Glitzy Macau is Asia’s answer to Vegas, but with a sprinkling of Portuguese colonial heritage thrown in to counter the prominent gambling scene. Opulent casinos dominate the skyline – with the colossal pineapple-shaped Grand Lisboa taking centre stage – whilst traces of the colonial era can be found scattered across the Centro Histórico de Macau, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site.
After buying tickets and killing the best part of an hour in Starbucks, we eventually made it through immigration, boarded the Turbojet and promptly fell asleep in our seats. If you’re even the tiniest bit prone to seasickness (or are simply exhausted from the cumulative effect of a ridiculous amount of walking) this is the best way to spend the 40 mile crossing.
An hour later, we stepped off the boat onto Macanese soil; the humid, subtropical climate made sure to give us a warm sweaty welcome to Macau. As we wandered along Avenida de Amizada towards Doca dos Pescadores de Macau (Fisherman’s Wharf), we caught sight of the Lotus Flower in Full Bloom sculpture. Given to Macau in 1999 to mark the country’s sovereignty transfer from Portugal to the PRC, the sculpture resembles the one found in Golden Bauhinia Square, Hong Kong.
Strolling towards the Historic Centre of Macau we spotted a woman casually carrying a full-sized turtle down the street, as you do. Traditional bamboo scaffolding held up construction projects; fruit stalls spilled onto the pavement. The bulbous Grand Lisboa sparkled in the sunlight; neighbouring casinos paled into insignificance alongside this mother of all gambling dens.
We then passed a statue commemorating Jorge Álvares, a noted Portuguese explorer, before reaching Senado Square. Given its shape, it should really be called Senado Triangle – but we’ll shelve that proposition for now. The wave-patterned paving was akin to a life-size optical illusion: a mesmerising mosaic of waves stretched as far as the eye could see.
Pastel-hued buildings with wooden shutters and the white-washed Santa Casa de Misericórdia with its neoclassical pillars surrounded the square. Tourists swarmed around the gorgeous saffron-coloured Igreja de São Domingos; the interior, by contrast, was almost devoid of visitors.
The streets leading up to the Ruinas de São Paulo were lined with eateries and biscuit emporiums. Pasteleria Koi Kei was doing a roaring trade; the free samples were delicious, and we ended up coming away with a few boxes of their signature almond biscuits. Biscuits aside, our stomachs also accommodated a choapa bao (pork chop bun), various samples of pork jerky and (in Laurence’s case) several pastels de nata (Portuguese egg tarts.)
A short while later, atop a flight of stone steps overflowing with tourists, the elaborate façade of the Ruinas de São Paulo came into view. The façade incorporates both oriental and western decorative motifs and is all that remains of St. Paul’s College and the Church of St. Paul (also referred to as ‘Mater Dei’), both of which were destroyed by fire following a typhoon in 1835.
Obligatory tourist photos taken, we then escaped the throngs of tourists and headed for Fortaleza do Monte (Fortress of Our Lady of the Mount of St. Paul) which commands an impressive view of the Macau skyline.
From here, we wandered east along Macau’s backstreets until we reached Cemitério São Miguel Arcanjo. A picturesque mint-green chapel stood in the middle of the vast cemetery filled with baroque tombs and intricate headstones. Aided by our trusty guidebook, the next stop on our self-guided walking tour was Jardim Lou Lim Ioc; water features, bonsai trees and curious rock formations made this an interesting little detour.
As time was marching on, we made a move and ventured out to The Venetian. Admittedly, I’m yet to visit the real deal but it was incredible just how realistic the décor was – the small canal network complete with gondolas and the building façades and atmospheric lighting combined to give visitors the impression they had been transported to the City of Canals. We didn’t partake in any gambling, but spent hours getting lost in this faux-Venetian labyrinth. Luckily, we managed to find our way out in time to catch the 22:05 Turbojet back to Hong Kong as a night in casino-land wasn’t on the cards for us!
- Economy tickets sell out quickly on the Turbojet, so if you don’t fancy forking out for a more expensive ticket don’t be surprised if you have to wait an hour or so for the next crossing. Ticket prices differ according to the day and time of travel; as a guide we went mid-week and paid HK$164 (£16.40) for the 12.30 crossing to Macau, and HK$189 (£18.90) to return to Hong Kong. Turbojet have services to Macau (Taipa) and Macau (Outer Harbour); services to the latter are more frequent, and frankly more convenient for accessing the old town.
- If you plan to visit The Venetian, take advantage of the free shuttle buses which provide a direct shuttle service between the port and one of Macau’s iconic gambling dens.
- Macau’s official currency is the Macau Pataca (MOP). Although the exchange rate is widely cited as HK$1 to MOP1.03, they tend to trade at one-for-one. We followed my parents’ advice and paid in HK$, thereby avoiding ending up with lots of redundant MOP at the end of the day.