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In Macau, Skipping the Casinos, but Embracing the Past

The New York Times logoThe New York Times 1/12/2016 LUCAS PETERSON
The Ruins of St. Paul, whose stone facade is one of the few remaining pieces of a centuries-old complex. © Marcel Lam for The New York Times The Ruins of St. Paul, whose stone facade is one of the few remaining pieces of a centuries-old complex.

As we bumped along in the No. 25 bus on Estrada do Istmo, it was impossible not to notice the Venetian Macau, a mountain of steel and glass, shining in the distance in the afternoon sun. Opened in 2007, it’s home to one of the largest casinos on earth. And it’s not alone: Of the 10 biggest casinos in the world in 2014 (based on revenue), a staggering eight were in Macau, a tiny region on the southern coast of China, where over half a million people are packed into fewer than 12 square miles.

Egg tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery. © Marcel Lam for The New York Times Egg tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery.

But I wasn’t there to gamble. Following a precedent I’d established in my very first Frugal Traveler column, when I toured Las Vegas without going to the famed Strip, I was determined to break the shell of Macau’s opulent exterior and see what lay beneath the surface. During a quick two-night trip, taking the ferry across the Pearl River Estuary, I found it was the perfect place for a getaway from the noise and intense urban compactness of Hong Kong.

Owing to its colonial past, Macau, with its cobblestone streets, old Catholic churches and narrow alleyways, has an almost European feel to it, along with an interesting local cuisine that fuses Portuguese and Chinese flavors. And my focus, naturally, was putting this trip together without causing undue strain on my budget.

Macau was one of the first Asian settlements to be forced into the yoke of European colonization and the last to shed it, achieving full independence from Portugal in 1999. As with Hong Kong, China administers Macau but employs a somewhat laissez-faire, capitalist-friendly approach. There are no visa requirements for Americans staying in Macau fewer than 30 days (you will need to bring your passport).

The TurboJet ferry ride from Hong Kong (150 to 200 Hong Kong dollars for an economy fare, about $20 to $25) is reasonably quick and comfortable. Ferries leave from various spots in Hong Kong regularly, so if you miss one, there’s no need to worry. (Be more cautious when you’re leaving Macau — it’s easier to end up on the wrong ferry.)

My attack plan was simple: to see as much as I could, by foot and by public transportation. Macau is traditionally divided into three sections: the peninsula and the islands of Coloane and Taipa. (A fourth “region” of land reclaimed from the ocean, Cotai, now connects Coloane and Taipa and is the home to many of the newer casinos.) I particularly had my eye on rustic Coloane Village in the south.

Though I had no plans to indulge in the casinos, one lesson I’ve learned in my travels is that where there’s gambling, cheap rooms follow — it’s how they lure you in. I was able to land a very comfortable, relatively luxurious room at the Sofitel on the western side of the peninsula for 650 Hong Kong dollars, a little over $80. Close to the center of the city, it was an ideal jumping-off point. I was able to check another essential off the list by walking to Yin He Dian Xun (roughly, Galaxy Telecommunications) and purchasing a 500-gigabyte SIM card from a very helpful young woman for 50 Macanese patacas (about $6).

Ah, yes, the currency. The Macanese pataca and Hong Kong dollar are separate currencies but virtually interchangeable in Macau. Change will sometimes come in patacas, sometimes in Hong Kong dollars. A dollar is, however, slightly more valuable than a pataca. If you’re considering making a big souvenir purchase (like gold or jade jewelry, which is plentiful on the main drag of Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro) either use a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, or walk into a bank to exchange for patacas — I was able to do both without difficulty.

Senado Square, within walking distance of my hotel, was a good place to begin exploring. Beautiful old yellow and pink pastel buildings with arched doorways and green shuttered windows frame the historic square, which is paved with small tiles. It was a perfect place to stroll and enjoy the egg tart I’d purchased for 9 dollars from Koi Kei Bakery.

The egg tart is one of Macau’s signature delicacies, a local interpretation of the Portuguese pastel de nata — perfectly creamy custard with a pleasantly caramelized top, encased within a delicate, flaky pastry cup.

Another distinctive item is the pork chop bun. I stopped into the celebrated Tai Lei Loi Kei, a nearly 50-year-old Macanese chain, and paid 48 dollars for a small, bone-in pork chop that had been slapped somewhat unceremoniously onto a buttered white roll. Fortunately the meat was simply seasoned and well cooked (just be careful not to break a tooth).

In addition to its cuisine, Macau has memorable architecture. Catholic influence is still very much present, at least aesthetically. St. Dominic’s Church, a beautifully restored, custard-colored 16th-century structure, is free to enter, as is a three-story art museum housed in the church’s bell tower. I looked over the icons and relics of the church on display, including beautiful old wooden carvings.

Other worthy architectural attractions include the Ruins of St. Paul, a grand stone facade that is one of the few remaining pieces of a centuries-old complex. While there, I made the steep hike up to the adjacent Fortaleza do Monte, which provided an excellent view of the city.

I could walk to the ruins and St. Dominic’s from my hotel, but despite Macau’s compact size, not everything is walkable. I would not recommend driving in Macau, nor riding one of the city’s ubiquitous scooters. I found a bike rental shop called Si Toi in Taipa that charged 20 dollars per hour (only $2.50, remember) but I ultimately decided on the bus: I found it cheap and fairly reliable.

Unless you have something called a Macaupass (which I did not, and purchase locations are annoyingly scarce), you will need coins. Lots of coins. And they don’t make change on the buses, so get used to walking around with a pocketful of patacas. (Local businesses and banks can help you make change if you’re hard up.) I hopped the 26A bus to Coloane, eager to see the rustic, more peaceful side of Macau.

(A quick note on signage: Every official sign in Macau will be in both Portuguese and Chinese. I found this somewhat curious, as I didn’t hear a word of Portuguese my entire stay. I asked Neal, a server at the cute Cafe Cheri, if he spoke Portuguese or knew anyone who did. “Well,” he hesitated, “No, not really.” Did anyone in Macau speak Portuguese? “Yes, I think in some restaurants.”)

Coloane Village was quiet, almost sleepy, when I hopped off the bus by the roundabout near Eanes Park. It was, in other words, exactly what I was seeking. I began walking north up the coast, stopping for another excellent 9-dollar egg tart at Lord Stow’s Bakery. Colorfully painted houses stood on stilts in the bay, China a mere 1,000 feet to the west. Fishermen hung their catch outside their homes, and every now and then there was the distinctive clack of mah-jongg tiles.

I wound my way down Avenida de Cinco de Outubro, in the shade of thick-trunked ficus rumphii trees with aerial roots, like banyan trees. I eventually found myself in a beautiful cobblestone plaza with a fountain on one end and the beautiful, bright yellow Chapel of St. Francis on the other. I dined al fresco at Cafe Nga Tim on a 58-dollar dish of rice and curried prawns and watched evening set in.

The casinos? Didn’t need them. They do provide a useful benefit, though: When it came time to head back to the ferry terminal, I happily used the hotel’s free shuttle bus.

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