14 things you must do in Macau

CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau () - February 8, 2009 - 12:00am

There is a common misconception that Macau is little more than a gambler’s paradise. But the former Portuguese colony, which Portugal handed back to China in 1999, is working hard to rectify that. The Macau Government Tourism Office would prefer we not even use the term “gambling.” They favor the more neutral euphemism “gaming.”

Since gaming in Macau has become controversial of late (the International Herald Tribune reported that Chinese government officials were gaming away the state’s money in Macau’s casinos — er, gaming centers), the tiny Chinese Special Administrative Region is more eager than ever to move away from its “Asian Vegas” image and recast itself as a city of culture rich in World Heritage Sites.

Though Macau never lacks for tourists — 30.2 million a year at last count, with 90 percent coming from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — they’ve set their sights on more diverse markets. Basically, today’s Macau can be anything you want it to be, from a MICE destination to a family-fun park to a gastronomic getaway.

As Macau celebrates the 10th anniversary of its handover this year, there’s no better time to go. The hotels are mind-blowing; the food choices, dizzying; and the things to see, do and shop for, ever-expanding.

1. Stay at a Las Vegas-style hotel. No one can blame you if you feel like you’ve landed in an episode of CSI, smack in the middle of the Vegas Strip. In an area the size of Makati CBD, there’s the Wynn, the Sands, the Venetian. We stayed at the MGM Grand Macau, which bears the modest title of “world-class luxury resort” but is actually an escapist fantasy created by Pansy Ho, daughter of famed taipan Stanley, and Las Vegas’s MGM Mirage. Situated on the waterfront in the Nam Van entertainment district, the hotel houses a skylit Portuguese plaza and two lobbies: one for regular visitors with original Dale Chihuly artworks; the other a Moorish-influenced VIP lobby with exclusive elevators leading to the oh-so-decadent Grand Suites. Each of the rooms has panoramic ocean or city views, wireless Internet access, 42” plasma TVs, and modern tubs enclosed in glass. Tip: Stay on weekdays because rates for all Macau hotels invariably go up during the weekends.

2. Eat at world-class gourmet restaurants. Discover Macanese food at the colonial Military Club or Michelin-starred Cantonese fare at MGM’s Imperial Court. But true foodies in the know head to Restaurante Fernando and O’Manel. Fernando, on Coloane Island, serves home-style Portuguese cooking in a rustic barnyard setting. Don’t miss specialties like the oven-roasted suckling pig with very tasty Macau fried rice, or the truly superior charcoal-grilled codfish soaked in olive oil and browned garlic. Fernando takes no reservations or credit cards, so bring cash and make sure to put your name on the list as soon as you arrive.

O’Manel, on the other hand, is on Taipa Island and a bit harder to find. Owner Manel Pena writes the day’s specials on a blackboard in the cozy dining area and serves customers himself; his wife does the cooking. Her Portuguese fare — all recipes originate from her and her mother — is unpretentious, reasonably priced and uniformly delicious. The grilled or boiled bacalhau is flaky, with just the right amount of saltiness. Also try the pata negra, clams with lemon sauce and excellent Portuguese chorizo, which is a very different flavor experience from its Spanish cousin. Manel, who likes dishing out personal insights along with the food, also has a carefully handpicked wine list. Best bang for the buck in Macau, according to gourmands who’ve eaten there.

3. Stroll in Senado Square. All roads lead to Senado Square, Macau’s main hub of European quaintness. Trade your stilettos for flats as you traverse the wave-patterned, stone mosaic pathways. Though the streets are now lined with rather generic boutiques, the Portuguese buildings are charming and you can light a candle at St. Dominic’s Church, a well-preserved example of 17th-century baroque architecture.

4. Shop at The Venetian and The Four Seasons. What you can’t find shopping at Senado Square you will find in the arcades of these two hotels on the Cotai Strip — the Venetian notable for its size and selection (330 shops, from Duty Free Americas to Zara); the Four Seasons for its luxury brands (from Yves Saint Laurent to Viktor & Rolf). Even better, the two hotels are connected. Those who prefer a department-store setting should check out New Yaohan, with its reasonably priced goods and spree-inducing grocery on the top floor.

5. Loiter in the lobby of the Grand Lisboa. Stanley Ho is a fascinating icon both in and out of Macau. Get a sense of the man behind the myth in his hotel, the Grand Lisboa, the lotus-shaped landmark that dominates the Macau skyline. In the lobby you’ll find esoteric pieces from his collection like ivory tusks and jade boulders carved into miniature tableaux, humongous gemstones, and other curiosities. We guarantee you’ll seek out what other marvels are on offer. If you can’t stay in the roulette-inspired rooms outfitted in red and black, you can eat at The 8, a Cantonese restaurant of such fabulous design the food seems almost secondary. We hear it’s good, though, with over 50 kinds of dim sum for lunch.

