11 November 2007

Travel: Macau

Macau is a former Portuguese colony, lying 65 kilometres west of Hong Kong. The Special Administrative Region (SAR) - China resumed sovereignty over it in 1999 - is split between the peninsula connected to the mainland and two islands. While it apparently boasts some fine colonial architecture and interesting sights, I knew only of its reputation as a gambling center. The city's casinos played a role early in The Man With the Golden Gun (unfortunately, the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Harbour, which was a secret British Naval outpost in the movie, was scrapped years ago; a portion of it is now landfill on which HKIA sits). More recently, however, Macau made international news when the world's largest casino, the Venetian, opened there in August. Since I was in the area, I thought I would pop over for a rendezvous with Lady Luck.

The Macau ferry pier is to the east of the central piers. High-speed ferries run to Macau every thirty minutes. I wanted to spend only a couple of hours there to give me time to come back for a few more hours of exploring Hong Kong. I tried to catch a 6 o'clock ferry but was told the earliest available was at 6.30. While the ferries only take an hour to cover the 40 or so miles, that would put me in Macau at 7.30, and I wanted to be back in Hong Kong by 10.00. While I was thinking about my schedule, I spied the next ticket window, Heli Express. A helicopter ride would take 16 minutes to cover the distance, and it would put me down right at the Macau ferry terminal. I had never flown in a helicopter, and I decided to do it. As they say, time is money. I bought my ticket for a 6.30 take off and headed to the departure lounge. My fellow passengers were a mix of Westerners and Asians, tourists and locals. None particularly stood out, although one fellow in the departure ahead looked the high roller, decked out in a white suit. Ten of us passengers boarded the helicopter, and up we went into the darkness. The immediate sights were outstanding - the same harbour view from the night before on the Star Ferry, but this time from a thousand feet up. Quickly, however, we moved into pitch darkness, and it wasn't until nearly 15 minutes later that the lights of Macau led us to our destination. I don't know what kind of helicopter it was, so I have included a picture to allow you, gentle readers, to identify it.

Macau looks like the Vegas strip, but in an island setting. As we approached, you could see dozens of different casinos, some right on the water. There was a mix of familiar names (Sands) and typical historical motifs along with more Asian-centric themes. Most of the casinos are on the peninsula, but new ones such as the Venetian are popping up on Taipa Island across the causeway (actually, there are three different bridges connecting the peninsula with the island). After getting through Customs, I boarded the free shuttle (imagine that!) for the ten minute ride to the Venetian. It is incredible. I have been to the Venetian in Las Vegas, as well as many of the other "name" casinos, but I don't remember anything on this scale. Even the Bellagio. The structure is massive. The shuttle drops you off on the hotel side, and the walk to the casino takes you through an expansive shopping arcade with all kinds of high-end shops. It is luxury-shopping heaven.

The casino itself is even grander. The ceilings in the open areas stretch three to four stories above the ground floor and are covered in Italian Renaissance style murals. You could spend an entire evening just staring at the surroundings. But, I didn't have all evening, and I wanted to give the tables a chance.

I prefer blackjack and craps, but the game of choice in Macau is baccarat. I don't know enough to play this game successfully, so I walked around until I found one of the few blackjack tables (the Venetian doesn't have a craps table). I sat down rather nervously at a low stakes table and found immediately that my Asian co-players did not understand how to play the game. Oh, they knew the rules, but they didn't know the odds, so they were staying on any hand of 12 or higher, even when the dealer was showing a 7 or better. That generally means a one-way flow of money towards the house, and this night was no different. I, however, played by the rules, and only played for about ten minutes. After a good run, I decided to see some more of the building and then head to the Wynn, which was much nearer the ferry terminal (I was up, but not enough to buy a helicopter trip back to Hong Kong; anticipating this, I had already purchased my return ferry trip).

A cab ride took me across a different causeway, this one to the east of the trip down to the Venetian, for good view of the waterfront casinos. We circled back around to the Wynn, where I hoped my winning streak would continue.

The Wynn is nice, modeled after Steve Wynn's original Vegas casino (although I have never been, so I don't have any grounds for comparison). After the Venetian, however, it seemed quite dreary. The ceilings were low, the room dark. They did have a single craps table, which they were promoting heavily with cards that explained the rules. I would have liked to join in, but the table was packed with players and interested on-lookers, so I headed back to the blackjack table. I may have stayed there for a shorter time than at the Venetian, but my run of luck continued. After at most ten minutes of play, I walked straight to the cage to cash out and find a place for a drink before heading to the ferry terminal. To my delight, I was up HK$1,500. Of course, that is about $200 US. Which is better than losing $200, but I wasn't headed back for some shopping at the Venetian. I did get to catch the fountain show at the Wynn, which is reminiscent of the one at Bellagio featured at the end of Ocean's 11.

The ferry ride was pleasant - I rode in upper class, which is quiet and offers free food and drink. It is the way to go, if you don't want to spring for the helicopter ride, and the hour-long trip was just the perfect amount of time to decompress from the casino experience and get ready for one last night of exploring in Hong Kong.

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