Destination of the Week: Macau
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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Sharon McDonnell takes us to Macau, a former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, that has become the Las Vegas of Asia.
WHAT TO DO
A surreal potpourri of China, Las Vegas and Portugal - glitzy, flashy, and the world's most profitable gaming destination, crammed with every Western fashion brand you can think of and skyscrapers galore – Macau often seems like capitalism on steroids. Ironically, it’s in the People’s Republic of China - the only place in a country of over 1.35 billion people where gambling is officially sanctioned.
Like Hong Kong nearby, it’s an autonomous Special Administrative Region. Unlike Vegas, it has centuries of history stretching back to being a former Portuguese colony for almost 450 years - the last European colony in Asia - and then a sleepy backwater handed over to China in 1999, two years after Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China.
Since then, Macau has feverishly reinvented itself, allowing development from foreign firms, resulting in a stampede from Vegas powerhouses like Las Vegas Sands Corporation, Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts plus Western and Asian luxury hotel chains. In 2012, Macau raked in $38 billion in gambling revenue - about six times the amount of Vegas.
In Macau’s beautiful UNESCO-designated heritage district, located on the mainland, you’ll see many Portuguese-style pastel Colonial buildings, some in Senado Square, whose large cobblestone square is designed in wavy mosaic patterns, just like in Portugal. The Macau Museum offers a fascinating glimpse of the peculiar intersection between Chinese and Portuguese cultures, from Chinese art, opera costumes, and ceramics to local traditions like cricket-racing (yes, the insect), the firecracker industry, Portuguese architecture, food and Catholicism.
The A-Ma Temple, built in 1488 and dedicated to the sea goddess – before Macau was built – features pavilions to worship various Chinese deities from Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian traditions. The Ruins of St. Paul's, an iconic Macau landmark, consist of the stone façade of a 17th-century church, richly carved by Japanese Christian refugees, who fused Asian symbols like dragons and chrysanthemums with Christian saints. It was once one of Asia’s biggest Catholic churches, plus the ruins of a Jesuit college, and Asia’s first Western-style university. Be sure to catch an "only-in-Macau sight," watching Portuguese-costumed folk dancers with Asian faces, or dragon dancers, perform in front of the temple and church.
Fast forward to the new Macau: the Cotai Strip, an entertainment/shopping/dining/hotel resort city, Macau’s answer to the Las Vegas Strip, built by joining Coloane and Taipa Islands in a massive land reclamation project. The five hotels here include Conrad Macao, Holiday Inn Macau and Sheraton Macau Hotel. Live shows in October ranged from Justin Bieber, the annual International Music Festival – including Miss Saigon, Aida and musical groups from Europe and Asia – to a Jazz and Blues festival with a dozen bands. The singing gondoliers on the lagoon at The Venetian Macao perform year-round. The 600+ shops feature designer brands from Paris, New York, London and Milan, like Gucci, Cartier and Louis Vuitton, while food at 60 plus restaurants and bars ranges from Asian to Italian.
At City of Dreams, an entertainment/shopping/dining/hotel complex that includes the Grand Hyatt Macau, a show billed as the world’s biggest water-based performance, The House of Dancing Water is a spectacular $250-million acrobatics extravaganza produced by the ex-director of many Cirque du Soleil shows, and plays nightly. So does Dragon’s Treasure, a multimedia show of dazzling special effects, thanks to 29,000 LED lights and video screens, portraying a fantasy of four Dragon Kings from different eras in search of treasure.
Macau is famed for over-the-top sights. So, no surprise a Michael Jackson museum, displaying his rhinestone-bedecked white glove (bought at auction for over $350,000) and some of his flamboyant outfits are among 40 Jackson artifacts at Ponte 16, a hotel-casino resort. The "Tree of Prosperity," a eye-popper of 98,000 gold-leaf and brass-leaf leaves, emerges from the floor of the Wynn Macau every half hour, then changes color to mark the four seasons (after the Chinese zodiac on the ceiling opens to dramatic music). Chinese throw money at it, before entering the casino. A giant illuminated lotus blossom appears to open every night on the façade of the Grand Lisboa, where you can find Macau’s only three-Michelin-star restaurant, Robuchon au Dome, an outpost of French celebrity chef Joel Robuchon. It’s one of its seven Michelin-starred eateries in Macau.
