We visited Macau for the first time for ten days in late October.
We were looking forward to discovering this city where the casino revenues have exceeded those of Vegas for several years now!
Here are our impressions, advice and points of comparison with Sin City!
History and Location:
Located on the southern coast of China, Macau was a Portugese colony for over 400 years. Since December 20, 1999 it became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Today Macau is experiencing very rapid economic growth mainly through tourism and gambling. Indeed casinos revenues significantly exceeded those of Las Vegas, making Macau one of the richest cities in the world!
Macau consists of a peninsula and two islands: Taipa and Coloane. Three bridges connect the peninsula with the two islands.
Note that successive backfillings have now virtually transformed the two islands Taipa and Coloane into a single island called Cotai (contraction of the first syllables of Coloane and Taipa).
Macau lies on the western side of the Pearl River Delta across from Hong Kong, which is about 64 kilometers to the east. Many ferries make it easy to connect these two cities!
Macau has a humid subtropical climate and is subject to monsoons.
Summers are hot and humid while winters are cool and dry.
We were there in late October, the average temperature was 86 °F during the day and 80 °F at night. We were lucky not to see a single drop of rain during our stay!
The official currency is the Macau Pataca (also called “MOP”).
However all the hotel/casinos operate mainly with Hong Kong Dollar (“HK$”).
Macau International Airport is located on the island of Cotai just 1 mile from the Cotai Strip. A very comfortable situation, therefore, comparable to Las Vegas where you can reach your hotel in a very short time from the airport which is great after arriving from a long trip.
There are no direct flights between the US and Macao, to get there you have to make a stopover in China (Beijing, Shanghai), South Korea (Seoul), or Taiwan for example.
Another alternative to get to Macau is to fly to Hong Kong and then to board a Ferry (the Ferry Terminal is located in Hong Kong international airport). The Ferry takes less than an hour to reach Macau.
Most major hotels offer free shuttles. It is a very convenient service that is rarely offered in Las Vegas!
These shuttles can take you to/from your hotel to/from the airport, the ferry terminal, the historic center and also from one hotel to another.
Thus, each hotel has its own bus station with buses leaving every 10 or 15 minutes to various destinations.
We were able to use these shuttles on arrival in Macau to join the Sheraton hotel where we began our stay. We also used them between the Venetian and the Galaxy for example, and to the airport the day of our departure.
Many taxis operate in Macau; you can easily find one at your hotel taxi stand. Rates are very low compared to Vegas! The meter charge is MOP17.00 for the first mile, with MOP2.00 added for every 0.16 miles thereafter. There is a MOP3.00 surcharge for each item of luggage carried in the boot.
For example a ride between the Cotai Strip (Venetian) and the Macau Peninsula (Wynn) will cost you around MOP60 (approximately US$7.5 at the current exchange rate).
Beware though, if you want to take a ride between the Cotai Strip and the peninsula casino area, tell the driver to use the “Governor Nobre de Carvalho” bridge. Indeed it is the most central bridge — if he tries to take you to one of the two other bridges (as happened to us the first time) he would actually be taking the “scenic route”.
Another important point: cabs accept both MOP and HK$. However they will always give you change in MOP. Given the complexity of dealing with two different currencies, when you use them in Macau both currencies are considered equal (1MOP = 1HK$). But in reality the HK$ is actually worth more than the MOP (1MOP = 0.97HK$). So when you pay with HK$ and are given change in MOP you actually lose money in the process… Therefore, even though you will mostly be using HK$ to play or spend in hotels and casinos, it is advisable to always have a few hundred MOP on you either to pay for the taxis or small purchases in the city.
> “Macau Light Rapid Transit”:
Under construction, this modern skytrain will serve the Macau Peninsula, Taipa and Cotai, serving major border checkpoints such as the Border Gate, the Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal, the Lotus Bridge Border and the Macau International Airport.
The first hotel/casino resorts were built on the Macao peninsula.
Among them :
> The Lisboa
> The Grand Lisboa
> The Stardust
> The Wynn/Encore
> The MGM Grand
> The Arc
> The Sands
All of these resorts are grouped in the same area in the southeast end of the peninsula.
