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Globally glam properties highlight this historic Portuguese outpost

Mandarin Oriental, Macau

Mandarin Oriental, Macau

We arrive in Macau in time for the annual September fireworks extravaganza, showcasing pyrotechnics maestros from around the world. Sitting outdoors at the 200-pax Terrace Restaurant beneath the iconic 1,100-foot Macau Tower, everyone is in awe of the multicultural cuisine. The bounty of exotic fish, meats and vegetables spiced with flavors from Portugal's globe-girdling reach to Africa, Goa and Brazil speaks volumes about the lure of Macau.

Basically, you never know what amazing surprise awaits around the next corner. The Chinese "special administrative region" is booming with swank hotels, glittering casinos, elaborate entertainment and fine dining restaurants due to the skyrocketing economy.

This charming former Portuguese protectorate 37 miles southwest of Hong Kong has become the planet's top-grossing gaming town, bringing in four-six times Vegas' gambling revenues.

The Vegas model is clearest on the Cotai, a reclaimed isthmus between two Macanese islands, Coloane and Taipa. It's said that enough sand was pumped in to build another Great Pyramid. Already dotted with 10 hotels and six casinos, many with names North Americans know well, more are en route.

While dipping Portuguese egg tarts in spicy mustard, the dazzling showers of fireworks begin bursting high above to soaring symphonic sounds, mirrored over the water of Pearl River. Spoons are dropped. That happens a lot here.

Venetian Macau

The 3,000-suite Venetian Macau started it all in 2007 and remains the world's largest casino and sixth-largest building. Twice the size of its Nevada counterpart, the Venetian is a tourist's dream, particularly if the tourist dreams big.

Guests are blown away by careful replicas of Venice landmarks, including three 500-foot canals studded with gleaming black gondolas and singing gondoliers intertwined among the public spaces. And the gold, wow. Three million gold leaves were used to create the interior decor.

The suites are huge, starting at a minimum of 830 sf with a canopied bed, marble bath, Nespresso machine, and sunken living room great for working and relaxing in front of the incredible nightly views.

The 15,000-seat Cotai Arena is a convenient stadium for group events, like having Madison Square Garden attached to your hotel. Beyonce and Lady Gaga performed here, and Kobe Bryant hosted a basketball clinic for kids. Six exhibition halls measure almost 70,000 sf, and 108 meeting rooms bring total space to over 30 acres.

While touring we run into meeting planner Veronica Zamora from BioHorizons, who is setting up for an international Asia-Pacific Symposium.

"Why the Venetian?" I ask.

"Capacity and efficiency," says Zamora. "We have over 500 clinicians attending. From check-in to final bill, they made everything really easy, from specific dietary needs to currency conversion. The service was great and the catering awesome. And this is the first time I've worked on such a big event where there were no errors on the bill. None!"

City Of Dreams

Across the Cotai, City of Dreams is a casino and entertainment center that has dubbed itself: "The world's coolest collection of hotels." The 300-room Hard Rock Macau is beloved by hipsters from Beijing and Hong Kong. The gorgeous 300-room Crown Towers dazzles Asian VIPs, and large groups are drawn to the 791-room Grand Hyatt Macau.

The Grand Hyatt is actually two hotels. The 424-room wave- shaped Grand Tower, where we're staying, stands at a jaunty angle to the 367-room Grand Club Tower. Both look onto the Pearl River Delta or the Cotai. They share meeting space and a dramatic light-filled, 72 foot-high travertine lobby featuring a fire engine red Steinway grand piano. Our group spends a fair amount of time in the busy patisserie-cafe that serves those ridiculously yummy Portuguese egg tarts.

Crown Towers suite

The second-floor meeting space features an American blue-chip corporate vibe with lean, clean design daubed in beiges and ivory. We arrive for a special event the hotel is hosting to unveil its 2012 theme called "The Opulence," in their 23,000-sf Grand Ballroom. There is nothing corporate about the glittering, bead-and-velvet homage to the Belle Epoque era, replete with tuxedo-clad butlers and burgundy chandeliers.

"We're always adding glamour and creative possibility to events," says GM Paul Kwok.

Next door, along with eight natural-lit meeting salons, the 470-pax Salão do Teatro has an open-show kitchen for up to 20 chefs at once, with video feeds capturing the action for two enormous projection screens. For our visit, Hyatt chefs are working their magic with a spectacular selection of fruit salad with local pawpaw, fresh dumplings, dim sum and apple tart. Our favorite: Chinese pancakes with mushroom, yellow leek and duck. And a third-floor pool deck offers Macau's largest outdoor venue, which accommodates 500-pax barbeques.

We definitely fell for the Hard Rock Casino here, featuring some of the property's 71,000 pieces of music memorabilia. While many of us in the group are typically not avid gamblers, we spent some time here dropping a little dough because of the spectacular ambience.

City of Dreams' piece de resistance is the water-based acrobatic show, "The House of Dancing Water."

"No other show on earth had to have a theater created just for it," boasts Kwok. Created by Cirque du Soleil creative alum, Franco Dragone, he loosely based the storyline on the Portuguese discovery of China. The 2,000-seat theater features an amazing 3.7-million gallon tank and stage. Five Olympic-size pools of water rise and disappear magically as dancers become swimmers and divers become aerialists. Front rows receive raincoats upon entering. A grand finale includes seven motorcyclists flying 49 feet in the air.

"It's the most extravagant live show in Asia," says Kwok.

