High-roller territory

Sure bet ... the bright lights of Casino Lisboa, Macau.
Sure bet ... the bright lights of Casino Lisboa, Macau. Photo: AFP

Beside Macau's towering casinos, Nicole Brady finds authentic Portuguese cuisine and architecture in the former colony.

The hotel's PR woman is proudly showing off Macau Grand Hyatt's lavish Chairman Suite. For about $4000 a night, guests have a living area the size of the standard Macanese apartment, a kitchen, bar, pantry, massage room, sweeping views and the services of a butler. Surprisingly, considering the space, there is only one bedroom.

"There is an adjoining bedroom," she explains, "because the sort of guests we have staying here might travel with a bodyguard."

Macau is a region of contradictions. On one hand it is the only part of China where gambling is legal, and business is booming. Macau is now the world's largest gambling economy, quadrupling the income generated in Las Vegas - and with hardcore gambling comes the sort of wealth that requires some to travel with security.

On the other, it is a charming European enclave. A last post of Portugal's once enormous colonial holdings, where cobble-stoned streets lead to seafood restaurants in which recipes handed down through generations of Portuguese families are still followed.

Over chilled Portuguese beer and green wine one sultry evening, restaurant owner and chef Manel takes offence at being asked whether he makes paella. He turns up his nose at the Spanish dish, insisting his Portuguese-style seafood with rice is far superior.

Part of his secret, he explains, is in the freshness of the seafood. Just like the local housewives whose kitchens are too small to accommodate large refrigerators, he buys his seafood alive from the markets each morning in preparation for that night's dinner service.

As the Australian racing identities also dining at Manel's tonight would attest, Macau is a destination of many faces.

To many Australians, Macau is nothing more than a gambling mecca. James Packer's hefty investment in a casino complex in the territory has received plenty of attention here. But while Crown's hotel logo is a familiar brand in an increasingly crowded Macau skyline, the tiny region offers a lot more than roulette wheels and blackjack tables.

Although gambling is Macau's key industry, offering an irresistible lure to those Chinese mainlanders who can obtain the necessary visas, the area's rich Portuguese heritage has bequeathed a legacy of fine dining, European architecture and values. Walking the lanes of the old district, Macau feels like a fragment of Europe in China.

Geographically, Macau inhabits a small peninsula off China's southern flank, as well as two nearby islands joined by several bridges.

Historically, it bears a resemblance to Hong Kong, also presided over until recently by a European nation. China regained sovereignty over both territories towards the end of the past century. But Macau's story is quite different to Hong Kong's. The latter was occupied as part of the spoils of war; Macau was occupied by the Portuguese for 450 years by peaceable agreement.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach China, via Macau, in the early 1550s. With permission from the chieftains of nearby Guangdong, a Portuguese city was established and became a stop on the trading routes between China, Japan, India and Europe. But Macau's significance diminished when British control of Hong Kong transformed it into the major commercial district of the region, leaving Macau as a quaint tourist destination operating under Portuguese rule.

Macau is only 30 square kilometres with a population of about 550,000, making it the world's most densely populated territory. While historic colonial buildings were razed in Hong Kong for the infrastructure necessary for a business metropolis, pint-sized Macau never had any need for bulldozers. Even as the casino industry continues to expand, complexes are constructed on land reclaimed from swamps and the surrounding South China Sea, and heritage sites are protected.

Having slumbered for many years, Macau is in the midst of a gambling-driven boom that can be traced to the start of legal gambling here about 150 years ago.

Today's skyline is dominated by the sort of flashy architecture casino operators favour to draw attention. Rising in all its golden glory over the city is the Grand Lisboa, a building intended to conjure the dual images of a lotus flower and a ballerina's layered tutu.

Others opt for coloured glass, mirrored facades or sheer enormity. The newly opened Galaxy, for example, has three hotels with a combined 2250 suites and rooms. Packer's City of Dreams complex also has three hotels (Crown, Hyatt and Hard Rock). Occupancy is so high that operators advise it is easier, and cheaper, for tourists to stay midweek than weekends.

Most of the tourists come from mainland China, attracted by their nation's only legal casinos. Since the withdrawal of the Portuguese in 1999, the Chinese authorities have been smart in their management of Macau. Like Hong Kong, it is known as a special administrative region operating under the principle of "one country, two systems". In practice, this means the governance is far more relaxed than in China proper; the internet, for example, appears to be unrestricted. Macanese citizens are free to travel throughout China but mainland Chinese need special documents to visit Macau.

