By Gerrie Summers
Instead of writing I was pressing a button on the cable remote until it arrived at America’s Next Top Model (yes, really). Fashion photographer/judge Nigel Barker smashed a huge fortune cookie against a table. Inside would be the model contestants’ next adventure. He pulled out a large slip of paper. Hold your breath. Drum roll please.
Your fortune awaits you in Macau.
How odd that an itinerary, guide books and scribbled notes about Macau were spread out in front of me. Fellow writers know that sometimes it’s easier to visit a destination than to write about it, especially one with such a mix of cultures and history.
You know a destination has arrived when it appears on a reality TV show. Joking aside, America’s Next Top Model has visited several exotic locations that populate my wish list. China was on the list—I was thinking about the mainland, but a last minute invite to Macau was close enough. I had been told it was an interesting place where Hong Kong businessmen came to gamble in the casinos. (Macau is the only place in China where casino gambling is legal). A friend likened it to a Chinese Las Vegas. It’s a description they’d rather do without. Had I believed that this was all Macau offered, I probably wouldn’t have gone. (The sci-fi geek in me believes the neon lights and lack of windows are part of an evil plot by casino owners to make us all into slot machine zombies.)
Macau (also spelled Macao) is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, and like Hong Kong exists under the principle of “one country, two systems,” with its own set of laws. It is comprised of the Macau Peninsula (connected to mainland China), the islands of Taipa and Coloane and a reclaimed area COTAI. It is a distinct mix of colonial Portuguese architecture and ancient temples, Chinese villages and countryside, and modern hotels and casinos.
Our tour guide was Joao Sales whom we met up with in the historic district (after taking a 60-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong). The historic centre became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, making it the 31st site in China granted the status. It spans eight squares and 22 historic buildings. As we walked into Barra Square, a Portuguese dance troop was performing, with the A Ma Temple, the oldest and most famous temple in Macau, as a backdrop.
Fishermen from Fujian and farmers from Guangdong were the first known settlers in Macau. Back then it was known as Ou Mun or “trading gate” because of its location at the mouth of the Pearl River downstream from Guangzhou (Canton). In the early 1550s the Portuguese reached Ou Mun, which the locals also called A Ma Gao (“place of A-Ma”) in honor of the Goddess of Seafarers, whose temple, built more than 500 years ago, stood at the entrance to the Inner Harbour. (Another story suggests that when the Portuguese sailors arrived on the shores near the temple and inquired about the name of the land. The natives thought they were asking about the temple and told them A-Ma Gao, which later was transcribed by the Portuguese settlers to Macau.)
After visiting the nearby Maritime Museum and the A-Ma Temple, it was suggested that we take a pedicab ride along the West Bay to the Macau Military Club. A pedicab, is a tricycle-rickshaw, a more leisurely, romantic (and slow) mode of transportation usually used by tourists. The pedicabs date back to the 1930s when Macau was a fishing village and it was the public transportation for people and goods.
The Macau Military Club is housed in a Portuguese neo-classical building from the 19th century with a mix of Chinese and western décor. There is a restaurant inside that is open to the public and visitors come here for a taste of a typical Portuguese meal, cozido a Portuguesa that combines different sausages, meats, chicken, pork and beef served buffet style.
My favorite experiences in Macau involved the historical buildings and sites, and of course, the cuisine. Here are some of the highlights:
Culture & History:
Ruins of St. Paul’s. Located in the Old Christian City, the Ruins of St. Paul’s is the façade of carved stone and steps that are all that remain of the Church of Mater Dei and the adjacent Jesuit College of St. Paul’s. Both were destroyed in a fire in 1835.
Taipa Houses Museum – includes five typical houses with Macanese/Portuguese colonial architectural characteristics. The Taipa Houses Museum was built in 1921, and had been the residences for high superior civil servants and Macanese families. You can see reproduction period furniture, costumes, musical instruments, maps, pictures and memorabilia from Taipa and Coloane.
Handover Museum houses a collection of Chinese art that was crafted by provinces of China and presented to Macau as a welcome gift when Macau was handed back (or handed over) to China in 1999.
Macau Science Center designed by architect IM Pei, has interactive exhibits and a planetarium with 3D projectors and seats with interactive controls.
Giant Panda Pavilion – The Giant Panda Pavilion is in Seac Pai Van Park. If you’re lucky, you might catch Kai Kai and Xin Xin pandas actually moving around (apparently they spend most of their time sleeping!)
Macau Tower has great views of Macau—and if you dare, try the Mast Climb and stand at the top of the tower after climbing up the mast’s vertical ladders, or the Sky Jump, the World’s highest bungee jump.
Shows & Entertainment
At City of Dreams, an entertainment resort in Cotai, there are two interesting shows:
The House of Dancing Water, a fabulous water/theatrical show at City of Dreams combining theater with high performance diving, gymnastics, motorcycle acrobats and strap performers.
The Bubble Show is the unofficial name of a multimedia show, Dragon’s Treasure, presented in The Bubble, a dome-shaped theater in City of Dreams.
Macau Venetian Hotel is like its own destination. It is the world’s biggest casino resort, with gondola rides in the resort’s three canals, shopping (lots of designer shops—obviously there’s no recession here) and the Ice World Gallery, a temporary display of ice sculptures, which might be back this year.
You can find authentic Portuguese, Macanese (a wonderful combination of Chinese and Portuguese cuisine), Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese and international fare in Macau.
Tai Pai Tong Restaurant is an outdoor restaurant in Coloane Island, specializing in “street hawkers” Chinese sea food with names like “Pissing Prawns,” “Poc Poc Crab” and “Drunken Sauna Shrimp.” The food was delicious, (although I wasn’t comfortable that some of it was looking back at me).
Café Litoral in Taipa Island, is a popular spot to enjoy a Macanese meal, including African chicken, a popular baked chicken dish with African and Indian spices and a sauce made with garlic and capsicum.
Manuel’s Restaurant offers Portuguese cuisine, including grilled bacalhau (made from dried codfish imported from Portugal).
Antonio Restaurant (Taipa Island) has scrumptious Portuguese cuisine like Portuguese grilled spare ribs, seafood rice, pata negra and bacalhau cakes.
The “8” Chinese Restaurant an elegant Michelin-rated (two stars) restaurant located in the Grand Lisboa Hotel, features Cantonese and Huaiyang cuisine and 50 kinds of dim sum.
Where To Stay
Altira Hotel – Located in Taipa, Altira opened in April 2009. The name is derived from the Latin word “altus” meaning high and Altira’s Chinese name Xin Hao Feng means “cutting edge”. The contemporary-style hotel offers stunning panoramic views of the Macau Peninsula, from floor-to-ceiling windows that are a feature of every guestroom. www.altiramacau.com.
Galaxy Resort - an entertainment and gaming resort, with three hotels has the world’s largest Skytop Wave Pool, several dining options, and of course, casinos and shopping. Galaxymacau.com.
And by the way, fortune did await me in Macau at the Galaxy, although not at a casino. Heading to my room one night, I found a Hong Kong bill on the floor. For more good fortune in the future, it was donated to a family scholarship fund.
For more information on Macau, visit www.macautourism.gov.mo.
Gerrie Summers has been writing professionally for over 31 years in the areas of entertainment, beauty, lifestyle, travel and wellness. A New York-based writer, she has been the Travel Adventures columnist for Today’s Black Woman and now writes the blogs Summers Retreat and The Tranquil Traveler.