Travel World/USA

Thursday 22 August 2019

East meets west in magical Macau

A trip to Macau is filled with fantastic dining experiences for David Conachy...

The impressive Macau skyline
The impressive Macau skyline
Award-winning Portuguese chef Antonio Coelho is a treasure of Macau
Macao Giant Panda Pavilion
Portuguese egg tarts

David Conachy

I can honestly say that I have never eaten as many different types of fungus in my life as I did in Macau. There were mushrooms everywhere - and I loved it.

My trip to Macau was filled with fantastic dining experiences, probably because Macanese food reflects its unique history and maritime culture. Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China, but it was a Portuguese colony for 300 years until 1999, after which it came under Chinese sovereignty.

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When Portuguese merchants arrived in the 16th Century, they brought exotic species and food cultures from Africa, India and Southeast Asia. These were gradually incorporated into traditional dishes, and when combined with local Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques, it created a wonderful array of tastes and aromas.

To get to Macau, I flew to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, which operates direct flights from Dublin four times weekly. At 13 hours, it was a long but very comfortable flight. I slept for a lot of it, but there were plenty of entertainment options and good food to pass the time away.

Once we arrived in Hong Kong, it was on to Macau by high-speed ferry, which took about 45 minutes. Most conveniently, our luggage was checked right through from Dublin to Macau.

Macau has a moderate to hot climate and the temperature was about 28 degrees Celsius, which I was delighted with, having left chilly old Dublin behind. My first impression was that Macau is really busy and full of hustle and bustle and modern skyscraper buildings. We were staying at the Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16, a five-star hotel with a dazzlingly impressive lobby that is located near the busy port with the fish markets.

Award-winning Portuguese chef Antonio Coelho is a treasure of Macau
Award-winning Portuguese chef Antonio Coelho is a treasure of Macau

As a photographer, I was particularly delighted that my room had a stunning view of the Pearl River delta and beyond into the South China Sea. The staff were extremely pleasant, and while Cantonese and Portuguese are the official languages of Macau, English is widely spoken.

While Macau is known as the 'Las Vegas of China', it soon became clear that it has far more to offer than gambling, skyscraper buildings, entertainment and razzle-dazzle. The Historic Centre of Macao is a Unesco World Heritage Site, for example, and the Portuguese influence is still seen everywhere. It's in the historic architecture, the names and, particularly, in the food.

Speaking of food, we dined on the first night in the 360° Cafe at the top of the Macau Tower, which at 338 metres high, is one of the tallest buildings in Asia. Adrenaline-junkies can take a bungee jump off it or else take the Skywalk, a harnessed stroll around the outside. As we had just arrived, we opted for the much more sedate option of simply having dinner.

Although it wasn't quite as sedate as I expected, as the restaurant is a revolving one, as we dined, we were able to take in amazing panoramic views of Macau below, including the bright lights of the casinos. We had a casual buffet-style dinner, with Portuguese and Indian dishes and particularly good seafood offerings.

The following morning, we went on a walking tour that took in the Lou Lim leoc Garden, which was built in 1906, the St Lazarus District, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful areas of Macau, and the Three Lamps District, which is a great place to see how the locals live.

Macau is very compact and easy to get around by foot, and the coastal walk is lovely. Lunch was at Miramar on Hac-Sa Beach, which serves a variety of dishes made with cheese, fish and olive oil straight from Portugal, as well as wine and beer.

We went on to the Macau Giant Panda Pavilion and Lord Stow's Bakery (see highlights) where we had to let our belts out another notch. We took a break from eating when we went on a guided cruise between the islands of Coloane and Taipa, which showed off the flashy, blingy lights of the casinos to great advantage.

We managed to strap on our eating boots again for dinner at Aurora restaurant, which is located at the Altira hotel. The Portuguese chef de cuisine, Helder Amaral, presented us with a selection of excellent Mediterranean dishes there.

All that food required some exercise to burn it off, and as a keen cyclist, I noticed that the Macanese don't seem to run or cycle in great numbers. However, you'll see them in huge numbers on the beach and in green areas each morning doing tai chi and aerobics. I did, however, get a chance to cycle to the Guia Fortress one morning, a 17th Century colonial military fort, chapel, and lighthouse complex in Sao Lazaro that is part of the Unesco site.

