, the Sofitel at Ponte 16 is excellent. If you’d like to stay within history, there’s the boutique 12-room Pousada de Sao Tiago built inside a 17th century Portuguese fortress.
The casino strip on Cotai features some truly monumental hotels. The 3000-room Venetian Macao has a replica of Venice’s Campanile Tower at the front. Some 330 luxury brand shops (sorry, Shoppes at Venetian) are built around an indoor canal where you can take a gondola ride.
The newer 3000-room Parisian Macao next door has a half-sized Eiffel Tower at the front. Down the road, the new 1700-room Wynn Palace offers a cable-car ride around an artificial lake with fountains and a light show. It’s all over-the-top but good fun.
Food and culture
While Macao has a typically bustling Chinese street scene, it operates at an altogether slower pace than Hong Kong or the big cities of China. So, in a way, it feels like a welcome step back in time.
The blending of Portuguese and Chinese culture has permeated the food scene, too. In Iberian unity there’s a Spanish influence, too, and they all come together to form Macanese cuisine, which makes it a very special destination for foodies.
For Macanese cuisine, visit Restaurante Litoral just around the corner from the A-Ma Temple in charming Macao Old Town. The restaurant is decorated in Portuguese style and has a long history in hospitality: a featured dish is spicy African chicken from a fusion of Portuguese colonies worldwide.
The delightfully light Macao Portuguese egg tart is a lighter variation on the original Portuguese pastry. Visit Lord Stow’s Bakery in the rustic fishing community of Coloane Village, where an Englishman, the late Andrew Stow, melded English and Portuguese egg tart recipes.
Wynn Palace’s Wing Lei Palace serves Cantonese dishes at a superb level of taste and presentation. While the decor is so opulent that it’s rather off-putting, the cuisine is impressive, both in taste and presentation.
Taipa Village boasts traditional narrow lanes and cobbled streets. It’s where you’ll find Antonio Macao, a Portuguese restaurant that is well regarded by locals and critics alike.
The wines and many of the ingredients are imported from Portugal and you’ll find dining here a fun night of good food and wine. For the traveller seeking an unusual destination, Macao can be a destination in itself or the perfect add-on to a trip to Hong Kong or mainland China.
One can alternate between the transposed world wonders of the Cotai casinos to the strong traces of the colony’s trading days downtown. The food alone is reason enough to plan a Macao holiday. •
Photography David McGonigal
• Cathy Pacific flies regularly from most Australian capital cities to Hong Kong. If your ticket or Frequent Flyer status allows you lounge access, check out the airline’s Pier Business Lounge, which is one of the world’s most stylish. cathaypacific.com
• There’s a 70-minute ferry connection from Hong Kong Airport’s SkyPier directly to Macao. turbojet.com.hk/en
When to go
Macao’s rainy season is April to October, with July to September the monsoon season. Mid-October to December (autumn into winter) is regarded as the ideal time to visit. Macao is mainly a weekend destination so you’ll find good mid-week deals. Hong Kong is more a business destination so it can be (relatively) quiet – and cheaper – at weekends.
Where to stay
• Sofitel at Ponte 16: sofitelmacau.com/en
• Pousada de Sao Tiago: saotiago.com.mo
• Venetian Macao: venetianmacao.com
• The Parisian Macao: parisianmacao.com
• Wynn Palace: wynnpalace.com