Macao: city of cultures
By Caroline Gladstone
We’re told the view from the 10th floor Aurora restaurant at Macao’s Altira hotel is captivating. The steel and glass eyrie on the island of Taipa is perfectly located for a panorama across the Outer Harbour to Macao Peninsula, the historic heart of the former Portuguese colony.
Unfortunately, it’s wet and misty on the day we arrive for lunch, obscuring the view of Macao’s unusual geography.
For a place measuring a mere 32km2, Macao packs a punch and a first-time visitor might be surprised to learn it’s comprised of three separate entities — the peninsula and the two islands of Taipa and Coloane, all connected by bridges and parcels of reclaimed land.
What you get is a handful of distinct precincts and an amazing collection of restaurants from the dazzling to the tiny hole-in-the-walls.
Aurora belongs to a group of 12 restaurants to have recently been awarded five stars in the 2018 Forbes Travel Guide — more than any other city in the prestigious global guide — while the Altira Hotel is also one of a dozen Macao hotels to have earned the five-star gong.
These awards outnumbered those bestowed on hotels and restaurants in Paris and Hong Kong, and tourism folks are jubilant.
Aurora’s delicate Italian cuisine, crafted by Michele dell ‘Aquila, more than compensated for the lack of views on our visit and after days of eating the legendary hearty Portuguese fare, it was a pleasure to savour the renowned chef’s subtle flavours reflected in dishes like the delicate entre of braised beef tortellini. A traveller could do well to book at table on a clear day to nab the view and the exquisite four-course lunch menu for around A$66.
Eating one’s way around Macao is an excellent way to uncover the unique character of each precinct in what’s known as the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and home to some 650,000 residents.
Start at the city’s icon, the early-17th century Ruins of St Paul’s, one of the 22 UNESCO World Heritage sites and wander downhill to the wave-pattern Senado Square lined with pastel-coloured neo-classical buildings.
Start early to avoid the hordes of day-trippers from nearby China and enjoy free tastings of little treats offered by competitive eateries like pork chop buns, almond cookies, beef jerky and the famous egg tarts. The buttercup St Dominic’s Church and the Holy House of Mercy built in 1539 by Macau’s first bishop are two of the most impressive sites. At the A Ma Temple hop on a three -wheel pedicab for an old-world tour of the flat regions near the harbour before taking a bus over to Taipa.
Colonial traces linger in the cobblestone alleyways of old Taipa Village along with excellent Portuguese restaurants and quaint shops that specialise in an eclectic range of food items. We called into a store selling countless tubs of fish paste and bought a few bottles of the popular white port, a liqueur only made in Portugal’s Douro Valley. From the beautiful mint-green Taipa Houses, a group of five 1920s former government residences, there’s a clear view across to the Cotai Strip, a reclaimed piece of land that joins Coloane and Taipa and houses a glitzy array of casino-resorts, many of which are Las Vegas copycats.
It’s worth splashing out for a night or two’s stay at one of the four or five-star resorts that have earned the Forbes Travel Guide awards, or at least take a wander around these beguiling complexes. Take a gondola ride along the canals inside the Venetian hotel, ride the crazy Golden Reel Ferris Wheel at the Hollywood-inspired Studio City resort and check out the amazing roof top wave pool and five-pool complex at the fanciful Galaxy Resort that resembles a golden sultan’s palace. Or eschew all the pizzazz and head to the sophisticated St Regis bar to sample the acclaimed Bloody Mary. Each St Regis Hotel across the globe creates its own version of the famous drink and Macao’s is fashionably “deconstructed” and accompanied by an egg tart.
The sleepiest precinct of all, Coloane is where the locals head for a day at the beach or a hike along the wooded hills. It can however get busy when tourists queue for the famous egg-custard tarts at the original Lord Stow’s Bakery, a tiny outlet started by English entrepreneur Andrew Stow 30 years ago, or when diners pack two of Macau’s most popular Portuguese restaurants, Fernando’s and Miramar.
For a glimpse of another life beyond the high-rise and traffic, take a stroll along the laneways of Coloane Village to discover a pastel coloured church around one corner and a fishmonger hanging out his daily catch to dry in the sun.
It may be a clich but Macao is truly a fascinating clash of cultures.