TOURING MACAU ON THE CHINA COAST
Centuries before Britain built a colony at Hong Kong on the Pearl River, the Portuguese ran a busy trading enclave 40 miles away across the estuary. Then 450 years later, the Portuguese handed over Macau to China, on Dec. 20, 1999, just as the British did with Hong Kong in 1997.
If you’ve never heard of Macau or haven’t the foggiest notion where it is, you’re not alone. This small enclave, consisting of a densely populated peninsula and two islands in southeastern China, isn’t exactly a tourist mecca touted by U.S. travel agents. But for those who love to gamble or have a yen for Portuguese food, Macau is the place.
Every weekend, thousands of residents of Hong Kong, where gambling isn’t legal, climb aboard speedy jetfoil vessels for the one-hour trip to Macau, where nine casinos run full blast 24 hours a day. About eight million tourists a year arrive, making gambling a $3.3 billion industry. Unfortunately, prostitution, loansharking and other illegal enterprises that fringe the casinos have led to outright warfare among the Chinese gangs and murders of law enforcement officers.
When you tire of tossing dice or playing other European and Asian games of chance, there’s greyhound racing and the Jockey Club, where you can play the ponies. Macau is a blend of Chinese and Portuguese in many ways: the people you see, the temples and churches so near one another, the east-west gambling games and the Macanese food.
Macau boasts at least three top international quality hotels, but the real charmer is the Pousada de Sao Tiago, a 24-room inn built around ruins of a 17th Century fortress, overlooking the busy harbor. It’s got two wonderful hideaway restaurants, Os Gatos, out on the terrace, and the elegant Café Da Barra. And there’s other cuisine galore in Macau, from French dining rooms, a dizzying assortment of Cantonese dishes, tasty Portuguese chicken and caldo verde soup, and a Brazilian churrascaria. This is also the home of Macanese, a blend of recipes and spices brought by the early Portuguese explorers, and Chinese cooking.
And, if you’re of a mind for adventure beyond the confines of Macau, there’s a gateway into China, where tourists can show a passport for a one-day visa into that once-forbidden zone of the Cold War.
Most of Macau’s eight million annual visitors come from Hong Kong for one-day or overnight gambling forays or relaxed getaways from the hectic Hong Kong. Others fly in via Taiwan-based EVA airline to Macau’s airport, opened in 1995. EVA has service from the U.S. mainland and Hawaii and boasts Evergreen Deluxe class, which is close to business class in comfort and service, but just above coach in price.
Macau’s heyday of trade is long gone, eclipsed by Hong Kong’s deep-water port and its “Wall Street of Asia” economic dynamo, Macau is now known as the “Las Vegas of Asia.” But with 95 percent of its 450,000 residents of Chinese descent, the place generates its own energy. To see it in action, we walked the narrow lanes lined with shops of all description. If it’s made in the world, you can find it here, and generally at lower prices than in Hong Kong.
The same goes for hotels and restaurants. Macau is a bargain, even snooty Hong Kong residents admit. We dropped our bags at the Hyatt Regency, on Taipa island, connected with the mainland by a long, swooping bridge. It’s on middle ground, away from busy Macau proper, where the Mandarin Oriental stands, and not so isolated as the plush Westin Resort, on a beach out on Coleane Island.
All three offer top-notch restaurants. At the Hyatt’s relaxed Flamingo, specializing in Macanese food, we broke open round loaves of bread and dipped pieces in a saucer of spicy olive oil and cooled down with blond Macau Golden ale. Then came crusty fried shrimp in hot sauce, caldo verde soup laced with chorrizo sausage, and codfish cakes. Next arrived plates of giant prawns cooked with chilies and garlic, then African chicken, grilled with spicy peanut butter and chilies. The Hyatt also boasts a fine breakfast buffet.
Although not as elegant as its two hotel mates, the Hyatt offers a quiet, cool oasis in its back garden, pool and shady outdoor bar-terrace. It, like the others, has free shuttle service to the airport and ferries to Hong Kong. And its summer rates are an unbeatable $70 per double.
The Mandarin Oriental, a far better bargain than its Hong Kong partner, is just a short walk from the new Cultural Center for the arts. The pool offers great views. The best rooms are on the top executive floors. The Embassy Bar is a major local hangout. At the Dynasty restaurant, course after course came our way: Peking duck, shark fin soup, sauteed shrimp, deep fried duck rolls, steamed fish, roasted crispy chicken and fried rice laden with egg, barbecued pork, shrimp and stewed noodles.
About 15 minutes from downtown, over on Coloane Island, the Westin Resort is a wonderful hideaway, complete with beach, oceanfront driving range with floating balls, and an 18-hole course starting from the top floor of the hillside hotel. The large rooms are arranged in tiers, with prices rising by altitude. Some have barbecues the staff will prepare and light. About 80 percent of the guests are from Hong Kong, and of those about half are ex-pats from the United States and Europe.
Our Cantonese dim sum luncheon at the Westin, elegantly presented, included prawn dumplings, steamed pork, deep fried seafood rolls, delicate, moist spring rolls, fried rice with crab roe and a dessert of sweet walnut-flavored cream.
To eat Portuguese where the locals eat, we drove out to Hac Sa Beach on Coloane Island, to Fernando’s. It doesn’t look like much. But it’s a relaxed place amid the greenery, with red-and-white plastic tablecloths. We led off with huge pitchers of sangria, followed by bowls of caldo verde, garlic shrimp, chewy squid with a green salad of onions, lettuce, olives, vinegar and parsley. Then came sauteed cod with garlic, roast chicken and pork and a bowl of steaming feijoada. a thick Brazilian stew of black beans, cabbage, pork and spices. We finished up with a light, sweet flan and thick espresso. The average lunch here is about $22. If you don’t have a ride, take the 21-A bus. On the way back to town you can see boats under construction at the fishing village..
One night, seventh-generation Macanese Isabela Antunes took us to the Litoral restaurant for Macanese food. Casal Garcia “green” wine was followed by toasted triangles of curry beef and shrimp cakes, huge prawns, veal and finally a steamy Portuguese chicken caserole stuffed with chicken, curry, potatoes, olive oil, olives, sliced eggs, Portuguese sausage and much more.
Another night we found ourselves a bit of Brazil at Restaurante Lusitano. A churrascaria where a full meal, with floor show, will set you back only about $20. We started off with fiery caipirinhas, made with cachaca, strong sugar cane brandy. sugar and lime. Then came the salad and a parade of knife-wielding waiters slicing wedges from huge skewers of sausage and beef. We finished off with flan, chocolate mousse and coffee. Meanwhile, dancers did the lambada and a woman sang a plaintive fado.
There’s a lot to do in this 8.5-square-mile enclave, said to be one of the most densely populated areas of the world. In addition to temples, forts and churches, there’s the Portuguese wine museum and the Museum of Macau, a historical center that’s surely one of the world’s best museums.