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A taste of Macau

With diamond rings on manicured hands (men included), my fellow passengers in the "super class" section of the hydrofoil boat appear to be native to this luxurious habitat. Women with glossy black hair and stiletto boots smile easily as their rotund companions accept food and drinks from smart dressed waitress.

St Domonic's Church
St Domonic's Church, a tired 17th
century structure in Senado square
in the Historic District. 

I, on the other hand, am here by accident; I intended to purchase an economy seat, but my inability to decipher Chinese characters landed me among the first class travellers.

I'm on my way to Macau, a special administrative region of China. A peninsula and two island connected by bridge lying across the Pearl River Delta from its bigger and better known Hong Kong, Macau was the first European colony in China when Portugal settled it in the 16th century and was also its last colony when handed back in 1999.

Louis Vuitton store
A lineup outside the Louis Vuitton store
at the popular Wynn Esplanada, a large shopping 

In the past decade, Macau has transformed into China's premier gambling destination. The Las Vegas of Asia isn't exactly my idea of a dream vacation. But I'm here on a mission of curiosity. Macau surpassed Las Vegas as the largest gambling destination in the world in 2006 and continues to grow in lockstep with China's dizzying economic rise. Today, gaming revenues from Macau's casinos are about four times those of Las Vegas casinos. My main question: How does wealthy Chinese upper crust relax on the weekend?

Soon I'm in a taxi passing entrances to towering casinos. The taxi driver, a friendly middle aged man with whom I share no language whatsoever, calls his English speaking son on his cellphone to translate.

 My thoughts are interrupted by him exclaiming enthusiastically "Qian!" He rubs his fingers together. "Ah! Qian means money," I say, and he nods happily. I've received my first mandarin lesson. Let's hope that when language fails in Macau, qian talks.

Gaming floor of the Venetian Resort
On the gaming floor of the Venetian Resort,
Which boasts more floor space than four
Empire State Buildings.

The next morning, I find none of the outlandish glitz and glam I expected. My hotel, located on a tree covered hill in the southern part of Macau's peninsula, is surrounded by three hundred year old colonial villas and churches. I follow a winding cobble stone street through a tunnel in a high, vine covered wall. On the other side I find myself in a brilliantly white fort built in 1629 to defend against pirates and hostile European traders.

The fort, now the Pousada de Sao Tiago hotel, is chaotic collection of stone walls, elegantly curving wrought iron terraces and spiral staircases. "This is one of the only places left where I feel the true old Macau," says Jose Leal, executive assistant manager of the hotel, as he seats me for lunch on a tiled terrace shaded by a hundred year old mulberry tree.

From a part of the terrace, there is a view of the majestic white Macau Taipa bridge, which connects Macau's peninsula to the Cotai Strip, the city's answer to Vegas' main drag. A decade ago developers reclaimed a 5.6 square kilometer section of swampland, fusing two islands into one and creating space for the Strip. But from this historical fort, Cotai feels worlds or at least centauries, away.

Next to me, Chinse tourists dig into their first course. I sip a coffee then a glass of pinot gris, a white wine, but the stream of dishes arriving at their table - lobster paella, rack of lamb, Iberico pork, foie gras - shows no sign of slowing. When I taste my own order, caldo verde soup with chorizo and olives, I immediately understand that my fellow tourists flock from Main land China not only to gamble but also for Macau's cuisine.

Macau's mix European and Asian food, with a dash of African spice, reflects its colonial history, explains Christine Sun, a twenty something local I meet later that afternoon in the peninsula's central district. Today is Christine's day off from her casino job and yet she's spending it chatting with tourists at the Macau Museum. "If you love Macau like I do, you work hard to show off its culture," she says.

When Portugal established Macau in the 1500s, the prosperous port handled most trade between China and Japan. However, after China ceded Hong Kong to the British in the early 1840s, Macau relinquished its trade dominance to its neighbor. By the late 19th century, the forgotten colony had developed a reputation for prostitution, violence and criminal - and, of course gambling.

To get a taste of that rough and tumble Macau, I walk towards down town but I keep getting sidetracked. I gaze at the ruins of the Church of St Paul, a four storey stone facade that was hailed the greatest Christian monument in the Far East when erected in 1602. I can't help but linger at the beautiful Senado Square and marvel at Children walking on stilts and dancing in elaborate costumes. The launch of my Asian gambling career will have to wait for tomorrow.

When China opened the gambling industry to competition in 2002, Hong King billionaire Stanley Ho set out to claim dominance by creating the most extravagant accommodation Macau had ever seen. The result? The dramatic and colorful Grand Lisboa, a 58 - storey golden lotus of flashing lights which marks the bull's eye of downtown Macau.

