Thursday, 14 May 2015

Experiencing Portugal and China on a 6 day Trip to Macau

A sun kissed church. As I walk towards it’s serene presence, my feet touch the cool path of colourful mosaic tiles; I pause. I take in the sound of the church bells blending with the quiet of a lazy summer afternoon. Freshly cooked clamps with lemon zest - the fragrance wafting through the air from a Chinese restaurant nearby. I am in Coloane village - a green paradise on the southernmost tip of the Chinese special administrative region of Macau.

Politicians draw geographical borders. History has a way of overwriting them. Here in Macau, that's exactly what I see. How you might ask? Walk straight down the tarmac from Ponte no.16 to an array of local Chinese stores with an array of dried fish on sale. From here, take a slight left and your feet will touch cobbled pathways like those in Europe; with quaint cafes inviting you for a crepe or coffee. Take the next right and you will step into a garden so picturesque as if freshly plucked out from a Chinese painting. Take the roundabout from there and head to Senado Square, Macau’s city center where the two cultures amalgamate with such aplomb – you might want to pause for a bit sitting by the fountain in the center of the square and just – take it all in.   

See what I mean? Macau is a prime example of this mischief. If it is physically possible to be in two places at one time – in the midst of a free flowing Portuguese culture and the enterprising and active Chinese Culture - experiencing the strong presence of the two countries, Portugal and China via exploring Macau is the closest I got to it.

Finding My Bearings
Macau peninsula, Taipa and Coloane make up the entire region of Macau. The Macau peninsula is the main land where most of the local population and the oldest Portuguese settlements, are; not to mention the oldest casinos too. Taipa is the more Chinese residential, smaller island of the region, a mere 2.5kms away. Then there is the Cotai strip where you can spend hours with your group of friends at City of Dreams and watch live shows like The Beauty and The Beast, House of Dancing Waters among others; (I was mesmerised by the set design, stage theatrics and acrobatics of  the House of dancing Waters show. it is probably one of the most expensive productions in the world; what with a raging sea with a pirate ship splashing around at one moment and transformed into a flat land the very next moment. See this Travel CNN House of Dancing Water story that showcases all the man hours that go into the making of this magical show), Shop at the never ending and glamorous stores at the Venetian, or can try your luck at the new age casinos being set up by the Las Vegas Resorts properties.

All the four regions are a 20 minute walk or 10 minute drive away from each other. This makes Macau a perfect place to just walk around with little or no need for using local transport. If you need to then a good tip is to use the Resort Buses doing the rounds taking people to the casinos and back. 

First Things First – The Outdoors
Here I am in Coloane islands - the green lung of Macau. With its long winding nature trails, gorgeous roads to cycle or run on and a relaxing beach - the perfect setting to unwind. (tip: You can drive down in just 20 minutes or take route no 25 bus to come to coloane island from Taipa.)
I came across this lovely blog post by Julienne about Hiking in Macau – Coloane Trail You might think it is just a city and a walking trail might be impossible to find. On my next trip I will make sure I keep a day or two to explore the trails she has recommended here.  

And the best part? Even in the buzzing Macau peninsula, at every kilometer there is an outdoor park with space and more for functional exercises, lovely smooth roads for running and cycling and a smattering of basketball courts (my favourite sport!) Macau you get full marks from me for being mighty outdoorsy!

After exploring Coloane Island and the village, hunger drives me to visit Fernandos Restaurant right near Hac Sa beach. A strong sense of deja vu sets in. Am I in Goa’s Mango Tree – the place to be for a perfectly sumptuous meal with a hippy culture all around? The same gingham table cloths, same colourful vibe, the high walls and ceilings adorned with visiting cards and currencies from travellers from across the globe – I feel at home. The fragrance of a fresh fish curry with stir friend veggies whets my appetite and I settle in for a leisurely lunch.

Macanese Food
Before leaving for Macau, many of my corporate-slave friends who have travelled to Hong Kong for a work trip told me, “Ah Macau is just worth a day trip. But if you are going there don’t forget to try out the Portuguese egg tarts, yumm they are.” They were so wrong about the first part as the 6 days I was there for, just flew by and I had so much more left to explore. But the egg tarts, I was intrigued about. I am not much of a foodie but here in Macau I came this close to turning into a food blogger! So much so that here’s a special post just about all the food that was tried out there. Thank God for the fully equipped gyms in all the properties I stayed and surveyed and utilised! From here a short drive away is Taipa, the sleepy European part of Macau. I had to choose my pick between getting lost in one of its quaint stores, explore Taipa’s food street or park myself at yet another lovely Cafe Litoral you cannot miss.

Visit Casinos on Day 1 or Day 5?
I know what you are thinking. “I will head to the Lisboa casino on day 1 and double the money I have for the rest of the vacation.” Ah sounds super if you visit just to gamble. But if you want to experience it all, begin with a leisurely exploration of the sights and sounds of Macau first.

Step Out, Experience Macau’s Communities’ is a new initiative by the Macau Government Tourist Office designed to take visitors along various parts of Macau to experience, the food, culture and communities via walking tours. 

My favourites on the walking tour are the most Chinese of all of Macau's gardens is the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, trekking up to the big rock at A-ma temple, getting lost in the by lanes around the former Opium House and fireworks factory, walking from the ruins of St.Paul and getting lost in the tiny lanes (super deals for shopping here) leading to Senado Square and another route that takes you through the MGM building, the statue of the Goddess, Macau Tower and Macau Science Center.
And if you like the Hop on Hop off style famous across Europe, there is a Macau Open Top Day Bus Tour among other routes across Macau. The same company has a car rental service that you might want to look up for your private family or friend tours       

Macau Science Centre
I am not a fan of exhibition halls or history centres. But for the first time I experienced the magic of the outdoors in an indoor environment. Inside this cone of steel lies one of my favourite spaces in Macau - The Science Centre. Not only where there interactive games to test my stamina, flexibility, a basket ball court, boxing simulator, but also illusion games, the science behind magic tricks and so much more! All for me to test in real time I could easily spend an entire day here and still have more to explore. Should you choose to head to the Science centre (I strongly recommend it) keep at least 4-5 hours to explore the place if not the entire day. If you can book the Planetarium Sky Shows in advance (MOP 80) and a must must visit is all the interactive exhibits (MOP 25) Check

Where to Stay
Macau does have one drawback. In that it has mainly exclusive 5 start properties. This means food and travelling in and around Macau is not a problem but hotels are steep. However, considering it is a destination you would visit for a reunion with friends or a quick secret get away with a special someone – luxury is Macau’s biggest USP. I experienced the exclusive offerings at Sofitel Macau, Holiday Inn Macao and Conrad at Cotai Central.
If you do want to rough it out and be in your own space I did see a lovely Cheoc Van Youth Hostel and some interesting apartments on Airbnb in Macau too. Though, do keep in mind that you will be missing out on all the pampering that Macau’s 5+ star properties have to offer. (Tip: Conrad has a special summer getaway package offer where you can save upto 45% off on hotel rates the offer is on this 31st July, 2015. This means you might get a super deal of Rs.8000-9000 per night too)

Closing Thoughts
I haven’t travelled to Portugal. I haven’t been to China either. But now that I am back from a trip to Macau courtesy Macau Tourism, it makes me feel like I am back from both. What a fusion of the west and east Macau is and how delicately preserved both cultures are – to you all of this in one place might sound practically impossible.

So travel to Macau; let your senses experience it, come back with a broad smile from making magical memories and when you do, remember to share your stories with me. I can't wait to hear them.

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