Living on the edge of a cultural divide

Rejecting the adrenalin junkie option of hurling herself from the top of one of the world’s tallest buildings, Isabel Conway takes a multicultural tour of Macau’s many attractions.

Living on the edge of a cultural divide

THEY ask, “Why live on the edge when you can jump off?” at the top of the 338-metre-high Macau Tower, one of the world’s highest buildings, where a Michelin Guide menu for adrenaline junkies, devised by New Zealander AJ Hackett, inventor of modern bungy jumping, is on offer.

Invited to hurl yourself over the summit on one of the highest bungy jumps anywhere, break the Guinness Book of Records sky jump, attempt a ‘Flying Fox’ (whatever that is) or scale the mast of the tower on a two-hour- long climb up vertical ladders, one is spoilt for choice.

A gentle stroll around the outside observation deck, looking down on this colourful island with mainland China just over the hill is the obvious non- thrill-seekers’ option. That was until I looked out expecting to see a handrail.... but there was none!

Described as a ‘must-do’ for the adventurous, tourists (read: young, fearless, daredevil) arrive from all over the world to jump off the Macau Tower, paying from around €60 upwards for packages, including video footage for your social network site.

They come in their droves too for the skywalk attraction on the 61st floor of the Macau Tower. I watched long queues waiting to be safely harnessed and attached to an overhead steel-enforced lanyard before getting out there to walk on the edge, with no handrail to cling on to 233 metres above terra firma.

The faint hearted among us, marvelling at other people’s courage (and head for heights) could only watch in wonder from a safe distance inside the glass observation deck.

Once a quiet backwater, Macau, like Hong Kong, is a special administrative region of China under ‘one country, two systems’ and today is the world’s biggest gambling mecca. It is also a favourite day trip for foreigners visiting Hong Kong, 65km away, but deserves a much longer visit to explore a unique fusion of east and west.

Last year marked the 500th since the arrival of the first Portuguese mariners to Macau, then a deserted peninsula with two natural harbours at the mouth of the Pearl River. Now plans are advanced to transform this little tiger of the far east into the latest hot tourist destination, offering far more than casinos. The former Portuguese colony actually predates Hong Kong by almost 300 years and was the first European enclave in Asia.

Macau, safe and friendly, turns out to be a curious and interesting mixture of ridiculously extravagant casino buildings and an enticing authentic fusion of Europe and the Orient.

Turning a corner, I enter yet another beautiful Taoist temple, drink the finest china teas for free in a tea shop a few doors away and pay less than a euro to learn about Macau’s long tradition of pawnshops in a museum housed in the former Tak Seng On (Virtue and Success) pawn shop, incorporating a fortress-like tower with goods stored in safes and on racks.

One minute you are strolling through Portuguese squares of baroque pastel- coloured buildings — remnants of the wealth of the former seafaring colonial power. The next you are lost in a warren of streets crammed with Chinese bustle and food stalls, shops dedicated to tea and ginseng, passing endless displays of beef and pork jerky, a speciality in these parts.

Add to that a lavish dose of Vegas- style casino madness — Macao’s Venetian hotel even dwarfs its Nevada counterpart — and then see the contrast with fishing villages and nature walks on Coloane, an island joined by causeway to the peninsula of Macao.

Strolling around the Venetian, complete with palazzos, arched bridges, watching a guy serenading giggling Chinese teenagers with O Sole Mia as their gondola drifts through the canals here in the far east is a little surreal.

Yet it is nothing compared to Macau’s leading show, The House of Dancing Water, a multi-million dollar production in the City of Dreams Theatre complex on the Casino strip, equal to anything Las Vegas could invent. The show features extraordinary acrobatics, deep dive stunts into a couple of Olympic- sized pools, a synchronised hurricane, flying motorbikes and more. It has been described as “Cirque du Soleil meets Tom Daley’s Splash”.

A little the worse for wear after a long flight, I was wilting after seeing some of the sights — a UNESCO Heritage historic centre, including the elaborate A-Ma Temple, the ruins of St Paul’s Church, neo-classical buildings.

Checking out the large “So Spa” at my Sofitel hotel, I decided to try the ‘jet lag relief’ massage. Would it work wonders? To my surprise it did the job perfectly. I re-emerged a new woman, re-tuned and so invigorated and lively that I could (almost) have walked on the wild side at the top of the Macau Tower.

Flights

I flew from London Heathrow to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. See www.cathaypacific.co.uk. Frequent fast ferry services link Hong Kong with nearby Macau. Once there taxis are cheap, and you can travel most of the island for free anyway on the ever-present Casino shuttle buses.

Accommodation

Macau’s hotels are cheaper than those in Hong Kong. I stayed at the 5-star Sofitel www.sofitelmacau.com centrally located overlooking the waterfront at Ponte 16, walking distance from the historic centre. It has a casino and a music cafe dedicated to Michael Jackson, some of whose costumes are on display.

Stylish Pousada de Sao Tiago, www.saotiago.com.mo, is built into the ruins of a 17th century fort. Mandarin Oriental www.mandarinoriental.com is the last word in luxury. See the Macao Government Tourist Board www.macautourism.gov.mo for accommodation and travel tips.

Food

Macau food mixes Portuguese and Chinese influences, from top-class restaurants to local cafes and noodle shops, often mixed with African, Indian, South American, Malaysian, and more in a fascinating fusion of tastes and flavours.

Vida Rica Restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel is outstanding and the nightly buffet at MGM Casino resort is usually packed with visiting Chinese diners who are big spenders on designer gear and seafood banquets. Be sure to visit one of the traditional Portuguese restaurants such as Antonio’s on Rua dos Negociantes, Taipa village.

The sights

Macao deserves at least 3 or 4 days to properly explore. Highlights are the A-Ma temple, colonial architecture, leafy squares, laneways.

The southern countryside is lush with forests and hidden bays where pirates once hid out on Coloane Island, linked by causeway bridge. The Macau Giant Panda pavilion is home to Kai Kai and Xin Xin a pair of Giant Pandas who arrived in celebration of Macau’s 10th anniversary as a special administrative region of China.

The Shopping

Avenida de Almeida Riberio and the back lanes and streets lead off to markets and traditional shops specialising in tea and ginseng. Streets lined with jewellery stores display emerald and jade. Prices are a bit lower than in Hong Kong.

Travel Tips

See www.macautourism.gov.mo for colourful festivals and the world’s biggest fireworks display; International Formula 3 Grand Prix, every November. Macau uses the Macau pataca comparable in value to the Hong Kong dollar which are accepted everywhere: 11 to €1.

English widely understood but useful to have your address written in Chinese for getting around. Macau is a year-round destination. Humidity is high in summer.

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