MACAU has always held a special place in my heart. When I lived in Hong Kong, from 2000 to 2003, the former Portuguese colony offered a relaxing retreat from my hectic working life 40 miles away across the South China Sea.
It was a low-rise, laid-back destination whose smooth-pebbled pavements demanded to be ambled along, leading to cosy cafés and friendly family restaurants. As such, it holds many happy memories.
Yet it had a seedier side too, with its rough and ready casinos (the only legal ones in all China), including the iconic, garish monstrosity known as Lisboa, as well as a wild array of bars and clubs, which proved perfect for my stag night. As such, it holds rather hazier memories.
I last visited in 2002, just before the city’s lucrative licences to operate casinos were sold off to overseas investors. Now I’m heading back to see the changes that have taken place, and to find out whether Macau and its two islands, Taipa and Coloane, have managed to maintain their unique character and identity.
First comes a 13-hour flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong (why is it that I barely sleep a wink for the duration, only to slip into a coma-like state just as the captain murmurs, “Cabin crew prepare doors for landing”?), followed by a 50-minute high-speed hydrofoil. Approaching land, the first glimpse of the kaleidoscopic neon skyline takes my breath away.
Disembarking at the ferry terminal, I discover that the luggage carousel – a common feature at transport hubs around the globe, you’ll agree – is apparently a stranger to Macau. Instead, hand-hauled carts are unloaded one bag at a time and a free-for-all ensues. My suitcase is at the bottom of the last cart, naturally, but eventually I clear immigration and meet my genial guide, Alorino Noruega, and our driver.
I’m whisked off to the Mandarin Oriental hotel to freshen up before heading for dinner at traditional Portuguese restaurant O Porto Interior, where chorizo, gambas and freshly caught sea bass are washed down with douro wine and port.
Free from jetlag after a dreamless night’s sleep in my 11th-floor room, with sweeping views to the southern China hills, and revived by eating my bodyweight in smoked salmon, fresh fruit, patisserie and bacon and eggs cooked to order at the breakfast buffet, the morning is spent sightseeing in the Historic Centre of Macau.
We start at A-Ma Temple, dedicated to the goddess of seafarers and the oldest building in the city. (When the first Portuguese travellers landed, exactly 500 years ago, and asked where they were, Chinese locals replied, “A-Ma Gao” – meaning the place of A-Ma – which is believed to have given Macau it’s name). Today, like every day, coachloads of worshippers throng the temple complex, burning incense and praying to multiple deities. Dodging rain showers, we duck into the Macau Museum to explore the city’s turbulent history, from ancient fishing village to key Portuguese entrepot and to its current incarnation as special administrative region of China.
Next comes a stroll round elegant Senado Square, with its classically proportioned pastel-coloured buildings and black and white swirling cobbled pavements, before climbing up to the imposing ruins of St Paul’s. In the late 16th century this church formed part of the first western-styled university in the Far East, but the buildings were razed in a fire in 1835, leaving only the stark façade to provide perhaps Macau’s most iconic image.
There’s just time to check out the Cultural Club museum/shop of authentic Macanese artefacts before heading for lunch at the Institute for Tourism Studies’ educational restaurant. Here hospitality students learn their trade hands-on in a working hotel, with highly respected chef David Wong Yuk Shan overseeing to the ensure signature dishes they serve, such as lobster bisque and bacalhau risotto, match his exacting standards
After such a strenuous start to the holiday, some pampering is in order and I spend a tranquil two hours being steamed, scrubbed and rubbed by a skilful therapist as part of the Macanese Dragon Experience at the spa at Mandarin Oriental. Bliss.
Once I get my faculties back, dinner is taken at Vida Rica, the hotel’s swanky second-floor restaurant, which serves classic Cantonese dishes as well as contemporary western cuisine. Later I take the balmy night air along the section of Avenida Dr Sun Yat Sen known as Bar Street, have an alfresco beer or three and then wander off to try my luck in one of the many glitzy casinos. Macau’s gaming emporiums now rake in five times more cash than Las Vegas, and as I rapidly blow my meagre spending money on a few games of blackjack, it’s easy to see why.
Next morning, we visit the lighthouse – the oldest in the Far East – with magnificent 360-degree views over the city from its lofty position at the top of Guia Hill, then wander around the beautifully preserved St Lazarus district, which is a haven for arty types.
A lovely lunch is taken at A Lorcha, a Portuguese restaurant justly popular with locals and tourists alike, though shortly after I narrowly avoid regurgitating my garlic prawns when we visit the dizzying heights of Macau Tower and watch bungee jumpers plummet the best part of 1,000 feet to terra firma.
After a pit stop at the petrolhead paradise of the Macau Grand Prix museum – this November will see the 60th race round the unique street circuit where previous winners include Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard – and the Wine Museum next door, we cool our heels with drinks at Pousada de Sao Tiago, a 17th-century fortress-turned-boutique hotel overlooking the Inner Harbour of Macau and the Pearl River Delta.
At night we head to Taipa island, destination Antonio’s restaurant, where ebullient chef António Coelho serves a superb seafood stew in copper pots, followed by an incendiary crêpe suzette.
The last day is devoted to Coloane, where we pop in to the Panda Pavilion to see a couple of bamboo-munching bears, enjoy a fine dim sum lunch at Kwun Hoi Heen in the Westin Resort, pose for photos at the temples of A-Ma cultural village and guzzle Portuguese egg tarts at Lord Stow’s bakery.
Wandering back to our car, winding narrow lanes and sleepy side streets offer a charming glimpse of yesteryear Macau, with shophouses and dwellings unchanged over the ages. Who knows if it can remain this way, with a billion Chinese gamblers queueing at its door. But I hope it does, for a long time.
Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.co.uk) flies from London to Hong Kong four times a day. Fares start from £649 in economy, including taxes and charges. Accommodation
A night at the Mandarin Oriental, Macau (00800 2828 3838, www.mandarinoriental.com/macau), costs from £174 on a B&B basis.