Marvelous Macau

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Though a lot of people probably have not been to Macau, they have certainly heard of it, its name having seeped into local vernacular, the most famous of which involves deep fried pork. In reality, Macau is actually a Special Administrative Region of China, the peninsula a trading port administered by Portugal.

Macau consists of the peninsula itself, plus the islands of Taipa and Coloane. The former is where you can find casinos like Stanley Ho’s Lisboa and Grand Lisboa, Chinese-style casinos as opposed to newer players like Wynn, MGM Grand and the imposing L’Arc. The newest attractions can be found in the Cotai strip, whose name is a combination of the two islands. Here, one can find the Four Seasons, which contains a high end mall and the only Moet et Chandon champagne bar in Asia. The Four Seasons connects to the Venetian, currently the world’s biggest casino resort where one can shop, ride gondolas through indoor canals while staring at ceilings painted to look like blue skies and of course, try their luck at the tables.

Across the street is City of Dreams (COD), Macau’s newest integrated resort. Located in the middle of three hotels, namely Crown, Hard Rock and Grand Hyatt, COD combines entertainment, high end shopping and international dining.

It is possible to lose half a day just gazing at the casino interiors and watching one of the many free shows that, aside from providing the audience with a larger-than-life spectacle, also aim to bring gamblers good luck. The Wynn, for example, has three such shows, and we managed to catch them all. The Prosperity Tree is a giant gold and silver tree that rises out of the floor. From this same space rises a giant robotic dragon surrounded by fog. Both tree and dragon shows, which alternate every 15 minutes, are symbols of luck, buoying the confidence of the audience, many of whom will be heading straight to the casinos. Outside, the Wynn’s front fountain also features a Music Fountain show where dancing water is choreographed to music every 30 minutes. On another island, City of Dreams features The Dragon Treasures, which combines special effects with animation viewed in a 360 degree theater.

That’s Entertainment

It’s hard to get bored in Macau. There’s always something happening every month, be it a wine festival or one of the most awaited events of the year, the Macau Grand Prix. Some events, however, happen year-round, all of them worth watching at least once. The three days we, the AsianTraveler team, spent there was so full of activity I thought the best way to present them was to group them according to activity, starting with popular entertainment.

I have always wanted to see the Cirque de Soleil and was glad that we managed to catch their show Zaia at The Venetian. As with all Cirque de Soleil shows, Zaia was a feast for the eyes and ears, a moving painting of fantastical scenes acted out by talented acrobats set to live, otherworldy music. We were treated to the sight of bicycles flying upside down.

Across the street, the City of Dreams offers similar entertainment in the form of The House of Dancing Water, a water-based show about a princess whose kingdom is wrested away by her evil stepmother. The show is the only one of its kind in Asia, the main event taking place in a pool whose depth rises and falls according to the scene. As fun as watching the show is observing the audience’s reactions to it. I had a great time watching the five big Chinese guys in front of me scream like schoolchildren every time an actor performed a dangerous stunt.

Speaking of dangerous stunts, folks who want to test their mettle can head to the Macau Tower’s 61st floor to try one of AJ Hackett’s many daredevil experiences, the most famous of which is the Bungy Jump. AJ Hackett is the father of bungee jumping (the correct spelling is bungy, by the way). AJ Hackett offers four ways for you to test your mettle:

The Bungy Jump, at 233 meters or 764 feet, is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the tallest commercial jump in the world. Celebrities who have tried it include Charlize Theron, the prince and princess of Thailand, and Kanye West. “Most people that jump from here, 95% of them are first time jumpers,” says General Manager Charlie Bassett, who has bungee jumped 250 times all over the world. He added that the Macau Tower’s oldest bungee jumper was about 80 years old, the youngest, 10.

The Skywalk X lets people walk around the edge of the building. There is also the Sky Jump, where you experience the sensation of floating to the ground. The physically fit can try the Mast Climb, which entails climbing 100 feet to stand atop the world’s 10th tallest freestanding tower. According to Charlie, all four activities garner about 25,000 customers a year.

