This gamblers’ paradise is also a winner for tourists.

by Brenda Fine

Not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Some things — like those fantasy theme hotels — have cloned themselves and jetted over to a second location: the southeastern coast of China.

St. Paul's Church, Macau (© 2009 Burt Fine).

Right smack in Macau, the glittery and futuristic gamblers’ paradise that’s just a short ferry-ride from Hong Kong. Macau, although formally designated a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China, is also known by its unofficial (and infinitely more descriptive) nickname: “China’s Sin City,”

Think that nickname’s merely some sort of public relations hyperbole? Think again. And consider these official stats: In 2007 gambling revenues for Las Vegas totaled $6.8 billion. In Macau for that same year, the revenues totaled $10.3 billion.

That represents a whole lot of gambling. So it’s no surprise to find big corporations following hot on the heels of all this big money. Macau is now home to an impressive array of Big Name casino/hotels. A total of 54 hotels, many of which are clones of those found on the Vegas strip, now provide visitors with a choice of more than 16,000 rooms. And there are plenty more hotels currently under construction. Big international names like Wynn, Four Seasons, Raffles, Ritz-Carlton, Shangri-La —- are all part of the Macau’s future magic.

During a recent visit, Burt and I chose to stay in what many consider to be “the” quintessential Vegas-style hotel of all the lavish landmarks: the MGM Grand. And, indeed, a grand choice that turned out to be.

In a Vegas-style lexicon where words like “lavish” and “extraordinary” are merely routine, the MGM Grand brilliantly manages to exceed excess. It is truly grand both in physical size and in architectural statements and scope. The soaring lobby is vast, crowned by a gold-leaf ceiling from which is suspended an enormous sculpture of art glass flowers created by famed blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly. Another Chihuly installation, a long wall of 52 abstract and colorful glass panels, provides a dramatic backdrop for the reception desk.

And, directly ahead as one enters this art-filled lobby, stretches the MGM Grand’s signature “Grande Praca,” an large and airy life-size replica of a typical Portuguese town square, complete with sweeping curved staircases, artistically intricate fountains, and “buildings” fronted with European-style facades detailed with fretwork and hand-painted tiles. Tucked inside these fanciful facades are many of the resort’s restaurants and shops.

This expansive space is roofed in glass to keep out the rain but also to let in the sunshine, creating a cheerful venue that attracts guests who come to linger, perhaps enjoy “uma bica” (a coffee), and watch the crowds stroll by, much the same as they would do in any town square anywhere in Europe.

The Macau MGM Grand's signature "Grande Praca" (© 2009 Burt Fine).

After settling in, we decided to lunch in the hotel’s impressive-looking (and Michelin-starred) Chinese restaurant, the Imperial Court. Gliding along acres of dazzlingly polished marble floors, we passed through massive archways that lead to a traditionally arched doorway into the restaurant. The interior, which was equally traditional and formal —- snowy damask linens, silver-tipped chopsticks, liveried waitstaff ——was filled with distinctly INformally dressed diners enjoying every bite as they chowed-down with noisy gusto. Asian guys sporting backwards-facing baseball hats, large families ranging from ancient grandmas to infants in sling-carriers, gaggles of Juicy Couture-ed teenaged girls, each expertly multitasking as they simultaneously tapped out text messages, wielded their chopsticks and gossiped non-stop.

Our own personal Imperial Court experience was first-rate. The menu was impressively extensive, a mix of classic and “nouvelle” Cantonese dishes, each one brilliantly executed and served with grace and efficiency. Who could resist starting the meal with Dim Sum that included Lobster dumplings with Caviar? We didn’t even try. After wolfing down every delicious morsel, we moved on to a seemingly never-ending parade of dishes, among which were such delights as scallops and sliced sea whelk in XO (a spicy seafood sauce), and Wagyu Beef tenderloin wok-fried with morels and parsnips. As a fittingly end to this imperial feast… a chilled coconut pudding studded with exotic osmanthus and lily buds.

Neither of us is a gambler but, of course, any visit to Macau would be incomplete without at least one leisurely stroll through the hotel’s enormous casino, just to check out the action. It was crowded with players, all of whom seemed to be chain-smoking. Definitely not a place where non-gambling, non-smokers would want to hang out for long. But then, we were definitely in the minority. The casino air was smoky, and the action was hot!

We found the sybaritic Six Senses Spa far more suited to our style. Hushed and peaceful, nestled into a setting so mellow and Zen it was like entering a parallel universe, this spa reveals its many levels of pleasures like a lotus flower slowly unfolding.

