While Vegas-y style might be part of Macau’s appeal, its Chinese/Portuguese past adds to its charm. Macau’s three islands - Coatai, Taipa and Coloane - are one sixth the size of Washington, DC. For over 150 years, the former 500-plus-year-old Portuguese colony, 37 miles from Hong Kong, has been a gambling mecca. But nowadays, the Cotai Strip with its mega hotels (Sheraton has 4,001 rooms) shopping and great entertainment, is leaving Las Vegas in its dust. Even so, the charm of Southeast Asia remains. I see it when I browse the modern’s strip’s 600-plus shops. Many jewelry shops feature gold pig necklaces with piglets hanging from it. This traditional Chinese bridal necklace is a fertility symbol.
Like Las Vegas, Cotai has top-notch entertainment. The House of Dancing Water, created by Cirque du Soleil, combines amazing acrobatics with pools and gushing fountains. The costumes and sets are dazzling. Performers jump into the water from maybe 50 feet high. At several points in the show, the water disappears and the floor is dry. Near the end, some guys on motorcycles soar into the air and do somersaults. They fly up ramps from four different points and jump across one another. The timing has to be split second because they come so close. Amazing!
That is not the only place to find people jumping from heights. At the Macau Tower, a sign reads, “Caution Falling People.” Bungee jumpers fly from the 765-ft tower. For three days prior to the jump, one of our group was scared about doing it. Afterwards, she couldn’t get the smile off her face. I opt for the outdoor Sky Walk. Strolling and swinging atop the tower on a less than 6-foot wide platform while wearing a zipline-type harness is a rush!
But even more than the glitz and the drama, I enjoy discovering the culture and sampling the multi-flavored Asian/Portuguese food The Sheraton hosts us to an exquisite Chinese dinner. Adorning the room are red lanterns and a long table festooned with pink carnations and orchids. The feast includes wasabi infused jelly fish - a bit chewy - and mouthwatering suckling pig and crispy-fried shrimp mousse stuffed chicken on a pan-fried rice cake. Drummers, acrobats, and Chinese dancers perform throughout this eating extravaganza.
Foodies will appreciate the cuisine. A cooking class at Posada de Colane in Coloane acquaints me with Macanese fare - a combination of Portuguese and Cantonese cuisines flavored with spices like turmeric, coconut milk and cinnamon.
Before cooking class, we visit the famous Red Market. Stalls are filled everything from live chickens and fish to meats, spices and vegetables. Purchases in hand, we go to the school, which is perched atop a hill overlooking a beach.
After chopping, peeling, whipping and cooking, chickpea and cod salad, Portuguese style bake coconut chicken and Baba de Camelo (English translation: camel drool - a combination of whipped milk and egg whites) are ready. Accompanied by Portuguese wine, we sample the unique flavors we have created.
Another Macanese favorite, tasty egg tarts, are slightly browned, cream-filled flaky pastry often sprinkled with cinnamon. Get the authentic ones are at Lord Stow’s Bakery in Colane.
After discovering quintessential Macanese tastes, it is time to discover some of its sights and sounds. The Historic Centre of Macau, a World Heritage Site is a delightful blend of East/West cultures. Probably its most iconic attraction are the Portuguese Ruins of St. Paul. Built in the early 17th century, only its facade remains.
Somewhat still intact, the Centre’s Chinese Temple A-Ma (Goddess of the Sea) was built in 1488. The scent of incense wafts through the air of its inner sanctum. Several flights up, is a huge boulder carved with a Chinese character. A woman quietly prays to a deity there.
Much of the Historic Centre is crowded narrow streets with renovated old buildings. Ground floors are filled with shops adorned with flashing signs.
The Old Village reveals some of the peninsula’s Portuguese side. Green and white buildings, The Taipa Houses - Museum, borders a narrow street. Inside are old-fashioned settler’s costumes, musical instruments and furniture.
Macau might be a gambling and entertainment mecca, but it’s also an interesting blend of two distinct cultures.