Travel: The marvel of Macau

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Macau, a European colony until 1999.

Senado Square in Macau. Picture PA Photo.
Senado Square in Macau. Picture PA Photo.

Andy Welch explores Hong Kong’s neighbouring island, where east meets west.

It’s hard to know what to expect from Macau.

A former Portuguese colony from the 16th century, it was the last European colony in Asia before being handed back to China in 1999.

Made up of a peninsula and two small islands, Macau’s one of two special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China, along with Hong Kong. That history gives the place a unique feel.

The official language is Portuguese, although the vast majority of the 570,000 people who live here don’t speak it. Cantonese is the mother tongue for around 90% of the Macanese population, while just 3% of residents are Macanese by birth, with Thai, Filipino, British, American and Australian making up much of the rest of the population.

Architecturally, too, there’s a real mix. Many buildings, particularly those around the Leal Senado building - the headquarters of the Municipal Council Of Macau - in Senado Square, wouldn’t look out of place in Lisbon.

Meanwhile, the new high-rise glass and steel buildings couldn’t be anywhere other than a booming, forward-looking Asian country. Macau’s an impressive-looking place now, but in 10 years’ time, it’ll be unrecognisable.

Macau’s boom is down to the island’s thriving casino trade. The Sands was the first of the Las Vegas giants to enter the new market, opening in 2004 and costing more than 240million US dollars to build. Business was so good that the mortgage was repaid within a year.

It’s little wonder that 32 more casinos have since popped up, including the Wynn, virtually a brick-for-brick copy of the Wynn in Vegas, MGM and the Venetian, which, on floor space, is currently the sixth-biggest building in the world and houses a complete underground canal network with singing gondoliers and a giant shopping centre.

Most famous of all is the Casino Lisboa which can be seen from all over Macau. At night, when the unusual upturned wine bottle-shape building is illuminated, it looks spectacular.

Gambling currently accounts for 70% of the Macanese government’s income, and expansion, often at the hands of Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho and family, is everywhere, whether it’s new roads, hotels, casinos, or even a Hollywood-style film studio complex on Coloane (expected to be finished within four years).

Each casino, as in Vegas, houses a string of restaurants, and the dim sum served at the Wynn’s are second to none, while the buffet at Rossio in the MGM is a match for even the hungriest of diners.

If you’re after Portuguese cuisine, Antonio in Taipa Village is your best bet, and each course comes complete with a song from a waiter. If you’re lucky, the charismatic chef might even come out to make crepe suzettes at your table, while Cafe Litoral is a good example of Macanese food; a collection of the tastes, spices and ingredients sailors picked up along the way to Macau from the west, so there are nods to European, Asian and African dishes, and therefore something for most tastes.

With so many casinos around, there is, of course, no shortage of high-end hotels to stay at. The Sofitel is one; luxurious and spacious with a great restaurant and bars. One of which, quite inexplicably, features a Michael Jackson shrine complete with memorabilia, statues of The King Of Pop and a stereo that plays nothing but his music.

The Mandarin Oriental’s another high-end hotel, and possibly the only one at this level in Macau that doesn’t have an on-site casino.

But there’s more to Macau than food and gambling. You have to really want to find it, but it’s there.

Your first port of call should be the Giant Panda Pavilion at the Saec Pai Van Park on Coloane, where you can get pretty close to Kai Kai and Xin Xin. It’s very easy to spend hours in there, just watching the two beautiful creatures rolling around and eating eucalyptus.

There’s also a monkey enclosure, although this is less impressive. While you’re on Coloane, make a trip to Lord Stow’s Bakery, which sells the most delicious egg tarts you’re ever likely to taste.

History, particularly naval history, is a big deal in Macau too, and there are several cemeteries to visit. The Old Protestant Cemetery was recently listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO, while the Catholic cemetery is a gothic and eerie place to visit, yet strangely calming amid the crazy Macau traffic.

Early birds should visit the quayside market at 7am, where you can watch local traders buying the fresh flowers that have been brought over from the mainland, ready to be taken to shops, stalls and hotels all over Macau.

Visit the A-Ma Temple nearby, where locals worship the seafarers’ goddess and pray for prosperity. It’s worth it just to smell the incense in there.

Travellers should avoid July and August, traditionally the hottest, most humid months in Macau. Temperatures topped 40 degrees when we were there in late July, while humidity was approaching 90%, giving anywhere but icy air-conditioned cars, hotels and malls the feeling of hot soup.

An umbrella is a must too. The downpours might not last long but the rain really comes down when it does.

Thrill-seekers should visit the AJ Hackett facility at the top of the Macau Tower. Here, you can have a go on the Sky Walk X, which will have you walking around a 3ft-wide platform at the top of the 1,100ft-tall tower.

If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can bungee jump from the top, or if you simply don’t fear anything, there’s the Tower Climb, which involves a ladder climb to the very, very top of the building.

If you like keeping your feet on the ground and letting others take the risks, the Grand Prix museum is worth an hour or two of your time, with some beautiful racing cars to ogle, and a few simulators to try out yourself. The Macau Grand Prix is a street circuit not unlike Monaco’s F1 course, and has a proud 50-year history which has attracted some of the biggest names in motor racing, including Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.

Cars driven by both are on display at the museum, which also has in its basement, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, a wine museum complete with tasting sessions.

Just an hour on the ferry from Hong Kong, it would make for a great two-day detour in a trip to Hong Kong. A unique and slightly peculiar destination, it’s like nowhere else in this part of the world.

Travel facts - Macau

:: Andy Welch was a guest of the Macau tourist board. Visit www.macautourism.gov.mo

:: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.co.uk) flies from London to Hong Kong four times a day. Fares start from £649 in economy including taxes and charges.

:: Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16 (www.sofitelmacau.com) offers rooms from £115 per night.