THE JET-LAG wakes me at 5am and I rise to explore Macau, the quiet, rain-soaked streets already warm from the searing tropical day to come. Coming back to my hotel at 8am still befuddled by lack of sleep, I go in the wrong door and find myself in its casino.
Windowless, it is buzzing as if it were still the evening before – no doubt for many inside it is. Blackjack tables with a HK$300 (£30) minimum are crowded with punters, the chilly air thick with concentration and cigarette smoke.
Some 97 per cent of this island city’s economy is founded on gambling, with casino taxes making up three-quarters of government income. Macau took in US$15 billion in gambling revenue during 2009, $5bn more than all of Nevada’s casinos, including Las Vegas.
Vegas, claiming to be unfazed by losing the gambling crown in 2007, has reinvented itself as the ‘adult entertainment capital of the world’. That was partly in response to the worry that gaming tables offer the perfect cash-rich environment to launder the proceeds of crime and attract drugs, prostitution and other evils. But the mainland Chinese government (Macau, like Hong Kong, is a ‘Special Administrative Region’ of the People’s Republic) is well aware of that, too, and Macau is also starting to diversify.
The world recession slowed but did not halt Macau’s casino and hotel building boom and, as China leads the way out of the economic downturn and also eases outbound travel restrictions on its famously gambling-mad population of 1.3billion, so Macau prospers. A 30km bridge linking Macau and the mainland with Hong Kong, costing USD $11billion and one of the world’s longest, started construction in 2009 and shows the ambition of the vision.
Every bit as ambitious but on a smaller scale, albeit at US$250million, is the House of Dancing Water show by Cirque du Soleil founder Franco Dragone. The jaw-dropping courage of its acrobats you might expect; the water tank holding enough water for five Olympic-size swimming pools you might not, nor the death-defying motorbike stunts. A shipwrecked mariner discovers an exotic Eastern land might sum up the rather turgid plot but hardly does justice to the spectacle on, er, whatever you call something that moves magically between diving pool and stage.
The House of Dancing Water is the centrepiece of the $US2billion mall-like City of Dreams, which has another Cirque du Soleil production, Zaia, as well as a regular free digital show called Dragon’s Treasure and a Hard Rock Hotel, among several others. The Ponte 16 casino of the Sofitel Hotel also houses a Michael Jackson display, including the cream leather rhinestone glove from his first Moonwalk on TV which cost the casino US$350,000. Although Macau may have a way to go before it meets the high standards set by the likes of Tom Jones or Penn & Teller in Vegas, cash is not in short supply
Nor is bling. The Wynn’s boutique Encore suites have their own massage rooms and mini cinema, while priceless art hangs on the public walls and a lovingly restored 19th century chandelier dominates its Bar Crystal, lined with Venetian glass mirrors. Sofitel Macau’s mansion has massive suites, such as the all-white Blanc Romance or, for those feeling even naughtier, the Black Galaxy with its black and sapphire blue décor.
Mandarin Oriental Macau, the only five-star hotel in Macau without a casino attached, offers a luxury shopping mall instead, where familiar names such as Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren occupy cavernous stores, ice-cold refuges from the heat outside.
Macau is also rich in culture, apparent in the Chinese Temples, colonial Portuguese churches and maze of crumbling apartments that make up its real heart. It is also apparent in its food, a strong traditional foundation recognised at the top end with nine Michelin-recognised restaurants. The historic Grand Lisboa (www.grandlisboa.com) is the only hotel in the world with three Michelin-starred restaurants under one roof.
Gambling usually means excess – as Las Vegas has proved so well – and the Michelin-rated Eight Chinese restaurant has a wine list so big I need two hands to lift it. Voted one of the best in the world, it is more easily browsed on an iPad – for that, indeed, is what you usually get.
The Hotel Lisboa’s three-star Robuchon a Galera (from celebrity chef Joel Robuchon) is also one of the most expensive restaurants in Asia, although a lunch menu of around £35 looks quite affordable in comparison to evening prices.
Fortunately, my tastes are simple enough and I’m happy to gorge myself instead on Lord Stow’s egg tarts, custard-filled pastry delight that are famous throughout Asia.
One of those Englishmen unknown at home (the ‘Lord’ was a nickname) but famous in his adopted land, Andrew Stow first started selling these variations on the traditional Portugese tarts in 1980. He died in 2006 but his sister Eileen and daughter Audrey carry on the family business. (www.lordstow.com)
Stow was probably a very wise man to decide to make his fortune in Macau from food. The casinos run 24 hours a day, full of those who think they can make it from gambling. I always remember the casino manager who told me there was one guaranteed way to walk out of a casino with a small fortune: walk in with a large one.
Alorino Noruega, Macau Government Tourist Office: ‘Try our Macanese food – a blend of Portuguese and Chinese cuisine. You will find dishes such as grilled African chicken (best with a peri-peri sauce), or fish cakes made from bacalhau (salted cod). Good Portuguese wine is cheaper than in Portugal, too, because of the low taxes here. Restaurants well worth a visit include O Porto Interior (2896 7770), Litoral (www.restaurante-litoral.com), O Manel (2882 7571), Fernando (www.fernando-restaurant.com) and Espaco Lisboa (2888 2226).’
TOP THREE THINGS TO DO IN MACAU
JUMP: The Macau Tower, at 233metres, is the world’s highest bungee jump. ‘Nuff said? You can also SkyWalk the edge if you are feeling very brave, or do a feet-first SkyJump on a wire just like a stunt man (or woman) in the movies. http://macau.ajhackett.com/
VISIT: The Macau Grand Prix Museum gives you a taste of the thrills at this infamous street circuit where the November Grand Prix uniquely features both car and bike races. F3 cars belonging to Ayrton Senna (the inaugural 1983 winner) and a very young Michael Schumacher (1990) take pride of place. The Motorcycle GP has been won by a British rider every year since 1998 (and all but three since 1981). www.macau.grandprix.gov.mo
SNACK: Lord Stow’s egg carts are a local, slightly sweeter variant on the Portuguese pasteis de nata. Famous throughout Asia, the recipe was developed by Englishman, the late Andrew Stow. The bakery on Coloane Island has a near-permanent queue but you will find an outlet in Macau’s Venetian Hotel too. www.lordstow.com
Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong four times a day from London Heathrow. www.cathaypacific.com
The Turbojet ferry to Macau from HK International Airport costs from HK$450 return. www.turbojetseaexpress.com.hk