So I’m not going to harp on about Hong Kong this week, no, this week I’m going to chat about Macau (Hong Kong’s lovely but lesser-known neighbour).
I’ve always felt a bit sorry for poor little Macau, so long outshone by its glittery big sister, Hong Kong, and now rather unfairly compared to Las Vegas, it always seems to be trapped in between identities and often overlooked. And that’s a real shame as it’s such an interesting wee place and one that I have always loved to visit. Lying just forty miles or an hour away by ferry from Hong Kong, like its SAR sibling Macau also has an ancient seafaring and trading history. For over four hundred years it operated as a distant player in Portugal’s colonial empire and although it was handed back to China in 1999, the Portuguese influence remains in a land imprinted with churches and cathedrals, fortresses and fountains, peaceful gardens and grand civic squares. There’s also distinctly laid-back vibe about Macau, particularly when compared to high-octane Hong Kong and then there’s the food – oh the food, an amazing combination of East and West – Macau has been doing fusion cuisine for hundreds of years before it was fashionable.
The Macau of my childhood visits was a green and lazy place – a place where pedicabs where still a legitimate form of transport and whole days were spent eating Portuguese treats in seaside restaurants – but this sleepy scene is fading fast. For better or worse, Macau is now waking up and is being loudly hailed as the Las Vegas of the East. Casinos have always been part of Macau’s draw (gambling is illegal in Hong Kong and China) but when the gaming industry opened up to foreign investment in 2002 it wasn’t long before glamorous big names like The Venetian and MGM Grand set out their stalls and visitor numbers quadrupled. Now Macau is booming like never before, the mainland Chinese and their new money have arrived, Louis Vuittons are being built at an astonishing rate and big name celebrities have started coming to town – Roger Federer, Celine Dion, Beyonce and Bond Girl, Michelle Yeoh, are just a few of the names who have dropped by of late. Eager (and a little bit anxious) to see the new developments, I popped over for a couple of days.
Following two fun-filled, absolutely manic weeks in Hong Kong I couldn’t wait to take it down a notch with a trip to Macau. I wanted serenity. I wanted seclusion. I wanted some sleep. So, I chose to stay at the Mandarin Oriental, which like its Las Vegas sibling has eschewed gaming in favour of an intimate setting and seamless service.
As soon as I arrived at the small yet glamorous double-height lobby, I knew I had made the right hotel choice. Check-in happened in the blink of an eye and before we knew it my husband and I were happily ensconced in a golden-toned corner suite overlooking the bay. It was wonderfully spacious with a super-king size bed, deliciously deep chairs and a table overflowing with exotic fruits, and the cherry on the cake, a stunning spa bathroom stocked with super-sized Aromatherapy Associates products. It was quickly apparent that we weren’t going anywhere for the night, the room was far too luxurious to leave, the Macanese Dragon experience at The Spa too tempting and food on offer at Vida Rica sounded amazing.
Having taken full advantage of all that the Mandarin had to offer, we awoke the next morning refreshed and ready to explore. It had been hard for me to tell exactly where the hotel was when we checked-in (so much of the land has been reclaimed) but I quickly got my bearings when I discovered the old Casino Lisboa round the corner. This is not a building that is easy to forget; built by one of the world’s richest men, Dr. Stanley Ho, its eccentric orange-coloured circular structures make up one of the oldest- and still one of the most popular – resorts in the city. Nowadays it’s flanked by the new Grand Lisboa, an equally mad mega-structure shaped like a great big golden lotus – it’s a bit mental, and very Macau, and I have to say I quite liked this quirky new addition.
We carried on walking towards the old town, past a lonesome row of pedicabs (now purely a tourist thing), through bustling crowds and busy intersections. There was the odd shiny new build amongst the rather run-down 1950s architecture but it was pretty much as I remembered it – a little bit crumbly and chaotic but with charm. At the end of the road, the black and white cobblestones signalled our entry into Senado Square. Thankfully this uncannily pretty part of town has been preserved despite the new developments (and will l remained so having been granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005) and the pastel-coloured churches and Baroque building remain. A perfectly lovely morning ensued wandering around the narrow hilly streets that surround the Ruins of St. Paul’s with the occasional sigh-filled break in the shade of banyan tree.
After an alfresco lunch (involving Macau’s famous custard tarts) we headed over to the other side of town to check out the new casino complexes. This side of the city is definitely more fascinating that fun at this point. It’s kind of like Las Vegas meets the Twilight Zone. The casinos, malls and new Cotai Strip development are as awe-inspiring and as well set-up as anything you would find Stateside but the atmosphere is seriously subdued.
Despite the fact the Macau pulls in four times the revenue of its American counterpart, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of people there at the moment; the restaurants appear to have more Michelin stars than patrons, the shop assistants look out forlornly for customers and the Chinese, who take their gambling very seriously indeed, prefer to game in private rooms leaving the casino floor rather lonely. I think though that it’s very much a case of “If we build it, they will come” and I have no doubt that it won’t be long before Macau’s incredible resorts are bursting at the seams. And perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Macau takes a more low-key approach – we don’t really want another Vegas do we? This tiny region’s appeal has always lain in its difference and my hope for the future is that Macau always remembers that.
Until next time meu amigo!
See the Macau Tourist Board for more information at www.macautourism.gov.mo
Mandarin Oriental, Macau, Tel: 853 8805 8888; www.mandarinoriental.com/macau; Luxury breaks from £175
Finnair flies daily from Manchester and London Heathrow to Hong Kong.
The below fares are ‘starting from’ return fares and include taxes and service fees:
Manchester-Hong Kong: Business class: £2326.00 Business class Campaign for Mid Week travel: £2076.00 Economy class: £667.00
London LHR-Hong Kong: Business class: £2321.00 Business class Campaign for Mid Week travel: £2067.00 Economy class: £658.00
For more information call 0870 2414411 or visit www.finnair.com . For up to date offers and news please follow us on twitter @finnairuk. Finnair also have daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai in China. Finnair began flights to new destination Chongqing, China in May 2012. Finnair also fly to 7 other Asian cities too in Singapore, Japan, Korea, India and Thailand.