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Macau a surprise for a first-time visitor

AAP logoAAP 10/10/2016 Peta McCartney

Whatever preconceived notions you have about the Chinese peninsular of Macau - known worldwide for its ration of casinos per square kilometre, toss them aside. Macau takes the Orient, mixes it with a liberal dash of Portuguese, shakes it up with a few African and Indian influences and offers a fusion of delights few regions in the world can match.

From the first contact between the Portuguese and the island's fishing and farming inhabitants back in the 16th century, there has been a harmonious and thriving relationship between the two nationalities and cultures, which still exists today - despite Portugal returning Macau to China in 1999.

This interesting outpost at the mouth of the Pearl River - where around two per cent of today's population is Portuguese - welcomes 20 million visitors a year.

Yes, there are casinos everywhere. But there are also surprises.

What I'm most surprised by is the pace of life. For the world's most populated region - with 600,000 nationals in its 32-square kilometres - there doesn't seem to be the frenzy of nearby Hong Kong. Perhaps this is why so many Hong Kong locals take the 50-minute ferry across the water to spend their weekends here.

And there's plenty to do within walking distance, from historic museums and ruins, to parks, markets and tea shops.

A good place to start is the UNESCO-listed old city of Macau, jammed with multi-storey apartment blocks where tiny, caged balconies display the day's washing.

It's a mishmash alright - of churches alongside Buddhist or Tao temples, and of hole-in-the wall shops on tiny cobbled streets selling traditional Macanese breakfast next to jewellery shops selling flashy, yellow-gold chains.

The food, too, is a blend. Traditional Portuguese almond biscuits sit alongside beef jerky strips and Chinese congee - a thick rice porridge mixed with garnishes, pork chop buns or noodles.

Eventually, streets open out into squares filled with mosaic paths and historic Portuguese-style buildings painted pink, yellow, green or white. I feel for a second like I'm in Europe.

Two of the area's premier attractions include the ruins of St Paul's, whose caved stone facade shows a ship, sea monsters and a skeleton alongside saints and the story of Christianity in Asia. It's a stark reminder of the perils of the sea voyage that brought the Portuguese to Macau. Unfortunately only part of the church remains after its main wooden structure burned to the ground in 1835.

The nearby Mount Fortress and the Macau Museum, which was was built by Jesuits to protect the region from attack by the Dutch, offers grand views across the rooftops to the skyscrapers that dominate the skyline - including the distinctive lotus-inspired Grand Lisboa hotel.

Macau is dense and urban. But there are places to go if you're hankering for nature and tranquillity. Lou Lim Ieoc Garden was once private but is now a lovely, bonsai-filled oasis, with lakes filled with tortoises.

It's not always quiet in the gardens though; musicians who can't practise in the confines of their small apartments come here to play. And of course, as in all Chinese parks, you'll find old men gathered to play chess, and plenty of Tai Chi enthusiasts.

If you're after a swim, there are beaches on Coloane Island, as well as a giant panda family. Cubs Kim and Hong were born in June 2016 and will soon be making their debut public appearance, but for now you can view their parents' enclosure and watch father Hoi Hoi chomping bamboo and sleeping - for around $A2.

I also discover the unpretentious Lord Stowe's bakery, which sells the original Macanese-English-influenced Portuguese tart - now sold in franchises in several countries, including the Philippines, Japan and South Korea. Think crispy, light pastry and oozing, creamy filling. After one bite, I'm hooked.

Other European influences seep into Macau in kitsch ways. There's the recently-opened Parisian Hotel's half-scale replica Eiffel Tower on the Cotai strip, as well as gondolas and canals at its sister property The Venetian.

Staying in Macau will cost more on the weekend so it's a good idea to spend a weekend in Hong Kong with its cheaper rates, then visit Macau during the week.

For Australians in transit, a few days looking around Macau at the tail end of a holiday is a great way to unwind before heading home.

Go on. Take a gamble.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Macau is about nine hours from Australia's eastern capitals. Cathay Pacific offers flights to Hong Kong from six major Australian cities (www.cathaypacific.com.au), while ferry transfers can take you direct from Hong Kong Airport to Macau. It's important to book return ferry tickets before you leave (approx $A90 return).

STAYING THERE: There'a a range of hotels to suit all budgets. Rooms at The Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16 start from around $A160 per night, while the recently opened The Parisian Macau has various deals starting from around $A180 per night.

PLAYING THERE: Getting around Macau is easy with regular bus and taxi services all quite reasonably priced. Museums, activities and attractions vary in price. Visit http://en.macaotourism.gov.mo/.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Cathay Pacific, Macao Government Tourism Office, The Sofitel Macau and The Parisian Macau.

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