It's not Vegas, it's Macau
|Photo gallery: Macau Travel|
By Trevor Ranges
Special to The Advertiser
By Trevor Ranges
They say "winning isn't everything," but it sure helps. Especially when it's raining in Macau, where your rainy-day options are basically limited to gambling and shopping. (And even shopping is a whole lot more fun after scoring big on the tables.)
Fortunately, in light of the billon-dollar towering testaments to the house edge, this is rapidly changing. Macau is undergoing a 21st-century gold rushlike boom of popularity and development. Las Vegasification, if you will. It seems the Portuguese had hardly ceded control back to China in 1999 when a new brand of colonists arrived: swashbuckling hoteliers like Steve Wynn and the Las Vegas Sands Corp.
If neon lights and choreographed pyrotechnics are the hallmark illumination in Las Vegas, towering forests of spot-lit cranes and the flare of welder's guns are present-day Macau's. The Portuguese may have contributed some beautiful baroque architecture and cobblestone streets to their former colony, but the new-venture colonists are quickly leaving their own indelible mark on the city's skyline.
Anchored by the Venetian Hotel, the second-largest building in the world, the Cotai Strip, an area of reclaimed land between the islands of Taipa and Coloane, will be home to a flashy five-star promenade of resort-casino properties including the Four Seasons, Sheraton, Shangri-La, Hilton, Conrad and Raffles. After completion in the middle of 2009, the casinos and entertainment venues at each will be joined by the Hard Rock Hotel and Playboy Club, which should contribute some more fun, and perhaps a little sin, to a nightlife that is presently limited to the Venetian arena's occasional exhibition NBA games and Black Eyed Peas concerts, and its theater features performances by Cirque du Soleil.
BIG OPERATORS FROM NEVADA UP THE ANTE IN PURSUIT OF CHINA TRADE
Although only recently "discovered" by Western casino operators, Macau has already surpassed Las Vegas as the city with the most money wagered: nearly $7 billion in 2007.
Until completion of the Cotai Strip in 2009, current home of the largest gaming floor in the world at the Venetian Hotel, downtown Macau reigns: While the locally owned Lisboa has the flashiest-looking downtown casino, several Las Vegas-affiliated properties have upped the ante in sophistication and style, making gambling more attractive and accessible to Westerners.
At the Wynn Macau, contemporary jazz meanders through the air of the interconnected and intimate gaming rooms, where floral print carpets, small trees, and ceiling fans contribute to an oasis of tropical elegance befitting the humid Macau climate. The chic atmosphere is particularly popular with a younger clientele who keep the hotel at regular capacity.
The lobby of the MGM features Salvador Dali paintings behind the front desk and a Dali sculpture in the main foyer. Beyond the lobby, a towering atrium allows natural sunlight to illuminate an authentic Portuguese stone floor and the facades of "buildings" to either side, which house various fine-dining restaurants. Sadly, the casino itself is nothing special: dark, smoky and low-ceilinged.
The multitiered gaming rooms of the Sands, the first Las Vegas operation to open its doors in Macau, hosts a predominately Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong clientele. In fact, all the casinos share this gambling demographic. Consequently, more than 50 percent of the tables are occupied by Chinese games of luck such as fan tan, a game in which players wager on the number of plastic buttons that are randomly scooped under a cup, and yee hah hai, in which wagers are placed against the outcome of three rolled dice. Pai gow, a game of Chinese dominoes, is also popular; particularly with Hong Kong day-trippers. The Sands provides free shuttle service to its sister property on Taipa Island, the Venetian, which has the finest casino of the lot.
At the Venetian's expansive four-in-one casino, which features restaurants and live music within its gaming area, the few visiting foreigners that have penetrated the smoky haze surrounding Chinese gamers and onlookers can typically be found at the blackjack tables, found in all the Western-operated casinos, or playing Caribbean stud poker. Dealers speak English well, and your fellow Chinese gamers are likely to wish you a friendly "Jok lei sao fong sone!" ("Good luck!")
The Venetian Macau needs its own travel guidebook. Perhaps even its own tour guides.
That said, its 12,000 staff, who hail from 56 countries, are exceptionally friendly and helpful. Still, this is the second-largest building in the world. It cost billions of dollars to build, contains millions of square feet of retail space and convention/meeting rooms, and welcomed its one-millionth visitor less than one month after it opened. The guidebook should advise: "Bring your GPS and a leash for your loved ones. There are a number of ways to get lost in the Venetian, not least of which is in the excitement of the world's largest gaming floor."
