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Booming Macau beats Las Vegas

Online travel editor Craig Platt explores Macau, a place where modern extravagance meets old-fashioned charm.

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Craig Platt dives into the booming former Portuguese colony.

The diver is but a speck in the distance, about 10 storeys up. So high, in fact, he is no longer in the auditorium's performance space — he's up among the lighting rigs.

He stands with his arms raised on a tiny platform as the crowd encourages him with applause and yelps of enthusiasm. Then he dives, falling through the air at an incredible pace, twisting and turning and hitting the pool below with such a small splash that had this been the Olympics, he surely would have scored a medal.

The Galaxy is the largest casino complex in Macau, covering 550,000 square metres. Click for more photos

The two sides of Macau

The Galaxy is the largest casino complex in Macau, covering 550,000 square metres. Photo: Craig Platt

  • The Galaxy is the largest casino complex in Macau, covering 550,000 square metres.
  • The luxurious Four Season Macau has five outdoor swimming pools.
  • Dream time ... a scene from the spectacular House of Dancing Water at the City of Dreams.
  • The Grand Lisboa, rated by some as one of the ugliest buildings in the world, looms over Macau.
  • The Venetian in Macau is a replica of its counterpart in Las Vegas, which in turn attempts to replicate the experience of being in Venice.
  • The Portuguese influence in Macau can been seen in the architecture in places like Senado Square in the centre of town.
  • The best views of the city are on offer at the Macau Tower.
  • It's not hard to escape the hordes in places like Coloane village.
  • Coloane is the home of Lord Stow's Bakery, which claims to have invented the tasty Asian-style egg tart.

Aside from the athleticism on display, what's most impressive about this feat is that only a few minutes earlier, the pool the diver plunged into was a solid, dry space that dirt bikes were tearing over, performing stunts of their own.

This is The House of Dancing Water, a spectacular and bizarre mix of theatre, acrobatics, stunts, dance and water that is the centrepiece of entertainment in James Packer's Macau joint-venture – the City of Dreams casino.

The production reportedly cost $HK2 billion ($A260 million) and took five years to develop. It's easy to believe. While the enormous cast shows an extraordinary range of talents — many switch between high-wire acrobatics, high-dives and martial arts, all often performed on wet, slippery surfaces — the technical aspects of the show are mind-boggling.

A pool at the centre of the stage appears and disappears throughout the show, with the cast often diving from great heights into its depths and never resurfacing (presumably disappearing through some kind of underwater exit). The pool reportedly holds 14 million litres of water — the equivalent of five Olympic swimming pools.

The story, such as it is, involves a young fisherman getting transported to a fantastical world and becoming involved in an evil queen's plot to separate two lovers. But really the plot is just an excuse to show off some spectacular acrobatic skills.

The nonsensical addition of dirt bikes late in the show gives The House of Dancing Water a sense that everything — including the kitchen sink — has been thrown at it.

It's reminiscent of the work of Cirque du Soleil, but the addition of the pool and other water elements make it unique. A companion in the audience, who has seen several Cirque shows, declares the House of Dancing Water a cut above.

Of course, the City of Dreams can afford to spend lavishly on such productions — it is raking in huge profits thanks to the explosion of mainland Chinese tourists.

It wasn't always this way. Packer's first foray into Macau, the Crown casino (now the Altira) flopped when it first opened in 2007. Crown's brand now survives only as the hotel tower within the City of Dreams.

But Packer has had the last laugh — since City of Dreams opened in 2009, profits are exploding, increasing a mind-boggling 560 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year.

And why? Well, it's fairly obvious — the Chinese love to gamble. Figures for Macau tourism show that the former Portuguese colony now receives 28 million tourists a year, and 16 million of these come from mainland China (with another 7 million from Hong Kong). Macau is now bigger than Las Vegas as a gambling Mecca — much bigger. Gaming revenue this year is expected to surpass $A40 billion, up from $A33 billion last year.

It's no wonder Packer has suggested that more casinos offer a solution for our own struggling tourism industry.

To meet this vast influx of tourists to Macau there has been rapid growth in the number of hotel rooms in the city. Ninety-seven hotels offer 23,222 rooms between them, many of the hotels as big — or bigger — than some of the largest casinos.

I'm staying at the Four Seasons on the Cotai Strip — an island of reclaimed land that is now home to some of the largest casinos in the city. This includes Packer's City of Dreams and the Venetian — a carbon copy of its counterpart in Las Vegas, right down to the artificial canals and opera-singing gondoliers.

