The Ruins of St. Paul’s are vestiges of Macau’s European settlers. // © 2011 Skye Mayring
Sure, I played a few hands of blackjack during my September visit to the Vegas of the East, but what I enjoyed most about Macau didn’t take place on the casino floor. From handpainted porcelain street signs and cobblestone walkways to miniature shrines honoring Buddhist or Taoist deities, Macau is a melting pot of cultures and traditions.
“Macau boasts a diverse tourism product, including a unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures, that visitors can experience through Macau’s Macanese cuisine, UNESCO World Heritage sites, colorful festivals and historic buildings,” said João Manuel Costa Antunes, director of the Macau Government Tourist Office. “We would like visitors to experience all these different facets of the destination, which will give them a full picture of what Macau really is.”
With a growing number of attractions geared toward multigenerational families and leisure travelers, perhaps the greatest challenge for visitors is choosing where to start.
A bird’s-eye view is often the best way to get acclimated in a new city, so first-time visitors should make a point to spend a couple of hours at the 1,108-foot-tall Macau Tower. After a minute-long elevator ride, visitors will find themselves on the observation deck where they can see the Macau Peninsula, Taipa Island, Coloane and the city skyline of the Pearl River Delta.
Sections of the floor are fitted with reinforced glass to create the sensation of walking on air, which proved to be too intimidating for a couple of people on my tour. Without a doubt, I could never imagine them working up the courage to try the tower’s Skywalk X attraction in which adrenaline junkies walk around the outer rim of the tower, 731 feet above ground, strapped to an overhead rail system.
Other heart-stopping activities include a two-hour Mast Climb to the top of the tower and a Bungy jump, which was designated by Guinness World Records as the world’s highest commercial Bungy jump. Several celebrities, including Anthony Bourdain, Charlize Theron and Kanye West, have recently taken the plunge, and the Bungy jump is in such demand that the Macau Tower recently added nighttime jumps.
A Walk in the Park
While many international tourists make a point to stroll around the Historic Centre of Macau, only a fraction pay a visit to nearby Camoes Garden — and this is a missed opportunity. The shortest way to access the park on foot from the Ruins of St. Paul’s is via the Rua de Santo Antonio, a street lined with shops selling reproduction furniture, antiques, pottery and classic textiles, and the journey takes about 10 minutes.
Camoes Garden is dedicated to Portuguese poet, Luis Vaz de Camoes, who is thought to have penned part of his epic poem “Os Lusiadas” in one of the garden’s grottoes. Wedged between natural rock is the most famous site in the park, a bronze bust of Camoes inscribed with his poetry.
In addition to meandering walkways, lush vegetation and a quirky outdoor gym, the garden contains the earliest Protestant cemetery in China, a final resting place for English painter, George Chinnery.
For me, however, the most endearing aspect of visiting the park was witnessing a slice of local life. Because most residents of Macau live in small apartments and don’t have gardens of their own, public parks serve as extensions of their homes. Residents spend their mornings in the garden playing badminton or Chinese chess, practicing tai chi, chatting with neighborhood friends or walking their caged birds (a local custom). I enjoyed watching a local perfect her Chinese fan dance and stumbling upon a small group of musicians rehearsing opera songs.
No visit to Macau would be complete without indulging in the Cotai area’s large-scale theatrical performances. Although the shows are located within casino-resort complexes, visitors won’t have to walk the casino floors in order to access the theaters, although they may be tempted by the high-end retail beckoning from every which way.
At The Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel, Cirque du Soleil recently celebrated the third anniversary of its celestial-themed acrobatic show, “Zaia,” and has introduced new elements to the performance, including a lion dance and a flying dragon scene. According to The Macau Daily Times, Cirque hopes to have three permanent Macau shows in the future. Tickets range from approximately $50 to $165.
Located at the City of Dreams megaresort and open since last year, “The House of Dancing Water,” is the first water-based show in Asia created and directed by Franco Dragone, the visionary behind “Mystere,” “Le Reve” and “O.” The $250 million production combines 80 international performance artists with an incredible, purpose-built theater-in-the-round. The theater utilizes automated fountains and elevators to convert a solid floor stage into an aquatic pool, which holds more water than five Olympic-size pools.
The show is, in a word, stunning. Chills came over me when I watched, unexpectedly, as motocross riders launched into a series of death-defying tricks. I found myself on the edge of my seat again, when high-divers leapt into flips, spins and twists from 87 feet above me.
Tickets begin at approximately $60, and the less-expensive seats are those closest to the stage. Guests seated in the first four rows might want to bring a raincoat because they will likely get splashed, sometimes intentionally, by the more spirited performers in the cast.