More recently development has accelerated on Cotai Island. A Las Vegas Strip inspired boulevard named the “Cotai Strip” was built along which the casinos have settled.
Already up and running are:
> The Venetian
> The City Of Dreams (Hard Rock hotel, Grand Hyatt, Crown)
> The Sands Cotai Central (Sheraton, Conrad, Holiday Inn)
> The Studio City (which opened October 27, 2015 during our stay)
> The Galaxy
Also under construction and well advanced are:
- > The Wynn Palace (Opening planned in 2016)
- > The Parisian (Opening planned in 2016)
- > The MGM Cotai (Opening planned in 2016)
One can also see many other projects in preparation, so a number of new hotels will be emerging in the coming years!
We stayed in three different hotels all located on Cotai: The Sheraton, The Venetian and The Galaxy.
We were generally happy with the following hotels:
- > The Sheraton offers a rather classical and sober style with a nice pool area.
- > The Venetian is a copy of the Las Vegas resort of the same name, but even bigger. We booked a Royal Suite which is the equivalent of the Luxury suite in Las Vegas. If you have never stayed at the Venetian, know that the advantage of their rooms is their roominess: there are separate sleeping areas and living room , sort of a mini suite.
- > The Galaxy was our favorite: a huge resort that includes 3 towers and a very large pool deck. It also has a wave pool with its own artificial sand beach, a lazy river, 3 waterslides and another pool with an artificial beach!
Rates are very reasonable for hotels of this standard. Like in Las Vegas the prices are low on the weekdays and higher on the weekends. For eight consecutive nights we paid around US$1100 or an average of US$138 per night.
Regarding your reservations(until a MacauJaunt.com site exists some day), here is our advice:
After comparing all possible booking options (either directly with the hotels or through third party bookers) we found a site which offers very competitive rates: CTRIP.COM specialized in Asian destinations. When we were doing our research this site was systematically cheaper than both the hotel websites and the other bookers.
Therefore, we booked our three hotel reservations through them and everything went very well. You can pay via Paypal or by credit card. Note that when you pay by credit card it is a little constraining the first time since we had to email them scans of our passports, credit card details and a signed payment authorization. However once you’ve done that, your credit card is then recorded in their system and the next bookings you make are easier.
The site offers a loyalty program; each reservation earns you points that can then be used to get discounts on future bookings.
The gambling scene is significantly different from Las Vegas. The most popular game around is Baccarat.
We will later publish a detailed article about this game but in a few words for those of you who have never played Baccarat, it is a very simple game: the dealer deals two hands called the banker and the player. The object of the game is to bet on the hand that you think will have the highest total value (the highest possible value in baccarat being 9). Only four types of bets are available, but the majority of players play on the two main bets which are the banker and the player bets. Winning a player bet pays 1/1 while winning a banker bet pays 0.95 / 1.
The main games available in casinos are:
- > Baccarat: Large sections of the casinos are occupied by Baccarat tables. Some hybrid baccarat machines are also available. Real human dealers deal cards with cameras filming all the action. Around them are dozens of individual desks with touchscreens. The player can sit at any desk and place his bets on the screen. Usually four tables are in operation and it is possible to choose the table on which you want to bet. Giant screens are also arranged on the ceiling to reflect the action on each table.
- > Blackjack: There are very few tables, usually fewer than ten per casino. The minimum bet we saw was 200HK$.
- > Craps: We didn’t see any craps table, however you can find electronic machines, the same ones they have in Vegas.
- > Roulette: A few tables can be found in every casino. The table minimum we saw was 250HK$ which can be played with 25HK$ chips. Electronic roulette machines are also available with lower minimum bets (5HK$ chips).
- > Slots: Many slots are available. However the offer is a bit different that what you can find in Las Vegas. Indeed the vast majority of machines use J/Q/K/A symbols, plus some Asian symbols. Other than that you will find a few “7” type machines and in the Sands group casinos you can play the “megabucks” machines that offer a common inter-casino jackpot (80MHK$ when we were there!).
- > Sic Bo: The most popular game after Baccarat. It is a game played with three dice, there are both real tables and electronic machines that look like the craps machines.
