So what does it take to impress today’s seen-it-all-Instagram generation? Try Macau, the former Portuguese colony turned gambling mega-city, a place so extravagant that even a Sheikh would raise his eyebrows. Macau is like a giant showroom of what billions of dollars can buy. It’s ridiculous, and utterly unforgettable.
Getting There: Go From Hong Kong
You don’t need a lot of time to see Macau. In fact, the majority of visitors won’t even spend the night. Weird? Not really, since the bulk come from mainland China where gambling is illegal.
Even if you’re not a Chinese gambler, chances are you will arrive from Hong Kong, which is how I did and suggest you do it. If there’s two things you should do when visiting Hong Kong it’s (1) spend a weekend in Macau and (2) take the train to see the Big Buddha.
Macau is a breezy 55 minute ferry ride across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong harbour. You can also take the ferry directly to the HK airport. So if, for example, you decide to visit Macau at the end of your trip, you don’t need to return to the city since you can take the ferry direct.
They’ll even check in your luggage for you, allowing you to go straight to security. Impressed? Don’t be. You don’t make 37.6 billion dollars a year and then ask people to carry their own luggage! Of course, if the ferry feels too provincial, there is always the 15 minute option of private helicopter.
Fun fact: Macau is the most densely populated region in the world
Don’t Go with Expectations of Las Vegas
Macau is almost always talked about in the same breath as Las Vegas. As the two most famous casino towns in the world, it’s only natural to draw comparisons between the two. However, besides having a strip with giant casinos, hotels and world class restaurants, that’s about all they have in common.
First of all, the most popular types of gaming are worlds apart. In Macau, it’s all about table games, compared to Vegas’ love for machines and slots. The Macanese game of choice is Baccarat, followed by Sic Bo. Now how you play either of those, beats me. Apparently, Baccarat is one of the simpler games to learn, but even as we circled a couple of tables, I couldn’t make heads or tails.
Fun Fact: Baccarat accounts for 90% of Macau’s gambling revenue
Second, the minimum bets are several times over what I’m used to elsewhere. In Macau, minimum bets start at around $50 a pop, effectively pricing out casual gamers like myself. And that’s a really big difference from Vegas, where even your average Joe can feel like a total baller.
Third, and this is where it gets weird, you won’t find anyone drinking on Macau’s packed out casino floors. If you want a drink, you can enjoy one in a most-likely-empty hotel bar. That’s a far cry from the ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ Hangover-esque draw of Sin City.
In Vegas, one of the key perks of gambling is that you drink for free, but no such thing in Macau. Overall, most people go to Vegas to party, see a show and maybe do a little gambling. Whereas most people visit Macau with the sole purpose of gambling. But you’re not most people. You’re going to Macau for the ridiculous and unforgettable, so let’s press on.
Fun Fact: In Macau, photographs of the casino floor are strictly prohibited – booooo
Is Macau really bigger than Vegas?
When people say that Macau is the biggest gambling city in the world, they mean by revenue and not by physical indicators such as square footage or the number of casinos or hotel rooms.
Vegas has nearly quadruple the number of hotel rooms: around 150,000 to Macau’s 38,700. Yet, despite having fewer annual visitors and half the number of casinos, Macau makes over 3 times the total revenue of Vegas.
In 2018, Macau raked in $37.6 billion in gaming revenue compared to Vegas’ $11.9 billion. That might look paltry compared to Macau, but that’s still making almost $1 billion a month. Crazy money, right?
Fun Fact: Casinos make in a matter of days what hotels earn on rooms in a year
Obviously Stay at the Cotai Strip
Macau’s gambling city is based around a single street dubbed the Cotai Strip, stretching from Coloane to Taipa. Alongside, rows of colossal, monstrous, gargantuan, mega-sized sky-scraping feats of architecture and project financing.
The buildings alone are worth the visit. The one that made my jaw drop open and sharp elbow my husband to look look is the recently opened futuristic Morpheus hotel, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. Just look at it! Loooook.
Other mind-boggling constructions include the jewellery-box shaped MGM hotel; the Parisian, complete with half-scale Eiffel Tower; and the Batman-inspired Studio City, with a figure of 8 in-built (working) Ferris wheel called ‘the Golden Reel’. I kid you not.
