Many faces of Macau

Francis Cook finds himself seeing red and drinking white in the Vegas of the East.
The diverse architecture of Macau highlights the many cultural strands of the city's history. Photo / iStock
The diverse architecture of Macau highlights the many cultural strands of the city's history. Photo / iStock

It was a time for firsts: my first five-star executive suite, my first massage, my first Michelin dining experience, and my first visit to a casino.

Macau is a very Special Administrative Region where anything is possible but even in a land of luxury, not everything is rosy. Arriving on the island, I was driven down a long avenue of Portuguese-style townhouses. Our guide said the facades of the buildings were required by law to remain original while the insides were totally revamped.

Macau is a city of fusion and contrast in every conceivable way. The perpetually changing architecture, which goes from Chinese to Portuguese within metres, becomes a given within a day or two.

Both cultures' cuisines have merged in the city giving way to Mediterranean-style fish with Asian spices and chorizo served with fried rice. Every sign is written in Cantonese and Portuguese, and sometimes English. A Portuguese fado singer will sing in a restaurant with lyrics flowing easily between English, Portuguese and Chinese.

However, the flow between the cultures can feel contrived and forced at times. Like those facades, it's Portuguese on the outside, but something entirely different on the inside.

The relatively new Cotai Strip - or Vegas of the East - is seared into the imagination of would-be travellers to the island.

A traditional temple in Macau, China.
A traditional temple in Macau, China.

There are "integrated resorts", with more than 4000 rooms. Casinos, shopping malls and restaurants abound. So much emphasis has gone on modelling itself on Europe, literally. The Venetian is a copy of Venice, featuring canals and gondolas, while a soon-to-open hotel a stone's throw away will replicate Paris. The Eiffel Tower is almost done. The St Regis is exactly as you'd expect: a swanky New York 40s-esque boutique. It all feels out of place here. The real Macau is much more interesting.

Bustling with scooters and narrow streets where every step is treacherous, Macau has the authentic feel of an ancient city with history engraved upon it. A quick walk down an alley will lead into dark spaces too narrow for traffic, where old men sit and play mahjong while vendors hawk dried fish and knock-off T-shirts.

Even the hotels and casinos here feel different - a little grimier with a 1980s feel; smokers sit outside drinking Tsingtao.

I didn't pluck up the courage to gamble here - instead I hit the plush Venetian casino. But that was later. I had a Chinese massage while staying in Old Macau and I was nervous about it. It was my first ever massage for a reason - I'm typically very ticklish. The masseuse did her best to get me to relax and I finally gave in to the experience. I left feeling weightless and tired, slept like a log, and the next day found that my creaky shoulder had sprung into place.

The next day: a three-Michelin star restaurant for lunch. It would be an understatement to say my expectations were high. And by God, I was disappointed.

The Eight, situated inside the majestic Grand Lisboa hotel, which hosts another three Michelin-starred restaurant, is certainly pleasing on the eye. The design and decor is phenomenal, a dark-burgundy colour dominates the goldfish and eight theme (both considered lucky in China).

We were led to a private dining room, which has one large table with a lazy Susan and chairs graced with Ferrari leather. The first dish came out and I was salivating but when I bit into the prawn I was little let down. The Eight is certainly a lavish experience but, for me, lacked the character of the restaurants we visited.

We dined al fresco at a brilliant Chinese restaurant where everybody was drunk and the owner ran around playing rock 'n' roll songs on his guitar. Piles of roast duck and chicken were slammed on the table by efficient and friendly waiters. The brutally strong Chinese wine flowed along with a Portuguese white.

We had a blast. The Eight can keep its three Michelin stars - this place got five from me.

With wine bolstering my confidence, I tried my luck at the casino.

Tourists visit the Cathedral of Saint Paul Sao Paulo Church in Macao.
Tourists visit the Cathedral of Saint Paul Sao Paulo Church in Macao.

A couple others from dinner joined in the stroll to the Venetian. Roulette was the game of choice, and this being my first time in a casino, I didn't really know how it worked.

After botching the initial bet, I threw down HK$50 ($9.61) on red, as did my friend. The wheel spun, I looked away and, when I looked back, I was being offered a high-five.

"We won!" he said. I was stunned to see my chip had turned into two.

I let the wheel spin again. Another win. I let it spin again and again until finally my $50 had turned into $500.

I was ecstatic with my paltry winnings (others at the table were making much more intimidating bets).

Attuned to the world of gambling, I set out to repeat my victory two more nights in a row. At first, I stayed with the tried-and-true red but lady luck had run out. I stepped up to betting on some lucky numbers - 8, 14, 21. Nothing worked. The memory of winning kept pulling me back, but the losing felt so instant and unceremonious that I cut my losses and quit.

All in all, I left Macau $100 up from my sin-city transgression. These turbulent nights in the casino pale in comparison to the fun I had drinking and dining with friends in Macau.

To anyone travelling there, I say look past the facade of Macau's Cotai strip, and find the heart within the old city.



Cathay Pacific flies daily to Hong Kong with Economy Class fares starting at $1569. Regular ferries run from the airport to Macau.

- NZ Herald

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