When Cathay Pacific suggested that I visit Macao as part of a recent project with them, I immediately agreed. Although I’ve visited Hong Kong a few times in recent years, I had somehow always skipped nearby Macao. I’m glad I finally spent some time in this region though because it not only quickly impressed me, but I just as quickly came to love the city. Many of us have some preconceived notions of what Macao is all about, but today I want to refute those and instead share the experiences that I enjoyed the most and that I think best demonstrate just how unique and remarkable Macao really is.
Easy to reach
I had a lot of questions on social media while I was in Macao and the most popular was how to get there. In short, it’s almost shockingly easy. Arriving into Hong Kong International Airport the steps could not be simpler to quickly connect to Macao. As soon as you deplane, DO NOT go through immigration or get your bags. Instead, head to the Cotai Water Jet ferry counter, purchase your tickets for the 1-hour boat ride and let them do the rest. They take your bag tags, collect your things and transfer them over to Macao for you. It’s a seamless process and there’s nothing that the connecting passenger has to do except wait for the next ferry. The boats themselves are large and comfortable with plush chairs and great views. The trip is short and as soon as I arrived I collected my things and was on my way. The process is just as easy for the return. If you’re going back to Hong Kong International Airport, you can check in your bags at the ferry terminal without having to worry about anything. When I checked in for my return, the bags were tagged to my final destination and that was it. I really have to applaud the powers that be in Hong Kong and Macao for making this process as easy as it is, enabling more people to visit and to enjoy their time in beautiful Macao.
Macao is world famous for its casinos and, yes, that is why thousands visit every year. That’s not why I was there though and not once did I even step foot inside a casino. That being said, the city’s best hotels are adjacent to these gaming centers and they are certainly well worth the mention. Actually, if you’re a luxury traveler like myself there is a problem, there are too many options. Macao is home to more 5-Star hotels than any other city in the world and the choices are daunting. For my first experience in Macao though I stayed at a brand new hotel that very quickly became one of my favorite hotel experiences of all time. Really. Called the Queen of the Curve, the architectural masterpieces of Zaha Hadid are unmistakable and that includes one of the last designed under her name before she passed away, Macao’s newest luxury hotel the Morpheus. Named for the god of sleep, driving up to this massive hotel I couldn’t help but gape. The 40-storey building is punctuated with three holes in the hotel’s twisting geometrical pattern. The Morpheus features the world’s first free-form high-rise exoskeleton and the design marvels extend inside as well, as you can see from this photo of the lobby. I’ve stayed in a lot of great hotels around the world but in all honesty, this was one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever enjoyed. I tried but could find nothing wrong and I sincerely hope I get the chance to return sometime soon. Whether it’s the Morpheus or the Ritz-Carlton or even the Four Seasons, I find it hard to go wrong with the luxury hotel options in Macao.
I’m a history buff and I especially love visiting new-to-me UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is probably why I enjoyed my time exploring the historic center of Macao so very much. The entire old town is designated as a UNESCO site for a variety of reasons. Once a Portuguese territory, the foreign presence has thankfully been preserved throughout the centuries, presenting visitors with a city that feels more like Europe than Asia. Macao was also a strategically important city for a very long time and a center of trade between Europe and Asia. This history and the traditions that accompany it are thankfully all very much alive in Macao, and easy for the casual visitor to experience.
What is essential for any visitor to Macao is to leave the casinos and head down to the historic center of the city, starting with the ruins of the now famous St. Paul’s church. Originally built in the 1600s, fire destroyed the large church more than once and it was after the final inferno in the 19th century that it was finally abandoned. Later restored, the facade is all that remains, but it has quickly become a symbol of the city. It’s also the ideal place from which to start to experience the expansive history of Macao. Blue Portuguese tiles and expansive squares were the theme of the day as I dodged rain showers and tried to visit as many of the more than 20-historic spots as I could. Together they tell a story of a colonial era that doesn’t seem as onerous as in some places I’ve been. It seems to have been a more laid back sort of occupation; trade and money being the focus of Portugal’s interest in the region. However history decides to remember it, what is clear is that the Portuguese have forever left their imprint on this remote city in the Far East, and in the 21st century that is perhaps best seen in the city’s dynamic food scene.
Eat all the food
Since Macao has been at the confluence of international trade in Asia for centuries, the food scene reflects those influences. You can and will find everything in Macao, from very traditional Chinese cuisine to those famous Portuguese egg tarts that have become the stuff of legend. What was perhaps the most interesting to me though was experiencing a style of food found only in the city, Macanese cuisine. Like all great food styles, it has very humble beginnings; dishes created by local workers from what they could find. It’s also the cuisine that best exemplifies Macao, a strange but tasty combination of foods and traditions.
Based on Portuguese cuisine, these spices and ingredients from Africa, Southeast Asia and India – including curry, coconut milk, cloves and cinnamon – are combined using Chinese culinary skills in a wonderful potpourri of tastes and aromas, giving birth to the uniquely delicious Macanese cuisine of today. African chicken is perhaps the most famous dish, but my favorite was a hash of sorts called Minchi. Originally made by using what was around the kitchen, it’s a combination of meat, potatoes, spices, rice and egg and was usually cooked by parents looking to feed their large families. It’s been embraced again though by traditional restaurants in the city and for me, is the star of Macanese cuisine. UNESCO has even recognized Macao for its very unique culinary history and to enjoy it in person is just one of those experiences everyone has to try at least once.
I enjoyed my first introduction to Macao must more than I anticipated. I thought I knew what to expect in the city, but those expectations were very quickly turned on their head. Yes, if all you want to do is go, stay in nice hotels, gamble and shop then you can do that. But there is so much more to Macao than the casinos, its unique and fascinating history colluding over the centuries to create what really is one of the most wonderfully unusual corners of Asia. It also has a somewhat infectious quality and I know that my first visit certainly won’t be my last.