Fun Fact: Gambling has been legal in Macau since the 1850s
Hotel Choices, Choices
However, choosing a hotel here is like choosing between a black or brown Louis Vuitton bag. There’s no easy way to do it. Perhaps you’re a Four Seasons or Grand Hyatt loyalist or a Hilton points collector and that’ll make the choice for you. But as a travel blogging non-American hotel aficionado, I turned to good old fashioned local insight to make my choice. Quite simply, I asked a local stranger I met in HK which was the best hotel on the Cotai Strip and booked that.
Fun Fact: 99% of Las Vegas visitors will stay overnight compared to around 50% for Macau
Wynn Palace: The Most Expensive Hotel
As it turns out, Wynn Palace is probably the top-rated hotel of choice on the Cotai Strip, which is why we, and you, should stay there. It’s the recipient of more Forbes Travel Guide Five Star Awards than any other hotel in the world – or so I read somewhere – and comes out top on most booking websites. My local guy knew what he was talking about!
Despite being the most expensive hotel ever built in Macau, costing a whopping $4.2 billion, a night at Wynn Palace was still somehow within my budget. We also pulled the old ‘wedding anniversary’ trick for a room upgrade. Remember, they don’t make their money on rooms, it’s more of a way to keep you hanging around so that they can keep tempting you to swipe that Amex over and over and over… Or worse, just ‘put it on the room.’
Ridiculous, opulent, extravagant don’t even begin to describe it. Typical hotel room features include giant flatscreen TVs in every room of your hotel suite; bathrooms bigger than a London apartment decorated in gold and marble with palatial baths; and full-automation, where you can do practically everything from opening the drapes to flushing the toilet with the click of a button.
A notable, distinguishing feature of Wynn Palace is their ‘Skycab’ cable car that goes nowhere except circling its giant 8-acre ‘Performance Lake’ fountain. Every 15 minutes, the lake lights up, queue the classical music, and the water show begins. Apparently, gamblers really love water fountains.
I find it odd that this purposeless luxury Skycab is currently the number 1 attraction for Macau on TripAdvisor. As if you needed any more proof of the platforms’ irrelevance. And I still don’t understand how that ‘lake’ is 8 acres. But when you’re in Macau, you’ll see what I mean, the place will throw your sense of scale wayyy off.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen anything like it. Granted, I haven’t been to the more opulent, oil-rich Middle Eastern parts of the world or the not-so-coincidentally-also-oil-rich Russia and Stans of the world, but I’m no stranger to 5-star hotels. From the Shangri-La in Hong Kong to the aspiring 7-star Grand ITC Chola in Chennai, these don’t even come close to what you’ll find in Macau.
As mere pocket change, Mr Wynn spent $100 million on artwork, sculptures and vases throughout the hotel, of which a third was spent on Jeff Koons’ tulips alone.
But what I found most impressive, were the two giant fresh flower displays by Preston Bailey in the shape of a merry-go-round on one end of the hotel and dancing circus monkeys at the other. Guys, flowers are expensive!
The Venetian: The Biggest Hotel
If we hadn’t picked Wynn Palace, my second choice would be the Venetian simply because it is the biggest hotel in Macau. Actually, it is the seventh biggest building in the world (by square metres). I usually go for small boutique hotels but you don’t go small in a place like Macau.
The Venetian is the Cotai Strip’s flagship hotel, the OG, with 3000 hotel rooms across 39 floors and a total of 980,000 sq metres. It’s colossal, cavernous, complete with acres upon acres of casino floor. Its indoor shopping mall has seemingly endless canals for that iconic gondola-riding photo opportunity.
The 13: The Most Ridiculous
I can’t write a post about ridiculous luxury in Macau without mentioning the 13. I didn’t get to see it first hand as the hotel was still under construction, but it’s such a bizarre story.
It was originally designed to the be most luxurious casino hotel in the world. That’s a big claim. And since you asked, what makes this hotel more luxurious than anywhere else is, you know, the little things.
For example, a Roman bath for up to eight guests with retractable marble floor and crystal chandelier; private elevator; the world’s largest fleet of custom-made Rolls-Royce Phantoms on standby; floor to ceiling stained glass façade; 24-hour butler service certified by the English Guild of Butlers no less; and all the gold and diamond-encrusted trimmings to satisfy today’s most extravagant billionaires.
The total construction bill for the 200 all-villa hotel was reported at $1.4 billion, which works out to an investment of $7 million per room. Their most expensive villa was priced at $100,000 a night.
However, the opening of the hotel was repeatedly delayed. Along the way, they changed its name and lost some key investors. When the hotel finally opened to the public in September 2018, it opened without a casino…
I’ll say it one more time: casino hotels don’t make their money on rooms! This entire project hinges on that casino, which they have yet to receive a gaming license for. And until they do, it is bleeding more money than a Saudi prince.
