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Macao: A city of contrasts

Macao: A city of contrasts

From Vegas-style casinos to peaceful temple gardens, Macao treats visitors to a fascinating visual, cultural and gastronomic experience, writes Catharine Nicol.

It’s early Tuesday morning. I’m up, trainers on, Strava standing by, about to jog the strangest route of my life. From my Victorian-themed hotel, The Rocks, I head out into Macao’s tropical heat and follow a loop that detours into a still-thumping nightclub, around a replica of Rome’s Colosseum, past a statue of Kun Iam (Goddess of Mercy), through a park of seniors practising slow-motion tai chi, and finally past a unicyclist jumping his one wheel through a skipping rope.

Welcome to Macao

Surreal and fascinating, Macao is a destination entirely unto itself. From fishing village to Portuguese colony to China’s Las Vegas of the East, this bijou 33-square-kilometre territory with a population of only 650,000 may be Hong Kong’s much smaller neighbour, but it makes many times what Vegas does every year, punching way above its weight.

So much more than a casino destination, Macao is a place where centuries of history sit next to space-age modernity, and Portuguese culture blends seamlessly with Chinese traditions. Visit Michelin-starred restaurants and humble noodle shops, bustling markets and air-conditioned shopping malls, timeless gardens and spectacular shows, hushed churches and fragrant temples.

Art and photography

This year, the first-ever Art Macao has transformed many of Macao’s museums, galleries, resorts and alfresco spots into living art spaces. Chinese artist Ko Lai Chit and Italian Renaissance masterpieces hang in the Macao Museum of Art, which is also home to the main exhibition. Around town, installations like the meditative bamboo Sanctuary at Mount Fortress Garden and Taipa Houses’ 22 pieces of colourful fibreglass The Wanderer are proof that this vibrant city is a stage.

Macao is also rich with Instagram appeal, especially first thing in the morning without the tourist crowds. Stroll from Macao Peninsula’s beautifully paved Senado Square past churches, tiny shops and food stalls to the ruins of St Paul’s and its iconic façade. Keep wandering north until you reach Red Market. A Macao institution, inside you’ll find chefs (celebrity, local and household) planning the day’s menus as they browse the perfectly arranged veggies and spices, live fish and trays of fresh meat.

Hungry?

There’s plenty of world-class fine dining in Macao’s casino resorts; for dim sum try The 8, Jade Dragon and Lotus Palace. Right next to Red Market, however, is Long Wah Tea House. The 180 degrees of windows and booth seating used to be morning spots for caged birds and their owners, catching up via song and gossip. Now, for humans only, owner Uncle Lung whips the lids off steamers for sneak peeks at the char siu bao, siu mai and (yes) chicken’s feet, and serves up delicious stir-fried noodles with beef, totting up the total on his trusty abacus.

Food is an overriding obsession in Macao. Awarded Creative City of Gastronomy in 2017, the UNESCO title shone a spotlight onto the centuries-long blend of Portuguese and Chinese culinary traditions along with the trade route spices that make up Macanese cuisine.

Rarely found outside Macau, dishes were shared through generations, and families feasted on crispy bacalhau (salted cod) croquettes, comforting mince and potato minchi, spicy African chicken stew and serradura, or ‘sawdust dessert’. At Belos Tempos Private Kitchen, owner and chef Anna Manhao Sou teaches how to cook the dishes she learned at her mother’s side, and while my sawdust dessert may not have been picture-perfect, it was certainly delicious.

Over the bridge on Taipa Island, the gently rejuvenated Taipa Village is a prime spot to graze and stroll. Bite into a pork chop bun, square of spicy pork jerky or almond cookies while taking in the charming boutiques, art galleries and temples along the narrow alleyways.

Taipa is home to a who’s who of Portuguese restaurants, like António by local celebrity chef António Coelho or the historic Restaurante Litoral. My favourite is chef Manuel Pena’s redchecked tablecloth bistro, Ó Manel. Clams in lemon sauce and slices of Iberico ham are followed by octopus salad and grilled sardines, then ribs and chicken. Pena’s chocolate mousse elicits hot competition to discover the secret ingredient. Is it whisky? We’ll never know; he’s not telling.

Jade Dragon Tea Cellar © David Hartung
Jade Dragon Tea Cellar © David Hartung

Sightseeing

Just a handful of blocks away, the neon colours of Cotai flash into the night. The reclaimed casino district that links Coloane and Taipa (Co-Tai) is known for its integrated resorts, spectacular themed façades on the outside cocooning luxury suites, restaurants, malls, entertainment and casinos on the inside.

Visit the half-size Eiffel Tower at The Parisian, gondolas and canals at The Venetian, and, opening later this year, footballer David Beckham and designers will transform the Holiday Inn into The Londoner. The late, great architect Zaha Hadid’s Morpheus hotel is space-age spectacular; Studio City incorporates a double Ferris wheel; MGM Cotai is a stack of shiny jewellery boxes, and Wynn Palace is accessed via a cable car that circles a spectacular water display.

My food pilgrimage ends on the more down-to-earth Coloane Island. While I’m tempted by the hiking trails and black-sand beach, they pale into insignificance once Lord Stow’s Bakery opens its doors for piping-hot Portuguese egg tarts. When Andrew Stow launched the tarts 30 years ago he had to give them away. These days, the company sells about 20,000 a day. Taste them, and you’ll understand why.

Signature Black Book

Iconic attraction
City of Dreams’ House of Dancing Water show, featuring death-defying acrobats

Coming soon
Grand Lisboa Palace’s triple hotel complex, featuring Palazzo Versace and the Karl Lagerfeld Hotel, will open late 2019 or 2020

Magic moment
Macao Peninsula’s Lou Lim Ieoc Garden with its nine-angle bridge and bamboo groves

Great restaurants
Mizumi Voyages by Alain Ducasse and Jade Dragon Vic’s Restaurante mezza9 Macau La Chine and Lotus Palace Ó Manel The 8 Restaurant

Cool bar
Old Taipa Tavern, a lively gastropub located in Rua de São Joao, Taipa Village

Top spas
The Parisian’s Le SPA’tique and Morpheus Spa

Best market
Red Market, Macao Peninsula

Unusual museum
The asymmetrical Macao Science Center features a spiral walkway surrounding a vast atrium and a 3D projection planetarium

Cutting-edge gallery
Macao Museum of Art

Best design store
Morpheus hotel’s in-house boutique

Gourmet experience
Treat yourself to lunch or dinner at the three Michelin-star Robuchon au Dôme

Best shop
Loja Das Conservas is the most colourful sardine shop you’ll ever visit.

Top cooking class
Belos Tempos Private Kitchen

Hidden secret
Albergue 1601 is set in a heritage courtyard under the branches of a lovely old banyan tree

Ultimate view
Altira 38’s alfresco rooftop space with panoramas of the Macau Peninsula

Best resources
macaulifestyle.com

This article originally appeared in volume 34 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.