Someone once wrote that frequent travelers are often driven to bestow human qualities upon destinations in order to describe them more accurately. If that’s the case, then Macau would be a poster child for schizophrenia—or dissociative identity disorder—because this Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) suffers from a bad case of triple personalities, but in the most enthralling way.
Walking around one sees clear examples of this: One block it seems like Macau is Chinese through and through. Walk farther and its personality alters unpredictably to that of a typical Portuguese town. A few short blocks later, it changes once again—having abruptly wrapped itself in a Las Vegas-style glittery cape.
This baffling, charming and disconcerting quality presents a destination ripe for travel agents.
Like its SAR cousin Hong Kong, Macau was one of the last European colonies in Asia. Portugal ceded it to China in 1999, and like Hong Kong, Macau operates autonomously.
Once a sleepy Portuguese outpost, this metropolis on steroids, on the banks of the Pearl River, has in a few short years transformed itself into one of the world’s richest cities: It became the planet’s largest gambling center in 2006; it presently boasts the largest economic growth rate in Asia; and it produced one of the most dramatic land reclamation projects on earth, as a result, turning itself into an undeniably first-class destination.
According to Alyson Marks, U.S. media manager of the Macau Government Tourist Office, “Macau is the ideal travel destination for U.S. travelers for many reasons. For one, it’s just a 50-minute hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong and has great flight and ferry connections within Asia. In addition, English is widely spoken and no visa is needed. But what makes Macau so unique is its fusion of East and West. It offers a great variety of intriguing historical sites from the 16th through the 18th century, several Michelin-rated restaurants and award-winning spas, and the tallest bungee jump in the world.”
It’s evident at first sight that this is not your typical tourism office hype. Macau astounds. Its change is staggering; its growth unchecked.
In addition to a series of new projects, the city is reaching out to make its wonders more accessible. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the first major combined bridge-and-tunnel sea crossing project in Asia, is expected to be completed in 2016. Once finished, driving the 40 miles separating Macau from Hong Kong will be a breeze. The bridge will have a massive parking lot at the Macau terminus. From there, visitors will be able to take a sleek monorail into the city.
out & about
Once in the city, Macau offers a multitude of entertainment, dining, nightlife, cultural and shopping choices wrapped in an easy-to-navigate compact zone.
In its flashy casinos, Las Vegas-caliber shows are the norm. Here, stars from Asia, Europe and the Americas perform regularly in ultramodern venues. In the ancient section, quaint eateries in pastel-colored buildings that hark back four centuries specialize in sumptuous and obscure cuisine.
The city is flush with museums showcasing objects ranging from the ancient to the modern. There are public gardens, parks, Taoist temples and a multitude of delights coexisting next door to one another.
One of Macau’s most colorful areas is the St. Lazarus Quarter, an area of Portuguese-style sidewalks and ancient buildings that make visitors feel like they’ve crossed into a time warp.
Albergue 1601, a restaurant that serves Portuguese dishes with Asian and African influences in a classic Mediterranean setting, makes a trip to Macau worthwhile and will intrigue those venturing beyond Cotai Central’s neon sparkle. Alfresco dining in the shade of giant camphor trees surrounded by timeless colonial buildings is a memorable experience.
On the flip side of the casino chip, adrenaline junkies will get their fix by bungee jumping 1,109 ft. from the top of the Macau Tower—a structure that mirrors the Seattle Space Needle but is twice as tall—or experiencing a “Sky Walk” around the perimeter of the tower’s highest point.
Automobile fans will be enthralled by the Macau Grand Prix Museum, a sparkling complex celebrating the city’s annual race that’s celebrated as one of the oldest car races in the world. It’s conveniently located next to Macau’s Wine Museum showcasing Iberian wines with an emphasis on Portuguese green wine.
If that weren’t enough, Macau has a reputation of being one of the best and most diverse shopping centers in Asia where upscale boutiques or sidewalk vendors offer a multiplicity of choices.
the accommodation option
Choosing accommodations in Macau is a crapshoot because the city has a choice of hotels as diverse as a 13-course Chinese dinner. Massive hotels loom over Cotai Central, a section of the city consisting of a gargantuan reclaimed land project. Vegas names like The Venetian, Wynn’s, Sands and others are already familiar landmarks in the former Portuguese colony. Opening in 2016, perhaps in anticipation of the swarm of visitors who will by then be able to drive to Macau from Hong Kong, are MGM, The Parisian, JW Marriott, Galaxy and a Ritz-Carlton.
If there’s a resort that exemplifies the city, though, it’s Sheraton Macao, a twin tower complex (the towers are fetchingly named “Earth” and “Sky”) of luxury shops, spas, restaurants and—of course—a scintillating casino. This massive complex, part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, has set new standards when it comes to Macau-style pampering and luxury.
Josef Dolp, the hotel’s managing director, describes the complex as being in “the most desirable location of a vibrant city. What makes a most memorable vacation here is our proximity to world-class shopping, dining and entertainment, plus our full array of amenities.”
According to Ruth Boston, the hotel’s general manager of sales and marketing, the growth is almost surreal. “This is a city with a tad over a half-million residents who welcome more than 28 million visitors every year—and it shows no sign of slowing. You must remember,” she stresses, “that a mere five years ago this was barren, reclaimed land. Yet, the resort received its one millionth guest only 11 months after opening in September 2012.”