I, of course, went straight for the Bungy Jump. It sounds extreme but is really safe, the company having a record of zero casualties in all of its branches worldwide. I was made to wear a shirt and a wristband that identified me as a bungy jumper. They also weighed me so they could find the right cord to use, my weight written at the back of my hand. This – having my weight displayed for the world to see – was what scared me the most. Compared to that, leaping off a building was easy. Safety measures are followed up until you reach the ground.

Depending on the package you get, your jump is documented via photo and video from the time they strap you in to the time you get halfway to the ground. Successful jumpers get a certificate of completion and a discount card that can be used in other AJ Hackett sites around the world. There is no feeling like that of voluntarily stepping off the edge of a building and giving yourself over to gravity. This was the highlight of my trip, even if the freefall itself only lasted six seconds.

Pop music fans should not miss the Michael Jackson Museum. Located in Sofitel Macau at Pointe 16 in what used to be one of Macau’s many harbors, the museum displays over 40 items associated with the King of Pop’s music career including his rhinestone glove, the zombie costume he wore in the “Thriller” video, and his crystal socks. There is also an MJ-themed cafe where fans can further bask in the museum’s thrilling atmosphere.

Not Just for Adults

A kid at heart, I was glad to find out that Macau isn’t just an adult destination. Families with children from ages 2 – 12 can visit Kids’ City at the Hard Rock Hotel. Over 10,000 square feet have been given over to various activities that include a giant jungle gym, a bouncy tent, a dress up room and stage, art materials and video games. My favorite was a giant two-player Tetris video game which I think would look great in my living room. The whole place made me wish that I was a kid again.

The Macau Science Center is not just for children, and is not just for people who like museums, either. A lot of its exhibits encourage interaction, highlighting the practical uses of science in a way that the lay person can understand. Children can save Isaac Newton by knocking away the famous apple before it hits him on the head. There’s a robot baby seal that people can pet, and a whole exhibit dedicated to finding out how athletic you are via a series of physical exams. The Macau government is big on public health. They’ve even installed gym equipment in public parks so citizens will have no excuse not to be healthy.

Old World Charm

Vast parts of Macau have been designated world heritage sites. It is suggested that first time visitors drop by the Museo de Macau first before visiting the rest of the city so as to get a background of its history. “Many things that you see here, you will see in Macau,” Joao Sales, Public Relations Executive of the Macau Government Tourism Office in Macau, says.

The Museum is located in the Mount Fortress, which was built by Jesuits in the 17th century to watch over the ocean. Cannons still stand watch outside, except that they now point to buildings and casinos instead of the open water. Enter the Museum through the Corridor of Time, with Macau’s Chinese heritage on one side and its Portuguese roots on the other. See the different kinds of traditional houses that can be found throughout the peninsula and take a look at a replica of the first printing press in Asia, which was first brought to Macau but somehow wound up in the Philippines. In the old days, Macau was known for metallurgy, one of the Tower of London’s most famous cannons having been crafted in the peninsula. It also had an explosive fireworks industry, which had to be shut down for safety reasons. It is because of this former reason that Macau now hosts the annual Macau International Fireworks Festival, which is now on its 22nd year, when the night sky is lit with man-made stars.

The Museum is near the Historic Center of Macau, which contains the Ruins of St. Paul, which leads to Senado Square, both of them two of Macau’s most famous historical landmarks. In between St. Paul’s and Senado Square is Traversa St. Paul, popularly known as Souvenir Street, a veritable sea of shopping where one can find local delicacies like almond cakes and Chinese beef jerky, Macanese antiques as well as modern boutiques and the ubiquitous Seven Eleven. A favorite of mine is the newly opened Macau Creations (MC) near the steps of St. Paul. MC is the brainchild of Wilson Lam, a Canadian Macanese who gave up his day job as a graphics artists in Canada to pursue his dream of opening a shop in Macau that would showcase young local talent. The shop has everything from shirts and jackets to mugs and stationery to CDs of independent Macanese bands. They even have a postal section where one can buy postcards and stamps and drop them in a mailbox. There’s a gallery below the shop that holds exhibits for local talent and sells exhibit-related paraphernalia as well.

