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  M A C A U   C I T Y   G U I D E

Macau Awaits Its Fate, but the Good Life Goes On

Macau Illustration for TIME by Samantha Newstead


Going to Macau is like having an affair. You don't so much journey there as slip away for a weekend or a day, usually as a sidetrip from a more prosaic travel experience in nearby Hong Kong. You may be charmed instantly, but you know it's only a temporary diversion. Macau's cobblestoned streets, winding alleys, pastel-hued European architecture and leisurely pace give the Portuguese colony an appealing "Why hurry?" air. Which is odd, given that change is most definitely coming. The grande dame of local hotels, the Bela Vista, closes this week (to be remodelled as the future residence of the Portuguese consul-general). And on Dec. 20 the enclave reverts to Chinese rule. But panic is not a word in Macau's vocabulary--the handover is a done deal, so why not chill out over a glass of vinho verde?

The feeling that you're embarking on an illicit pleasure begins when you board the jetfoil ferry from Hong Kong, regularly packed with casino-bound punters and daytrippers in pursuit of shopping, as well as great food and wine. The specter of organized crime--visitors needn't worry, tourism officials are quick to reassure--only adds to the excitement, and even non-gamblers are drawn to the gaudy casinos to observe the seedy atmosphere. More adventurous travelers can take a taxi to a shabby area near the Chinese border, where the newly refurbished canidrome offers the only chance in Asia to watch greyhound racing.

Tourism officials are aware that more than 50% of government revenues derive from betting, but they cheerfully point visitors in the direction of Macau's more cerebral treasures, like the recently opened Cultural Center, a ski-jump-roofed structure set on reclaimed land on the harbor. Its two auditoriums will be busy throughout the Arts Festival (May 8 to 23) and during the enclave's international music festival, a two-week tunefest in late October featuring Verdi's Aida, chamber music and other concerts. The Center is also home to an art museum with a collection of 3,000 pieces, including 19th-century paintings of the harbor by Irish artist George Chinnery, who is buried in Macau's lovely Protestant cemetery.

The enclave has no shortage of fine museums, funded largely with gambling revenues. Don't miss the wine museum (the only one in the world devoted to Portugal's vineyards), the Grand Prix museum next door (its two Formula 3 race simulators offer speed junkies a fix until the real thing roars through town Nov. 20 and 21), the Maritime museum (near the kitschy A-Ma temple) or the new Macau Museum, cleverly concealed within the hill supporting the Monte Fort. Relatively few visitors stumble across the Contemporary Art Center, on Avenida Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida. The current show, "Fast Forward: New Chinese Video Art," which runs until May 30, is a window on what young artists are thinking as the hand-over beckons.

Above all, visitors come to eat well. To soak up the local scene, try any of the busy cafés near the Largo do Senado, like the Bolo de Arroz, named for its divine rice pastries. The café's owners also run O Barril across the lane, which offers a wider menu but a bit less charm. For lunch consider A Lorcha, for its clams and old-world service, or the Litoral, for its bacalhau. The handsomely refurbished Clube Militar also rarely fails to please (look downstairs for photos from its heyday). At night local gourmands can be found at O Porte Interior; Os Gatos at the Pousada de São Tiago, an old fort-turned-hotel; on Taipa Island at Il Petisqueira in the village or the Flamingo at the Hyatt Regency; and further afield on Coloane Island, where Macanese food and a marvelous local ambience are a sure bet at Balichao, Cacarola and in the rollicking back room at Fernando's on Hac Sa beach, near the Westin. After dinner, head back to Macau's main waterfront, where the strip of bars along the Avenida Margina Baia Nova is the latest hot spot for local Chinese, Portuguese and Macanese to mingle, relax and enjoy life--just as they are sure to do long after Dec. 20.

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April 5, 1999

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