Celeste Gorrell Anstiss travels to exotic Macau and finds herself in the casino-filled Las Vegas of the East.
They say Macau has stronger feng shui than anywhere in Asia. It's graced by the flowing waters of the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea, with spiritual protection coming from the mountains to the north.
By local definitions, it's a lucky place and the nouveau-riche of China flock here each weekend to find their fortunes. Because, unlike the mainland or Hong Kong, Macau has casinos. Many, many casinos.
It's barely half the size of Auckland's Waiheke Island, but it's earned the names "Asia Vegas" and "the Monte Carlo of the Orient" because it generates more gambling revenue than anywhere else in the world.
Many tourists check-in to a hotel for the weekend and don't leave the building. There's little reason to: these entertainment precincts are destinations in their own right, with shopping malls, entertainment, restaurants, spas, bars and floor after glitzy floor of gaming.
Space is in short-supply, so the government is reclaiming swamp land at an alarming rate.
Just last week, the Wynn Macau hotel signed a 25-year lease for 20ha of former mudflats.
Much like Las Vegas, each hotel has a grander entrance, more spectacular theme and bigger and better shows than the place next door. The Venetian boasts cobbled corridors, canals and opera singers; the Sofitel has a Michael Jackson museum; the Sands has leotard-clad PlayBoy bunnies serving drinks; MGM features a Portuguese-style courtyard complete with pretty flower beds, enclaves to sit in and pastel-coloured canaries singing from old-fashioned wire cages. Not to be out done, the City of Dreams has the House of Dancing Water, Dragons' Treasure laser dome - and nearly 40 square kilometers of gaming floor. They all jostle for attention - and money - on the strip, but you don't have to be a guest to enjoy the entertainment on offer.
Take a cab, they're cheap here, to the Galaxy Hotel on the Cotai Strip. It's an absolute eyesore; a horrendous lump of architecture rising out of the ground and adorned in all the gold-plating and pomp you would expect a story-book palace to have. In the lobby is a water feature of monumental proportions which becomes the centrepiece for a sound and light show every 15 minutes.
Water, one of the great catalysts of luck, features heavily in the hotels of Macau. The Wynn, another Vegas-based brand, is positioned behind a man-made lake and has a fountain show every half an hour.
Inside its atrium, the lucky symbols continue, with a show telling the story of the "tree of prosperity". The 24-carat tree is two storeys high with 98,000 leaves and 2000 branches. There's a chandelier with 21,000 crystals, too. By the time you reach the Wynn's check-in counter, the tank housing 1000 fluorescent jellyfish seems like just another piece of furniture.
Across the road is one of Macau's original casinos, the Grand Lisboa. At night, there isn't a patch of this lotus flower-shaped skyscraper that's not flashing. Head here for the most lively casino atmosphere in the city.
But if you have children in tow, the Venetian is a more family-friendly retreat. Modeled on its Vegas cousin, the Venetian is dissected by an artificial canal and has gondola rides, human statues and a blue sky ceiling. It's also home to Ice World, where you can roam through frozen sculptures of the world's most famous sights; and Cirque du Soleil, which performs six nights a week, all year.
The Grand Canal Shoppes have 300 worthwhile chain stores, including Zara, Mango and other popular European brands that are yet to make it Downunder. There are also higher-end boutiques - Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Celine - which seem to inhabit Macau like Starbucks in New York. If haute couture is your thing, the prices here work out about 30 per cent cheaper than other parts of the world. Just don't expect to pick up cheap knock-offs - counterfeit goods are strictly forbidden and next to impossible to come by.
Other non-gambling attractions include the giant panda pavilion in Coloane, a short drive from the strip and the bustling A-Ma temple, where Tao followers have been coming for more than 600 years to attach their prayers to burning incense sticks. Nearby, the spooky ruins of St Pauls Church are a World Heritage Site - the 17th century Gothic facade remains intact and overlooks the city's famous Senado Square.
Children will love the Science Centre and Fishermen's Wharf theme park, but might be less wowed by the Macau Tower - the view from the top is great, but it's a replica of Auckland's Sky Tower, complete with Kiwi lads working at the A.J. Hackett bungee on the viewing platform.
To take full advantage of the city's sights, visit in October and November when the temperature is around 25C and the rain less frequent. During June, July and August heat waves and massive thunderstorms can set in.
Been there, done that
Flight Centre's Stefan Schulzky has experienced Macau and shares his top five must-dos:
* If you arrive at Hong Kong International Airport and are heading straight to Macau, take the ferry straight from the airport across the Pearl River Delta- no need to go into Hong Kong city first.
* Macau is the Las Vegas of the east -take in some of the opulent casinos, you'll recognise all the major names from Las Vegas.
* Head to the Grand Lisboa Hotel at night for the light show on its dome. Also check out the musical fountain outside the MGM Macau - similar to the one outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
* Wander the old part of town and lose yourself in the winding alleys - look out for the Portuguese-inspired buildings.
* Visit the ruins of St Paul's Cathedral - only the facade is still standing. It's an amazing monument to the past of this once Portuguese colony.
* For more information on Macau, contact Stefan Schulzky at Flight Centre on 0800 427 555.
A world away from the giant hotels of Taipa and the Cotai Strip, Portuguese tavernas line narrow lanes and serve traditional treats.
Antonio's is run by a larger-than-life Portuguese expat of the same name, whose service is just as much an attraction as the food. The tiny restaurant has earned two Michelin recommendations and when you try Antonio's crepes suzette, cooked at the table under a brandy-fuelled flame, you will understand why. Try an entree of Queijo de Cabra Gratinado (goat cheese, honey and grain toast), followed by Bacalhau Assado (charcoal-grilled codfish) and Gambas ao Alhinho (garlic-stuffed king prawns).
If you're especially hungry, ask for the African Chicken (fried with coconut and periperi pepper) and wash it down with Portuguese wine. If crepes aren't your thing, there's Serradura (custard) or skip over to Lord Stow's Bakery in Coloane for a famous Macanese egg tart.
The Portuguese came to Macau in the 16th century and ruled the peninsula until 1999, when Macau became a Special Administrative Region of China. Antonio's, Rua Dos Negociantes No. 3, Taipa, ph (853)2899-9998.
Cathay Pacific operates up to 14 direct flights from Auckland to Hong Kong. Most flights connect to the Turbo Jetfoil service to Macau at Hong Kong Airport's Sky Pier, with no need to collect your luggage at Hong Kong airport.
* The Wynn