Twenty Formula 3 race cars vroom by, sending late afternoon sunbeams scattering across the track. The noise of tires skating against turns at speeds of 160 miles per hour is deafening to spectators, who don’t seem the least bit bothered by it. (Earplugs are a godsend.) The fall breeze off the sea keeps the heat at bay during my foray into the world of racing. Though I originally hail from the South where Talladega and Bristol are burned into our collective lexicon from birth, it’s fitting that my virgin experience should occur on the road. In fact, that’s my whole purpose for being in Macau: the annual Grand Prix. But after a few days of experiencing what the Special Administrative Region of China has to offer, it’s no longer my sole focus.
Those who have never been to Macau likely have visions of Vegas: tacky, bright-lit casinos overwhelming the landscape; drunken, fumbling gamblers causing debauchery in the streets until the wee hours of the morning. At least, that was my own ill-conceived opinion of Asia’s gambling capital. But upon stepping foot on the island, I found there is, indeed, much more to the bustling city than blackjack and craps.
Back in the 16th century, Macau was considered the Pearl of Asia for its position as a high-profile trading post. A wall surrounded the island to keep the Dutch and Chinese pirates out; those who were caught trying to get in were shipped to prisons in Angola and Mozambique. The Portuguese continued to govern the region for more than 400 years until China took control in 1999 and the island underwent a facelift of sorts.
In 2004, the U.S. casinos were then allowed in, and Macau’s reputation began to change with the times. Locally owned casinos have existed for the past 120 years, but it’s only in the last decade that worldwide brands like Caesar’s Palace and the Venetian have set up camp, bringing the total to 33. For a city of just half a million inhabitants, that isn’t shabby.
But what impressed me about Macau was hardly the casinos, nor was it all the hustle and bustle that centered on the Grand Prix. A lover of Portuguese architecture, I couldn’t get enough of the centuries-old facades, and the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Macau boasts 25 of them—and an area of just 11 square miles—many of which are located around Senado Square. It was surreal being in what felt like an intimate European town right smack in a Chinese territory.
While wandering around Senado’s arteries, absorbing sites like the St. Paul’s Cathedral ruins, I popped into a few boutiques (unfortunately, they don’t carry “American sizes”) and stopped for a ham sandwich on the local specialty coconut bread and a cup of the best coffee in town at Ou Café Mun.
After refueling, I strolled along the main drag, San Man Lo (or Avenida Almeida Ribero), where I discovered the Cultural Centre, busting at the seams with Chinese trinkets, furniture and a whole level devoted to tea. If you’re looking for a token to take home, here’s your ticket. On the third floor is an entire wall of zodiac selections—one for every sign. These single cup tea bombs blossom into the corresponding zodiac’s flower when steeped for two minutes, leaving behind a beautiful bloom. After the tea is served, the remaining flower can serve as a table centerpiece for up to five days. I left with three tins.
When my feet were throbbing from walking, I caught a cab from Macau’s epicenter, over two bridges, through Taipa and eventually to the smaller isle of Coloane. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fishing village that appears to have been trapped in time, there’s not much to it. An hour’s walk and you can see the “downtown” Coloane in its entirely.
But I had other intentions in mind than exploration.
Coloane also happens to lay claim to the greatest egg tart ever made, a testament to which any traveler passing through will vouch. What is simply a bakery with a checkout counter, Lord Stow’s has become something of a Macau staple. There are now two Lord Stow’s cafes around the corner, too, which serve excellent food, but it’s no secret that people primarily make the journey for the egg tart, a native Macanese pastry. I ate three—just to make sure all those travelers who came before we weren’t lying. (They weren’t.)
After I met my caloric intake for the day, it was time to head back to Macau’s epicenter. In the months leading up to my trip, I had one iconic Macau activity that lingered in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to do it, I just wasn’t entirely sure, when it came down to it, that I’d have the guts.
At a height of 700 feet, the Macau Tower’s SkyJump is the highest city jump in the world. The tower can be seen from many points on the island, a constant reminder of what I had to do. In previous years, I had gone skydiving in Spain and bungee jumping—twice—in New Zealand.
I was blessed with a disposition that some people call crazy, but what I like to believe is simply intrepid. Still, that doesn’t mean it gets any easier, particularly when you’re outfitted, strapped into your harness and ready to go—then made to wait 45 minutes on a windy, rail-less platform at the top of the edifice for your chance to plummet to the concrete jungle below.
But when it was my turn, I didn’t even hesitate—I took the plunge, letting my pride trump my fear. I’ve learned if you so much as pause, you might talk yourself out of it.
The difference between a SkyJump and a normal bungee, also an option at the tower, is that you jump feet first and are strapped in around the torso, staying upright throughout the fall. After dropping vertically for 15 seconds, the ropes tighten and you’re suspended in air, an opportunity to actually enjoy the panoramic. Those not brave enough to jump can check out the SkyWalk or simply visit one of the cafes or observatories on floors 58 through 61.
I returned the blue-and-yellow, 80’s-style jumpsuit and headed back to my hotel, the new Sofitel Ponte 16, to shake off my euphoria and freshen up before a night out. I booked one of the basic rooms, which come complete with a TV in the bathtub, but if I had the money (and clout) to do it all over again, I’d opt for one of the VIP residences; with names like “White Romance” and “Black Galaxy” and themes that followed suit, they sounded as if they should house armies of Victoria’s Secret angels.
After a dip in the pool, it was off for yet another round of eating. Macanese cuisine—a fusion between Chinese and Portuguese fare—is heavy on the seafood. I dropped by O Porto Interior, which recently hosted the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown for one of her shows, and filled up on cod and king shrimp. To top off a delightful meal, I ordered the serradura mousse, which literally translates to “sawdust” in Portuguese. Luckily, it’s much more appetizing than it sounds: A chilled soufflé, serradura consists of alternating layers of vanilla whipped pudding—which is simply whipping cream, condensed milk and vanilla flavoring—and the “sawdust,” or crumbled cookies.
No night on the town in Macau is complete without a bar crawl of Outer Harbour Pub Row, karaoke at Mix Sense included. After quenching my thirst and testing out my pipes, I found myself at the Wynn to see the Tree of Prosperity and Dragon of Fortune, free special effect shows that alternate every half hour until 11pm. While there were plenty of Grand Prix shindigs going on around me, I retreated to the Lion’s Bar at the MGM Grand every night, both for the cover band Lockdown and the escape from racing mania.
The Grand Prix ended with a bang—literally; I’ve never witnessed so many flames, crashes and theatrics in my life—and I prepared to return to San Francisco after five nights away, just the right amount of time to see and do everything. My pockets were a little bit lighter—how could I resist a game (or several) of blackjack?—and my ears still ringing from the hum of the racecars. But while the Prix may come and go each fall, I’d say Macau as a burgeoning vacation destination is here to stay.