If you crave beaches, peace and walks on narrow cobblestone lanes in a former fishing village, head for Coloane Island. Here, St Francis Xavier Church has a portrait depicting the Madonna and child as Asian, clad in Chinese clothing.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
In the case of Macau, we have covered the hotels with major points-based loyalty programs, though as you can see in the write-up above of the sights, there are several other major hotel casinos to choose from including the Wynn, the Venetian, the Sands Macau, a Banyan Tree, a Four Seasons and more.
Hong Kong International Airport (CLK), the airport most US travelers use for visits to Macau, is served by British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, KLM, Singapore Airlines, SWISS, United and more, plus many Asia- and Africa-based airlines. A high-speed ferry leaves right from the airport’s SkyPier for the 50-minute ride to Macau Ferry Terminal every five minutes at peak times and 15 minutes at others, and costs 246 HKD ($32) for economy class or 385 HKD ($50) for super class. There’s no need to go through Hong Kong customs and immigration or even carry your luggage. The ferry also leaves from Hong Kong itslef and Kowloon.
Another high-speed ferry goes straight to the Cotai Strip from the airport for the same price in economy (but 301 HKD, or $39, in first class). Helicopter service offers a 16-minute ride from Hong Kong’s Shun Tak Centre helipad to Macau Ferry Terminal. Many Macau hotels have shuttles to the Ferry Terminal.
Macau International Airport (MFM), the only airport in Macau itself, located on Taipa Island, offers flights from Asian cities, including Bangkok, Beijing, Singapore and Tokyo.
Hotel Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16: In Macau’s Inner Harbor on the mainland, a few minutes’ walk from its UNESCO historic district, this opulent hotel has 408 rooms, suites and villa rooms. Standard rooms feature chic French design with Macau accents, king bed (or two singles) with down duvet, city views, L’Occitane bath products, 37-inch flatscreen TV, DVD player, Bose sound system and complimentary WiFi. Club Sofitel rooms offer free buffet breakfast and cocktail hour, plus bathrooms with Hermes bath products and Old Macau or Pearl River views. WiFi is available in public areas, and a business center is also on-site. An outdoor pool offers views of the South China Sea across the harbor, while So Spa features treatments based on the five Feng Shui elements – water, fire, metal, wood and earth – facials using French techniques and sauna.The fitness center has abundant natural light and striking views. Restaurants are Prive, an elegant, intimate dinner-only restaurant for French cuisine, with harbor views, and Mistral, serving an international buffet for all-day dining. A 270,000-square-foot casino featuring 109 gaming tables and over 300 slot machines, the Michael Jackson Gallery and a Jackson-themed café are accessible from the lobby. Room rates start at 1,368 HKD ($176) per night in November.
Conrad Macao: On the bustling Cotai Strip in Sands Cotai Central, this 40-story contemporary luxury hotel has 636 rooms including 206 suites, and wins rave reviews for gracious personal service. Standard guest rooms are spacious (560 square feet) and feature a flatscreen TV, Nespresso coffee maker, DVD/CD player, iPod docking station, large bathroom with dual sinks, and chocolate-covered strawberries and peanuts upon arrival. The Bodhi Spa features Indian Ayurvedic, Asian and Australian aboriginal-style treatments in 10 rooms, while the fitness center has a sauna, steam room, yoga and Pilates classes. Amenities include four outdoor pools (two heated in winter) with private cabanas, free shuttle to/from the ferry pier, complimentary WiFi in the lobby, as well as in the room plus late check-out if a room is booked online. The restaurant, Grand Orbit, serves a 24-hour international buffet, ranging from Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and dim sum to French-style almond croissants. Room rates start at 1,898 HKD ($240) per night in November. This is a Category 5 hotel requiring 40,000 HHonors points for an award night.
Grand Hyatt Macau: In the City of Dreams complex on the banks of the Pearl River, this hotel with 791 rooms and suites offers contemporary standard guest accommodation with glittering Cotai Strip or river views from floor-to-ceiling windows, complimentary WiFi, 42-inch flatscreen TV's, and rainshowers in the bathrooms. Grand Club rooms in a separate tower offer free breakfast and cocktail hour drinks with canapés. Room service, concierge and a hotel shop for travel/personal items are open 24 hours. Amenities include outdoor infinity pool, Isala Spa - which fuses traditional Chinese medicine with modern luxury - gym, Tai Chi, yoga and meditation, WiFi hotel-wide (even poolside) and two ballrooms. Its restaurant, Beijing Kitchen, specializes in Northern Chinese food like Peking duck and hand-pulled noodles, while Mezza9 serves Asian and Western food ranging from Macanese, Chinese, sushi, grill, and deli to a patisserie in a choice of settings: the elegant granite dining room, Japanese wood-lined booths, terrace or three small private rooms (one the wine cellar). The Lobby Lounge offers live music from a Chinese/Western fusion band, who performs on Chinese classical instruments, plus keyboards and bass. Room rates start at 2,088 HKD ($270) per night in November. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for an award night.
