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Makin' It in Macau
The dice have been rolled, and the game is on. Macau is clearly playing to win in the "destination" stakes, especially with the billions of dollars and extensive planning poured into the area's pre-existing "strip" and the Cotai Strip (a landfill with ambitions).
However, even with gambling in place as an institution and a source of revenue for four decades, it may be a while before a big payout is available in this Chinese resort.
Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson and Stanley Ho (Macau's original "high roller" in the casino arena, as well as other Western-chic properties) are among the first allowed by the local government to place bets on Macau becoming a major gambling mecca on a grand international scale.
Certainly, James Bond (Roger Moore, in "The Man With The Golden Gun") can't be wrong, as he certainly followed international high rollers and other colorful characters to the exotic Portuguese/Chinese colony back in 1974.
Madonna even tried to try her hand at acting back in the '80s ("Shanghai Surprise").
While the hype machine for Macau is on full tilt -- thanks in great part to the efforts of gaming's aforementioned Holy Trinity (and rumor has it that other dashing figures, like Richard Branson, may want in, while Australia's James Packer is bringing his "City of Dreams" and first underwater casino to life) -- it has a long way to go before the shoe fits.
Venetian: The Sequel
During a recent visit, construction of the Venetian (or Venetian 2.0, as some people refer to it, as it dwarfs its Las Vegas parent to become a full-blown, self-contained entertainment city) was in full swing. It has since opened to acclaim.
The Wynn Macau, a "boutique" mini-me version of its Las Vegas parent, was open for business and equally elegant, right down to chic designer boutiques.
There are also beautiful, newly minted properties Macau can call its own. The Sands and the Grand Lisboa (which resembles a giant turnip until you get close to it and see the "leaves" revealing it as a lotus in bloom) are stunning on the inside. In the Sands' gaming area, sleek lines, appealingly modern furnishings and elegant color schemes with generous hints of red dominate (after all, red represents prosperity in many cultures) and draw you in.
The Grand Lisboa's entry is a gleaming ice palace of epic proportions, while its gaming areas are jewel-toned and comfortable.
However, on closer inspection, you may find yourself feeling a little bit like Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau did on their Vegas outing in the beginning of "Swingers." Even during busy times, the sound volume was so low you could perhaps hear a pin drop, relatively speaking.
While the chirpy chimes of the slot machines were at reserved levels, focused and extremely serious gamblers were clearly there for one purpose -- and it was not to ogle waitresses or be amused by the floor show (in the case of the Grand Lisboa, two Western-looking girls dancing freestyle to 1980s' music).
Older casinos, meanwhile, have a very old-school look to them, which in some cases is actually an asset. The original Casino Lisboa, which opened in the mid-'60s, clearly does look like a product of its time, down to the corn-cob-shaped tower. However, step inside, and you'll find that its interior has aged quite nicely, with spiral staircases, marble interiors, rich blue and black marble, and tons of museum-grade, decorative-arts pieces beautifully displayed in the lobby.
If anything illustrates Macau's "work-in-progress" vibe, it's the Star World Galaxy Hotel, brought to life by local hero Stanley Ho.
Walk in. On the surface, it certainly looks like Vegas and smells a little like it.
Tall, gorgeous women greet you in golden mini-skirt suits and fur-trimmed knee boots. If you arrive after 5 p.m., you may meet the resident Charlie Chaplin impersonator, a trio of mariachis, a troop of beauty "queens" or any combination thereof. The rooms are clean and comfortable.
However, there were some glitches that surfaced once one found his or her place in this Galaxy. Keys that needed rebooting; Internet connections that only worked in some rooms; an overly earnest male chambermaid who needed some help in understanding what "Do not disturb" and "Please come back later" meant; tricky bathroom sinks; no real celebrity presence in the entertainment realm, as of yet (though we heard that was coming); and, of course, several floors of very sedate gamblers.
That being said, most of the staff of the Star World, however, is warm and accommodating, to the point where you can't help but want to give them a reassuring hug and appreciate how hard they're working to bring their property up to the caliber of some of Vegas' better properties.
With the way they addressed our various problems, called for backup from co-workers and made conversation, you'll find yourself rooting for them to succeed individually and collectively -- and perhaps, wanting to come back to see how well they're doing as the "new" Macau comes into its own in a couple of years. Plus, the breakfast buffet and the made-to-order Asian noodle soups at their casual dining venue, Temptations, are fabulous.
Outside of the casino, there is much to do -- a mother lode of fascinating and gorgeous historical and natural sights, such as the Handover Museum (where other Chinese provinces commemorated Macau's return in 1999); the adjacent Grand Prix and Wine museums; the Maritime Museum; and the exploration of neighborhoods, ranging from the Old World (and very authentically) European charm of Senado Square, to the bustling neighborhood surrounding the "Red Market," where your dinner of choice is so fresh that it is literally living and breathing until you offer to pay for it.
Beyond the future destination that will be the Cotai Strip, it's worth venturing to Macau's other islands, Taipa and Coalone, to experience quaint villages that are a near-perfect hybrid of Portugal and China, sprawling temples new and old, and a jackpot full of naturally beautiful scenery that's Chinese art come to life.
And if you do get to Coalone, don't leave without a meal at the sublime Espacao Lisboa, the "baby" of Antonio "Tonio" Coehelo, one of the great chefs of Macau, who really does live up to the hype, as far as chefs go.
If you add Macau to an existing Asia trip and your time is limited, you can always experience the "world" at Fisherman's Wharf -- a place that is ironically so Vegas in its ambition to create a variety of entertainment environments that resemble other hot destinations around the world.
However, you need to balance it out with a tour of Macau's 17 UNESCO heritage sites and the museums, guaranteed to bring you back to earth in a lovely way.
An optimistic Stanley Adelson has been known to point out that, in five years, "instead of people saying Macau is the Asian Vegas, Vegas will be regarded as the American Macau."
With all due respect to Adelson -- and the hard work that he and Wynn are putting into their branches of the emerging magic kingdom (especially with that tenacious Jewish work ethic and knack for innovation that we all admire so much) -- if you factor out gambling or accept it for what it is, even as the productions get more polished, you should just allow yourself to like Macau for what it is at her core -- a place with 400 years' worth of great personality before the facelift.