For decades, the city of Macao has been a languid, almost Caribbean-style backwater—playing Havana to Hong Kong's New York—known for its seamy intrigue, its flamboyant gangsters, and most of all, its casinos. This is where Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese regularly drop millions of dollars at the tables. Now the town's fathers have decided to turn the region into the next Las Vegas, starting with the building of Steve Wynn's $700 million casino, which will open next year. The Sands' Sheldon Adelson, who was listed in Forbes as the 19th-richest man in the world, is currently pumping $12 billion into the construction of an entirely new peninsula called Cotai. Scheduled to open in 2007, the landfill will contain the world's largest gambling strip, with casinos and 20 resort hotels offering some 60,000 rooms
For smart travelers who want to get a glimpse of Macao before the gold rush, now is clearly the time—there's nothing like it in China, if not all of Asia. Founded by the Portuguese in 1557, the region—only 55 minutes by ferry from Hong Kong and 15 by helicopter—was the main trading port and gateway into China for nearly 300 years. The Portuguese brought with them their food, their architecture, and their art and music, which over the years mixed and mingled with the culture of the local Cantonese. The MACAO MUSEUM (Praceta do Museu de Macao, No. 112; 853/357-911) provides an excellent crash course in this unusual history, with exhibits on some of the quirkier customs, such as cricket fighting. The main square provides entry to the Macao of yore; witness the façade of the iconic ruins of St. Paul's, a startling colonial cathedral constructed by Jesuit missionaries in 1602. Also worth a look is the 16th-century A-MA TEMPLE, a vast complex of moon gates, gardens, brass bells, and gongs.
The place to stay is the MANDARIN ORIENTAL (from $260 to $3,200; 956-1110 Avda. da Amizade; 853/793-3261; www.mandarinoriental.com), which, until the new casinos are built, is the only game in town—and the hotel with the best spa. But you don't visit Macao for a Thai massage; you go for rich Macanese cuisine, a combination of Portuguese spices and sauces with Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques. The roast suckling pork and grilled fish at FERNANDO'S ($ dinner, $45; 9 Praia de Hac; 882/882-264) are some of the best dishes here, as are the crab and malagueta pepper-coated African chicken at FAT SIU LAU (dinner, $60; 64 Rua de Felicidade; 853/573-585).
When Macao's role as a great trading port was eclipsed by Shanghai and Hong Kong, gambling became the means of survival. Now nightlife in the city still revolves around the tables. (Even if you don't like to play, strolling around Macao's old casinos is great entertainment.) And you can't miss the grande dame of them all, the LISBOA: It looks like a neon-encrusted seventies table lamp set in the center of town. At the other end of the spectrum is the new SANDS MACAO (203 Largo de Monte Carlo; 853/883-388), the region's first American-style casino. Open since May, the surprisingly un-Vegaslike interior was designed to put an end to the old image of Macao as a faded Casablanca. Outside the Sands' golden doors, though, wizened old pedicab drivers still wait, ready to whisk you off to some incense-fragrant backstreet.
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