6. Take a picture at the ruins of St. Paul. Before the Grand Lisboa came along Macau’s landmark was St. Paul’s, the first home of the Jesuits in China. Destroyed by a fire in 1835, no one knows why the church was never rebuilt. On the façade, however, you’ll find the history of Christianity in Asia writ in symbols like Japanese chrysanthemums and passages from the Bible in Chinese.

7. Indulge in the Six Senses Spa at the MGM Grand Hotel. There are spas and then there’s the Six Senses Spa, which we had no time to try but looked heavenly nonetheless, with its Experience Showers, Floatation Pool (which has enough salt content to mimic the Dead Sea) and Snow Room (Snow actually falls here. You can pack a good snowball or just cool off after a sauna or steam). Their 80-minute Sensory Journey looks tempting.

8. Don’t miss the many entertainments at The Venetian. Foremost of these is Cirque du Soleil’s Zaia — there’s not a bad seat in the house as this aerial ballet takes place above the audience’s heads. Another attraction is the gondola rides: For about P600 you are rowed through the romantic indoor Grand Canal, with your gondolier serenading you in Italian. If you can’t get to Venice, this is the next best thing. The Venetian is also a fount of free entertainment. Shows are held daily, four times a day, in St. Mark’s Square, featuring many of our Pinoy theater talents in lavishly costumed song-and-dance numbers.

9. Taste the best egg tarts at Lord Stow’s on Coloane. Lord Stow’s originated from a humble outpost on Coloane Island, which is closer to the airport than to downtown Macau. Don’t be fooled by the imitators: in these superior Portuguese egg tarts, the custard is airy and not too sweet, encased in an ultra-flaky crust. Locals also recommend Pasteleria Ko Kei, which is located more centrally, but Lord Stow’s can deliver its treats in boxes of eight or 12 directly to the airport, all the better for you to take home.

10. Take home Macau’s most affordable pasalubong: snacks. Macau’s best souvenirs are edible. Aside from egg tarts, this Cantonese-dominated region also specializes in almond cookies, peanut candies and cured pork products. You can find the best of these down the street from St. Paul, on Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, also known as San Ma Lo. Various “snack streets” also radiate from Taipa Village — score some pork chop buns, egg rolls and roasted meat slices along with a dose of history.

11. Get your vertiginous thrills at Macau Tower. Not just an observation point, Macau Tower is Extreme Thrills Central. You can attempt the world’s highest bungee jump (at 233 meters), or, even more novel, try “skywalking.” For MOP$388 (around P2,400), you can sit or stroll along the tower’s transparent outer rim tethered to nothing but a harness. The less adventurous souls among us can witness the freefalling bodies — drink in trembling hand — from the safety of the revolving restaurant.

12. Savor the old architecture. Those charmed by the Old World elegance of Senado Square should also visit Lou Kau Mansion, a World Heritage Site located in Macau’s historic center, and the island of Taipa. Along the waterfront, shaded by banyan trees, a row of green and white houses seems frozen in time. In the early 20th century Macanese families and local administrators made their homes here. Once they fell into vacancy and disrepair, Macau’s government bought and restored them, filling their insides with museums about the period. The location is so evocative it’s now a favorite set for filmmakers.

13. Do the amusement park or have a drink at Macau Fisherman’s Wharf. Macau’s version of Sentosa, Fisherman’s Wharf is an integrated development built around three themes: food, fun, and shopping. “Fun” includes an amusement park with replicas of the Roman Colosseum, Aladdin’s Fort and a multi-cratered volcano that kids will enjoy. Adults can have their fun, meanwhile, at the various gaming, dining and shopping facilities.

14. Party like a rock star at the MGM. As I mentioned above, there’s a whole other side to Macau hotels — a secret side privy only to celebrities and the super-rich. MGM’S dedicated VIP elevator took us to the grandest of the Grand Suites, which was replete with the usual luxurious and elegant appointments, of course. But our eyes popped at the master bathroom, an open-plan affair with oversized tub and the piece de resistance, an “experience” shower with alcove benches that can accommodate up to 10 people. With that kind of rock-star decadence, trashing the furniture is sure to become an afterthought. (We overheard that Gael Garcia Bernal has already indulged.)

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For more information, contact the Macau Government Tourism Office, Suite 11-D, Valero Tower, 122 Valero St., Salcedo Village, Makati City, at 812-2595 and 813-0947, e-mail mgtophil@info.com.ph or visit www.macautourism.gov.mo

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