Alan's Macau Guide
Macau / Taipa Old Bridge at night
The view of Macau / Taipa Old Bridge at night.


Alan's Macau Guide

Written: September 2001.

Introduction

From reading the guidebooks and tourist literature, you could be forgiven for thinking Macau is a sleepy little colonial town with European charms.

Your arrival, therefore, may come as a bit of a shock - because the only way Macau could be described as "sleepy" and "town" is if you're comparing it to central Hong Kong.

Thankfully, Macau does have its charms - if you know where to go and where to avoid. And as it's just one hour from Hong Kong by sea - or twenty minutes by helicopter - with minimal visa requirements, China's other Special Administrative Region can be a welcome contrast to the busy crowded environment of Hong Kong.

This guide assumes you have a guidebook for detailed maps and information. See the section at the end for more information on guidebooks and internet resources.


There's one moped for every man, woman, child, and animal in Macau.
(on the way to Fortaleza do Monte)

You don't need to be on drugs to enjoy Macau...
(near Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro)

...but they help you to find your letterbox.
(on the way to Fortaleza do Monte)

Shooting peasants. (Fortaleza do Monte)

Shooting peasants. (Ruinas de Sao Paulo)

Orientation

Macau is situated about one hour by ferry from Hong Kong and is split into three main landmasses connected by bridges: Macau Peninsula, Taipa Island, and Coloane Island. Given the murky sandy water and land reclamation around all three, it's only a matter of time before Coloane and Taipa become officially one. In fact, Taipa Island itself was once two individual islands - an indication of just how powerful siltation can be. The night scene at the top of this page shows the connecting 'old' bridge between Taipa and the Peninsula (there's a new bridge also), from the Taipa side. It has an interesting "hump" in the middle - which is both unusual and, particularly at night, attractive to the skyline.

The newest addition to the Macau coastline is the airport, of which the runway is on reclaimed land hanging off the side of Taipa Island. It's unlikely you will enter Macau by plane, however, since most visitors come by boat from Hong Kong or elsewhere.

Hotels

Your best bet for a hotel in Macau is to book through an agent before you arrive - since they will often have better prices than booking direct or via the internet, or will offer extras such as breakfast. If a view is important, make sure you specify this when booking, since a surcharge can often apply. Most large hotels offer free transportation from the Ferry terminal.

I have only stayed overnight in Macau once, at the Hyatt Island Resort in Taipa. I have to say that initial impressions were disappointing - the hotel was smaller than I expected and had a rather worn appearance inside and out. Despite paying extra for a harbour view, the room windows were so dirty outside (even after changing rooms) that I even had to call the manager. Refreshingly the manager was very helpful and within 30 minute the windows were clean.

This story really sums up my experience with Hyatt. The hotel has some of the friendliest staff I have ever had the pleasure to encounter, and the food and the facilities - spa, swimming pool, etc - are excellent (thought the facilities cost extra). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your opinion) the male and female spa's are separate, so no shared sauna with your loved one. The breakfasts deserve an extra special mention - excellent choice and quality, with everything from fresh omelette, waffle, and oatmeal to fruit, cereals, congee, eggs, bacon, etc.. Enough to keep you going till dinner..

Attractions

Macau is fighting to stake it's claim as a tourist attraction and the tourist guides do a good job of picking any minor "attraction" and blowing it up out of all proportion. It pays, therefore, to be selective.


Those hanging roots are going to be mighty cheesed off when they realise the ground is made of concrete.
(on the way to Fortaleza do Monte)

These days it's only purpose is for rude and amusing photos by male tourists.
(Fortaleza do Monte)

I remember days when it was party after party after party round here.
(Fortaleza do Monte)

Without a doubt, the best attractions are to be found on the Macau Peninsula itself. On some occasions you really do feel like you are in a semi-modern, semi-ancient European city, and comparisons of Verona in Italy spring to mind - especially since both are overshadowed by their more famous neighbours (Venice and Hong Kong). Macau is definitely best enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, enjoying the surroundings and the atmosphere without rush.


The best place to start is the main square opposite the Provisional Municipal Council of Macau, near Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro - strangely the square is not often marked on the tourist maps, though it may sometimes be indicated by a symbol to represent the psychedelic pavement patterns (see image above). There is a Tourist Office on the main square.

Leading north is a pleasant walk through the shopping area and market (in fact, around this area there are a number of reasonable shops), with several small churches and a cathedral nearby. The side streets give a good indication of Macau life, both in conditions of buildings and property, and in the people walking around. In particular, there seems to be many mopeds - and sometimes the riders don't seem old enough to be out of nappies yet (well, maybe just). I wonder what the legal minimum age is..

Leading uphill you will find the Fortaleza do Monte, which offers spectacular views over Macau. The setting of the Fort itself is extremely picturesque and tranquil, with interesting shadows cast by the sun and plenty of opportunity to relax and contemplate the contrast between Macau and Hong Kong. From here you can also see the Guia Fort and Lighthouse, which I look forward to visiting next time I go to Macau. The lighthouse still operates, and the flashing is visible from around Macau at night. Maybe when I next visit I'll find out why - because it seems too far from the coast to be much use.

