By Caroline Gladstone
Antonia Coelho is a larger than life character; the proprietor of one of the most popular restaurants in Macao. He greets us with glasses of chilled white port under a plaque that boasts his establishment serves “authentic Portuguese” cuisine. A big man with a huge appetite for life, along with his hearty food, his restaurant has become something of an institution even though it opened just eight years ago. When not supervising the kitchen where chefs rustle up garlic clams and pasteis de bacalhau (salted codfish cakes) he is pouring the wine and theatrically creating table-side flambs of his signature dessert, Crepe Suzette.
Tucked into a narrow street in old Taipa village, Antonio’s is one of 100 Portuguese and Macanese restaurants spread over the three separate locations that make up Macao — the historic Macao city (called the peninsula) and the islands of Taipa and Coloane. The restaurant is full on my first night in Macao and we are treated to the serenades of a Portuguese guitarist wandering among diners.
I hadn’t been to Macao for 18 years; my last visit in October 1999 was just weeks before the former colony was officially handed back to China after 460 years of Portuguese rule.
My guide at the time, Joao Sales, a local of Portuguese descent, told me little would change once Macao became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and life for the population, now numbering 600,000, would go on much the same.
As a tourist it’s always hard to tell what goes on below the surface, but one thing is evident, the colonial heritage of this once strategic trading port has been protected and is heartily embraced by visitors. And those restaurants, be they big and bustling like Antonio’s or hole-in-the-wall cafs serving classic Macanese specialities, are thriving.
Macao’s historic centre, containing 22 significant monuments including the fort, colourful churches and Chinese temples, was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005, assuring its survival.
I embark on a walking tour through the cobblestone streets once again led by guide Joao, who I’m happy to discover still works for the government tourist board. I’m immediately struck by the number of Chinese visitors (the Barrier Gate border is only a few kilometres north) and in fact dodging the selfie stick wielders near the 17th century Ruins of St Paul’s is an art in itself. However, when I return a couple of days later, it is an entirely different experience, almost serene. Like everywhere it seems it’s best to visit the major sites in the early morning.
Street signs and building names remain in Portuguese (along with Chinese and English) and the Pataca is still the currency.
But plenty has changed on the ground and the skyline. The Grand Lisboa hotel, with its distinctive lotus flower design, now dominates the peninsula’s downtown and the lofty Macao Tower is the place not only for conferences but also bungy jumping.
Macao’s area has expanded since 1999 through ongoing land reclamation and now measures about 32 sq km, 25% larger than it was before the handover.
Hotels and casinos have sprung up like mushrooms; there were 12 casinos when I was last there, now there are 35 and several more are under construction. Macao is the only place in China where gambling is legal.
I see Macao as a place with several faces, separate precincts offering different attractions, which can happily collide but need not. The colonial heart, with its pastel-coloured churches and wave-patterned Senado Square is a gem. Across the bridge in Taipa, traces of the former colony linger in the alleyways and at the Taipa Houses, a beautifully restored row of mint-green government residences.
Further south is Coloane, sparsely populated by comparison, with wooded hills and hemmed by black-sand beaches. While it appears sleepy, there is plenty of life in the island’s renowned restaurants Miramar, Espaco Lisboa and Fernando’s, while food-lovers also queue at Lord Stow’s Bakery to sample the legendary Portuguese egg tarts.
By far the biggest development and most confronting precinct is Cotai, a strip of landfill that joins Coloane and Taipa, giving it its name. First developed a decade ago, it is a surreal world, a Las Vegas-inspired gambling strip of amazing resorts that mimic their American cousins. Having never been to Vegas I am fascinated by its huge scale and agog at its crazy copy-cat design. The huge Venetian Macao with indoor grand canal and gondolas and the half-size Eiffel Tower that fronts the newly-opened Parisian Macao resort are beguiling. It’s fun for sure, whether the lure is the world’s biggest casino or the entertainment of dazzling water fountains and magic shows.
Many visitors pop over to Macao from Hong Kong for a day, but there are plenty of reasons to stay longer. Free shuttle buses make it easy to get around and the gastronomic treats are worth the trip alone.