She says that even with the Sheraton Macao’s success, “expansion is already underway, as we plan to add an additional 105 suites to the existing 273 by 2014.”
According to Boston, Sheraton Macao’s “unwavering policy” is to “personalize a stay. We go out of our way to make guests feel like they’re staying in a small hotel, so we try to make a stay here an intimate experience. We’re adding because of the large demand.”
The demand is clear. The Sheraton Macao boasts 100 percent occupancy on weekends, and the activity within it is as hectic as any weekend night on the Las Vegas Strip.
Guests traveling with children will find the resort to be a fun-filled destination accented by the presence of DreamWorks characters entertaining the younger set in specially designed shows throughout the property. To promote its ties with DreamWorks, Sheraton Macao offers a package (from about $370 per night) in a DreamWorks-themed family suite with amenities tailored exclusively for children. The suites are decorated with famous DreamWorks characters from “Madagascar,” “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda,” and children receive a welcome kit full of collectibles. The package features unlimited access to movies and supervised outdoor activities.
Weekend breakfast (“Shrekfast with the DreamWorks Gang”) is a lively affair with the “Shrek” characters entertaining guests throughout the morning in a massive ballroom.
For adults with different tastes, the Sheraton Macao has a lineup of restaurants that will delight even the most discerning epicurean.
Three elegant eateries dish out an array of Asian, Italian and international cuisine that has earned kudos from food critics in North America and Europe: Xin specializes in Asian seafood with such varied delights as Boston lobster, Kobe beef and Kurobuta pork belly. Bene is patterned after an Italian trattoria and serves “mama-style” fare, while Feast is a lively spot with an excellent buffet highlighted by Asian, Portuguese and Macanese delicacies.
A stay in the Sheraton Macao wouldn’t be complete without experiencing Shine Spa, perhaps Macau’s most relaxing spot, where guests bask in a massive 18,000-sq.-ft. serene corner of the resort that despite its size manages to feel like a secluded tiny health resort.
Shine offers services that combine Western treatments with the balancing principles of Chinese Feng Shui. According to Johan Potgieter, the hotel’s director of wellness and leisure, “The spa is completely focused on restoring balance and enhancing health. During the first visit, therapists will first gauge the needs of guests by balancing the principles and elements of Feng Shui: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Then we determine a guest’s Chinese zodiac sign, favorite season, color, flavor and most active time of day. Therapists will customize the treatment according to this information.”
Rates for a deluxe room begin at approximately $180 pp per night dbl, while a family suite begins at about $275.
Reaching Macau is easy. EVA Air, the much-lauded Taiwanese carrier that began its first flights in 1991, offers regular service from the U.S. west coast to Macau (starting at about $998 roundtrip), with a stop in Taipei. Its appealing Elite Class makes the 14-hour flight a pleasure, because it provides a very comfortable alternative between business and economy classes.
In addition, some EVA flights are experiences where fun seems to be the theme. The airline joined efforts with Japan’s Sanrio Corporation to operate eye-catching, fun-filled Hello Kitty aircrafts with liveries featuring the cartoon character. Flight attendants wear accessories with a nod to the ubiquitous feline.
Club Med Guilin
Opened in August 2013, Club Med Guilin in China’s Guanxi Province, in the southwest part of the country, offers 330 rooms split by a main building housing 284 new rooms and a chateau with 46 rooms designed in different styles from contemporary to Chinese. Amenities include three pools, four restaurants, three bars, a fitness room and a spa, along with yoga, tai chi, mountain biking and numerous excursions in the surrounding area. Located on a private domain of 116 acres, the resort sits in the heart of a 1,480-acre public park known as the first location of contemporary art in Asia with modern sculptures throughout. clubmed.us
Although Macau has traditionally been considered a sideshow to Hong Kong, the formerPortuguese colony has managed in the last decade to earn its stripes as a formidable Asian
According to Mary Barnett, concierge sales at SITA World Tours, “Macau is increasingly popular as a post-China tour. In addition, it is an excellent experience for SITA’s clients who have already been to its other destinations such as Africa and India.”
To further showcase Macau, SITA offers travel agents registered with the company’s agent site an $80 AMEX gift card for each booking as a sales incentive celebrating SITA’s 80th anniversary, an offer expected to continue through March.
As one of the few tour operators focusing on Macau, SITA offers Flavors of Macau, a 2-night package (from about $1,895 pp) highlighted by a detailed tour of Macau’s historic center, a
UNESCO World Heritage site.
Barnett says, “Here you’ll see unique architecture combining influences from China and Portugal. Macau was a vibrant international trading center from the 16th to the 20th centuries and the fusion of Chinese and Portuguese cultures created the great atmosphere and flavor of Macau today.”
SITA also combines Hong Kong and Macau in a 6-day package (from about $2,380 pp) that can be sold as a 1-week vacation.
“Plus we can tailor any program into a customized journey,” Barnett adds. (800) 421-5643 or sitatours.com
Check out Eye on the World
Visit recommend.com and click on “Eye on the World” under “departments” to view a slideshow of Macau