Each morning, we had a fantastic breakfast at the hotel, where there was a dazzling array of choices. There was even a chocolate fountain for those up to that particular challenge first thing in the morning, although it was beyond me.

Our walking tour on the second morning took in the ruins of St Paul's, the fire-ravaged remains of a 17th Century cathedral that has become an iconic sight in Macau.

We walked up Travessa da Paixao, or Lovers' Lane, a popular cobbled street that has become a hotspot for couples. What won my photographer's heart was the street's colour scheme - the vibrant pink, green and yellow buildings that lined either side.

Then it was on to Rua dos Ervanarios, one of Macau's oldest streets, and Senado Square, which is famous for its Portuguese cobblestone pavements and historic buildings.

As our lunch venue had a formal dress code, it was a very well scrubbed-up bunch that arrived to dine on fine Cantonese dishes at Wing Lei, the Michelin-starred restaurant located within the Wynn Hotel.

It is run by Macau's revered Cantonese chef, Tam Kwok Fung, and the food was excellent. All eyes were drawn to the restaurant's dazzling crystal dragon feature, which emerges from the ground in a burst of flames and music. Dramatic and magical.

After lunch, we headed to the five-storey Macao Museum of Art, which houses a collection of international art pieces. We were there in time for the pre-launch exhibition of Art Macau, which was most impressive.

That evening, we went to Taipa Village, which gave us a taste of the original, authentic Macau. Formerly home to local fishermen, it has quaint traditional shophouses constructed in a mixture of Portuguese and Chinese architecture.

We dined at the famous Michelin-starred Antonio restaurant, which is a jewel in the crown of the Macanese dining scene - which is saying something, as there were so many fabulous meals during our trip. Antonio was established in 2007 by award-winning Portuguese chef Antonio Coelho, who decided to become a chef after years of military service.

The man himself is a great character and the food lived up to the hype. Antonio is extremely passionate about promoting Portuguese food and culture in Macau, and his restaurant serves fantastic, authentic Portuguese dishes with a modern twist.

On our final morning, we took to the streets again, this time taking in A Ma Temple, the oldest temple in Macau. It was a morning of historic and cultural sights as we checked out Moorish Barracks, Lilu Square, Mandarin House, St Lawrence Church and Dom Pedro V Theatre.

Our final stop was at Anim'Arte Nam Van, a lakeside centre where you can visit art stores and hire pedal boats to take out on the Nam Van Lake. Our final lunch took place at Restaurante Litoral, an authentic Macanese restaurant serving great traditional dishes.

I left Macau about five pounds heavier, after an enriching trip with fantastic food and memorable cultural experiences.

And though I ate my way through some truly wonderful food, my abiding taste is probably that of the magical mushrooms.

The seasonal fungi are flown in fresh from Yunnan in China, where they gather in over 600 species of wild mushrooms - each one more flavoursome than the last.

After being spoiled for choice in Macau, I'll never look at Irish mushrooms in the same way again.

Take Two: Top attractions

The Panda Pavilion

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Macao Giant Panda Pavilion
 

You can see giant pandas up close at Macao Giant Panda Pavilion. The stars of the show are adorable twins Dabao and Xiaobao, who were born in 2016 and are very cute.  www.macaupanda.org.mo

Lord Stow's Bakery

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Portuguese egg tarts
 

The bakery is justly famous for its pasteis de nata - or Portuguese egg tarts - and it produces thousands of them every day. You'll be addicted! www.lordstow.com

Getting there

* Cathay Pacific offers four weekly non-stop flights between Dublin and Hong Kong, and onwards to over 80 destinations in Asia Pacific. So you can fly direct to Hong Kong from €635 return. Book via www.cathaypacific.ie

* Once you're in Hong Kong, there are fast ferries which take about 45 minutes to reach Macau, but of course you can also (as the song says) take the slow boat to China.

* Arriving in Macau from Ireland, you will be tired. David found the Sofitel Macau At Ponte 16 to be the perfect place to lay his head. You can check out their very reasonable rates and availilability at www.sofitelmacau.com

* And before you start packing, find out a bit more about the wonderful city of Macau at www.visitmacao.co.uk

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