|The A-Ma Temple, one of Macau’s oldest and most famous Taoist temples, is a must-see.|
For many U.S. travelers, Macau is synonymous with casinos. “Vegas of the East,” people often say. And yes, Macau’s gaming industry is one of the largest in the world, pulling in billions of dollars annually. But for those who think this is all Macau has to offer, we say dig a little deeper.
Travel Agent recently spent a week exploring Macau, looking at the cultural and culinary landscape. Not knowing what to expect, aside from casinos, we were completely taken aback by the amount of culture to be found here.
Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region of China, meaning while it is technically part of China, it is somewhat allowed to play by its own rules. It is made up of Macau Peninsula and the islands of Coloane and Taipa. The famous Cotai strip is built upon reclaimed land between Coloane and Taipa. In the 16th century, Macau was colonized by Portugal, and that has had a lasting influence throughout the centuries culturally, linguistically, architecturally and culinarily. Historic downtown Macau is decidedly both Chinese and European. Tiny winding streets, low-rise buildings with wrought-iron terraces and ivy-covered walls are reminiscent of 16th-century Portugal, while ancient temples, teahouses and street food instantly remind travelers that this is still very much an Asian destination.
Historic Macau is a small, walkable section of the city. Here travelers can see the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, the Camoes Garden, Protestant Chapel, Mount Fortress, Lou Kau Mansion, St. Domingos Church, Santa Casa da Misericordia, Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple, Leal Senado and the Rua da Felicidade.
On the southwest tip of the Macau Peninsula, A-Ma Temple is one of the oldest and most famous Taoist temples in Macau. It was built into the side of a hill in 1488 and is dedicated to Matsu, the goddess of fishermen. In 2005, it became one of the designated sites of the Historic Centre of Macau and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The temple is built into the side of a hill and travelers can wander among the rocks to discover hidden shrines and watch locals burn incense and pray.
Like any Asian metropolis, Macau hums with flashing lights, throngs of people and futuristic skyscrapers. The Asian notion of “bigger is better” is not lost on this tiny island destination. The most famous landmark, other than the casinos, is the Macau Tower, the tallest structure in Macau at 1,109 feet high. A shopping and dining destination, the Macau Tower is most famous for the extreme sports you can find at the top. The tamest is the Skywalk, where travelers are harnessed to a cable and can walk around the exterior of the 61st floor. No handrails here, folks. Be prepared to lean off the edge for some death-defying photos. The next two extreme levels are the Skyjump, which is a modified version of a bungee jumping at a slower pace, and then, of course, there is bungee jumping. Be prepared to wait two hours for the latter as it is one of the most popular activities to do in Macau.
Macau also has a small museum culture, the most famous of which are the Grand Prix Museum and the Wine Museum. Macau has a big wine culture as it imports most of its wine from Portugal. Be sure to try a tasting at the end of the museum. It is HK$10 ($1.3) for one glass or HK$15 for three.
Note: Casino culture is huge in Macau, but it is really for the most serious of gambler. The flashing lights and clinking of slot machines can’t be found here. The casino floors are mostly quiet as gamblers concentrate. It is a far cry from glitzy Las Vegas.
The House of Dancing Water is a HK$2 billion production that can only be found in Macau. The Cirque du Soleil-style show is a frenzy of ballet, acrobatics, martial arts and a water-and-light show with gorgeous music.
We checked into the Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, the largest hotel in Macau, as well as the largest Sheraton in the world. The hotel is part of a complex (home to a Conrad and Holiday Inn) that houses more than 100 retail stores, 20 restaurants and cafes, live entertainment and two casinos. The 3,895 guest rooms are spread across two towers, and we hear 100 suites are expected to open by 2015. Within the hotel are 341 club guest rooms and suites, as well as a Club Lounge that seats 274.
Inside the hotel are three signature restaurants: Bene for Italian food, international dining at Feast and hotpot/seafood at Xin. The hotel is also home to the largest Shine Spa in the Asia- Pacific region. It spans 15 treatment rooms with five couples rooms and a Beauty Zone and hair salon.
There are currently 12,000 rooms on the Cotai Strip and by 2020 it is anticipated that there will be more than 20,000 rooms. In the next few years alone, Macau will become home to a St. Regis, Wynn Palace, a new MGM resort and a Paris-themed complex.
There are 160 direct flights to Hong Kong and 28 flights into Macau directly. Travelers flying into Hong Kong have easy access to the ferry, which takes 45 minutes from the airport. Travelers can also fly into Taipei and take a short flight directly into Macau. Though part of China, Macau does not require visas for U.S. travelers.
Must-Try Dining Experiences
Macau is a culinary hotspot with international chefs cooking up all kinds of global cuisine. Our three favorite dining experiences are:
Albergue 1601: Once a home for single women, this historic building has been converted into a Portuguese restaurant. Try the caldo verdo (potato and kale soup), frango piri-piri (spicy chicken) and bacalhau a bras (shredded cod with potato and egg).
Dim sum at Xin
Pousada de Coloane: Head over to the Coloane side of Macau, which is rustic and beachy. Here travelers will find the Pousada de Coloane, a boutique hotel on a hill overlooking the Cheoc-Van beach. We loved this restaurant not only for the view and friendly staff, but also for the whole dining experience. Through local DMC smallWORLD Experience, travelers can arrange to have a cooking class at the restaurant. Travel Agent was able to experience this class first hand and we learned how to whip up some tasty Portuguese/Macanese fusion dishes, such as chicken in coconut broth and clams with garlic and white wine. The experience closes with a sampling of Portuguese wines.
Xin: At the Sheraton, travelers must try Xin, which is a traditional hotpot restaurant. Guests can dine on an assortment of dim sum, but the real start of the restaurant is the hot pot experience. Diners are given a bowl full of raw ingredients, from vegetables to shell fish to thinly sliced beef. In individual bowls of flavored boiling water, diners cook their own food right at the table.