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Destination: Macau

By Allison Hata

ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

A narrow metal platform approximately 764 feet above ground offers the perfect vantage point for taking in the contrasting environs of Macau. To the left are the high-rise hotels and casinos that light up like beacons on the skyline; to the right, there’s a wide expanse of sea that reminds visitors of the island locale. It’s a perspective that showcases the juxtaposition in this special administrative region of China—opulence building upon decades of Macau’s history as a fisherman’s trading port.

This observation deck is part of the “new” Macau, opening just two years after the former Portuguese colony was returned to China in 1999. Housing the world’s highest commercial bungee jump and skywalk, Macau Tower has become an iconic landmark and serves as a symbol of the glittering developments transforming the area into a luxury travel destination.

Discussions of Macau today often elicit Las Vegas comparisons, a point emphasized by the number of United States-based companies staking claim on the islands and peninsula comprising the region. Debuting in 2004, the Sands Macao opened doors for more international operators. In the subsequent decade, Wynn and MGM built properties in the historic center of Macau’s peninsula; on the island side, familiar names like Crown Towers, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Hard Rock, The Plaza, Sheraton and Venetian popped up along the Cotai Strip.

There’s seemingly no end in sight for development: In 2015 alone, the JW Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton opened within the Galaxy compound on the Cotai Strip, and the St. Regis is expected to debut in December in the nearby Sands complex. Highly anticipated arrivals the following year are an MGM Cotai resort and The Parisian.

As this small sliver of land becomes saturated with big names, now is the time to book a trip to Macau and be among the first to experience how major U.S. companies are translating American luxury in the region. Turn the page for a visual guide to Asia’s most exciting up-and-coming destination.

 

The Cotai Strip

Courtesy of the Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central

Courtesy of the Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central

On the island side, flanked to the north by Taipa and to the south by Coloane, Cotai is home to the stretch of hotels and casinos largely responsible for recent associations with Las Vegas. The brilliant lights on the Cotai Strip give the region as much glamorous appeal as Vegas, and, as more major developments arrive, travelers may soon have as many hotels, casinos, shows and shops to explore.

One of Macau’s biggest draws is the gaming scene—baccarat has long been the pastime of choice for Chinese high rollers—and the Cotai Strip is one of the top places for international gamblers hoping to try their luck. Here, travelers can find the largest casino in the world, located inside The Venetian Macao. Opened in 2007, it offers 374,000 square feet of gaming space with approximately 460 table games and 2,200 slot machines.

Joining The Venetian under the Las Vegas Sands Corp. umbrella are the Four Seasons (2008) and the Sands Cotai Central complex (2012), which includes the Sheraton, Conrad and Holiday Inn. The Sheraton may be the crown jewel of the latter compound; it’s the largest hotel in Macau and features three signature restaurants, three sparkling pool areas, a spa and a members-only club lounge with exclusive perks.

But these amenities at the Sheraton only scratch the surface of what the Cotai Strip offers in terms of luxury. Indoor walkways between the Sands properties connect more than 650 duty-free boutiques ranging from high-end designers such as Chanel, Dior and La Perla to ready-to-wear brands like Calvin Klein and Zara. A spa sanctuary at the Conrad takes pampering to new heights, while dozens of on-site restaurants offering Portuguese, Macanese and Western specialties round out the Sands experience.

 

City of Dreams

The House of Dancing Water - Chandelier-640

“The House of Dancing Water” in the City of Dreams complex features acrobatic stunts and aquatic displays of color and light.

Down the street from the Sands complex on the strip, the City of Dreams is hailed as a world-class entertainment hub—and it’s more than deserving of the title with activities for every personality.

Epicures can indulge their palates at more than 25 bars, lounges and restaurants, including the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star-rated Jade Dragon, which specializes in Cantonese fine dining. Those hoping to unwind, however, can recover from jet lag at three different spas or peruse apparel, jewelry and other accessories from ultrachic brands such as Emporio Armani, Gucci and Saint Laurent Paris.

In the evening, “The House of Dancing Water” rivals any live performance in Vegas with a stunning show of acrobatic feats and aquatic displays. A pool holding 3.7 million gallons of water provides the stage for a love story that unfolds with the help of spectacular costumes, artistic movement and even motocross stunts.

 

Macau Tower

Daring travelers can bungee jump, SkyJump or climb Macau Tower.

Daring travelers can bungee jump, SkyJump or climb Macau Tower.

Designed in the shape of a dragon, with the Casino Lisboa on the peninsula side as the head and Taipa Monument on the island end as the tail, the Governador Nobre de Carvalho Bridge connects the two areas of Macau. Just over the bridge from Taipa is Macau Tower, the 764-foot architectural beacon.

In addition to bungee jumping and a skywalk around the outer perimeter of the tower, travelers can experience an adrenaline rush during the 17-second SkyJump—a one-way vertical drop that offers a softer landing than a bungee swan dive. Extreme adventurers, however, can take a three-hour climb up exterior vertical ladders to a point of 1,109 feet, achieving 360-degree views of the peninsula and the skyline of China’s Pearl River Delta.

But the beauty of Macau is that there’s something for everyone. An observation lounge affords similar vistas from behind three-story, floor-to-ceiling glass panes; similarly, 360° Cafe has a more relaxed viewing experience accompanied by lunch, high tea or dinner. On the lower levels, find more restaurants and cafes, in addition to a shop carrying more than 30 European luxury brands, a toy store and a movie theater.

 

Historic Center

What used to be the Church  of Mater Dei and St. Paul’s College is now a facade known as the Ruins of St. Paul’s.

What used to be the Church of Mater Dei and St. Paul’s College is now a facade known as the Ruins of St. Paul’s.

Before Macau rose to prominence as a mecca for gamblers, gourmands and fashionistas, it was under the rule of Portugal for hundreds of years. It was returned to China in 1999, but European influences remained to create a melting pot of cultures that exists today.

For a brief sojourn from the comforts of the Cotai Strip, enjoy a different type of luxury—one steeped in the authentic experiences found in Macau’s historic center.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the district encompasses a diverse array of architecture in styles that reflect its governing countries, both past and present. To step back centuries—even before the arrival of Portugal in 1557—visit A-Ma Temple at the southern tip of the peninsula. The beautifully detailed structure, built in the 1400s, offers a glimpse into Macau’s past as a Chinese port of call for European sailors.

Along a walkable route through the peninsula, travelers can trace the lineage of Macau’s history as it transitioned into Portuguese control. Senado Square, for example, was once a gathering place for inspection of military troops; in the early 1990s, the Portuguese paved the ground with a mosaic of light and dark stones that remains to this day, along with a collection of pastel-colored neoclassical buildings. At the end of the wave-patterned path is St. Dominic’s Church, originally built by Spanish Dominican priests. Today, the house of worship hides the Museum of Sacred Art in the bell tower, which displays religious artifacts dating from the 17th to the 19th century.

The most iconic destination in the historic center, however, is the site of the Ruins of St. Paul’s. A majestic, intricately carved facade is all that remains of the Church of Mater Dei and St. Paul’s College, which were destroyed by fire in 1835. Though there’s much to see during a trip to Macau, the ruins paint a vivid picture of the cultural tapestry woven throughout the region: Biblical images, mythological figures, Chinese characters and lions, and nautical elements come together across the five staggering levels, representing the global influences evident even today in this city where history meets modern luxury.