Macau, beyond the casinos

Written by Anoothi Vishal | Updated: Dec 2 2012, 06:15am hrs
Macaus glitzy Cotai Strip is forever compared with Las Vegas for its entertainment, nightlife and, of course, gambling opportunities. Macau, long touted as Asias Vegas, is fast turning into a destination with more than just the blackjack tables. Sheldon G Adelson, the 12th wealthiest American according to Forbes and the man responsible for developing some of Vegass most glamorous attractions and turning the desert into an entertainment hub, offers a startling bit of statistics, when I get an opportunity to hear him: Only 14% of Las Vegass visitors go there to gamble currently.

Thats contrary to all that all of us had believed. In Macau, where Adelson has a considerable stake (he has developed the entire Cotai Strip), that is clearly the model to follow now. That, despite the fact that the destination rakes in more than Vegas at the tables. Yes, gambling is still to be an attraction. But only one of the manyas more integrated resorts come up, allowing travellers to indulge in anything from theatre to gastronomy to quality family time with equal ease.

At the newly-opened Sheraton hotel in Cotai Strip, the casino is hardly in your face. Instead, it is nestled in between the Polynesian-style lobby, family-style restaurants and elevators that will lead you to the staggering 3,896 guest rooms plus 15,000 metre-square of banqueting/meeting space. The message is clear: Contrary to what you may expect, Macaus latest hospitality venture, incidentally the biggest Sheraton in the world, situated bang opposite the opulent Venetian, is not just for those casino thrill-seekers. Instead, this is very much a family and MICE destination, offering a little something for everyonefrom retail therapy to personal trainers and fitness kits to even a play area for the kiddies.

So what else is there to do in Macau other than attempting to hit the jackpot We uncover some answers wandering through the old Portuguese quarters of this once fishing outpost, through its churches and temples, the blend of the East and the West that is all pervasive, and through its unique cuisine that combines the techniques and spices of the colonial explorers with the native produce and culinary traditions of this former Portuguese colony.

Macanese food, of course, is hardly something well explored. As a fusion cuisine, blending together elements of Cantonese and Portuguese cooking, this is as vibrant as only children of a mixed parentage can be. Unfortunately, it has remained somewhat in the shadow of the tamer but more celebrated flavours of the neighbouring Hong Kong.

Yet, once you discover it, it can be fairly addictive. Down the Ruins of St Pauls, built in 1602 and one of Macaus greatest churches till time and tide reduced it to the grand stone faade that you may see in pictures today, is a narrow lane. Your nose is your best guide as you go past scores of shops and vendors selling little tidbits of cured pork and goodies from the bakery. There are cookies that blend almond with pork, strange rolls with fillings that no one can quite explain, and boxes of ghorayebah, almond biscuits that are one of Macaus biggest exports to the world. At least 20 shops are packed with these snacks and vendors will often offer you little tastingsgratis. Its a pleasant afternoon exercise!

Neighbourhoods such as Taipa have dedicated food streets and some of the most delicious buys can be not just the unique egg tarts here, but the ubiquitous baked polo buns that you can have for breakfast or dinnerdipped in saucealike. With perfectly flaky crusts and soft, buttery insides, this is perfect bread and shows up the fusion cuisine at its best (baking, as a technique, is not intrinsic to Chinese cooking. It came in with the Portuguese), particularly if you are dipping it in stir-fried crab or prawns in clam sauce, nicely seasoned with fresh, green coriander that makes for my meal highlight at Fernandos, a small, shack-like Portuguese-Macanese place by the sea. Bacalhau (salted codfish, with hundreds of recipes, a Portuguese staple), spiced sausage, cinnamon, coriander and coconut-flavoured sauces, whole, roasted chicken all make up menus across tiny eateries.

But if Portugal is still alive in so many hidden quarters, you may equally chance upon a Goa connection. St Dominics church dates back to the early 17th century, standing at the site of an even earlier chapel and convent. It has a baroque altar, beautiful statues of Madonna with the Child and exquisitely-carved wooden idols of saints by craftsmen in Goa, the biggest Portuguese outpost in the East. A museum on two floors has a most interesting and antique collection of Roman Catholic artefacts from Asia.

As I light a candle and sit back on a bench, theres a sense of calm no amount of late nights can shatter. Later that night, as we head back to the shiny party strip of the town and try our hand at the tables, a friend wins HK$ 600 on $ 6 ticket. Yes, there are the casinos too

The writer is a columnist with FE