It's Macau, Baby!

Macau, like Dubai has been hyped as the new global hot spot for the jet set, coined, The Asian Vegas. Dubai, like Vegas is a modern city that emerges out of nowhere. Macau, unlike either, is a peninsula attached to an old world culture where casinos are the icing on this cultural cake.

Checking in to The Star World Galaxy Hotel, a new five star hotel next to The Wynn was a breeze. The staff was stunning; several Bond-like babes in thigh high boots and micro minis greeted us with warm welcomes and wry smiles smelling of seductive western perfume.

Midday, nighttime entertainers, Chaplin, a Mariachi band and a group of fab faux Thai ladies wandered the lobby drumming up trade and interest for their nighttime entertainment or posing for pictures-a very Vegas moment.

The hotel crew, mainly Chinese, was engaging and eager to please. Most employees spoke English, yet, when calling the front desk asking, “How do I turn off my light” I got, “Thank you!” or “Good night” before they hung up. It was the same with the morning crew at the hotel’s Temptations restaurant. If you ask for ice water, it will come hot in a tall glass or in a teacup with ice with a smile on the side. Continue your coffee request, as it will take a few waves, well worth the flag down, as it is as good as any coffee in Europe. Once caffeinated, bid “goodbye” to the American mime and go for the wild ride.

Macau felt overwhelmingly Chinese until we took a closer look and absorbed the Portuguese culture that was as strong today as the day they landed four hundred years ago. We, a small crew, were traveling with PF Chang’s founder Philip Chang, an artist at heart, with a loft in downtown LA.

Philip, a kind and inspired soul was with a few folks, inclusive of Bob Tam, Chang’s executive chef. They were studying Macanese food as Chang’s incorporates a new region of Chinese food on the menu every six months. Tam, originally from Hong Kong said every time he thought of Macanese food he got hungry. His Pavlovian appetite inspired the crew to head to the Peninsula to study Macanese, the first fusion food. We were along for the culinary and cultural ride.

This fusion food, like the people, is a mix of Chinese (95% of the population) and Portuguese (5% of population). Our first meal was at a traditional Macanese restaurant, Porto Interior. Macau’s food served family style, is distinguished with a blend of spices from the East, prepared with Western European techniques.

As I ate my way through the city and surrounding countryside, I discovered no two restaurants or families prepare the same dish in the same way. Try African Chicken, the mother lode of the Macanese meal. It’s different everywhere you go. Families are known to keep recipes under lock and key and share it only after they pass, to the next generation.

Our meals were paired brilliantly with Portuguese wines, starting with crisp whites and one or two big bold reds with the meal (which I could not get enough of) and finished with a sweet Portuguese Port with desert. The old world wines of Portugal are very affordable ($20 USD). It’s recommended to stock up in the US before others catch on and prices rise. In true European style, as tight as our schedule was, the meals involved plenty of food, wine and an abundance of time.

The cultural fix in Macau begins at the small, but dense Handover Museum. December 20th 1999 was a smooth handover of Macau and the end of China’s history of colonization. Macau Special Administration Region, (MSAR) was established, which meant that Macau is under China’s regime, but because it’s doing a good job of governing itself, like Hong Kong, China stays out of the way. Each province within China presented Macau with an unbelievable handover gift worthy of this museum.

The Fisherman’s Wharf, aside from casinos is the most Vegas aspect of the city. It’s a fabricated walk around the world, enabling you to hit a faux New Orleans, Miami, Morocco, Amsterdam, Mainland China and Rome--an abridged version of a walk down the strip minus the mayhem. Clearly touristy, it’s best fit for family, equipped with kiddy rides, souvenir shops and eateries. Closer to the water, it resembles Singapore with diverse ethnic eateries, nighttime jazz and entertainment, more suitable for the sexy set.

My favorite casino was the 40+ year-old original Casino Lisboa, giant lotus leaf, a recurring theme in Macau, run by Stanley Ho, Macau’s gambling kingpin who once had a monopoly on the market, from 1962 to 2002. It’s traditional, yet opulent, with slick 60’s architecture and design, low ceilings and is frequented by Chinese locals. It’s no wonder I again felt like I was in a Bond movie. Roger Moore’s Bond followed high rollers to the Portuguese Chinese colony and to the casino back in 1974 in the film Man With a Golden Gun. They have a classic can’t miss Dim Sum lunch filled with serious local flavor and color.

