This is a tale about two cities in onec – A split personality. On one hand we have a colonial European character, conservative yet graceful with an eye for ancient Chinese customs and traditions. On the other, we see a contemporary and vibrant nature from a character which loves nothing more than to dress up in a multitude of colours for the night.
Somehow, Macau’s contrasting features merge well to create Macau, 2012-style, a truly fashionable and fascinating centre which is not only unique to Asia, but very much its own personality on the global stage.
Since becoming a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China in 1999, the former Portuguese colony has grown, and grown, and continues to grow – without losing touch with its east-meet-west heritage which is so significant it has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Here, a 60-minute high-speed ferry connection from Hong Kong, is a compact centre with a population of around 560,000 which has the magnetism other centres only dream of – to attract more than 28 million guests in a single year.
To ensure growth goes ahead without creating congestion and harming the status of the 25 or more historic sites along the Macau peninsula, land has been reclaimed to link the centre’s two tiny outlying islands – Taipa and Coloane.
It’s in this prime area that theneon lights of the Vegas-style Cotai Strip brighten the night’s sky, a streetscape that has extended greatly this year due to the opening of the new Sands Cotai Central project, complete with three new modern hotels – Conrad, Holiday Inn and more recently, Sheraton Macao – as well as extra bars, international and Asian eateries and 100 stores, many designer label outlets.
This latest addition to the Strip has added a massive 5800 international standard hotel rooms and suites for the growing number of visitors through having the world’s largest hotels for each brand.
Its unveiling also followed hot on the heels of the opening of the nearby Galaxy, which, too, boasts three hotels – Banyan Tree, Hotel Okura and Galaxy – as well as an outdoor wave pool and giant shopping precinct, among the many outstanding features.
Despite the contemporary appeal of the Cotai Strip, change of a different kind has spread to other more traditional corners of Macau, without detracting from the city’s historic features.
At the bottom of the 66 steps leading to Macau’s iconic Ruins of St Paul’s is a freshly painted yellow remnant of the centre’s Portuguese architectural past which today houses a new Macau Tourism and Cultural Activities Centre where locally made and designed products and art work are on exhibition and for sale.
On the first floor is Lusitanus, a newly opened Portuguese-style cafe/ restaurant with egg tarts and other traditional delicacies on sale for consumption daily.
For interested shoppers, Lusitanus doubles as a gourmet, handicraft and design store, a highlight of this store being the shelves of Portuguese wine for sale. Upstairs is a new Chinese tea and art showroom where guests have the chance to learn about the tea culture while sampling a beverage and a few tasty specialty snacks.
As with all walking tours to this central point of old Macau, the pace is leisurely and normally includes a visit to the Macau Museum to take in the background of a city with more than 400 years of Chinese-Portuguese history.
At the end of the tour through the tiered museum, guests find themselves immersed in more history, exploring the fortress, cannons still in place, which stood guard for centuries and was designed to prevent possible invasions.
Major focal point of old Macau, however, remains Senado Square with its neighbouring spruced up colonial buildings and offices, churches and markets. Its mosaic tiled pavement with colourful waves is perhaps the most photographed location in Macau.
A leisurely stroll away is another new addition to a tourist’s list – Sky 21, an attractively furnished and decorated restaurant which specialises in fusion Asian cuisine. Upstairs is a modern bar, popular after dark for its wraparound open verandah and bird’s eye view of the skyline and the neon lights along the peninsula.
Its addition to the list of places to go complements the more traditional institutions, among them Restaurant Litoral and A Lorcha, both within a brief walk of the A-Ma Temple and specialising in Macanese cuisine, a mix of Chinese, Portuguese, Indian and African recipes passed down by generations of locals.
Two hot spots for Portuguese cuisine are Antonio’s and O Manel, both in quaint Taipa Village and renowned for their relaxed atmosphere as well as their delicacies.
For a different perspective on the city, a series of Macau harbour cruises, including a buffet dinner cruise, have been introduced. The vessel, with two enclosed dining levels and open-air sightseeing deck, begins in the historic inner harbour, passes the famous attractions of the A-Ma Temple and nearby Maritime Museum before reaching the Taipa Bridge, one of three serpent-like bridges to link the peninsula with Taipa Island, and another major city landmark, the 338m high Macau Tower, venue for the highest bungee jump experience in the world.
For families, the Panda Pavilion on Coloane Island, home to two loveable giant panda exhibits from China’s Chengdu, is worth a visit and costs less than $2 for entry.
Costing much more but also worth a visit is the Vegas-style show spectacular House of the Dancing Water at the Cotai Strip’s City of Dreams. The costumes and the athleticism of the divers have onlookers on the edge of their seats.
The fact that you can go to such a show after a day’s walk across cobblestones of the old town speaks volumes for Macau’s split personality.