Five years ago, I was touring a series of restored Macanese villas on the island of Taipa, south of Macau when I saw cranes and earthmovers on reclaimed land across the bay. I asked a local what that was about, and he answered, “Ah, that’s a new city.”
Today, I’m in my 20th floor suite of the Crown Towers Hotel looking across at the Taipa villas. I am in a new city alright, the City of Dreams, a new three-hotel complex surrounding a massive casino and one spectacular theater built from the ground up for a “waterworld” extravaganza.
Despite other countries in the region opening or expanding their casino operations, Macau still has the gaming edge. They have an inexhaustible supply of mainland visitors that exponentially increases with a booming economy. They also had many years of the business and have now fine-tuned the gaming industry to an entertainment, shopping, fine dining and luxury hotel destination. Something for every segment even for me, satisfied with just a slot machine.
If you yearn for the dice but have children in tow, they’re going to love Kids’ City. In this spacious play ground they have everything imaginable from toddlers’ corner, to slides and tunnels and arts and crafts. For technology buffs, there’s the latest video games and for the culturally inspired, ballet lessons. A nearby “Bubble Theater”, a domed ceiling whose walls gives a 360-degree visual extravaganza with lions leaping and dragons swirling about and lunging at you is free for all City visitors.
The City’s entertainment centerpiece is an amazing theater called House of Dancing Water built specifically for a water-themed show with a cast of 80 of the most agile and athletic men and women from over 18 countries.
The story is in the fairy tale genre; an evil queen in mythical kingdom imprisons a princess and a gallant stranger goes through death-defying leaps, three-story high pool plunges, and some dancing, frees the princess and live happily ever after. For 70 riveting nail-biting minutes the HK 2.5 billion dollar extravaganza has the action-packed scenes of Pirates of Penzance meeting Mad Max meeting Crouching Tiger. But this time performed for real. If there is a hint of Cirque-du- Soleil, it’s because the creator and director Franco Dragone created many of the first Cirque extravaganzas. For this production, Mr. Dragone has exceeded anything he’s done to date; a love story combined with physical and technological spectacle.
Imagine the stage, in this theater in the round, dry at one instant and transforming immediately into a 60-foot pool (the largest in the world) with a whole Chinese pavilion and a pirate ship emerging from its depths.
Numerous winches from the ceiling tow dancers high above to do balletic leaps in the air and mercilessly dropped, like bungee jumpers, to just inches away from the stage floor. At one point, all the performers dangle by their feet on one huge metal loop and, while in the air, move their bodies to and fro in a manner that would make the ’30’s choreographer Busby Berkeley weep.
The mouth-gaping heart-stopping moment for the audience were the bike riders zooming and bolting up inclined platforms to fly, to even let go of their machines, and amazingly, somersault in the air. Gasps, screams, and “Wows” were the sounds accompanying the roaring bikes. The audience applauded wildly recognizing that these performers - stuntmen, divers, and acrobats - were showing off years of practice, perfecting and pushing their sinewy bodies to the absolute limit.
Outside the House of Dancing Water is the Boulevard, a wide meandering walkway on two floors with pricey boutiques and watch stores.
There’s fine dining on the Boulevard and I lunched at Treasure Palace. Cantonese is the specialty and their luncheon array of delicate dim sums as well as their signature dishes, the Superior Soup Dumpling and the Drunken Baby Pigeon lived up to their Executive Chef Tam Kwok Fung’s Michelin Star rating.
For an even greater variety of meals, there’s a food court and a coffee shop on the second floor.
Casinos with hotels in central Macau are indistinguishable; hotel lobbies have direct entrances to casinos. Not so in City of Dreams. The three hotels, Crown Towers, Hard Rock and Grand Hyatt Macau, were built with a distinct hotel identity, another successful feature at making the City of Dreams a more eclectic destination.
When you’re billeted in new high-end hotels, the basic accommodations (thread counts and plasma tv sizes) are imperceptible; the design aesthetic and the features of each property become the distinctive elements. At the Crown Towers, the edgy sleek design by the Australian firm Bates Smart in the lobby hints at a retro-oriental motif. My suite was the most spacious I’ve ever reviewed (60 sq meters), with a retro carryover interior, floor to ceiling views of Cotai, a walk-in closet, Aigner bath products and an iPod docking station making the suite feel like home.
