Having enjoyed a week of bliss in Hong Kong at a cousin’s place inside the quiet university campus, I feel like doing something crazy. So three of us (incidentally all journos) who all happen to be in Hong Kong around the same time, hitch up and catch a morning ferry from the Hong Ferry Terminal. Our destination: the Venetian Macao-Resort Hotel — home to the biggest casino in Asia.
It’s early February and the weather is still chilly. So a few sips of wine (at 8 am mind you) does us a world of good. The terminal is a mini-airport with its check-in lounge and the immigration counters. We breeze through. On board there is breakfast and free beer as well. In 30 minutes we reach the Taipa terminal (Macao and Taipa are twin islands connected by a bridge) and a sedan is waiting to take us to the Venetian. We feel rich!
On the way our driver tells us, what we already know. “This is a big hotel.” Oh yeah? “We are from India,” we shoot back. “Our cities are bigger that your country, so we know what big is. “The driver just smiles. Soon we know why.
A hotel or a town?
Is the Venetian big? It has 3,000 suites — it is an all-suites hotel. It has lobbies on all four corners. We enter through the West Lobby and are promptly presented with a map of the hotel! A map?
We are told this is essential to keep ourselves from getting lost. The hotel is divided into districts and road signs help me find my way to the Marco Polo District and then onto St. Mark’s Square. My suite is on the 15th floor of the North Block overlooking the golf course. Each of the four blocks has 20 floors and each floor has over 100 suites of varying sizes. The Royal Suite, where I am staying, is around 1,000 square feet in size, about the same size as my entire apartment in Mumbai.
And this is one of the smaller suites! Is the Venetian big? You bet! I am already done with breakfast but a few cold cuts and fruits will do me no harm. A wise man once advised me to have my calories in the morning so I can use up the energy during the day. I listen to wise counsel.
But pretty soon, pushed by my friends who it seems want to buy out every shop, we head to the third level of the hotel which houses over 350 stores, among them some of the best-known brands from the world of fashion. From Zara and Fendi to LV, Armani, Prada and Chopard — they are all vying for attention. “Hah,” I tell myself. “This is like Palladium!”
No but it isn’t. I pick up an Armani watch for myself, and a Zara jacket for my wife, and it costs me a little over half the price I would pay in Mumbai. “Import duties,” whispers my friend. I get it. “Quick! Pick up a few more stuff,” a voice whispers in my ear. But no…I am convinced by that other voice which says: “Save it. Use it in the casino and get rich.” Damn!
I look up for divine intervention. It’s 1 pm, but there’s something wrong with the sky. It’s already pale blue, as if the sun’s about to set. It takes me a while to figure out that the entire sky all around the hotel is artificial. This is to ensure that all through the day (and night) it is always the right time to shop. Eat and party, sip a drink or just go gamble.
It’s lunchtime and as we walk along food street, we reach a Portuguese restaurant called Madeira on St Mark’s Square. A gondola with a singing oarsman goes past, on his way to the “Bridge of Sighs”. Yes, Venice recreated brick by brick, inside the old Portuguese colony of Macao. Thank god they didn’t recreate the floods too.
The food is superb and by the time I am done with the roast lamb and the chicken, I am sleepy. I head for my suite since this is perhaps the only sleep I am going to get all night.
The bed is king size (since I am alone, I try sleeping in all possible angles) and for some reason there are two giant plasma TVs in the room. I dream of pocketing millions at the casino. Till my friends ring the bell and wake me up.
A glimpse of old Macao
We head out to the city for there is a lot more to Macao than the hotels. The old town, in fact, is fascinating. If we were here for a day more, we would have (in hindsight) spent an entire day here. Dotting the narrow, cobbled pathways are old Portuguese homes and a host of family-run restaurants — some dating back to Macao’s colonial past, while others set up by immigrants from mainland China who have come here in search of business.
