In the opening scenes of the 1952 movie, “Macao,” starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, the announcer describes Macao as “the Monte Carlo of the Orient.” If that movie were to be re-made today, we would likely hear, “the Las Vegas of the Orient.”
On the reclaimed land of Macao’s Cotai Central district, a new gaming paradise is glittering-up the region and gaming enthusiasts from all over Asia (many with their families), are showing up for vacations and testing their luck at lavish casinos. The Venetian, The Sands, The Galaxy, MGM Grand, Wynn are all there with more to come. And, yes, there will be an Eiffel Tower in Macao by 2016 in the new Parisian resort. Fact: In 2012 the gambling revenues of Macao exceeded the total gaming revenues of the State of Nevada.
We will come back to all this new-ness later; but first, a little history and a little geography.
Macao (or Macau) is comprised of both a peninsula and an island on the south side of the vast Pearl River Delta. Hong Kong, to the northeast on the other side of the Pearl River, is a one-hour trip by fast ferry and arguably a world-apart.
While evidence shows human presence dating back over 4,000 years, early Portuguese traders arrived in the early 1500’s and Macao’s long and fascinating history is rife with clashes between the Chinese and the Portuguese. Things became stable in 1582, with an annual “lease” signed.
The agreement also established the Portuguese administration of Macao, which lasted until 1999, when it became, like Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Area (S.A.R.) of the People’s Republic of China.
Portuguese influence lives on today, with many families having mixed cultures in their histories. Macanese cuisine reflects this culture as well. Gambling (politely called “gaming”) became legal in the 1800’s to help the local economy. Gambling is illegal in Mainland China and resonates favorably in the cultural makeup of many Asians, as they themselves happily acknowledge. If you build it, they will come. They did, and they did.
A few words about getting there: Our EVA Air flight from LAX to Taipei was interesting for some comfortable reasons. What EVA has done is to create what they are calling Elite Class premium economy. They have managed to create unique comfort with a chair that reclines as though in a socket. This accomplishes two things: It allows you to get the feeling of more recline – with the use of the foot rests – and does not cramp the passenger behind you as much as a regular recline. We thought it was clever and reasonably comfortable (as much as a 12-hour flight can be called reasonably comfortable). The crew on the clean B-777 aircraft worked very hard to demonstrate an appreciation of our business and was clearly trying to deliver the best onboard product they could. The plane was full (one of two departures from LAX-TPE within 20 minutes of each other) so the Elite Class really helped. An easy EVA Air connection to Macao followed uneventfully…the best kind of flight. The Taipei Airport is modern, clean and traveler-friendly, as is the newish Macao airport.
So, we wondered, what are they doing in Macao’s Cotai Strip to attract families, other than the lavish, elegant casinos? For one thing, resorts like the Sheraton Macao Hotel are innovating with a connection with Dreamworks. Take in the “Shrekfast” – a lavish buffet which surrounds a stage full of bigger-than-life characters such as Shrek, Puss in Boots, the cast of Madagascar, with Alex the lion, penguins, and many more.
Whether or not you know these characters already, they become even more lovable when surrounded by a lavish buffet of fresh and exotic fruits (dragonfruit!), juices, breads, pastries, dim sum, Macanese dishes, omelettes made to order, bacon and sausage, excellent coffee and tea – pretty everything you might want for breakfast or brunch, and then some.
We watched tables full of youngsters dazzled as the characters came to their tables and posed for photos with them. Further, the Sheraton Macao has themed some rooms, with bunk beds and other fun amenities for kids, all with a tie-in to the Dreamworks animated characters.
The Sheraton has nearly 4,000 guest rooms and suites and frequently is 100% booked, so some trip-planning is important. There will soon be a fast rail line from the heart of Guangzhou to Macau which will greatly increase accessibility from major parts of Mainland China. Convention and event business is growing as well and The Sheraton Macao has vast, beautifully appointed ballrooms that can handle meetings and events on a large scale.
As we have always suggested to our readers, become a Starwood Preferred Guest and be eligible for benefits and upgrades such as access to the lounge for breakfast or cocktails. SPG membership is free and the benefits are a real value. The roomy Starwood Club Lounge at the Sheraton Macao is a major enhancement to the resort experience here, and includes an elaborate breakfast buffet, a bar, indoor and outdoor seating, and orchids everywhere. The staff at this property is simply wonderful.
The Sheraton’s restaurants are excellent and include Bene (Italian), Xin (hot pot and seafood) and Feast (international). Pool-side dining in the semi-tropical air of Macao is offered from the Sheraton’s healthful menus.
A key fact to remember is that The Sheraton Macao is linked to the other elegant resort casinos by covered walkways, taking you through multistoried shopping areas with all the top global names represented. You could arrive in your bathing suit with a credit card and emerge from these halls of retail in a gorgeous suit or dress, with an elegant new watch, necklace, camera and a spectacular shoes, carrying the rest in a new handbag or roll-aboard.
Be sure to get tickets for “The House of Dancing Water” in the adjoining City of Dreams. This aquatic/acrobatic love story extravaganza will leave you breathless. A treat for all ages. Hint: Wait ’til you see the contortionist!
And what about seeing the sights? Macao has them. From the ruins of St. Paul Cathedral (built 1582-1602) to the A-Ma Buddhist Temple (1488) and all the wonderful vibrant streets and parks in-between, Old Macao has a rich experience waiting for the visitor. The old Red Market is a real chance to see the local Macanese shopping for fresh fish, poultry, beef and pork and vegetables. Chinese cooking culture demands freshness so be prepared to see chickens looking on as their freshly-butchered brethren leave, under the arms of home and restaurant chefs. There are two fresh fish deliveries per day so a great deal of slapping and flapping can be witnessed at the Red Market, too.
We also enjoyed two museums that share the same address. The first is the Macao Grand Prix Museum, which celebrates the annual world-famous race through the streets of Macao. The race marked its 60th year in 2013. The museum is full of classic race cars of various vintages and excellent dioramas of pit crews and drivers at work. Outstanding historical racing photographs line the walls and videos show some heroic highlights of the race.
Its neighbor, the Macao Wine Museum, is a surprise and a delight. The museum goes on and on, with real wine-making equipment from another age on fascinating display. Mannequins in vintage regional dress of Portugal line some of the hallways. Because of the continued relationship with Portugal, and her influence on Macao culture, the museum’s tasting room offers dozens of varieties of Portuguese wine to visitors. These two museums are world-class in how they present their subjects. It is clear that a great deal of time and money went into these two attractions.
Macau is small, unique and diverse. It could be thought of as “China for beginners.” Macao is not the huge, overwhelmingly vast mainland, and yes, it has westernized aspects. That can be a good thing, especially for first timers. You can stay in contemporary luxury in Cotai Central while also having easy access to the culture and history of old Macao. It is a delightful and friendly destination with something for every traveler’s taste.
Macao Tourism Office (Caution, slow and sometimes impossible to load)
U.S. Department of State Travel Info – Macau