The palatial Four Seasons is adjacent to the Venetian and is smaller than some of the giants on the island with 360 rooms, but it is not small on the luxury touches, which become apparent upon entry into the hotel's grand lobby, replete with marble columns and sweeping staircases. It's also home to Zi Yat Heen, a two-Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant — the highest rated of its type in the city.

The hotel also has a vast integrated shopping mall that links it to the Venetian and features pretty much every luxury brand name you can imagine — a must for many of the wealthy Chinese guests visiting.

While the tourist numbers and the size of the hotels are both massive, within those numbers lies one of the most interesting contrasts of Macau. Despite the huge figures, much of the city seems uncrowded and relaxed — certainly in comparison to its bustling neighbour Hong Kong.

Indeed, after arriving I found myself wondering — where are all these tourists?

Of course, the answer turns out to be simple — they're on the gambling floors of the casinos.

But the benefit of this for the casual visitor to Macau is that many of the city's non-gambling attractions are pleasantly free of big crowds. They're busy enough, to be sure, but not heaving with people as you might expect.

With the majority of tourists holing up at the gaming tables, it makes moving through this relatively small Asian city an easy and pleasant experience. Macau's resident population is relatively small — with a little over 500,000 people, it's not the metropolis of Hong Kong (which is home to about 7 million).

Aside from the size of the city, there's a stark cultural difference between Macau and its noisy neighbour. Macau is heavily influenced by southern Europe — in architecture, food and mood. It's not so surprising when you consider Macau remained a Portuguese colony until 1999, reverting to Chinese control more than two years after Britain handed over its neighbour.

As a result, the Portuguese influence is still heavy here, despite the massive development the booming area has undergone in recent years. Many of the locals have mixed Chinese and Portuguese heritage, and the European country's impact is obvious in the older architecture (not so much in the casinos), the rich food and the laid back attitude of the residents.

Senado Square, the historic centre of town, feels like it could be in Europe, with its wave patterned mosaic paving and arched corridors. The pedestrian square leads to the ruins of St Paul's — a 17th century Jesuit church destroyed by fire in 1835, leaving only the impressive facade.

Aside from the architecture of the more historic buildings, the Portuguese influence is most apparent in the cuisine of Macau. The Macanese lay claim to their own particular blend of Eurasian fusion, but many of the restaurants in the city lean more towards traditional Portuguese. This means roasted pork, fresh seafood, sausage and plenty of other meats. And, of course, it means egg tarts.

Lord Stow's Bakery, opened in 1989 in the quiet Coloane Village south of Macau proper, claims to be the original home of the Asian egg tart, taking the Portuguese recipe and tweaking it to replace the flour and water with fresh cream. Stow's tarts can be found all over Macau, but visiting the original bakery is worthwhile to get a taste of the tarts in their freshest form.

The village itself is a quaint area of small Portuguese-style houses, some residential, others home to antique shops or more traditional businesses (such as mechanical repairs). The narrow lanes feel a world away from the giant walkways and squares surrounding the casinos.

But this is the contrast of Macau in a microcosm. In some places, enormous wealth, extravagance and technological marvels; in others, a simpler, relaxed existence where traditional lifestyles (and diets) rule.

And although the likes of James Packer may be focused solely on Macau's potential as a gambling destination (and perhaps, as a template for the type of plans he has for a six-star hotel in Sydney's Barangaroo), there is more to this city than his own dreams.

The writer travelled as a guest of Macau Government Tourist Office, Four Seasons Hotels and Cathay Pacific.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong from Sydney four times daily, Melbourne three times daily, Brisbane 11 times per week and Perth 10 times per week. Fares start from about $1470 return. See cathaypacific.com/au

Ferries depart from several locations in Hong Kong to Macau, including directly from the Hong Kong International Airport. Airport ferries depart for Macau eight times a day. Adult tickets cost $HK233 ($A28). See turbojet.co.hk

Staying there

Four Seasons Hotel Macau is located on the Cotai Strip, adjacent to the Venetian and across the road from City of Dreams and has five outdoor pools, three restaurants (including the two-Michelin-star-rated Zi Yat Heen) and all the services you'd expect from a top quality hotel. The 19-storey hotel features 360 rooms, including 86 large suites.

Rooms start from about $A800 a night. See http://www.fourseasons.com/macau/

House of Dancing Water

The show is normally on Thursday-Monday at 5pm and 8pm (8pm only on Fridays) at the City of Dreams casino on the Cotai Strip. Tickets start from $MOP 480 ($A57)

See http://thehouseofdancingwater.com for details.