Near Fortaleza do Monte is the ruin of Sao Paulo and the steps which lead up to it. From outside we heard one tourist guide say the building behind the facade was made of wood and burned down, leaving just the facade. Seems a bit unlikely given the architecture. I suppose I could have gone to the nearby museum to find out, but was too busy enjoying the surroundings. There are some interesting balconies overlooking the steps, and it's also a fun place for tourist watching. The ruin is probably the most famous attraction in Macau.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, there are a number of other attractions - such as the Flora Gardens, Wine Museum, Grand-Prix Museum, Cemeteries, Temples, and so on. I've not had time to visit these myself and judging by Taipa and the enthusiasm of the Tourist department to mark anything and everything as an attraction, I'd choose carefully before making significant detours. Macau is best explored in a laid back manner, with maybe a just slight idea of where you may be heading.

Further from the historic center and the charm falls slightly as you enter the Casino area and taller buildings near the south coast. The area is too vast to cover by foot, so if there's something special you want to make the effort for - best catch a bus or taxi. One word of warning: as of September 2001, the Macau Tower ("Torre Panoramica") is still not open - so don't start walking in that direction because it looks interesting, as I did. Luckily I turned back when I realised just how far it was.

The Casinos in Macau are one of the main attractions for the residents of Hong Kong, where most gambling is illegal. From many third-party accounts, the Casinos of Macau have very little charm - not really necessary when you have a captive audience, I guess. I didn't partake myself, having better things to spend my money on.

South of the peninsula is the island of Taipa, home of yet more casinos and the Macau Jockey Club - if you're a gambler, you should probably make sure you have purchased your flight home before hitting Taipa really. I doubt whether Gamblers Anonymous will be coming here on holiday.

Taipa Village is the main other "attraction" of Taipa, but don't expect much. Lonely Planet describe Taipa Village as having "picture-book charm". This should immediately have set off alarm bells in my head, remembering the time when I visited the "picture postcard" village of Wareham in England. Rather than finding old men on deckchairs wearing "kiss me quick" hats in the park, I discovered a town containing a chip shop and a supermarket, with football louts in the local pub.


The lighthouse protects against flying ships.
(Guia Fort and Lighthouse)

The owners must have been kicking themselves that they didn't make the entire building out of stone instead of cheaping out with wood.
(Ruinas de Sao Paulo)

Unless you have exhausted all the nicer possible possibilities on the peninsula, twice, then it's best to avoid Taipa. Deserving a particular mention is the Four-Faced Buddha which on one tourist map appears to be, quite frankly, huge - at least the size of a two storey house. In reality, it's little bigger than your average wardrobe. Thankfully I'd taken a taxi (as it was the last attraction of the day) rather than the long walk from the village. When the taxi driver stopped at the side of the road I initially thought the taxi had broken down, it was so un-obvious.


South of Taipa is Coloane Island which, I have to confess, I have not had the chance to visit yet - but I do intend to. It appears to be mainly parkland and beaches, with opportunity for hiking. According to Lonely Planet, you can camp on the Hac Sa beach - otherwise known as the "Black Sand" beach. I hope to try that some day and if you have any reports on Coloane Island, I'd live to hear them.

Guidebooks

Lonely Planet: Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou (January 1999)
Good old trusty Lonely Planet. Well, with perhaps less of the trusty. This is one of the "pre-modern-age" LPs, with rather dated maps and slightly iffy commentary - but probably the best of the bunch.

Rough Guide: Hong Kong and Macau (July 1999)
Good detail and more enjoyable descriptions than LP, but the maps miss a lot of detail - especially in Taipa. Some may say that's a good thing but should you decide you want to see Taipa, it's probably not so good.

Insight Guide: Hong Kong (2000)
Insight Guides are usually full of pretty pictures, but are better for planning what you want to see than organising details. Still, since you'll probably be there just for the day or will stay in a larger hotel - it may be OK. No island maps.

Lonely Planet: Hong Kong Condensed (2001)
The best guide for a short stay in Hong Kong, with lots of pretty pictures rather than boring words, but only a half page on Macau. No maps. Not very useful.

The tourist office at the ferry terminal provides a useful monthly guide to tourist activities and events in Macau (such as the yearly firework competition in September) and provides free maps which, though not great, are adequate for a quick visit.

Internet Resources

Macau Government Tourist Office
Information on events, hotels, shopping, etc.

Macau Government Information Bureau
Visa information - most people do not need a visa to visit Macau, but it is worth checking, just to make sure.


They couldn't get the chair through the door, so I hear.
(Taipa Village)

If not for one minor detail, you'd never guess this building hides a church.
(Our Lady of Carmel Church, Taipa)


You should see it in the Tourist Brochure.
(Park on Taipa Island, walking south to the Village)

Here you'll find local products by local people. Honest.
(Taipa Village)

Excellent, I'm famished. I could just go an Elephant burger.
(Taipa Village)

This "restored" house was probably an early casino...
(Avenida da Praia)

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