The Venetian Macau satisfies the needs of almost any guest. Families enjoy the minstrels and musicians performing on the cobblestone boulevards of the Grand Canal Shoppes, where shopaholics splurge in 350 boutiques and couples are ferried along winding canals by aria-singing gondoliers. History and architecture enthusiasts can wander the dozens of replicated ancient buildings that form the hotel's exterior, within which sports enthusiasts watch tennis matches, music fans enjoy international acts like the Police, and tens of thousands of conventioneers meet, eat and then catch a show at Cirque du Soleil.
A grander version of its sister property in Las Vegas, the Venetian Macau is a spectacular sight and outstanding experience. Five-star accommodation ranges from its entry-level suites: multilevel rooms with elegant semi-canopy beds, and living rooms with comfortable sofa seating, work desks and tables for enjoying in-room meals such as Wagyu steak and eggs, to the Piazza club: a wing reserved for high rollers, where two- and three-bedrooms suites feature their own karaoke lounges, massage beds and private terraces, with swimming pools and outdoor dining tables.
As it stands, the nightlife is somewhat limited. There is a pub where you can watch sporting events, a bar where some subdued dancing may occasionally occur, and a cocktail lounge within the casino where live bands perform, but otherwise the scene is, for the time being, oriented towards gambling. However, occasional events in the arena, a heavyweight title fight in January and a rock concert by the Police in February are expanding this month to nightly performances by Cirque du Soleil.
The fusion of Old World and New World, historical and commercial, European and Asian, is visible throughout Macau.
Enjoy panoramic perspectives of this eclectic city either after a cable-car ride to the 350-year-old Guia Fortress, atop the highest point on Macau, or during a skywalk outside Macau Tower, the 10th-tallest spire in the world. From either vantage point, you will notice neighborhoods where worlds collide and combine.
Old World charm meets nouveaux capitalism along the centuries-old stone mosaic plaza and meandering cobblestone alleyways leading away from Senado Square. The waving stone courtyard runs from the square to the ruins of St. Paul's, built in the early 1600s by Japanese Christian stonemasons. Along the way, colorful Portuguese buildings include the former Loyal Senate; the Holy House of Mercy, the longest running charity organization in China; and St. Dominic's Church, the epitome of Portuguese baroque architecture.
More increasingly, though, the buildings are occupied by boutiques from upstart clothing companies, whose items are manufactured in nearby Chinese factories and sold for perpetually run sale prices, and brand-name outfitters, such as Quiksilver. Wander the side streets further and you will discover shops specializing in authentic antiques and fine reproductions. However, the most interesting product that embodied the East-meets-West flavor of Senado Square was a Chinese version of the game Monopoly, on sale at a Chinese shop beside a 7-Eleven.
Dining in Macau is a delectable experience; the former colony having benefited from an influx of spices and culinary influences brought by the Portuguese from all corners of the world. African, South American and Indian ingredients meld with Chinese ones to create a unique Macanese cuisine. While many Portuguese restaurants serve dishes that feature this combination of styles, there are strictly Cantonese restaurants offering regional dishes, and of course, a number of eateries that serve dim sum.
For a quick bite, stop by Pastelaria Koi Kei, one of Macau's most renowned snack shops. No longer a simple street cart selling peanut brittle, this chain of take-away munchies serves up a variety of delicacies, including Portuguese egg tarts and dozens of sweet and spicy dried beef and pork jerky.
The best place to enjoy Macau's East-meets-West fusion cuisine is Fat Siu Lau. Tucked away along a back alley, across from Senado Square, this cozy little bistro has an Old World atmosphere and a longstanding reputation for fine cuisine (the signature recipe for pigeon is more than 100 years old). Other recommended dishes include curry crab, flavored with Asian spices, and zesty African chicken. The restaurant is run by the third and fourth generations of the founding family, so it's unsurprising that the entire staff produces and serves outstanding cuisine.
For more traditional Portuguese fare, queue up with locals and expats at Restorante Fernando at Hac Sa Beach. Pitchers of sangria and large portions of authentically flavored grilled Portuguese meat and seafood dishes are the draw. The ambiance is casual and homey, the decor brick walls and checkered tablecloths, and the service friendly and attentive. While the menu is in Chinese and Portuguese, there are picture menus for visitors that show whole suckling pig, prawns in clam sauce, and charcoal-grilled pork ribs, chicken or sardines. The owner is from the Azores, off the coast of Portugal, and has been satisfying guests, both on the outdoor patio bar and within the two dining rooms, since 1986.
Trevor Ranges is a freelance writer based in Bangkok. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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IF YOU GO ...
Language: While the official languages are Cantonese and Portuguese, English is fairly well spoken and understood within the tourism industry and government.