The Grand Hyatt Macau on the other hand projects its familiar worldwide frisson the minute you enter (http://macau.grand.hyatt.com). It IS grand, its unlimited lobby ceiling is supported by hexagonal columns, cloud motifs and water cascading down a giant hemisphere in the middle of the floor. My guestroom, like most of its suites had a separate living room, with marvelous views including the 40-meter swimming pool below. It’s the polished steel light fixtures and the dominating dark wood throughout that exuded the Hyatt luxury look.
The Hard Rock Hotel is at the other end of the luxury spectrum. Its interior design principle is based on the premise that if you’re a devotee to its cafes spread throughout the world, then you’d most probably like to stay in its hotels as well. The check-in counter has for its back display greeting the line “HELLO, I LOVE YOU, WON’T YOU TELL ME YOUR NAME” from a Door’s song. Electric guitars from the bands like Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi and even that of Michael Jackson’s become framed artworks at the lobby and in various parts of the hotel.
There’s a mid-century appeal in the suite furniture with pink bedsheets, Lucite lightning and martini mixers telling you to lighten up and have fun even if your rock concert groupie days are a distant memory.
Melco Crown Entertainment which manages City of Dreams had one more hotel property, the Altira, (www.altiramacau.com) that they wanted to show off a short ride away. There’s a Chinese penchant for privacy and exclusivity evident in its 38th floor check-in lobby with breath-taking views of Macau across the water, tucked-in gaming rooms exclusive to “high-rollers” and suites with round stone-crafted baths.
All the hotels have their own distinctive spa offerings and Altira’s two storey spa has secured two consecutive Gold Awards (2009 and 2010) from the Forbes Travel Guide. Its treatments, spa products and design are all multi-awarded as well.
The hotel’s authentic Japanese restaurants (a favorite of Melco CEO Lawrence Ho) and the Michelin starred Italian restaurant completes this jewel of a hotel.
My farewell dinner was back at the Grand Hyatt’s Beijing Kitchen, softly lit, contemporary in feel with Chinois hints on the grill patterned wall lights. Hyatt excels in that no-nonsense but elegant-still look. I dined on an array of sumptuous Shanghainese appetizers and was bowled over by the Peking Duck. Theirs is imported from Beijing and cooked in the kitchen’s traditional oven.
I’ve wandered the world, from Hong Kong to Vancouver and numerous Chinatowns in between, scouring for and noshing on their Peking Duck offerings. But I now say that this was the Peking Duck that must have truly excited the Emperor’s palate. The mouth-melting duck skin alone was utterly sublime.
Here’s the best value-added experience for Filipinos planning a trip to Macau and the City of Dreams. This compact city has a slow paced Iberian charm that we relate to easily and absent in nearby Hong Kong. Historically protected buildings from Portuguese churches to municipal buildings remind us of Old Manila. The Macanese have a manner, a grace, and delightful cuisine that resonate with us as well.
Best of all, it’s the Filipinos, yes, the Filipinos. Fellow countrymen and women, many working in hotels, pampered me. I didn’t need a guide-book. I got the best spa tips and suggested dining spots. I was served generous drinks with never-ending chicherias. I was pointed to the luckier slot machines. And though I protested, my suitcase was in their hands. My Macau trip was a thousand times enhanced by the wonderful Filipino staff and citizens I encountered there. And, if the various resorts and the Macau Tourism Board want more Filipinos to visit, they should not overlook this marketing plus because in the end, we take delight traveling and finding a familiar language and face to help and tell us the sights we should see.
Macao may have expanded its gaming and entertainment significantly in just five years but the city retains its historical charm zealously with heritage tourism in mind. The preserved Taipa villas and nearby old town was once a trek to go to but now is a stone’s throw from the City of Dreams, and with the new bridge, just 15 minutes away from central Macau.
A Mandarin’s House Museum, lovingly and painstakingly restored for the past eight years opened this year (www.wh.mo/mandarinhouse) in historic Lilau Square. This once rundown 1881 structure has become a showcase on conservation methods and is an absolute tourist must. Same with the nearby Dom Pedro V Theater, a 19th century cultural landmark totally restored, and all the known sites like the Senado Square and the St Paul Ruins continue in its pristine state enjoyed daily by thousands of visitors. Macau, despite the dizzying development pace manages well to make sure its past is preserved bringing in tourists dollars as well.