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Where China collides with Portugal
Macao, a close neighbour of Hong Kong in more ways than
one, is a mesmerising mix of old Portugal and new China; even the signs are in
two and sometimes three languages. It was a busy international trading port and
Portuguese territory from 1557 to 1999 and is now a Special Administrative
Region of China, able to determine many of its own affairs.
Covering eleven square miles and the world’s most densely
populate region, Macao offers visitors three highly contrasting areas; the busy
and crowded old town with its Portuguese heritage, Cotai , full of casinos and
resort hotels, and Coloane, the closest Macao gets to a rural setting.
The major industries are gambling and tourism. It’s
hugely wealthy, more so than middle-eastern countries, although this prosperity
doesn’t appear to have trickled down to most of the population.
I started my visit in the old town. It’s dominated by the
Macau Tower, at just over one thousand feet, it’s one of Asia’s tallest and has
a revolving buffet restaurant. Over dinner I admired the night-time scene as
well as sampling some of the food that has led to Macao being recognised by
UNESCO for its creative gastronomy. The tower is also famous for hosting bungee
jumpers who raise significant amounts for charity.
The old town is full of markets, shops, street food
outlets, traditional tea rooms and small open areas such as the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, a haven of peace and relaxation.
It was created by a local merchant, Lou Kau, as part of his private residence
but is now owned by the Government and is popular with locals. The nearby
central ruins of St Paul’s church is one of historic Macao’s biggest
attractions, although having been burned down three times, all that remains is
Close by, but far removed from the hustle and bustle, is
the St Lazarus district. Centred on St Lazarus Church it’s Macao’s creative
centre, its cobbled streets, colonial houses and tranquillity are ideal for the
artists, designers and others who live and work there.
I popped into the Hotel Royal, one of Macao’s traditional
business hotels, and enjoyed lunch in Fado, prepared by the renowned Portuguese
chef Luis Américo who was responsible for the revival of the hotel’s
Linked to downtown Macao by three bridges, Taipa Village was
originally home to fishermen. Its narrow streets provide visitors with a taste
of Macao’s past and an opportunity to savour its diverse cuisine. I had dinner
at Antonio’s, a cosy atmospheric Portuguese restaurant serving authentic food and
offering its guests a traditional glass of Port at the end of their meal.
Modern Cotai is often referred to as the Las Vegas of the
East and is where visitors can find huge resort hotels, casinos and lavish
entertainment. I visited the City of Dreams to see their famous show ‘House of
the Dancing Water’. It’s an incredible production mixing elements of
Cirque du Soleil with water. The main part of the stage consists of a pool
holding nearly four million gallons. The stage itself is divided into eleven
parts that fit together but each one can be raised one meter above the surface
and dropped to seven meters below. It’s a spectacular and unique experience; if
you were only ever to see one show then this must be it.
I also took a gondola ride at the Wynn Palace Hotel and
then watched the musical fountain display before heading off for a drive around
the area. Like other hotels on the Cotai Strip, the Venetian is modelled on its
Las Vegas counterpart, its 39 storey structure containing three thousand suites
and the world’s largest casino with eight hundred gambling tables.
In stark contrast, Coloane is as close as Macao gets to
sleepy countryside. Seac Pai Van Park is an open area where locals can get away
from high-rise city life. The park is home to the Giant Panda Pavilion where
the famous inhabitants are kept in air-conditioned comfort for most of the
year. Nearby is another famous Macao landmark, Lord Stow’s Bakery. Those
familiar with Portuguese cuisine will know that its custard tart ‘pastel de nata’ is a national dish, but
it is claimed that the best ones come from the bakery in Coloane. I wouldn’t
It’s just another example of how Macao blends its
heritage. Portuguese, Chinese and Macanese food, a fusion of flavours brought
about by Macao’s Portuguese maritime past, are available everywhere, from
street vendors to the eighteen Michelin-star restaurants that call Macao home. There’s
simply nowhere else like it.
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