Currency: The pataca is the official currency of Macau, but Hong Kong dollars are widely accepted at par (although they are worth slightly more). Most casinos only accept Hong Kong dollars, though some do accept pataca at par on certain tables. Hong Kong dollars are more easily reconverted to U.S. dollars. $1 U.S. is worth 7.8 Hong Kong dollars or about 8 pataca.
Getting there: Direct flights are unavailable from Honolulu to Macau International Airport. Various air carriers can route flights through Seoul, Shanghai, Taipei or Beijing. However, the cheapest and most direct flights from the greatest variety of carriers are to Hong Kong.
From Hong Kong to Macau: Helicopter service between Macau and Hong Kong is via East Asia Airlines. Travel time is a mere 16 minutes, and fares average $280 (all prices with dollar signs in this report are U.S. dollar equivalents) each way. (www.heliexpress.com). Ferry service for the 40-mile route between Macau and Hong Kong is via high-speed jetfoils and catamarans that run 24/7. Boats from Hong Kong depart from the Shun Tak Centre at the Central waterfront. Prices range from $18 to $25 each way. Passengers should arrive at the boat terminal at least 30 minutes before departure for immigration formalities. Taxi from Chek Lap Kok (Hong Kong) Airport to Shun Tak Centre in Macau (30 to 45 minutes) cost approximately $45 to 65. Airport Express bus from Hong Kong Airport to Shun Tak is $12.50 each way and takes 23 minutes.
Getting around: The best way to get around Macau is via public bus or taxi. Air-conditioned busses serve the three islands inexpensively. Taxi fares are reasonable as well.
What to see/do: Senado Square and St. Dominic's Church, Central Peninsular Macau; take buses 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 16, 22, 25.
The Ruins of St. Paul's and Museum of Sacred Art, Senado Square, Central Peninsular Macau; take buses 2, 3, 3A, 5, 7, 8A, 10, 10A, 11, 18, 19, 21, 21A.
Holy House of Mercy, Senado Square, Central Peninsular Macau; take buses 2, 3, 3A, 5, 7, 8A, 10, 10A, 11, 18, 19, 21, 21A.
Guia Fortress, Central Peninsular Macau; take buses 6, 28C.
Macau Tower, Southern Peninsular Macau, Skywalk, $15-20; 853-2893-3339; http://macautower.com.mo; take buses 23, 32.
MGM Grand Macau, Avenida Dr. Sun Yat Sen NAPE, Macau; -853-8802-8888; www.mgmgrandmacau.com.
The Wynn Macau, Rua Cidade de Sintra NAPE, Macau; 853- 2888-9966; www.wynnmacau.com.
The Sands Casino Macau, Avenida da Amizade, Edf. 853- 2888-3388; http://sands.com.mo.
Where to stay: For luxury, Venetian Macau Resort Hotel, Estrada da Baia de N. Senhora da Esperanc, s/n The Cotai Strip, Taipa, Macao SAR, Peoples' Republic of China; 853-2882-8888; www.venetianmacau.com. Medium-priced: Riviera Hotel Macau, Rua Comendador Kou Ho Neng, Macau. Budget: Best Western Taipa, Cotai Estrada Governador Nobre Carvalho No. 822, Taipa, Macau, 853- 2882-1666, www.bestwestern.com.
Where to eat: Pricey Restaurante Fat Siu Lau, noon to 11 p.m. daily, Rua da Felicidade No.64, Macau 853-2857 3580 or 853-2857 35, http://fatsiulau.com.mo. Medium-priced Restaurante Fernando, noon to 9:30 p.m., Praia de Hac Sa, 9, Colôane, 853-28882264, 853-28882531 (no credit cards or reservations accepted). On the cheap Pastelaria Koi Ke, Rua Felcidade 70-72, R/C, Macau, 853-938102, www.koikei.com.
Safety and health concerns: Tap water in Macau is potable; however bottled water is inexpensive and easily available, and may avert diarrhea caused by unfamiliar bacteria.
While good medical care is available in major Macau hospitals, travelers who require serious medical attention may opt to obtain treatment in Hong Kong, which has a greater numbers of hospitals. Travelers should have health insurance, but realize that payment is often expected in advance of treatment.
Americans with dual Western-Chinese citizenship should be aware that such travelers have experienced difficulties, even when entering with a non
Chinese passport, including detainment without the possibility of contact with Western consular officials.
Where to find out more:
Macau Government Tourist Office: http://macautourism.gov.mo.
Macau Tourist Hotline: 853- 2833-3000 (from Hawai'i).
• About boats between Hong Kong and Macau: Jetfoils 852- 2829-6596, American Express, Diners, MasterCard or Visa. Pickup at Shun Tak Center, first floor. Turbo-cats 852-2789-5421, American Express, Diners, Master Card or Visa. Pickup at Shun Tak Center, first floor.