Destination of the week: Macau
If you're equally at home at a blackjack table and on a mountain bike, check out this Chinese special administrative region near Hong Kong.
Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 07:53 AM
Macau is usually associated with blackjack and baccarat. The East Asian gambling mecca, made up of a small peninsula and two islands that are now connected by a strip of land known as Cotai, is usually grouped with Hong Kong (which sits to the northeast) in travel guides and package tour itineraries. This is because both of these southeastern Chinese regions were former colonies that reverted to Chinese rule at the end of the 1900s. Hong Kong and Macau still enjoy a degree of autonomy as SARs (special administrative regions) under Chinese law. Part of the agreement made between Portugal, Macau's former ruler, and China gives Macau autonomy for 50 years from the 1999 handover date. This makes it more accessible to tourists than the mainland.
It might be the world's foremost casino destination, but Macau is about more than card tables and roulette wheels. Its colonial legacy is much more visible than in Hong Kong. Portuguese architecture is still a major part of the city, even though only a small population of people from this nation remain in the region. Macanese cuisine, which blends Eastern and Western flavors, is as attractive an element of the region as the glitzy casinos. And gardens and natural landscapes make the environment a noticeable part of Macau's personality. Despite being densely populated, the region is known for its laid-back atmosphere and for having a more leisurely pace of life than Hong Kong. That alone is enough to make the former Portuguese colony more attractive to tourists than most other frenetic urban centers in southern China.
Taipa, the island nearest to Macau Peninsula, has a landscape dominated by two hills that are ideal for mountain biking. Bikes can be rented in Taipa Village, the main town on the island. The hilly terrain near Macau's airport is best for riders seeking a challenging trip. The journey includes views overlooking the lowlands and the sea. The rugged-yet-lush landscapes of this part of southern China are picturesque. A lower-altitude hill covers the west part of Taipa, facing the mainland. The trails in this area pass scenic landscapes but do not require as much exertion as the airport-side trails. Hiking is a possibility for those who favor to travel on foot rather than by two-wheelers. Again, the changes in altitude can be strenuous, but the views and natural landscapes are rewarding.
Seac Pai Van Park is a convenient natural attraction on the far end of the Cotai Strip, a stretch of land that connects the previously separate islands of Taipa and Coloane. Cotai is now the center of the casino and resort scene in Macau. Attractions like a zoo and lake make Seac Pai Van seem touristy, but other features make this a worthwhile stop for nature lovers. A walk-through aviary housing some species of rare tropical birds is a worthwhile stop. The Natural and Agrarian Museum, also in the park, features exhibits on traditional farming on the islands. The park also has a garden filled with medicinal herbs and plants that demonstrates the long relationship that people in this part of the world have had with natural medicine.
The center of Coloane, the island farther from Macau's mainland, is home to dirt trails popular with hikers and also accessible for mountain bikers. These trails can get crowded on the weekends, but during the week the crowds thin out and it is easier to appreciate the surroundings.
Macau's gardens range from small urban plazas with fountains, sculptures or a stand of trees to lush gardens with dense foliage and lengthy walking paths. Lou Lim Ioc Garden, on peninsular Macau, is the most traditional of all the territory's greenspaces. It is modeled after the classical gardens in mainland China. Lotus ponds, bridges and a large pavilion (which regularly hosts events) make this one of the more popular and pleasant places to take in nature. Camões Garden, one of Macau's oldest gardens, boasts an extensive garden and heavily wooded areas crisscrossed with walking paths. This is a favorite with locals, who come to relax, play board games, practice tai chi, have a stroll or take their pet birds out for a walk.
As with other destinations with large Buddhist populations, there are plenty of meatless menu items in Macau. One vegetarian standout is Pou Tai Un Temple on the island of Taipa. This temple has a vegetable garden and an on-site vegetarian restaurant where resident monks prepare meals that include these locally grown vegetables.
Macau also has a lively street food scene, with market stalls and food carts serving up local favorites that are equal in quality to the upscale fare found in casino restaurants. Stalls in and around St. Dominic Market (on peninsular Macau) are easily accessible, although vendors can be found throughout the peninsula and on the more rural islands of Coloane and Taipa.
Macau's peninsula is walkable, as are the islands, to some extent. Sidewalks can get crowded, especially on the peninsula and in Cotai, but the area is compact enough that foot-powered travel is a viable alternative to moving around via taxi. Some of the peninsula's older neighborhoods are best explored on foot, though a good map and a plan are advisable as the street layout is not always straightforward. It's also a good idea for explorers to bring a card from their hotel or guesthouse with the address written in Chinese, in case they get hopelessly lost and need to ask a taxi driver or helpful local.
The bus system in Macau is not convenient for non-Cantonese speakers, but most large hotels and casino/resorts have free shuttle buses that run between casinos and hotels and most of the major tourist attractions. These shuttles also serve the airport and ferry terminal.
On Taipa Island and Coloane, walking is also a preferable option. This island is also a good place for cycling, though bikes are generally not a good transit option in the more densely populated areas of Macau.
The green hotel movement is gaining steam in Macau. The region's Environmental Council has launched an initiative to award hotels a green label if they meet certain criteria, including compliance with environmental regulations, reduction of energy and water consumption, recycling programs and the launching of other environmental programs. Hotels that meet the standard are given the Green Hotel Award. The label was first bestowed on qualifying venues in 2007, with more hotels being added to the list yearly.
A cheap, small-scale Macau sleeping option is the SanVa Hostel, in the historic Rua de Felicidade area. This venue has shared bathrooms and basic amenities, but makes up for its spartan offerings with an ideal location and sub-$25 nightly rates. Some rooms have balconies overlooking the street.
One standout upscale hotel option is the Galaxy Macau. It is centrally located on the Cotai strip, next to the territory’s largest hotels and casinos. The resort's Galaxy Green program is an ambitious initiative that claims that it will turn the Galaxy into the greenest large-scale hotel/resort in Macau. The program includes plans for ongoing reduction of energy and water consumption, as well as recycling and education in environmental stewardship for guests and staff members.
Macau is a huge destination for gamblers and it appears that the territory’s profile will only get larger in this respect. However, there are also plenty of attractions and options for those who want to have a green vacation. From locally grown cuisine to green hotels and attractions, an Earth-friendly visit to the Far East is quite possible in Macau, even if you choose to spend some time at the blackjack tables.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.