Holiday Inn Macau: This 322-room, 28-story hotel on the Cotai Strip is a 10-minute free shuttle ride from Macau Ferry Terminal. The hotel has a heated indoor pool, spa and fitness center. WiFi is available for a fee in guest rooms and public areas; standard Internet service is free to Elite IHG Rewards members. A Chinese restaurant and European-style bar are in hotel. Room rates start at 1,020 HKD ($132) per night in November. Hotel requires 35,000 IHG Rewards points for an award night.
Sheraton Macau Hotel: Macau’s biggest hotel, and the world’s biggest Sheraton, this 3,896-room hotel is located on the bustling Cotai Strip. Standard guest rooms, in a vibrant red color scheme, feature a 42-inch flatscreen TV, marble bath, and views of the city, Cotai Strip or pool. Club rooms offer – in addition to free buffet breakfast, cocktail hour and a wide variety of hors d’oeuvres – free pool cabana use, clothes pressing, meeting room access (two hours per stay), and enhancements for certain spa treatments. Sheraton’s Shine Spa, its largest in the Asia-Pacific region, offers signature treatments based on the five Feng Shui elements plus Thai, Balinese and Swedish massage. It also contains a sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and hair salon. Other hotel amenities include three outdoor pools, a fitness center, Kids Zone, and 24-hour concierge. Complimentary WiFi is available in public areas and the business center, and for a fee in guest rooms. Restaurants are Xin for Asian food and seafood, Bene for Italian, Feast for an all-day international buffet, Palms for cocktails, high tea and live music amid a tropical setting and three poolside cafes. Room rates start at 1,041 HKD ($134) per night in November. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 10,000 Starpoints for an award night.
The Westin Resort, Macau: A few steps from a black sand beach and a five-minute drive to another beach, this 208-room resort is nestled on the shore of Coloane Island in a lush tropical setting. Amenities include an 18-hole golf course, lighted outdoor tennis courts, outdoor and indoor pools, a Westin Kids Club, gym, spa, yoga classes, bike rentals and a recreation center. Room service, concierge, front desk and business center are all 24-hour. Standard guest rooms are spacious (710 square feet), furnished in a blend of Portuguese Colonial and tropical Asian styles, Westin’s signature Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Bath, flatscreen TV and an iPod docking station. All have terraces with garden views – some with views of the South China Sea. Complimentary WiFi is available in public areas and for a fee in guest rooms. A Chinese restaurant offers sea views, while an all-day restaurant serves international and Chinese food with garden views. The lobby lounge has live music, high tea and cocktails, and there’s also a pool bar. Room rates start at 1,095 HKD ($141) per night in November. This is a Category 3 hotel requiring 7,000 Starpoints for an award night.
American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades and other perks. The Mandarin Oriental (see below) is the only FHR property in Macau.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, British Airways Visa Signature Card, the Hyatt Credit Card, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Mandarin Oriental, Macau: A member of both the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts loyalty program and the Visa Signature program, this lavish 213-room hotel with panoramic views is located in One Central, a high-end shopping/residential complex. Standard guest rooms, furnished in contemporary design in neutrals with Asian touches, have goose down bedding, floor-to-ceiling windows offering South China Sea or Nam Van Lake views, a 42-inch flatscreen TV and iPod docking stations. The marble bathrooms have another 19-inch TV, dual sinks with aromatherapy amenities. The hotel spa offers treatments designed with Chinese traditional medicine and aromatherapy specialties – the Spices of Portugal treatment features a black pepper, rosemary and ginger massage plus a wine bath – and eight treatment rooms with striking views. The outdoor 82-foot-long heated pool has sea views. The restaurant, Vida Rica, for all-day dining on Western and Chinese food, also has sea views through a glass wall, plus a chic bar designed in marble, crystal and chrome. The Cake Shop sells hand-made chocolates, bakery items and sandwiches. Room rates start at 2,488 HKD ($320) per night in November.
The Conrad Macao is also a member of Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts.
In 2015, Marriott plans to open both a JW Marriott (the world's biggest) and a Ritz-Carlton (its first-ever all-suite hotel). A new Wynn hotel is also slated to open that year. In 2017, Versace plans to open Palazzo Versace.