Life in the Fast Lane: Rev Yourself Up for Macau

Fans arriving for the 59th Macau Grand Prix (www.macau.grandprix.gov.mo), held Nov. 15 to 18, can expect to crowd a 6.2-km route that organizers call "one of the most demanding circuits in the world."

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Forbes Conrad / The New York Times / Redux

The iconic, 385-year-old Ruins of St. Paul’s.

Fans arriving for the 59th Macau Grand Prix (www.macau.grandprix.gov.mo), held Nov. 15 to 18, can expect to crowd a 6.2-km route that organizers call “one of the most demanding circuits in the world.” But a further race for tourist glory around one of the world’s most minuscule territories has to be among the least demanding — featuring the slow mingling of cultures rather than sudden swerves, with plenty of leisurely pit stops to refuel on Portuguese wine, strong coffee, Chinese buns and unique Macanese snacks.

Not content to rest on the laurels of having been one of the longest-running colonies in history, or now serving as humankind’s most lucrative gambling den, Macau is continually cramming new attractions into its 29.9 re-claimed, re-engineered sq km to make certain there’s hardly a turn without thrills. We offer four laps:

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LAP ONE
Motoristas who can’t get enough should head for the Grand Prix Museum, tel: (853) 8798 4178. It’s a surprisingly vivid evocation of the race’s storied history, complete with vintage cars. Those who aren’t motorsport fans will appreciate that the museum shares the basement of Macau’s Tourism and Cultural Activities Center with the equally well-stocked Wine Museum, centered entirely on Portuguese vintages and growing regions.

Despite an ongoing diminution of colonial influence since the 1999 handover to China, there are still plenty of remnants of old Portugal above ground as well. Everyone’s obligatory starting point is a stroll across the wave-evoking calçada tiles of Senado Square on the way to the ruined facade of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the displays of old Macanese life within the slick Macau Museum, tel: (853) 2835 7911. But two more authentic touchstones of Portuguese life, and the best start to any day in the enclave, are egg tarts and bica (as the Portuguese call espresso) at Café Ou Mun, tel: (853) 2837 2207.

An easy escape from the tourists in the square, and more glimpses of former European grace, can be found in the tile-lined back courtyard of the Senado itself, and, climbing the hill past a most Lisbon-like kiosk, on a stroll past the Teatro Dom Pedro V, said to be one of Asia’s oldest opera houses, now moldering magnificently in its teal coat of paint. A left turn at the cathedral not only leads past stores full of temptingly cheap faux antiques but also back alleys with romantic names like Travessa da Paixão (Passion’s Passageway).

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LAP TWO
Barely one main street away from the above, Chinese Macau’s first and ultimate expression is the seafront A-Ma Temple (named for the sea goddess who gave this place its name). At any time or season, the incense smoke, joss sticks and stooped worshippers are enough to populate even the most jaded visitor’s vision of the exotic. In case one’s tank is tending toward empty, it’s barely half an arcaded, dockside block to Restaurante Litoral, tel: (853) 2896 7878, whose humbly homey décor belies a sure-handed mastery of staple Macanese dishes (like African Chicken, heaping all the spices of Portugal’s many colonies on one bird).

Heading the opposite way around the bend takes the visitor along the bluff upon which colonials first announced their presence, still claimed by the Pousada de São Tiago, tel: (853) 2837 8111, and Portugal’s ambassadorial digs. The intrepid, long-distance pedestrian can now complete a circle around the harbor toward a new entertainment district set on landfill. It is vapid but nonetheless holds two highlights: Restaurante Carlos, tel: (853) 2875 1838, an amiable spot where the famed octogenarian priest Father Lancelot holds court, and the ambitious MAM. It’s not exactly MOMA, but Macau’s Museum of Art, tel: (853) 8791 9814, is worth at least a peek at cultural ferment yet to come.

LAP THREE
Macau’s two outer islands, long connected by causeways, were once its true finds, always worthy of putting a few more miles on the chassis. Sadly, central Taipa is currently one vast construction zone and notable mostly for hosting the Venetian casino, tel: (853) 2882 8888. Its one-armed bandits are best avoided but for the surreal jackpot of seeing thousands of mainland Chinese visitors ogling the glittering lobby outfitted as one off-course Doge’s Palace. Equally incongruous, yet far more lovely, is the Taipa Houses Museum, tel: (853) 2882 7103 — an outdoor exhibition of preserved military bungalows facing the sea in rows.

If Taipa has been despoiled, the outer island of Coloane remains a lovely outcropping in the South China Sea. A Portugal in miniature, the churches, squares and side streets of Coloane Village are as tiny in scale as they are big in charm. And while the black sands of Hac Sa Beach aren’t really worth a detour, there’s more edible pit-stop potential in Fernando’s, tel: (853) 2888 2531, ever popular among expats and day-trippers from Hong Kong for its ultra-garlicky chicken or fish and relaxed barbecue atmosphere.

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LAP FOUR
If you still haven’t filled that tank with enough Portuguese wine, return to the center of town and the faded elegance of the pink-trimmed Clube Militar de Macau, tel (853) 2871 4009. The club’s restaurant is open to the public and helps prove the point that Macanese colonialism was as much about pleasure as economic pressures.

The club is only one street away, yet miles in atmosphere, from the landmark Grand Lisboa casino, tel: (853) 2828 3838, which is said to be shaped like a giant birdcage to trap gamblers’ money inside. Even non-gamblers can fill up on sin with a stroll or two around the public basement, where groups of young mainland ladies circulate endlessly and exhaustedly amid noodle joints and smoothie stands.

A final landmark, the former home of the peripatetic Sun Yat-sen, tel: (853) 2857 4064, is hardly worth a peek, but it’s a good starting point for further wanderings in the city’s more Chinese sections. If there’s a checkered flag to our own circuit of the varied contradictions of this curious nub that’s crammed with too much of both the crass and the genteel, it’s the customs stations processing traffic to the Chinese city of Zhuhai. Here, where China rubs against the rest of the world, even the weariest traveler can take a little schadenfreude from massive crowds making their daily, cross-border race for survival.

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