Portuguese heritage and modern charms in Macau

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Macau TowerMainland China, an exotic, hardly visited destination back in Cold War days, is now a booming mainstay of the global tourism circuit, visited by thousands of Americans annually. How to add a little exclusivity to China-bound clients' itineraries and earn them some bragging rights for having visited a less-frequented corner of the vast country? Booking them a few days in Macau should do the trick.

This prosperous special administrative region of China, smaller sibling city to nearby Hong Kong and not as familiar to U.S. travelers, is a former Portuguese territory that, like its bigger, once-British neighbor, reverted to Chinese rule in 1999.

Unlike Hong Kong, however, tiny Macau -- just 11.4 square miles in size -- boasts nearly 500 years of history, with the architectural legacy to prove it; a multicultural local cuisine blending Asian, European and African influences, as well as a host of quality Portuguese, Chinese and international restaurants; and, alone among cities in China, a world-class array of flashy casino resorts that give competitors in Las Vegas a run for their money.

In short, Macau has everything a vacationer could ask for in a stand-alone destination. One could easily spend a week exploring its charms, both time-honored and new. In reality, most visits by overseas travelers range from daytrips out of Hong Kong to stays of a few days (Americans, including U.S. business travelers, stay an average 3.5 nights in Macau, according to the Macau Government Tourist Office).

So, what to recommend to clients bound for Macau? I just returned from four days in the city, on a sampler itinerary arranged by the MGTO to highlight different aspects of the destination's legion leisure attractions. A rundown of my own Macau experience follows.

Getting started

After an afternoon arrival at Hong Kong Airport, I boarded a high-speed ferry at the air terminal's SkyPier for a 55-minute ride to Macau. My air carrier, Cathay Pacific, checked my baggage through to Macau's ferry terminal, from which I set out for my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental Macau, five minutes away by cab on the city's waterfront.

After resting up a bit, I headed over to the nearby, 1,109-foot Macau Tower, which features the world's second-highest bungie jump (which could be seen from my hotel room). After a quick ride up the tower for expansive views of the territory's islands of Taipa and Coloane -- now joined by the Cotai Strip, a landfill development -- and Macau peninsula proper, I headed down to its base for an al fresco Portuguese barbecue held in honor of the 23rd Macau International Fireworks Display Contest.

Founded in 1989, the annual competition celebrates Macau's historically important but now defunct fireworks industry. This year, 10 teams from around the world competed over five nights.

Portugal in Asia

The next day, I set out for a survey of Macau's fused Portuguese and Chinese heritages. I started with a visit to the Luis de Camoes Garden, named for a 16th century poet (considered Portugal's national bard) who reputedly wrote his most famous work while sitting there. A stone grotto and bust of Camoes marks the spot.

The hilly garden is a cool, verdant respite from busy, urban Macau peninsula, and locals make ample use of it. I saw not only people out for a stroll or parkside snack but also practitioners of tai chi and Chinese opera.

The ruins of St. PaulsNext on the agenda was the precinct around the historical A Ma Temple, dedicated to the Taoist goddess of the seas, and Macau namesake. A stroll up and down the temple's myriad grottoes and steps was immediately followed with a visit to the nearby Maritime Museum. The intimate, multilevel museum chronicles the watery exploits of both Portuguese navigators ,such as Vasco de Gama, and less well-known Chinese explorers, such as the 15th century admiral Zheng He.

Hungry after all the sightseeing, I headed with MGTO representatives to the historical and elegant Military Club, which lies in the shadow of the massive and gaudy Grand Lapa casino-hotel, for a traditional Portuguese lunch known as cozida a Portuguesa, heavy on sausages and other meats.

I took the rest of the evening off, apart from a business dinner with Mandarin Oriental Macau management.

Casinos rule in Cotai

My third morning in Macau, I prepared to transfer from my waterfront, nongaming digs on the peninsula to the Grand Hyatt Macau, part of the City of Dreams casino resort complex, which also contains a Hard Rock Hotel and a Crown Towers Hotel.

But as check-in time in Macau is normally sometime after 2 p.m., a tour of the city's most historical, picturesque and engaging sights, surrounding historical Senado Square, was the order of the morning.

I started at the hilltop ruins of St. Paul's, perhaps Macau's most iconic sight. All that's left of a centuries-old, mostly wooden Jesuit church is its intricate stone facade combining Christian and Chinese motifs. A series of beautifully landscaped gardens winds down from St. Paul, gradually leading to streets cobbled in traditional Portuguese-style black-and-white, patterned mosaic tile. The tiled streets bring a feel of Porto, Portugal, to mind, as do the pastel-colored historical buildings lining them.

The remainder of the day was devoted to hotel visits, to get a feel for local accommodations, followed by dinner and a show. I got thorough looks at the Hard Rock Hotel, Crown Towers and, after check-in, my own Grand Hyatt Macau (all of which opened in 2009) as well as two of the three new hotel components at the competing $1.9 billion Galaxy casino-resort complex, which just debuted in March.

In addition to the Galaxy Hotel and Hotel Okura, which I toured, Galaxy also is home to a Banyan Tree resort. The Banyan Tree features Macau's only rooftop wave pool and white-sand beach, as well as a mind-boggling multimedia main lobby feature that boasts a huge, spinning diamond-shaped ornament rising from fountain jets.

Less garish but no less mind-boggling or wet was a performance of "The House of Dancing Water," a Cirque du Soleil-style, water-feature-heavy production back at the Grand Hyatt Macau. For my post-theater dinner, I was shuttled to Manuel's Restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall but exceedingly authentic Portuguese restaurant. (For more on "The House of Dancing Water" and "Zaia," click here.)

A spa and a show

My final day in Macau began with a trip back to the Banyan Tree at the Galaxy for a 90-minute spa treatment. Verdict: well worth any effort and expanse, and a nice escape from noisy casinos.

Later in the morning, I was off to see Macau's latest attraction, a climate-controlled viewing pavilion constructed for the two pandas that were donated to the city by mainland China.

A small zoo and gift shop filled with panda-themed souvenirs rounds out the offerings.

Much later in the day, I was off to a performance of an actual Cirque du Soleil show, "Zaia" at the Venetian Resort. If you've been to Las Vegas or one of Cirque's touring shows, you know what to expect: swelling music, soaring entertainment, some thrills and chills and lots of oohs and ahhs.

An after-theater dinner at Michelin-recommended restaurant Antonio capped my Macau stay.

All the traditional greats of Portuguese cuisine are on offer, as is the house dessert specialty: crepes Suzette flambeed right at diners' tables.

You have the "what's" of a Macau stay. Now, how to book? Some 20 tour operators currently sell Macau vacations in the U.S., including major brands such as Brendan Worldwide Vacations, Isramworld, Pacific Holidays, Ritz Tours & Travel and United Vacations.

For example, Pacific Holidays, based in New York, includes two days in Macau in its 13-day Great Cities of Asia II package, priced from $1,715. Participants take in aforementioned highlights such as Macau Tower, A Ma Temple, the ruins of St. Paul's, Senado Square and the casinos in Cotai.

For more on Macau and a destination specialist course for agents, visit www.macautourism.gov.mo.  

For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.

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