Sometimes, the lights are so bright you don’t see the destination. Sometimes, you don’t even think it’s a real place. That seems to have been the fate of the Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. When you’re the number one gambling destination in the world by revenue, it’s easy for visitors to be dazzled by the clink of casino counters and the whirr of roulette tables—not to mention hotel lobby access by cable car—and miss the other stuff. And that’s a shame because, beyond the glitz, Macao is a charming old-world destination, offering a generous mix of history, heritage, culture and cuisine, and reassuringly scruffy around the edges.
However, on a recent jaunt to Macao, I did stay in a casino-hotel; because, in Macao, how can you not? It was new-kid-on-the-block MGM Cotai, its plush rooms complemented by fine-dining restaurants and an impressive collection of eclectic art spread across the property. It sits on the Cotai Strip, an ambitious land reclamation project which connects the two islands at either end of it—Coloane and Taipa—and from which it derives its name.
Before we explored the laidback charms of Coloane and Taipa though, we took our seats at the House of Dancing Water, a high-octane show involving gymnastics, dance, dazzling costumes, motorbikes, special effects and, of course, loads of water. It took five years of development and two years of rehearsals, with production investment running into US$250 million. The stunning production has become the centerpiece of Cotai’s entertainment scene and is, quite possibly, one of the most innovative productions being staged anywhere in the world.
It’s a great idea to time your Macao trip to coincide with one of their local festivals. I visited around the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest festival celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. There’s no harvest on Macao anymore, but the festival is still celebrated with much gusto. Under a watchful full moon, the St Lazarus District comes alive with open-air parties and calligraphy sessions, and the Macanese take over the streets, swaying homemade lanterns shaped like the animal of that particular Chinese year. Some festivities converge at the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, built in 1906 by a local merchant and styled on the Suzhou Gardens.
Macao was belying all my expectations, and I couldn’t have been happier. Next morning went by in a terrifying but thoroughly enjoyable skywalk around the perimeter of the Macau Tower (no handrail!), a dizzying 233m above the ground. If you’re so inclined, they also offer the highest commercial bungy jump in the world. After a peek at the Unesco World Heritage ruins of St Paul’s, we had lunch at Furu Furu, a Japanese ramen joint not far from there. The owner was nice enough to show us around the revitalised neighbourhood afterwards, the lanes now home to stylish boutiques and coffee shops, and some interesting graffiti. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also an excuse for one of the most spectacular fireworks displays of the year. That night we returned to the Macau Tower for dinner at 360° Café, a revolving restaurant with the best views of the fireworks, and a buffet so sumptuous, it was giving the pyrotechnics some strong competition.
Next day, we scoped out the local markets and teahouses in the Three Lamps District, a great window into Macanese life (although some in our group may have baulked at the pigs’ heads on display at the local wet market or at the tortoise shell jelly at the herbal medicine shop). The crowded tenements reminded me strongly of Calcutta, which, if you know me, is the biggest compliment that can be paid to a place.
And then it was off to scenic Taipa for lunch at the legendary Tai Lei Loi Kei pork chop bun shop, where we were engulfed by the warmth of our hosts. They welcomed us into their kitchen where one could see exactly how the buns were baked and the pork chops fried in improbably large vats of oil. The pork chop bun is an iconic Macanese dish, deceptive in its simplicity. Afterwards, stuffed to our gills, we dawdled around the old shops, where one can pick up Macao’s famed almond cakes and phoenix egg rolls. A short walk up a hill and then down brought us to the Taipa Houses-Museum, a complex of five colonial houses built in 1921 that were once by the sea but, after the reclamation, sit next to a quiet lake. Each house has been done up differently and offers a glimpse of life in the Portuguese era. On the way back we ran into a couple of Chinese temples. The shrines, thick with smoke from incense sticks, were calm and welcoming. True enthusiasts can pick up a temple guide and checklist at any of the temples, and then get it stamped at every temple they visit.
If the pork chop bun was the star of Taipa, then the Portuguese egg tart at Lord Stow’s Bakery lords it over the waterfront village of Coloane. Once you’ve managed to tear yourself away from watching the lady who assembles the tart boxes with rare precision, you’ll want to order a dozen or two. Coloane is also home to the 1928-built Chapel of St Francis Xavier, definitely worth a peek.
Another unusual, and hardly visited, sight is the Handover Gifts Museum of Macao. You can spend a quiet hour or two here, admiring the exquisite and opulent gifts that were sent over by the different provinces of China when the Portuguese handed Macao back to China.
One of the hottest events on the Macao calendar is the Grand Prix, first held here in 1954. If you want to get a sense of what it’s like to race down Macao’s narrow streets in the premier race of the year—but not kill anyone in the process—you can challenge fellow opponents, virtually, at the Ponte 16 G racing simulation. Let me warn you: it’s very realistic and it’s very addictive.
In Macao, the experiences and surprises just kept coming. I’ll always remember it as the place where I saw my first flamingoes; and, of course, pandas, both giant and red.
Every wise traveller likes to leave something for next time. When it comes to Macao, for me it’s nature, the plethora of hiking trails, beaches, wetlands and birdlife. The Cotai Strip may be one sort of wild, but Macao can be way wilder than that.
To get to Macao, you have to fly into Hong Kong and then take a high-speed ferry to the Macao Ferry Terminal. On arrival, you’ll get a 30-day gratis visa. The Venetian Macao (from HKD 1,400; venetianmacao.com) remains popular with Indians. But do give the nice and new MGM Cotai (from HKD 1,500; mgm.mo/en/cotai) a chance. You won’t be disappointed. Legend Palace (from MOP 1,305; legendpalace.com.mo) is another promising new property. It’s classic luxury and boasts a stunning Cantonese restaurant.