With gambling raking in so much money, accommodation and restaurants offer great value. All tastes are catered for in the region's extraordinary range of hotels. Boutique five-star hotels such as the Altira (which was occupied by Crown until its new complex was built) offer restrained luxury. Its minimalist elegance is in stark contrast to the over-the-top opulence of the Venetian. It is worth a visit if only to gawk. Boasting the world's largest casino gambling area, the real drawcard is the resort's design. As the name suggests it is modelled on Venice, and the exterior clock towers and facade resembles the fabled Italian city. The entrance hall resembles the halls of the Louvre, except the motifs lavishly decorating the gold-encrusted ceilings and walls are ever-so slightly garish in colour. A case of not quite right. Further within the complex are Venetian-style indoor canals, where guests are poled past high-end boutiques by Asian gondoliers.

Shopping is big in Macau. Europe's finest luxury goods are in demand from the many Chinese visitors, who pay up to 30 per cent more for the same items back home. And while Chinese tourists snap up the genuine articles, many Westerners go shopping in China, where replicas are in abundance. The hotels offer free buses to the border. Australians need to buy a visa to enter China proper but can do so at the crossing, from where it's a short walk to retail complexes.

Fine dining is high on most Macanese itineraries. Cuisine from around the world and excellent regional cooking is offered in the hotels and, in the old district, Portuguese restaurateurs operate rustic eateries, with aged hams hanging from ceilings and piri piri sauce ready to enliven chicken and seafood.

The best Macanese restaurants are in the original port area near the A-Ma Temple. Their cuisine is unique, representing a mix of Chinese and Portuguese traditions and the spicy dishes that came from India hundreds of years ago via the Portuguese settlement in Goa.

The Macanese are proud of their heritage and mindful of the effect of the gambling boom. With unemployment at a negligible 2.7 per cent, a law was enacted recently lifting the minimum age that Macanese citizens can be employed as casino workers from 18 to 21 years. And government employees are banned from casinos except during the annual Chinese New Year festival.

This pragmatic approach is also illustrated in tourist brochures that highlight heritage attractions but neglect the casinos. A tacit acknowledgement, perhaps, that gambling is the one thing about Macau that needs no mention.

Nicole Brady travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific and the Macau Tourism Board

Lord Stow's secrets

PORTUGAL'S creamy egg-custard tarts are justifiably popular throughout Macau, with one particular variety proving exceptionally good.

The original Lord Stow's Bakery is a nondescript shopfront on a dusty street in the district of Coloane (pronounced Kal-wahn), a short drive from most of Macau's hotels.

What sets these handmade custard tarts apart is their pared-back sweetness, with crispy, flaky pastry providing a textual contrast to the silky filling.

The original bakery was established by an English industrial pharmacist, Andrew Stow, who moved to Macau in the late 1970s. Originally operating a health food shop, Stow imported European ingredients to make bread and cakes. As a well-known Englishman in Macau, he was quickly dubbed "Lord Stow" and was watched with bemusement by locals as he experimented with recipes for Portuguese egg tarts.

He found a winning formula, substituting cream for the traditional flour-and-water mixture, resulting in a tart that has won so many fans throughout Asia there are now Lord Stow bakeries in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. As well as the original shopfront in Coloane, there is an outlet at Macau's Venetian hotel complex.

Stow died of an asthma attack in 2006 and his family continues the business. The tarts make a delicious afternoon tea with either a British cup of tea or a European coffee — both readily available in Macau. NB

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Sydney and Melbourne (9hr non-stop) for about $890 low-season return, including tax. Most flights connect with the Turbo Jetfoil service to Macau at Hong Kong Airport's Sky Pier, www.turbojet.com.hk. Australians do not require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days.

Things to do

Visit the ruins of the Jesuit cathedral, St Paul's (open daily, free). From there follow the cobblestoned streets past antique shops, Portuguese wine importers and cake stores to historic Senado Square. Here, colonial facades compete for attention with modern shopping centres.

The excellent Museum of Macau in the original Monte Fort, built to protect the territory, has displays on either side of the entrance hall showing how European and Chinese civilisations developed simultaneously yet isolated from each other. Open 10am-6pm, closed on Mondays, free admission on the 15th of every month.

Take a taxi to the original Lord Stow's Bakery in Coloane (see story above). Because it is out of the way, arrange for the taxi to wait while you eat or order delicious egg tarts. Open daily 7am-10pm.

Staying there

Great deals, particularly midweek, are available at all the big hotels; free buses link rival establishments. City of Dreams has three hotels: the Crown, Hyatt and Hard Rock. Rooms from $220, cityofdreamsmacau.com.

Eating there

Try a mix of fine-dining restaurants at the main resorts as well as traditional Portuguese. Antonio restaurant is recommended by the Michelin Guide, antoniomacau.com. O Manel is a rustic venue presided over by the charming Manel. Closed on the first and fourth Tuesday of each month. 90 Rua Fernao Mendes Pinto, Taipa; +853 2882 7571.

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