This November, escape to the small peninsula city of Macau. Wander among colonial buildings, dine on Portuguese or Cantonese cuisine and discover ‘East meets West’ at its best
It may be tiny in size, but in terms of variety Macau features an astonishing range of attractions ranging from rich, historical, cultural treasures to wonderfully kitsch contemporary offerings. It has temples and churches dating back hundreds of years, glitzy casinos with dazzling decor and fabulously flamboyant shows, and the annual through-the-streets Macau Grand Prix, which is renowned worldwide.
The colonial Guia Fortress
Until a decade or so ago, Macau was something of a backwater, a place where Hong Kong people went to relax and roll the dice, but its recent building boom has seen its skyline transformed, dominated by glittering and sometimes garish neon-flashing edifices. In terms of gambling revenues, Macau left Las Vegas in its wake long ago, and boasts an impressive portfolio of genuine cultural marvels. One of the most notable – and certainly the most visible – is the ruins of the 17th-century St Paul’s Cathedral. A fire destroyed much of the structure, but the striking front entrance remains and is reached by a series of steep steps that are in turn approached via twisting narrow alleyways. Other significant treasures are the A-Ma Temple, which dates from the 15th century and has pavilions inspired by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and the 17th-century Guia Fortress and Lighthouse, with stupendous views over the Pearl River. For a significantly higher view, head to the Macau Tower observation deck, where you can try the world’s highest bungee jump, a 20-second plunge from a height of 233 metres. Less daring visitors can simply admire the panorama of the always-bustling estuary, across to the squeezed-together Macau landscape and the China mainland.
The Vida Rica Restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Macau
Nearby, however, you can discover Macau’s quieter side. The outer island of Coloane, connected by road bridges, has forested areas, a golf course and a couple of decent beaches for chilling out – but in many ways it is the concentration of people and buildings, and juxtaposition of old and new, East and West, that is the main lure. The Portuguese influence – Macau was a colony for 400 years, until it was handed back to China in 1999 – remains strong, with many Portuguese restaurants serving specialities such as salted cod fish and African chicken. A must-try Macanese dish is the local version of the egg tart, one of the world’s tastiest, and moreish, pastries. Cantonese seafood is another Macanese gourmet treat. Two of the star dishes on the menu of Vida Rica Restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Macau are wok-fried scallops and asparagus with peppers in a taro nest, and braised whole green garoupa with kimchi. The adjoining Vida Rica Bar offers high-roller-themed cocktails such as the champagne-charged Millionaire’s Mojito.
Bungee jumpers at the Macau Tower observation deck
The French fizz is also used to douse the winners of the annual Macau Grand Prix, held in November. Among the legendary drivers who have tackled the tricky circuit, with its narrow streets and tight turns, have been Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill. The Grand Prix Museum documents the past half century of action, showing how it went from an amateur, club-racing event to a significant fixture on the international calendar.
The A-Ma Temple
In fact, Macau as a whole is on the fast track these days – a city evolving at a phenomenal pace. But walk a block away from the razzle-dazzle newness and there are still ample traces of the sleepy, time-steeped Macau, with its rich cultural treasures. The central area alone has some 20 notable historical buildings, earning it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Mark Graham is a Beijing-based journalist who has reported from most Asian countries during 20 years in the region