Asian Las Vegas

Macau a one-hour hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong is bustling with new hotel construction and a potential remake of its image as the seedy poor cousin to Hong Kong. The waterfront is undergoing a face-lift that will include a $125 million waterfront theme park, with an erupting volcano and an African fort. The government has also commissioned world-famous architect I.M. Pei to design a new science and technology museum.

By: Jim Calio

Macau a one-hour hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong is bustling with new hotel construction and a potential remake of its image as the seedy poor cousin to Hong Kong. The waterfront is undergoing a face-lift that will include a $125 million waterfront theme park, with an erupting volcano and an African fort.

The government has also commissioned world-famous architect I.M. Pei to design a new science and technology museum.

But perhaps most important is a significant change in the casino business, which until this year had been all but closed to outsiders. Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho owns all 11 casinos in Macau. It is estimated that the taxes on his combined business interests casinos, hotels, online betting, horse and dog tracks provide the Macau government with half of its revenue. VIn February, the government took bids for three new casino licenses. Ho, as expected, got one of them. But the other two went to Las Vegas casino owners Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, and both men have made it clear that they intend to introduce Las Vegas-style glitz to Macau.

Adelson has promised to build a $1 billion Italian-style casino hotel complex, complete with gondolas and Venice-style canals. If Elvis were alive, he’d be proud.

Then & Now

Macau was a Portuguese colony for 600 years until it was handed back to China in 1999, following Hong Kong by two years. There is a rich mix of Portuguese and Chinese culture in the small enclave (population: 450,000), from the architecture ancient temples alongside colorful colonial buildings to the flavorful Macanese food (see Daily Double below).

For gamblers, most of the action is at the big luxury hotels on the tip of the peninsula (Macau is made up of a peninsula and two islands, Taipa and Colonae). But there are luxury properties away from downtown that provide a quiet, restful atmosphere for vacationing families and recovering baccarat players.

Sooner or later, everyone ends up at the Lisboa Hotel. It’s like a Disneyland with slot machines. Located near the ferry terminal, it’s a favorite with tour groups. Just sitting in the lobby is like being in an international airport; there are more tourists than gamblers, or so it seems. The Lisboa is a destination unto itself, and a lot of gamblers never leave the premises. Why should they? It’s got more than a dozen restaurants, cocktail lounges, bars, 24-hour room service, same-day laundry, money exchange banks, a house doctor and baby-sitting services.

If you get tired of playing baccarat or roulette, you can catch a show at Crazy Paris, a nightclub featuring barely attired European women.

The 1,050 rooms are divided into three wings older, newer and the new tower. Not surprisingly, the rooms in the tower are the best, offering harbor views and traditional Chinese architecture and furniture. The restaurants in the older section serve some of the best food in Macau Chiu Chow, Japanese, Shanghainese and Cantonese fare.

Rates range from $101 to $137.

Fax: 011-853-567-193.

Web site: www.hotelclub.net.

The Mandarin Oriental chain has set a standard for luxury and comfort worldwide, and the hotel in Macau is no exception. The good news is that the room rates are less than you would spend on sister hotels in Hong Kong or Bangkok. The hotel is located on the old Pan Am seaplane terminal. The exterior is rather nondescript, but inside it is spectacular, with a definite Portuguese influence, beginning with the blue-and-white tiles, chandeliers, tapestries and artwork. Then there is the piece de resistance, the carved teak staircase that sweeps up to the second floor, where the Mandarin’s small but sophisticated casino is located. The slot machines, which are called, appropriately enough, “hungry tigers” in Chinese, are in a separate room. Even though this hotel is located on the crowded peninsula, it has a children’s pool, a water slide and a playground.

Rates for standard rooms range from $244 to $333. Suites start at $872. Kids under 12 stay free with parents.

Call 800-526-6566. Web site: www.mandarinoriental.com.

Located on the island of Colonae, a 15-minute ride from the ferry terminal, the eight-story Westin Resort is one of Macau’s most stunning luxury properties. It features three swimming pools, tennis courts, a health club and Macau’s first golf course. Westin Kids Club provides activities for infants and children up to 12.

Rooms, with up-to-date amenities, face the beach or the South China Sea, most overlooking Hac Sa Beach.

Five restaurants and bars include a popular Cantonese eatery with an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea.

Rates for standard rooms range from $121 to $166; suites start at $384. Children under 17 stay free in parents’ rooms.

Call 800-228-3000. Web site: www.westin.com.

Located on the island of Taipa, near the horse-racing track, the Hyatt Regency’s 326 guest rooms were shipped in units from the United States and assembled in Macau.

The rooms feature rattan furnishings, Asian artwork, shutters and cheerful turquoise-and-green color schemes.

Kids are kept busy at Camp Hyatt, while parents can use the health-club facilities and the tennis and squash courts.

Two restaurants, one specializing in Chinese country food, and the sleek Flamingo, are top-notch.

Rates for standard rooms range from $97 to $115; suites start at $615. Kids under 12 stay free with parents.

Call 800-233-1234. Web site: www.hyatt.com.

The Daily Double

The blending of Chinese and Portuguese cultures in Macau has produced a cuisine like no other. The Portuguese settlers brought with them sweet potatoes, peanuts and kidney beans from Brazil, piri-piri peppers from Africa, chilies from India and codfish, coffee and vegetables from Europe. For their part, the Chinese introduced rhubarb, celery, ginger, soy sauce, lychees and other Asian foods. The result is Macanese cuisine. One of the most popular dishes is African chicken, grilled or baked, with chilies and piri-piri peppers. Other favorites include Portuguese chicken (chicken baked with potatoes, tomatoes, olive oil, curry coconut, saffron and black olives), bacalhau (codfish), Macau sole, spicy giant shrimp, baked quail and pigeon, curried crab, Portuguese sausage and caldeirada (seafood stew). Portuguese wines are cheap and plentiful and quite good. Some restaurant wine lists are as thick as small phone books. And if you have a sweet tooth, the traditional Chinese desserts made of steamed egg, ginger milk and walnut cream are delicious.

Don't Miss

St. Paul’s Church, the most famous structure on Macau, features the ruins of a temple commanding a view of the entire city from the top of a hill. St. Paul’s burned to the ground during a typhoon in 1835, and all that is left is the facade. You approach it by climbing a grand staircase. The carvings and statues reflect the mixed religious heritage of Macau: a Virgin Mary flanked by a peony representing China, a chrysanthemum representing Japan, a Chinese dragon, a Portuguese ship and a demon.

Largo do Senado (Senate Square) is one the most beautiful squares in Asia. The traditional Portuguese tile wave pattern was added in 1994, and since then the Largo has become a true meeting place for Macanese of all ages at all hours of the day. The beautiful pastel-colored buildings radiating from the square recall the best of Macau’s colonial past.

A-Ma Temple, believed to be the oldest building in Macau, dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Named after A-Ma, a favorite goddess of the fishermen, it was here when the Portuguese landed just to the south. The Chinese name for the area A-Ma Gau (Bay of A-Ma), which the Portuguese transformed to the name Macau. It has lovely ornate prayer halls and occupies a hillside with steep, winding paths through traditional Chinese moon gates.

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