Galaxy Macau

The latest addition to the Cotai is the $2 billion Galaxy Macau, a 5-star, 5-casino resort whose motto is "World Class, Asian Heart." It's three truly Asian hotels: the 1,500-room Galaxy, the 248-suite Banyan Tree and the 480-room Hotel Okura. They share palatial rooftop cupolas tipped with enough gold to cover 87 soccer fields, all rising around a third-floor, 43,000-sf wave beach.

"We emphasize resort here, not just gaming," says Jane Tsai, marketing manager. "We're trying to increase the time that visitors spend in Macau."

That "beach," with its 350 tons of white sand, helps. The busiest pool we see—filled with boogie boarders—is one of six pools on the property.

Meanwhile, the 136-acre development continues to unfold. A 9-screen Cineplex opens in November, and there are already over 50 bars and restaurants specializing in every possible cuisine.

"As Macau becomes the entertainment capital of the world, we're leading the charge," says Tsai. Overall, the Galaxy is an over-the-top, upscale party and entertainment hotel. A bevy of Miss-Universe-style beauties greets arriving guests, and a thunderous floor show features a 40-foot wide diamond stage rising from a fountain as a symbolic offering of prosperity for all.

The 430-pax Grand Ballroom at the all-suite Banyan Tree caters to groups seeking refinement and prestige. The Indonesian-based spa resort is so luxe that every suite contains a relaxation pool. They also have two wall-lit conference rooms that manage to look like red velvet while being thoroughly business-like.

At the Okura, six banquet/meeting rooms are models of Japanese restraint, with enchanting first-class service.

Our group has a blast sampling the sumptuous food. At the Sukazuki Sake Bar, a sake sommelier takes groups of 20 on tasting tours through some of their 50 sakes. At the 130-seat Yamazoto Restaurant, the elegant tea master Shirai Yayoi leads us on a tea ceremony that's like a trip to another time, all in a glowing white, other-worldly globe. The 68-seat Macallan Whiskey Bar and lounge—the only one outside Scotland—is stocked with over 360 whiskeys and a roaring Edinburgh-style fire. And boy, they love their tasting parties.

Mandarin Oriental

The House of Dancing Water

We stayed on the verdant edge of the peninsula at the 213-room Mandarin Oriental Macau, a stunning 5-star boutique hotel that opened in 2010. The Mandarin Oriental exudes urbane sophistication while offering real respite to guests. Rooms are large and elegant, with iPod docks and espresso machines. Massive marble bathrooms have hydro-massage showers and separate baths with views of the Pearl River Delta. Twice-a-day housekeeping shines shoes on request, leaves yoga mats for a morning stretch and drops off an afternoon snack.

Groups can gather in a truly elegant 3,400-sf ballroom whose floor-to-ceiling windows show off the waterfront to perfection, plus two meeting rooms and a 653-sf boardroom for conferences. Do book private dining at the elegant 108-seat Vida Rica Restaurant—especially the Chef's Table for 12-16, connected to the kitchen for demos. The very creative chef Dirk Haltenhof clearly loves deconstructing and interpreting traditional Portuguese, Macanese and Chinese dishes. We actually wrote home about the fruit-cured lamb.

Dirk's Vida Rica breakfasts are a culinary world tour. The omelet station, yogurt vats, airy croissants, fruit stores, and cereal alone would please anyone. But homemade jams were rosewater infused, the miso soup stand delish, the trays of dim sum fresh and photographable. And then comes the soup station. We add Chinese cabbage, wontons and noodles into an aromatic broth to make a gorgeous, warming meal as we gaze on the South China Sea, fortified to tour Macau all over again.

Culture Hopping

Macau's bling isn't confined to the Cotai. For downtime, groups are taken on a simulated tour through the riches of Europe. In Macau's Portuguese-built historical city center on the main peninsula, pastel-shaded Neoclassical buildings look like Lisbon. Much of this area forms a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is popular for educational group tours.

Most irresistible: The stone façade of St. Paul's, the first Catholic church in China, built with help from exiled Japanese Christian stonemasons. Rising on a hilltop—the sides and rear were destroyed in a fire long ago—it looks like an elaborate stage set for a movie about the expansion of Western civilization. And seemingly, amid the crowds, there's almost always a bride and groom being photographed at the scenic spot.

"The main peninsula is so rich in beauty and history that Macau gets more interesting the more people explore," says João Sales, spokesperson for the Macau Government Tourist office.

Make sure to breathe in the fragrant incense at the A-ma Temple, dedicated to the Taoist goddess of seafarers for whom Macau is named. Dating from before the first Portuguese landfall in the early 1500s, the Taoist temple weaves Buddhist deities and more ancient animistic spirits into its four levels of prayer pavilions—just more evidence of multicultural Macau.

The dining options are outstanding, offering within a historical context: African chicken, curried vegetables, spicy noodles and those fab egg tarts! And the authentic Portuguese restaurants are famous with Hong Kong daytrippers, so we spend our last night in town on the thoroughly Euro-village streets of Taipa Island.

Michelin-recommended Antonio Restaurant offers a zesty array of seafood and chouriços (sausage), with fresh bread and plenty of refreshing vino verde, the classic Portuguese wine. The swashbuckling Antonio himself is on hand looking like a happy pirate, preparing his famous crepes flambé on a stove before our table, then using a sword to open our champagne.

With all of the glamorous infrastructure and pampering pursuits here, there's still an energized spirit of exploration and global intrigue coursing through the veins of the Macanese.


Reprinted with permission of Prevue/prevueonline.net (edited version). To read the original article visit: http://www.nxtbook.com/worth/prevue/march-april-2012/index.php#/110

Winter 2011-12