- > Video Poker: definitely not a good spot if you’re only playing video poker: we visited almost every casino and only found eight machines at the MGM and six machines at the Grand Lisboa! Moreover the pay tables were really bad.
- > Poker: A few casinos offer poker: the Galaxy, the Venetian, the Wynn, and the City of Dreams. The stakes are higher than in Vegas: the smaller table we saw was a 25/50HK$ (about US$3/US$6). If you are looking for detailed information about poker in Macau, Asian based poker website – Somuchpoker has up to date reviews of the poker rooms in the city: http://somuchpoker.com/poker-in-macau/
Note that unlike Vegas, casinos are smoke free since January 1st, 2012!
There is a fine of 600 MOP for smoking.
Nevertheless, several smoking rooms are available inside the casinos but these are generally quite small and very smoky which makes them rather unpleasant. As smokers ourselves we preferred going outside to smoke. The gigantic size of casinos often requires a long walk to get out!
Macau visitors are mainly Chinese for the moment. Therefore the majority of restaurants offer Asian food.
In the resorts you will find food-courts but do not expect to choose between a pizza, a burger or some pasta! 95% of the offer is Asian. Still it is diversified since you can enjoy a lot of different varieties : Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Indian…
Several renowned French chefs have now started opening restaurant in certain hotels and, if you look around, you can find some western-style restaurants, although very few. Even in the Venetian we only found two Italian restaurants!
One of the local specialties is the “Egg Tart” which is composed of a pastry shell containing a sweet, caramalised, egg custard. The best can be found at “Lord Stow’s Bakery”.
Sightseeing, attractions & shows:
- Macau has a historic center inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2005. You can visit museums, temples, a fortress…
We visited the ruins of St Paul that are the remains of a 16th century church in which there is only one facade left and “the Fortress of Our Lady of the Mount of St. Paul”. This 17th century fortress is located on the heights of Macau and offers nice views over the city.
- Macau has a historic center inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2005. You can visit museums, temples, a fortress…
While fewer than Vegas, there are still some attractions that are worth visiting!
The Macau Tower will probably remind you of the Las Vegas Stratosphere.
- It is possible to go to the top of the tower for a panoramic view of the surroundings for 135MOP per adult. Attractions are also available as well as the opportunity to do a bungee jump (highest one in the world!).
Studio City, the new resort that opened on 10/27/15 on the Cotai Strip offers two attractions: Batman Dark Flight which is a 4D cinema (150HK$ per adult) and a ferry wheel named “Golden Reel” which is actually part of the facade of the building!
- As in Las Vegas, just walking around the casinos is an attraction in itself. Particularly worth seeing: the Venetian gondolas, the Wynn free sounds and light show “Tree of prosperity”, or the Galaxy free “Fortune Diamond show”.
- We attended the show “House of Dancing Water” at the City Of Dreams.
This show was created by director Franco Dragone, known for his collaborations with Cirque du Soleil.
We were dazzled by the show, I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Macau! Having seen most of Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas, we found this one even more spectacular!
- The atmosphere is very different from Las Vegas!
You can easily imagine that Macau visitors are only here to gamble and nothing else!
The casinos are constantly crowded with people, but the rest of the infrastructure is rather empty. The numerous shopping malls are often deserted, so are the hotel pools! The aquatic park at the Galaxy that is beautiful and where we spent a lot of time does not attract the crowds! Each time we went there only a few dozen people were in this park that could certainly welcome thousands!
The Cotai Strip does not have, like its big brother in Nevada, bars or restaurants open directly onto the street. All the activity only goes on inside and you don’t find the party atmosphere that defines the Las Vegas strip.
Casinos do not offer bars, dancers or the fun-loving atmosphere like in Las Vegas. The only activity in the casino is the gambling and nothing else!
Macau or Las Vegas?
Despite a strong resemblance to Vegas when arriving for the first time on the Cotai Strip , you quickly notice many differences that separate the two cities.
Las Vegas is not just a destination for gamblers but also very focused on the fun and entertainment.
Macao seems at present to be staking everything on gambling. So the atmosphere is certainly less electric than in Vegas.
Our favorite remains Las Vegas, however Macau is worth visiting for its charms: certainly more of a relaxing vacation, an interesting historical heritage and a change of scenery for a Westerner!