YOU OLD CHARMER
The past decade has transformed Macau from sleepy backwater into the gambling capital of the world, with an accompanying onslaught of tourist-trap kitsch. But there is a real city beyond the baize and slot machines, one with a 450-year history that has created one of the most fascinating and densely layered places in the world. "You can walk everywhere if you don't mind sweating a bit," says Joao O, a Portuguese-born architect who has lived in Macau since he was an infant. With walking comes discovery: in Macau, there's a surprise with every turn of the city's streets.
"It was very different when the Portuguese were here," says Macau-born photographer James Chu. The casino boom has brought money and crowds to the former Portuguese colony, but before the handover in 1999, the atmosphere was more relaxed.
"The Portuguese liked to stop work at 4pm, get themselves a coffee, and talk and talk," continues Chu.
That lifestyle lives on at Pastelaria Caravela (Patio do Comandante Mata e Oliveira, 7, tel: +853 2871 2080), a back-alley cafe that serves as a gathering spot for the local Portuguese community.
Start the day the Portuguese way with a bica (a long shot of espresso) or a galao (similar to a cappuccino) and raid the pastry cabinet, which includes some typically Portuguese treats such as pasteis de nata.
While Hong Kong cheerfully obliterates its history, Macau hangs on to what is left, often through benign neglect more than anything else. In the central neighbourhood of Sao Lazaro, you'll find crumbling stone houses next to painstakingly preserved buildings. Albergue SCM (Calcada da Igreja de S. Lazaro, 8, tel: +853 2852 2550) is the main destination, a canary-yellow villa shaded by giant camphor trees. It houses a design gallery, Portuguese restaurant and the Merceria Portuguesa, which sells artisanal products imported from Portugal. Don't miss the bottles of ginjinha, a spiced sour cherry liqueur that is served as an aperitif, a digestive and even as breakfast.
Nearby is the Fundacao Oriente (Praca Luis de Camoes, 13, tel: +853 2855 4699), a Portuguese cultural centre that occupies an 18th-century mansion. Regular art exhibitions are held inside the mansion's gallery, while the surrounding Casa Garden plays host to summertime film screenings.
Next door is Macau's oldest public park, the Camoes Garden, which was named after Luis de Camoes, the lusophone world's answer to Shakespeare or Moliere. Camoes was a bureaucrat in Macau in the 1560s, and it was here that he composed part of Os Lusiadas, one of his famous epic poems.
The cross-cultural blend of Macanese food is justifiably renowned, and there are countless restaurants that offer bacalhau and African chicken. Owned by Sonia Palmer and her 99-year-old mother, Aida de Jesus, Riquexo Cafe (Avenida Sidonio Pais, 69, tel: +853 2856 5655) offers a truly homestyle Macau experience.
The dishes at this hole-in-the-wall canteen include Macau-style feijoada (a black bean and pork stew) garnished with choi sum. It's a mix that reflects the Cantonese and Portuguese spoken in equal measure by customers, not to mention Patua - the creole language of which Senhora de Jesus is one of the last native speakers.
Fuel up with a cup of bright, fruity Dark Horse espresso at Single Origin (Rua de Abreu Nunes, 19, tel: +853 6698 7475), one of Macau's few speciality coffee shops, before exploring the city's artistic underground. Ox Warehouse (Avenida Coronel Mesquita at Avenida do Almirante Lacerda, tel: +853 2853 0026) is located in a former cattle depot, which gives its exhibitions by local artists a particularly rustic looking background.
AFA Macau (Rua de Francisco Xavier Pereira, 63A-65B, tel: +853 2836 6064), run by James Chu, has a similar grassroots ambience inside the old Lun Hing Knitting Factory, now home to artists' studios and a design agency.
Though Macau has a modern multiplex, Cinema Alegria (Estrada do Repouso, 85D, tel: +853 8299 3678) endures, its landmark neon sign and art deco architecture a charming throwback to when it screened patriotic movies from across the Communist world.
Today's fare is more mainstream, but the tickets are still written by hand and there's no concession stand. Movie-goers grab dinner from street food vendors outside the theatre, including a bowl of imitation shark's fin soup.
"The last movie I saw there was Sex and the City, which people in other places got all dressed up for," says Chu. "Here they wore their shorts and slippers and were slurping on soup while they watched."
Macau used to be a quiet getaway for Hongkongers: pop a couple of egg tarts and head to Fernando's for roast baby suckling pig, crab in claypot or stir-fried clams. We all know the menu there. Love them or hate them, the big resorts have enhanced the city's dining scene, with restaurants preparing dishes that use top quality ingredients served in luxurious surroundings and at surprisingly good prices compared to Hong Kong.
For foodies planning to spend 48 hours in gourmet heaven in Macau, here are some suggestions to keep you and your stomach occupied.
Start your day right at Cafe Nam Ping (85 Rua de Cinco de Outubro, tel: +853 2892 2267) one of the oldest cha chaan tengs in town. It has the best egg sandwiches in Macau. Another good spot is Casa De Cha Long Wa (Rua Norte do Mercado Almirante Lacerda, tel: +853 2857 4456). Come here for an old school dim sum experience, and definitely have the steamed barbecue pork buns, and the cold chicken plate.
Why not take advantage of value meals at Michelin-starred establishments? Just remember to book ahead. At three-star Robuchon au Dôme (43/F Grand Lisboa, tel: +853 8803 7878), dine to your heart's content with set menus ranging from 488 patacas to 728 patacas. But save room for the petit fours.