In the lobby thousands of crystals glitter from the ceiling, black, gold and ivory marble floors shine and pillars of gleaning brass are studded with red jewels. Kathy Wong, public relations coordinator for the hotel. Leads me to reserved elevators where exclusive guests make their way to the VIP reception desk for check-in. Their plushly appointed guest rooms feature full dining rooms and kitchens, remote controlled window shades Turkish steam baths and even an "in-mirror" television so guests can watch while fixing their hair.

I'm afraid to even sit down in such a room. But when Wong shows me to Don Alfonso 1890, sister restaurant to the highest Michelin starred venue in southern Italy, my mouth waters. I tell Wong that I'll take lunch.

Head sommelier Roberto Gallotto brings me the encyclopedic wine list, and I immediately realize that I'm in over my head. Seeing my deer - in - head lights expression, Gallotto laughingly pulls out an iPad and easily peruses the 8600 wines that give his restaurant bragging rights as having one of the largest wine lists in the world.

The lobby of the dramatic and  colorful 58-storey Grand Lisboa Hotel.
The lobby of the dramatic and 
colorful 58-storey Grand Lisboa

To attract the big spenders, casinos need prestige, explains Gallotto, recalling a guest who recently purchased a bottle of wine for HK$88,000 (about Rs. 5.98 lakh). "He bought the best vintage not because he knew what he was drinking but because he had guests and wanted to show them that he could afford it."

Across the Macau-Taipa bridge, the massive casino resorts on the Cotai Strip are testament to how much gambling revenue flows through this city. At the mammoth Venetian Resort, which boasts more floorspace than four Empire State Buildings, a young man wearing a black - and - white striped shirt, red sash and straw hat - an apparent nod to the gondoliers of Venice's canals - welcomes me into an opulent lobby with soaring arched ceilings adorned with Renaissance-themed murals.

People loudly betting, cheering and laughing crowd into one section of the casino. Melissa Chan, my guide and the casino's gaming shift manager, explains that they favor this area because images of red dragons, a symbol many Chinese people consider lucky, are disguised in the kitschy Italian carpet and ceiling.

But I'm not here to watch regular gamblers; my mission, after all, is to find out how the Chinese elite spend a weekend in Macau. So after a little prodding and a promise not to take photos, Chan leads me through three doorways guarded by intimidating men checking identification.

"These rooms are for our very special customers," She whispers, as we enter a sombre wood-panelled lobby with a well-stocked  bar where people lounge on red velvet couches. In adjoining small rooms that seem plain in contrast to the main casino, men and women quietly play baccarat at a handful of tables.

I ask how the casino attracts the big spenders. Chan purses her lips. "We can't tell you that." But if I wanted to experience how the real high rollers gamble, Chan advises, I'm looking in the wrong place. "Most people betting big want people to see it, so they play in the main casino," she says.

Outside the private gaming rooms, a swell of whoops erupts as a large man with multiple rings reveals his cards. He's playing a type of poker. The casino is abuzz with the story of how someone won a US$60,000 jackpot at very table the previous week.

In preparation for my own gambling debut I grab a pint of beer at McSorely's Pub, located next to the resort's Venetian Theater and I'm suddenly struck by the absurdity of this mock-Irish setting. Just a few Kilometers away, Coloane Village offers a glimpse of old world China, complete with mist-shrouded hills, incense offerings at the foot of banyan trees and squid drying on racks in the street. Yet people instead come to the Venetian's shopping mall to stroll alongside indoor canals and listen to fake singing gondoliers.

Of course, like most vacationers, those coming to Macau are here to escape real life. The vacationer allows his imagination to temporarily supersede the banalities of his own life. For a few moments, he is the luckiest guy in the casino, being oohed and ahed at by the crowd at the baccarat table.

I re-enter the casino and join uproarious group playing sic bo, a dice game. I ask middle aged man next to me the rules and he responds with a wide smile and fast Chinese I don't understand. Remembering my first night in Macau, I hope qian can get me out of this language fix, so I purchased HK$1000 (Rs. 6800) worth of chips. The man enthusiastically shows me how to place my chips on the board. I can bet on whether the sum of three dice will be small (between 4 and 100) or big (between 11 and 17), or on specific numbers or dice combinations.

Knowing the odds are against me I start with conservative bets, but soon I'm swept away by the drama of the game. Despite losing two plays in a row, my imagination is overruling the reality of the odds, and I feel as if I'm smarter than the dice.

Forty-five minutes after purchasing my chips I bet my last two - and lose, of course. The crowd groans. And the dealer speaks to me directly for the first time. With a smirk and a wink he says, "Thank you very much" in perfect English and he sweeps away my chips.

- Erin Millar