We walk into a join that serves Chinese-Portuguese fusion food and the meal of braised pork and Chinese greens goes down surprisingly well with a bottle of Portuguese shiraz. Right next door, is Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, the main downtown thoroughfare in the southwestern part of the city. This is a popular shopping area and we do the touristy thing by picking up a few curios.
Next, we drive down to the Monte Fort, one of the best-preserved forts in Macao. While it can be seen from the main town square, we walk up to the ruins of St Paul’s, right next to the Fort. The St Paul’s Church we are told, was devastated by fire in 1835
The city has a few modern landmarks too, and our local guide insists that we see the Macao Tower. It was designed by Gordon Moller, a famous architect of New Zealand. The construction was finished in December, 2001, at the 2nd year anniversary of Macao’s freedom from the Portuguese.
Apparently one million people to visit this 1000-foot high tower every year. We get up on the Observation Deck and the view is super: a panoramic view of the Peal River Delta, the Macao Peninsula and the nearby islands.
Back at the hotel, our self-restraint finally gives out. Spread across 5,000 square metres, the casino here is teeming with people sitting or standing at each of the few thousand tables and slot machines. It’s nearing midnight.
After warming up with a few slot machine games and winning a princely sum of 11 HK dollars (Rs 77) I find myself at the roulette table, simply because the minimum bet here is just HK$25 (Rs 175). Soon, however, I realise that one really has a slim chance in guessing the correct number here (the dice is rolled on the roulette and one has to bet on any number from 1 to 36, hoping that the dice will stop at the chosen number. Poorer by Rs 700 but wiser, I make a dignified escape to the baccarat table at the other end of the hall. Here the minimum bets are higher (HK$100 for a single chip) but the game is simpler.
The banker lays the cards on the table and then a machine shuffles them for all the contestants. I lay my chips on the table and pray that my three cards add up to a higher number than those of the banker. Simple, right? So I think, too, when I begin winning. Within an hour I amass a thousand dollars (Rs 7000). I am tempted to go get some sleep. But no, it’s that voice again. And that pretty woman smiling at me from the other end of the table is not helping.
At 2 am, when I call it a day, my winnings are down to a measly Rs 750 and the lady with the thousand watt smile has vanished, probably with someone who has won a few hundred thousand more than me! Wiser but poorer, I bring out the crumpled map from my pocket. I do need directions for the one-km walk back to my room, even if it’s all inside the hotel. En route, I spot my friends singing, badly out of tune, and taking a gondola ride. I hop on. Singing improves your mood, they say. I give it a try.
We hop off at the North District, which is the closest to our rooms. But all that gambling has made us hungry. We find a dim sum shop and grab some food. On the walk back to the elevator lobby, we pass dozens of people sleeping against their suitcase. “They missed the last ferry back to Hong Kong. All the rooms are booked, so they are sleeping it off here. They will take the morning ferries back,” says an old timer who has missed the last boat more than once. A five-star resort that allows people to sleep it off inside?
“Sure, it’s large enough a place. Why do you think the rooms are priced so reasonably? Because no one stays in the suites at all here,” laughs another man, in a black suit. We paid a mere $ 500HK (Rs 3500) for the suite the size of my flat in Mumbai. In India any room this large in a hotel as luxurious as this one, would have cost nothing less than Rs 20,000 and probably I am being moderate.
Ah well, I still won a little, enough to pay for my next meal in Hong Kong before we catch the flight back to Mumbai. And so what if Ms-thousand-watts has vanished? I am just happy to finally plonk into bed. Bliss.
Make it happen
Getting there: Most leading airlines including a few Indian carriers fly daily from Mumbai to Hong Kong. You can fly to Macao from HK but take the ferry for a nicer experience.
What to see: The Venetian Macao is a landmark in itself and you can easily spend 24 hours seeing sights inside the hotel. But do head out to the city for a glimpse of colonial Macao and its Portuguese heritage as also the local Oriental culture. Don’t miss seeing the Monte Fort, the ruins of St Pauls, the A Ma temple or the tower. And yes, get a taste of local hospitality as you hop around and try some local grub.