I GUESS I was the best person to do this story, seeing as I'm hopelessly unenamoured of gambling.
No moralistic baggage here: Gambling just plain doesn't do it for me. But I am a huge fan of the glitz and gaudiness that typify casino towns.
Macau, of course, is different from casino towns of the West. For a longtime, it suffered a seedy reputation, punctuated by the occasional report of triad violence.
But that was then. Since the liberalisation of the gambling industry in 2002, foreign players like the Las Vegas Sands Corp, as well as Hong Kong's Emperor Group and Galaxy Entertainment have muscled in for a morsel of what used to be Macau magnate Stanley Ho's pie.
They have also shaken up the town with innovative ideas to attract tourists. Gambling is fast becoming a more holistic, fun experience than just sitting at a baccarat table in a smoky room.
Currently, Macau, which also encompasses two islands, Taipa and Coloane, is undergoing a massive surge in development, thanks to the casino boom. As you read this, convention centres are being built, amusement park rides are being conceived and new shopping experiences are in the works. But while this is all good for the economy, it is not doing the cityscape any favours.
Huge chunks of Macau are now made up of reclaimed land, and the Macanese lament the loss of their rustic waterfront. Coloane, thankfully, is still all rustic scenery and is a welcome respite for Macanese and tourists alike who want to get away and commune with nature.
But Taipa and Coloane are quickly becoming one island, as land is reclaimed between them. The much-vaunted Cotai Strip, where many of the new casino resorts will be built, is actually here, hence the name Cotai, which is an amalgamation of the names Coloane and Taipa.
Even if you are not into gambling, The Sands is a must-see. It is by far the glitziest casino in town, both in terms of its golden exterior as well as its American razzmatazz.
In a town where everybody smokes, it features a non-smoking gambling hall which is, strangely enough, quite popular. The main gambling hall features a giant stage on which performers sing and dance in front of clients who probably do not even notice they are there.
However, I must admit that, for me, the biggest lure of the place was the prospect of dining at the Robuchon a Galera, situated in the chandelier museum otherwise known as the Hotel Lisboa. Only a casino town can afford to host such a world-class restaurant and have it practically empty, which spells good news for gourmands.
While the hardcore gamblers are tied to their tables and have time for only quick noodle meals, people like me can get a seat any time at this fabulous place.
If Macau and its casinos are a den of iniquity, the Robuchon is its divine salvation. And for that, let us be truly grateful. Amen.
Where to shop
- Currently, the only department store in Macau is the New Yaohan (1579, Avenidada Amizade 1579, tel: 853-725338, www.newyaohan.com) just two minutes away from the Macau Ferry Terminal.
Here, you will find designer labels like Missoni and Fendi, and Hong Kong brands like Wanko.
Do not expect big selections. You would do better to hop over to Hong Kong for some retail therapy.
What to see
- Perhaps the most recognisable Macanese landmark is St Paul's, or more accurately, the ruins of St Paul's. Not many people know that the former MaterDei Church, of which the ruins used to be the facade, was built in 1602. Its facade was built with the help of Japanese and Chinese converts between 1620and 1627.
- Adrenaline junkies should head to the Macau Tower (Largo da Torre de Macau)where you can experience the world's highest sky jump from a height of 233m. If you do not pass out from the experience, you will enjoy a breathtaking view of the city. Price for such madness: MOP$588.
- The only place in Macau to get a luxury massage is at the Mandarin Oriental Spa (www.mandarinoriental.com). Its signature Oriental Harmony treatment(MOP$1,685) is a bliss-inducing four-hands massage - two therapists work on you at the same time - and includes a heavenly scrub.
Where to sleep
- The Mandarin Oriental (956-1110, Avenida da Amizade, tel: 853-567888,www.mandarinoriental.com), is in the heart of the casino action, yet not characterised by mutant chandeliers or gold-mirrored pillars. A refreshing touch of class in a town that is short on subtlety. Internet rates start at MOP$1,288 (S$255).
- Another option is the Pousada de Sao Tiago, a 400-year-old fortress at Avenidada Republica, which has been converted into an exclusive inn that does not house a casino. Internet rates start at MOP$900.
Where to eat
Getting there: Tiger Airways flies daily from Singapore to Macau International Airport. Fares start at $49.98 one-way. This does not include taxes of $144.25 (return basis).The airport is about 15 minutes from the Macau Ferry Terminal, near the centre of town.
You can also get to Macau from Hong Kong in various ways, the fastest of which takes an hour by jetfoil or catamaran. It costs from HK$141 (S$29) for an Economy Class weekday ticket to HK$1,650 for a VIP cabin. Check outwww.turbojet.com.hk.