Over at Crown Towers, chef Guillaume Galliot presents tempting set lunches at the one-star The Tasting Room (Level 3, Crown Towers, City of Dreams, tel: +853 8868 6681) from 348 patacas to 498 patacas. The flavours here are natural and clean.
For some traditional Macanese dining, head to Club Militar (795 Avenida da Praia Grande, tel: +853 2871 4009). "The bacalhau here is typical Portuguese," says Bruno Simões, a Portuguese national who lives in Macau. "It very much takes me home."
He also recommends the wet seafood rice.
Find out more about how Portuguese wines are produced - and enjoy some tastings - at the Macau Wine Museum (Rua Luis Gonzaga Gomes 431, basement, CAT, tel: +853 8798 4108). If you're feeling peckish afterwards, the Macanese pork chop bun might fit the bill. Go to the well-known Tai Lei Loi Kei (18, Largo Governador Tamagnini Barbosa, Taipa, tel: +853 2882 7150). Come just before 2pm for freshly made ones at 30 patacas.
No trip to Macau is complete without Portuguese egg tarts. Some of the best can be found at the Grand Hyatt Lobby Lounge (City of Dreams, Estrada do Istmo, Cotai, tel: +853 8868 1234). Don't come too late or they will be all gone.
Another sweet snack is serradura, a pudding made with whipped cream and sweetened condensed milk and topped with biscuit crumbs. One of the best can be sampled at Gelatina Mok Yi Kei (9 Rua do Cunha, Taipa, tel: +853 2882 5440).
Locals flock to Old Taipa Village across from Galaxy Macau for down-to-earth dining. Antonio Coelho is the chef/owner of Antonio (7 Rua dos Clerigos, Taipa, tel: 853 2899 9998). It's where people like to sample authentic Portuguese cuisine, such as the signature Portuguese duck rice and lobster cocktail.
Also in the neighbourhood is A Petisqueira (15 Rua Joao, Taipa, tel: +853 2882 5354). The local Portuguese like to come here so be sure to reserve a table. Try the bacalhau - crispy on the outside and impossibly fluffy and light inside. The stir-fried clams in white wine are juicy and the octopus salad is refreshing.
For another Portuguese option, head to Dom Galo (45 Rua da Cunha, Taipa, tel: +853 2882 7318). The decor is kitsch but you're here for the food, in particular the king prawns, and the steak frites in mushroom sauce.
Macau's mix of history, casinos and natural beauty make it a fun getaway for all ages. "It's a very small territory," says long-term Macau resident and mother Marta Sismeiro. "And that helps when you have a family, as you don't spend much time on travelling."
Walk through the old town, a Unesco World Heritage site, to Macau Museum (macaumuseum.gov.mo) where you can learn about the history of the 450-year-old former colony. The museum is housed in Mount Fortress, a former military base built by Jesuits in the 17th century, and adjacent to the Ruins of St Paul's. An escalator leads to a park on top of the fort that offers views of the Macau peninsula.
The Grand Prix Museum (431 Rua de Luis Gonzaga Gomes; tel: +853 8798 4108) is a short walk away and was opened to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the city's biggest international event. There are more than 20 cars and motorbikes, some of which were driven by greats such as Eduardo de Carvalho, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard. Older children will love the driving simulator.
Try A Baia (88 Rua de Londres; tel: +853 2875 1465 abaiamacau.com) for lunch before leaving the peninsula.
Order the soup of the day or octopus salad for starters and share the meat cataplana (pork and seafood) or seafood cataplana with white rice or bread. One order will be enough for four.
"This is surely one of the best Portuguese restaurants in Macau, not fancy and not commercialised like many others but definitely one of the most authentic," says Adriano de Wing, chairman of the Portugal China Entrepreneurs Cooperation, a senior food and wine advisor based in Macau.
An easy option is to succumb to the lure of the hotels on Taipa. The Venetian (venetianmacao.com) houses Qube, a 9,000 sq ft indoor playground which will keep children aged one to 17 years occupied for hours, as well as video games and foosball tables.
The nearby Sands Cotai Central (sandscotaicentral.com) is home to Kid's Cavern, a colourful 3,500 sq ft store packed with sweets, toys and children's clothes, alive with dozens of moving animatronic features.
Alternatively, escape the crowds and retreat to Hac Sa Reservoir Country Park (Estrada de Hac Sa) on Coloane. Sismeiro says, "Coloane is the greenest and quietest area in Macau - a great place to go with children." There are barbecue pits and a campsite near the entrance and a path zigzags up a hill to a 20-metre grass slide.
Venture further and there is a vast garden maze and a suspension bridge, which crosses the reservoir to a place that rents pedal boats and canoes. There are several hiking trails. The most child-friendly is the 2km Hac Sa Long Chao Kok Family Trail, which takes about 45 minutes and has great views of the mountains and sea.
De Wing recommends Portuguese restaurant Miramar (Norte da Praia de Hac Sa, Coloane) which serves great seafood and is within walking distance of the reservoir.
"The staff are friendly and helpful and the restaurant has never failed to live up to my expectations," he says. "Make sure to book in advance, especially at weekends, as it tends to get full quickly."
Order the chef's clams, seafood rice and charcoal grills. Parents can cap off the day with house-made sangria, while the children enjoy the outdoor area.