This Is The Best Day Trip You Can Take From Hong Kong
Macau is truly a one-of-a-kind place.
Sixty five kilometres west of Hong Kong lies the ‘special administrative region’ of Macau, a city with its own money and legal system that is ‘under the protection’ of China. With a complex cultural heritage and a strange economic environment, Macau is a truly one-of-a-kind place. In less than an hour, on a high-speed ferry across the Pearl River Delta, you can pass from Hong Kong into a totally different world.
Like Hong Kong, Macau’s history is radically shaped by colonialism, although a very different brand. The peninsula city off the coast of mainland China saw an influx of Portuguese traders in the early 1550s. In 1557, Macau was rented out to Portugal by the Ming Dynasty to serve as a trading port then in 1887, for various complicated reasons, China signed Macau over to the Portuguese for perpetual occupation and governance. This strange blend of cultures – the Sino-Portuguese mix – has given Macau its distinct and curious flavour.
The Vegas of the East
Take a pedicab from the ferry port to the historical centre of Macau and the first thing you’ll notice is the glittering casino strip, the most gaudy and extreme relic of Portuguese rule. Though Macau was officially handed back to China in 1999, it remains economically autonomous – it’s the only place in China where gambling is legal, the ‘Vegas of the East’. A vast replica of the Venetian hotel exists in Hong Kong – much larger than its Vegas brother with some 540,000 square feet of gaming space – and there’s a replica Wynn Casino with its own ‘performance lake’.
These are two of 33 casinos that prop up the Macau economy, including the woozily spectacular Grand Lisboa. We wouldn’t recommend going inside these building unless you love to gamble (or you want to check out a this strange indoor waterworld) but for a passing traveller, it’s a gobsmacking landscape to behold.
Through the cobblestone streets
The historical centre of Macau is where it’s at; a weaving web of cobbled streets framed by bright buildings, bracing town squares and decorative fountains, all perfectly manicured with casino money. The buildings are conspicuously European in flavour, though they house Chinese businesses. Senado Square and St Dominic’s Church are particularly beautiful, like pieces of Lisbon on the edge of the South China Sea. Make sure you stop at one of the many alley-side bakeries to sample the Portuguese tarts. They’re the absolute best in old town Macau, most especially at Margaret’s Café e Nata.
To the top of the hill
Passing through the old centre and winding slowly up a very steep hill, through more traditionally Chinese-looking residential blocks, you’ll come to the Fortaleza do Monte. This elevated fort in the centre of town is ringed by antique cannons, offering sweeping 360 degrees views of Macau. Housed inside the fort, the Macau Museum is a very cool place, using miniatures, antiques and dioramas to explain the city’s trade history, including the Portuguese invasion. Outside, over the walls of the fort, you can see the grand and lovely Ruins of St Paul’s. Just the façade remains of this 17th century church, jutting stoically into the sky.
Into the tea garden
Make your way to Macau’s east side to find some sweet peace in a Lou Lim Ieoc, a traditional Suzhou garden with fish-filled ponds, turtles and tiny wooden bridges; bamboo, bonsai trees and pagodas. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a Cantonese musician rehearsing, or some old ladies doing tai chi. Along with Mandarin House and the A-Ma Temple, Lou Lim Ieoc is one of the most striking Chinese historical sites on Macau, built in 1906, though here too there are signs of Portuguese occupation. In a yellow colonial building on the garden’s edge, you’ll find the Macau Tea Culture Museum, which serves free tea samples in the afternoon.
Escape to the island in the south
Before you leave Macau, you have to visit Coloane, a village that is connected to Macau proper by two long sea bridges and several bus routes. Built around a bright and lively town square, the small and winding roads of this semi-rural township are framed by worn, huddled houses of a distinctly pastoral vibe. Full of cute little shops and quiet little alleys, with lush green forests and beaches close by, it’s worthy of a day trip unto itself, but dinner will have to do. Tuck in to some mussels or prawns in Coloane village square and take a moment to enjoy the loveliness of it all before you high tail it back to the ferry.
(Lead image: dconvertini/Flickr)