The Macanese government is extending support to the local artistic community via San Lazaro Walk. What used to be the Macanese leper colony has been turned into an artist’s haven, with a music and art school and artists’ residences, all of them located in quaint traditional two-storey houses with windows and balconies that look out onto a beautifully designed cobblestone street crafted by artisans that came straight from Portugal.

Folks of Chinese descent or those just interested in Chinese history will want to visit the Handover Museum. After Macau was handed back to China in 1999, each of China’s 56 ethnic groups celebrated by presenting Macau with gifts, each designed according to each region’s unique artistic style. Beijing, for example, presented Macau with a giant carved lacquer plate depicting a bridge between Beijing’s Summer Palace and Macau’s A-Ma Temple, symbolizing friendship between the two regions. I immediately zoomed in on my ancestral province Fujian’s gift, a Shoushan stone intricately carved with a scene of banyan trees against the Wuyi mountain.

Folks who want to see what daily life in Macau is like can visit Jardin Lou Lim Ioco, a public garden filled with lush plants, ample shade and strategically placed benches. Locals come here to exercise, practice martial arts, dances and musical instruments, or sun themselves. Another place to see part of Macau’s daily life is in the Red Market, Macau’s oldest market and a protected heritage site. Fresh produce, meat and seafood sit in separate sections under one roof. The market is clean and the vendors friendly. Outside, one can buy fresh fruits and flowers, the latter brought in daily from China. Macanese life, one senses, is a contented one, filled with simple pleasures like community, cooking and the relaxation brought about by beautiful surroundings.

A Tale of Two (and more) Cuisines

It’s a good thing Macau is a walking city, because you’ll need to walk off the calories from all the food you’ll be eating. Macau has a lot of restaurants that fit every price range, from the cookie shop near the public market to the Michelin star restaurant in the five star hotel, all of them good. We got to sample cuisines that represented the vast array of gastronomic delights to be found in the peninsula, namely Macanese, Chinese, Portuguese and something international.

Restaurante Litoral (litoral means seaside) is an award-winning restaurant that serves Macanese cuisine. Must-trys include the Chamussa (samosa-like curry beef cakes), Rissois (croquettes with a shrimp and cheese filling), and the world famous Galinha Africana or African chicken, which is coated with a mix of peanut, coconut and chili and of which Joao says is “One of the 100 dishes you have to try before you die.” Other must-trys include Arroz Chau Chau a Portugesa (moist, flavorful Portuguese fried rice containing chorizo, tomato, olive oil, black olives and shrimp) and Caril de Camaro e Carne de Caranguejo (spicy curry shrimp with crabmeat which came to Macau via Malacca and Goa). End your meal with a cup of Serradura, a dessert of layered chilled sweet cream and crushed biscuits.

We had a lovely Chinese lunch at the Wynn’s Michelin Star Wing Lei restaurant, whose rich red and gold interior serves as backdrop to a sumptuous dimsum meal. The concept of dimsum has become a worldwide phenomenon, so most people will be familiar with some of the restaurant’s offerings such as Roast Goose and Crispy Pork, Shrimp Cheong Fan and Crab and Scallop Fried Rice. Be sure to try unique dishes such as the Spring Roll, which is long and thin as opposed to short and fat, and filled with a shrimp and oyster mushroom paste. A favorite of mine is the Pineapple and Pork Bun, a combination of the pineapple bun and an asado siopao.