In a garden-like room with ceiling-to-floor windows, an infinity pool overlooks peaceful views of the South China Sea. Next-door to this bucolic scene, in a darkened and windowless room, stretches the salt water floatation pool, a hushed space. And, as you lie peacdefully suspended in the buoyant salt water, the surroundings are illuminated by a constantly shifting rainbow of colors, each designed to evoke a different mood.

The MGM's soaring lobby is crowned by a gold-leaf ceiling from which is suspended an enormous sculpture created by famed artist Dale Chihuly (© 2009 Burt Fine).

Even the Spa’s changing rooms are innovative. In some, lifelike blizzards of snow fall from the ceiling, creating a remarkably convincing replica of those “snow cabins” that deliver a Finnish-style cooling-off after a session in the steam and sauna cabins. Factor in such other delights as relaxation rooms where silence is observed, and tea and hydrating drinks are served, and one might almost forget that spas are really all about massages and treatments. But that, of course, would be a huge mistake. The therapists at this Spa are superior, providing exactly the type and pressure treatment your travel-weary body craves.

Yes, given all these creature comforts and pleasures, it was a tough job to drag ourselves away from the lures of this total-destination hotel. But eventually we did venture out into the real world to explore the strange dual-personality that is Macau —- an 11-square-mile world unto itself, part old, part space-age-new; part modern China, part glitzy Vegas, with beguiling remnants of its past as a former Portuguese colony. It is this intriguing mix (and, of course, the lure of big-time casino gambling) that is turning Macau into one of Asia’s must-visit destinations.

Most American travelers tend to include a visit to Macau as part of their Hong Kong itinerary. (However, should Macau be your primary destination, there’s also an international airport on the nearby island of Taipa.)

Getting to Macau from Hong Kong is a lot easier now than it was when we first visited years ago. Today there are new high-speed ferries, departing numerous times every day and night, that zip you along the 37-mile journey from Hong Kong in about an hour. Be sure to spring for the “Deluxe Class” tickets which are about $30 (as opposed to the $17 for “ordinary class”), You’ll be paying this more expensive rate not for the meal —- (which is served en route and is basically inedible) —- but rather for the perk of being able to disembark first, giving you a head-start on clearing Macau’s entrance formalities without having to wait in what quickly piles up into a long queue of arriving passengers.

Depending on your love of history, and of sightseeing in general, Macau can be “seen” in a day — or can be enjoyed over a much longer period of exploration. Without question, the main attraction is the ruins of St Paul’s church, the iconic façade featured on all those postcards and guidebook covers. The church’s one-dimensional facade is pretty much all that was left following a fire in 1835 that destroyed the entire body of the structure. Today, there’s basically no there there, other than that gloriously and intricately carved facade that reminds me of one of those sets of a Hollywood Western —- all front with nothing behind it.

St. Paul’s sits atop a hill, which is accessed by a very long, broad staircase. Together, this staircase and this famous façade form a sort of unofficial ground zero for all tourists in Macau. Virtually everyone comes here to take photos of themselves and their friends, to see and be seen, and to touch base before setting off to explore the rest of Macau.

The Macau MGM Grand's reception area with a mural by artist Dale Chihuly (© 2009 Burt Fine).

The Historic Centre of Macau, an urban area within the old city, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And because of Macau’s multi-cultural heritage, you can see Taoist temples dating back to the Ming Dynasty set in close proximity to Christian churches from18th century Portuguese settlers. Many streets still retain classic Chinese shophouse architecture. There are colonial palaces and Chinese courtyards sharing the same neighborhoods. The Dom Pedro V Theatre, dated 1860, is the oldest European theater in Asia. The first western lighthouse (1864) is built high atop Guia Fortress that dates to the 17th century.

In additional to historical landmarks built by man, you’ll also find an abundance of nature. Macau has many trails designed for jogging or hiking or just plain meandering while you enjoy the views. Walk or jog the track around Guia Hill for memorable overlooks of the city and harbors. Stroll the Praia Grande and maybe join in with people practicing their tai chi exercises, or watch the locals taking their caged birds on a walk to enjoy a bit of fresh air. Or, if you’re feeling daring, climb the 1108-foot Macau Tower and take the sky Jump, a 20-second flight into Macau space.

Be warned that you may well experience a sense of cultural overload. It’s that heady high-octane mixture of Chinese, Las Vegas and Portuguese that sometimes makes it hard to sort out where you are or what you want to see and do.

When all else fails, or when it’s too rainy to sightsee, you still have a great fallback option. Just do what the vast majority of visitors do —– head back to the casinos.

For more information, visit the Macau Government Tourist Office,

Wednesday, 30 December, 2009

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