In the U.S., Macau is often 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 is, we say dig a little deeper.
Travel Agent is on location this week in Macau exploring the cultural and culinary landscape. Not knowing what to expect, aside from casinos, we are completely taken aback by the amount of culture to be found off the Cotai Strip.
Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region of China, meaning while it technically is a part of China, it is somewhat allowed to play by its own rules. It is made up of three islands: Macau peninsula, 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 through the centuries culturally, linguistically, architecturally and culinarily. Historic downtown Macau is both decidedly 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 Church, the Camoes Garden, Protestant Chapel, Mount Fortress, Lou Kau Mansion, St. Domingos Church, Santa Casa da Misrecordia, Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple, Leal Senado and the Rua da Felicidade. These are the top historical sites within the downtown section of Macau.
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 most tame 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 bungee jumping at a slower pace, and then, of course, there is bungee jumping. Be prepared to wait two hours for bungee jumping 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 Musuem and the Wine Museum. Macau is a big wine culture as it imports most of its wine from Portugal. Be sure to try a tasting at the end of the musuem. It is HK$10 for one glass or HK$15 for three.
We have 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 cafés, live entertainment and two casinos. The 3,896 guestrooms are spread across two towers, and we hear 100 suites are expected to open by 2015. Within the hotel are 341 club guestrooms 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 a Shine Spa, the largest Shine Spa in the Asia Pacific region. It spans 15 treatment rooms with five couple 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.
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, and alcohol is not served. It is a far cry from the late-night debauchery you find in Las Vegas.
There are three billion people within a five-hour flight of Macau. 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.
Stay tuned for more updates from Macau at www.travelagentcentral.com.