On the other end of the ambiance spectrum, located in the quaint Coloane Village, a former pirate hideout, is Cafe Nga Tim, an outdoor restaurant beside St. Francis Coloane church, where the seafood is so fresh you can see them swimming in their tanks before they are cooked and served. We had Drunken Shrimp, where shrimp are doused in alcohol before cooking; shellfish in butter and garlic; fried fish with a light soy sauce, the outside crispy while the insides remained soft and clams stewed in white wine, everything paired with free flowing garlic bread instead of rice. It was my first time to have bread – much less garlic bread – at a Chinese meal. It is a combination that I hope to try again soon.

Also on Coloane is Espacio Lisboa, an authentic Portuguese restaurant located in a traditional Chinese fisherman’s home. We started off with Presunto e Enchidos Caseiros, assorted chorizos that included blood sausage; followed by Pasteis de Bacalhau, bacalao fishcake with mashed potato filling. One of my favorite dishes in the whole trip is the Arroz de Marisco a Espaco Lisboa, seafood rice served in ceramic pot. A cross between congee and risotto, the dish is rich, savory and filling. Add a dash of Tabasco sauce and it’s a meal in itself. Meat eaters can try the Carne de Porco a Alentejana, fried pork meat with clams, lots of olive oil and potatoes. This is a famous Portuguese dish that combines the best of land and sea. “Our secret is in the kitchen. Our executive chef is probably the best chef in Macau in terms of Portuguese food,” says owner Francisco Cruz. “You can say that our (dishes come from) family recipes.”

Macau is also home to a branch of Don Alfonso, Chef Alfonso and Livia Iccarino’s Michelin star restaurant that specializes in Italian cuisine, which is located in the Grand Lisboa. I had the Spaghetti ai Sapori di Mare, al dente spaghetti with fresh seafood, the ingredients subtly enhancing each other’s flavors. The Ossobuco in Gremolada con Risotto al Midollo e Zafferano, rich Italian beef stew with risotto whose rich, savory flavor made for the ultimate comfort food. Capping the meal was a bowl of Tiramisu, done the real Italian way, with layers of cream and alcohol-drenched cake. Paired with coffee, it made for a sweet end to a satisfying lunch.

Our last meal in Macau was at the 360 Cafe. The revolving restaurant sits atop the Macau Tower more than 700 feet above ground. Guests get to enjoy a lavish buffet while watching the view literally move past. Another exciting aspect of the cafe is once in a while getting to see bungee jumpers take their leap of faith.

There is much to do in Macau, the three days allotted to us not enough to try them all. It’s a place I plan to visit again soon, when I feel the call of Macanese cuisine, or when the urge to jump off a building seizes me once more. As I have threatened to give up writing to go work for AJ Hackett (employees get to jump for free), that time may be soon.

Macau Musts

Narzalina Lim, General Manager of the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) -Philippines shares some insider tips on getting around in the place that she has come to think of as a second home:

Wear comfy shoes

Macau is a very small city. It’s a waking city. Wear flats and comfortable shoes because there are a lot of cobbled streets.

English is acceptable

People are generally polite. You can speak to them in English, but to make sure, if you’re going around in a taxi, ask your concierge to put down the name of the restaurant or the place you want to go to in Chinese characters on a piece of paper. Show that to the driver.

Dress code: casual

Wear casual clothes, although in certain instances like when you’re going to office, opt for smart-casual. The weather gets cold around October so bring a shawl or jacket. It really gets cold in January because the winds from Siberia blow that way.

Travel for free

There are three bridges that connect the main peninsula to the Cotai Strip and the two islands of Taipa and Coloane. There are shuttles that go from The Sands (in the main peninsula) to the Venetian (in Cotai) and back for free. You can walk to almost anywhere from The Sands.

Safety first

Macau is a very safe city. It’s well lighted. Of course, you always have to guard your belongings, especially when you’re in crowded areas. Watch your cellphones, don’t bring too much cash, bring only one credit card, leave your valuables in the safe in the hotel — the usual precautions you would take wherever you’re going. “I have walked Macau at night and I have never felt unsafe,” Nars says.

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