The name ‘Macau’ can be problematic because it refers to both what was originally an island (now a peninsula connected to mainland China due to deposition of silt around a sandbar) as well as the whole Special Administrative Region of Macau, a larger area consisting of the Macau Peninsula, the islands of Taipa and Coloane, and the land reclamation zone of Cotai, which joins these two islands. The Macau Peninsula and Taipa are joined by three long bridges.
Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China, a colony that had been in the hands of Europeans—in this case the Portuguese, who had been there since the early 16th century. The Portuguese arrived in China in 1513 and began using Macau as an anchorage in 1535. In the early 1550s they started to build sheds on the island, and a permanent settlement was established in 1557.
Taking the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, you cross a most romantic stretch of water, 65 kilometres wide, the Pearl River Delta on one side, the South China Sea on the other.
Unlike Hong Kong, which is slowly obliterating its British history, the Portuguese influence on Macau can be seen everywhere. Monte Fort, built by the Jesuits between 1617 and 1626 on the highest point of Macau, is an example of religious use of martial architecture. Along the walls, 32 cannon still sit in place. They were fired only once, in 1622, to fend off an attack by the Dutch.
Although the population of Macau is only around half-a-million, it covers only a tiny area—29 square kilometres—and it is the most densely populated region in the world. There are 18,500 people for every square kilometre (47,700/sq mile). Australia, by contrast, is 232nd most densely populated, with a density of 3 people/sq km (8/sq mile). Add to this an estimated 20 million tourists per year, and some days it gets quite crowded.
Most visitors to Macau go for the casinos. The world‘s largest casino market, the revenue is almost three times that of Las Vegas. The Venetian Macau, opened in 2007, is the largest casino in the world and the sixth largest building in the world by floor area.
But the standout for me—apart from the wonderful steep streets, the Monte Fort, the façade of St Pauls and the Senado Square—is the pasteis de nata, or Portuguese egg-custard tart. Small and bite-sized, these wonderful pastries can be found at many places throughout Macau. Bought hot from the oven and eaten on the steps of St Paul’s—wonderful.