Ho’s more modern property, the new Grand Lisboa, across the street, also with a gold Lotus leaf, is his obvious attempt to keep up with his new western competitors. With high ceilings and extravagant chandeliers it is similar in style to the American Wynn and Sands.

The invitation only Sands, meanwhile, is a great place to be a Bond, act like an undercover agent or serious player as it houses high rollers that never check in or out (no paper trail). With the world’s largest chandelier, it’s worth a look and a listen where you can’t tell if they (mainly Chinese) are winning, losing, enjoying, let alone playing a game. I could literally hear my zipper go up and down. It’s that quiet.

In their Wynn, a chic boutique version of Vegas’ Wynn, we caught dancers, not stick thin, nor with Vegas uber boob job bods, randomly free styling onstage, next to, but not necessarily with each other, no rhythm, no routine. I found those moments to be golden, those wee windows where all the flash forward advancement on the peninsula hadn’t quite caught up with itself, leaving a few folks and a few spokes in this fast moving machine behind. They were just kicking it 80’s style, having a ball with no idea that there’s a modern storm going on outside, and all around them. Genuis!

Not to worry, however, as The Cotai Strip will handle all your modern entertainment needs. Cotai, once water, is a land filled strip, built to accommodate this rapid-fire growth. Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest men in America, the man and mind behind The Venetian and Sands wants to do in a few years what took forty to buildVegas.

The anchor property at the corner of The Strip, Adelson’s Venetian Resort Hotel is the largest hotel casino in the world with approximately 3,000 suites, a gaming facility, showrooms, spas, shops, restaurants, several other high end hotels (Shangri La & others), a convention center with over 20,000 seats set for big name concerts and competitive sport and a theater where Canada’s Cirque set up shop with a show developed specifically for Macau. We’re talking major Vegas Baby!

Hot honchos from around the world are showing up in full force flexing their macho and monied muscles with power projects, including British boy Branson with plans for an underwater casino in The City of Dreams, Stanley Ho’s modern counter to Sheldon’s Venetian property, also on The Cotai Strip.

To wrap your head around who’s who in the game, a total of three gaming licenses were given out to Wynn, SJM (The Macau Gaming Company, Stanley Ho’s company) and Galaxy Casino Company. Many players are working in sub concessionaire licenses so it’s hard to keep up with who is working on what with whom. But the three main players in town are Sheldon Adelson (Sands, Venetian) Steve Wynn and Stanley Ho. They are the power triumvirate that seems to be making the most noise.

With an airport a mere mile from The (Cotai) Strip, the fear is that execs and party people will fly in and out for meetings and convections missing all that Macau has to offer from the rich cultural history, several world heritage sites, retro Bond like offerings, The Gran Prix Museum (a guys high), The Wine Museum (my high with Portuguese wines), Lou Lim Ioc garden where elders gather for traditional dance and The Red Market where food is so fresh, its alive until you choose it.

It’s a feast for the eyes from local produce, to the cast of characters that inhabit the stalls and the fowl that fear their demise. The streets are a montage of local Chinese, shy schoolgirls, elders who fear a stolen soul if photographed and vendors full of comedy, character and charm.

In addition, there are two islands off mainland Macau. A walk through Taipa Food Street in Coloane Square on Coloane Island was the island’s best example of east west architecture. Our lunch with famed chef Antonio (Tonio) Coelho in Coloane Island at his Restaurante Espaco Lisboa was a highlight! The larger than life character, Portuguese Tonio put on a show that would rival Emeril, serving a not to be forgotten experience and meal.

The island was a serious step back in time to a sleepy European fishing village mixed with the odd Chinese temples at the end of the street, incense burning and Mainland China right across the water, again a brilliant, unique mix and an odd twist. If you don’t dip in to the past, you will miss the magic that Macau still has to offer today.

It’s definitely not Dubai. The international DJ’s have not set up shop for that kind of house party yet. The playground is still under construction, with several scaffolds throughout the city. So the decks are not set…yet.

However, with casino revenues far surpassing Vegas in 2007, a strip built out of the blue, out of the water, with enough planned shine to blind, the uber-hotels on top of tip-top hotels, with global awards as the new destination place perfectly suited for conventions and decadence, one can easily see the Vegas and Dubai comparison taking shape. But look closer to the quirks and the collision of the past and present, east and west, the Portuguese and Chinese as there in lies the magic, Baby!

By Karen Loftus, Starworld Galaxy Hotel

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