Last I heard, they sold off 24 of their 30 custom Rolls Royce Phantoms as the hotel struggles to attract the level of clientele that hotel was designed to cater for. It’s not looking good, as Macau’s tourism market continues to shift away from its VIP heyday and towards mass-market tourism.
Fun Fact: Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho enjoyed a 40 year monopoly on the industry until 2001
Spend a Day in the Old, Portuguese Macau
The Cotai Strip is an experience not to be missed, but it’s not the real Macau. It’s a man-made gangstas paradise aimed at cashing in on the pre-corruption crackdown Chinese economic boom. And man do they cash in… But across the Ponte de Sai Van bridge, you’ll find another type of rich, the historic-rich town centre of Macau.
Since I’m half Portuguese, I already knew to expect a strong Portuguese influence from the architecture to the food to the street signs. After all, Macau was effectively under Portuguese rule for an extensive 442 years. But walking around the cobbled streets was a trip. It felt like how I imagine one of those Chinese replica towns, as it looked so much like Portugal, except halfway across the world!
Fun fact: Macau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Another architectural anomaly not to be missed is the Grand Lisboa hotel, which is supposed to look like a lotus flower. But to me, all too closely resembled the headquarters of a super-villain, looming over the city like an evil rich overlord.
Touristic highlights include the Portuguese cobble-stoned Senado Square, pastel yellow St Dominic’s Church and centuries old Ruins of St Paul. There’s also a fortress, cathedrals, churches, temples and museums – and many more sights that you won’t have time for.
But definitely squeeze in as many opportunities to try the local food. Such as the Portuguese egg tarts ‘pastel de nata‘, handmade dim sum, and Asian meat jerky.
Fun fact: Macau continues to print all signs in both Cantonese and Portuguese
Do More Than Gamble
When it comes to entertainment in Macau, I think it’s safe to stay that Las Vegas won’t be losing its crown anytime soon. You won’t find any Britney or Whitney type residencies. Instead, Macau is home to attraction headlines such as the world’s largest water show, the House of Dancing Water, and the world’s highest bungee jump.
Other top attractions include a rooftop golf course, enormous shopping malls, swimming pools, night clubs, incredible art installations, top restaurants, mile-long buffets, you name it. Macau is the perfect honeypot for the overflow of new money, black money, Triad money… So much money money.
Which you’ll need if you plan on experiencing Macau’s emerging fine-dining scene. Led by some of the world’s top chefs from Alain Ducasse to Alan Wong, Macau is shaping up to be a hub for Asia’s very best Michelin fine-dining, winning stars like poker chips.
While there is no drinking while gambling and no messy pool parties, Macau still has a couple of nightclubs like Cubic and Pacha, big enough for its small partying percentage. And if you’re a European tourist who just happened to bump into the fashion director of a big luxury fashion brand at a hotel bar in Hong Kong, that’s one way to score a VIP ticket into the hottest nightclub.
Having an ‘in’ was probably key. First of all, Club Cubic was a total biznatch to find. It’s inside some gigantic mall, down the hall, take the escalator up, walk another 10 minutes, take another then another escalator and eventually, after a few blisters and directions from 5 security guards, you’ll get there.
Once we eventually reached the club, there was a surprisingly long queue outside created by one of those my-shit-don’t-stank ladies with a clipboard. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to join that queue of swallowed dignities as my name was on the VIP list, hay hay. Oh the satisfaction, as she unclipped the rope and escorted hubby and I through the special VIP corridor to the special VIP room where the special VIP party was at.
I’m a 30 year old woman. I’ve been shapeshifting up the corporate ladder of nightclubs over half my life. I’ve been there done that on the lowly dance floor, bought my way up to the tables and finally hot-girl catapulted myself into the VIP. This is the only way I like to party or I don’t party at all. And this party was epic. What happens in Macau, stays in Macau! While it was only hubby and I and our new friend from HK, we lived up a truly ridiculous unforgettable luxury night in Macau to round off the weekend.
The club was huge. We had access to a private balcony – the only balcony – overlooking the whole club. The DJ, the lights and flares from the champagne trains, even a weird gimp dance show… We got to experience the club from god-height, and when we wanted a change of scenery, there was an only-in-Asia-and-all-the-cheese karaoke party going on.
So what we didn’t find any Vegas-style pool parties. In the end, we still drank for free, and two average Joe’s lived it up like kings.