By Pamela Jacobs
For too many of us New Yorkers, Macau is an add-on. A side note. A gambling destination. People have a lot to learn about Macau. It’s a unique destination that is equal amounts history and modernism and has enough entertainment to keep any traveler enticed. Add in the world’s original Asian-fusion cuisine and you have a place that deserves to shed its misnomer as “the Vegas of the East”; Vegas has nothing on this place.
Dating back to the Qin Dynasty in 206 B.C., Macau, just southwest of Hong Kong, developed as a major settlement when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century. Until December 1999, Macau remained a Portuguese colony, where hundreds of years worth of Chinese and Portuguese culture coexisted and created one of the world’s most fascinating cultural combinations. Much remains of the original architecture, villages, cobblestone streets and heritage sites. Knowing all that, I spent my first morning in the Old Christian City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here I saw the breathtaking ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in 1602, the Macau Museum, Senado Square and the ancient Na Cha Temple. It was a surprising mix of history and cultures, all along cobblestone streets that look like the set of a movie set in 16th century Europe.
Jumping from Portuguese to Chinese history, I visited the Temple of the Goddess A-Ma. Built in 1448, the temple, with picture-perfect vantage points, is dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess and is Macau’s namesake. With the smell of incense mixing ever so slightly with the scent of fragrant blossoms that climbed the temple walls, I observed people kneeling and paying respect to the goddess.
If you’re looking to continue the cultural tour of Macau, head to Taipa Village. An island, Taipa is home to more winding, cobblestone streets, pastel buildings, relics of both cultures and hidden surprises around every corner. There’s also the Macau Tower, an impressive building seen from almost everywhere that stands high above the skyline. Here the adventurous traveler can experience the world’s highest bungee jump.
For me, it’s all about the food; when you eat like the locals, you become a traveler, not a tourist. They do traditional Chinese food and Portuguese food well. Then there’s the Macanese food: the amalgamation of Eastern, Western, African and Latin American influences making for a culinary destination that is unlike any other in the world.
I had so many authentic Portuguese meals that I forgot I was in Asia. At Manuel’s, I enjoyed phenomenal grilled whole fish and other delicacies. On another night, I headed to the Michelin recommended Antonio in Taipa, where the chef/owner’s famous seafood rice was matched by Antonio himself.
For Chinese cuisine, there’s the incredible Emperor’s Dim Sum lunch at Treasure Palace Chinese Restaurant in the City of Dreams mega-resort. In Coloane Island, you can sit outside with the locals at Ng Tim restaurant, enjoying traditional Chinese seafood dishes such as Pissing Prawns and Drunken Sauna Shrimps while being serenaded by a guitar player.
Of course you’ll have to try Macanese food, and there’s no better place than at Restaurante Litoral. Here, traditional Macanese dishes such as African chicken are the best of their kind.
Nightly entertainment is varied and exciting! A masterpiece of technology and beauty is “The House of Dancing Water” show at the City of Dreams. Combining theater, dance, gymnastics, high-performance diving and even motorcycle stunts, this jaw-dropping extravaganza is presented by the world’s most talented performers and is great fun for everyone.
There is no shortage of hotels in Macau. The Venetian is the largest hotel/casino in the world, and the City of Dreams mega-resort features three hotels in one: The Hard Rock Hotel, Crown Towers and the Grand Hyatt Macau. The Galaxy Macau also consists of three hotels, and houses the private hot-spot, China Rouge—perhaps the sexiest bar I’ve ever seen.
I chose to rest my head in a hotel that was a bit more subdued; Mandarin Oriental was perfection. It’s chic, stylish and graceful. It also had the most delicious buffet breakfast, where I was not ashamed to eat both eggs and stir-fried noodles at 9 am. There are 212 gorgeous rooms and suites, each with a water view.
A true highlight was the spa, where I melted into ecstasy during the two-hour Macanese Dragon Experience. It began with a foot scrub, followed by a personalized body scrub, a private steam shower and then a whirlpool bath and a Chinese lymphatic body massage that included the use of meditation balls and aromatherapy.
The hope, when traveling, is to learn something new. To learn about a culture and to gain a new perspective. What I also learned was to never judge a guidebook by its cover. Macau is rich—not just in terms of the billion-dollar casino industry—and deserves to be the main subject of your travels, not just an interesting footnote.
Of course, if you’re going to make the long flight over to the other side of the world, it make sense to spend some time in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most dynamic, colorful, and delicious cities.
I had the fortunate opportunity to stay at the Mandarin Oriental. I had heard that it was among the world’s best properties, but I when I arrived at the appropriately named Macau Suite, I was made speechless. This was one of the most beautiful, impeccably-designed, subtly extravagant suites I’d ever stayed in. A sprawling five-room masterpiece with incredible views of the city and Victoria Harbour; my suite at the Mandarin Oriental was divine.
I was greeted with a welcome tea from my personal butler, and after a long bath in my giant marble tub, I wandered through my suite as if it were my first time in a hotel room. I knew I wanted to get out and see the city, but I didn’t want to leave that room.
The hotel itself is legendary. Ideally located, it features 501 rooms and suites, a phenomenal spa and ten choices for eating and drinking,
I finally forced myself to leave the hotel. I rode the tram to the top of The Peak, Hong Kong’s most popular attraction, with stunning views of the city below. I embarked on a market tour, visited the beautiful Man Mo temple and leisurely wandered through the streets of SoHo (South Hollywood Road). And when I saw the nightly Symphony of Lights show on the city’s skyline, I thought Hong Kong could teach NY a thing or two about skylines.
Depending on how much time you have in Hong Kong, the list of sites is endless. Like all good trips, mine seemed to end too soon, but it was a lovely taste of Hong Kong and it left me wanting more.