Macau: A mix of Cantonese culture and Portuguese heritage, all played out against a Las Vegas backdrop

It's a rough ride on the flimsy jetfoil which runs between Hong Kong to the tiny peninsula of Macau. And I wonder whether I'm still feeling the effects of the crossing when I clap eyes on a 40-metre high plastic volcano complete with pyrotechnic eruptions. It's flanked by an ersatz Venice Duomo, a concrete Colosseum and a replica Portuguese plaza. This is Fisherman's Wharf, the theme park which opened in 2005 to welcome new arrivals from the ferry terminal. It was seen as a way for the Chinese to put their stamp on Macau – the first European colony in China to be founded. In 1999 it was the last to be given up when it was wrested away from Portuguese administration after 450 years of foreign rule. However, Fisherman's Wharf in Macau is no match for its namesake in San Francisco. The venture isn't an aesthetic success: visitors now have to head a little further inland to see the bricks and mortar of the city's Portuguese heritage.

The old town is a labyrinth of cobblestone streets that converge at Senado Square, a baroque plaza inlaid with beautiful swirls of black and white mosaic tiles. Continental Europe's westernmost country meets the Orient. The square is surrounded by stalls selling pastel de nata (the best egg tarts I have ever tasted) and yuk-gon (strips of dried and sweetened pork). A walk up the main street takes you to the ruins of St Paul's church, which was designed by Italian Jesuits and built in 1602. It was destroyed by fire in 1835 leaving only the façade, so the industrious Macanese decided to prop it up – and there it remains, silhouetted against the sky. Just up from the church is a 16th-century fort; the short climb to the entrance is rewarded by an impressive row of cannons perched on the walls, and a stunning view of the city below.

I take a seat in the courtyard of Ristorante Platao, just off Senado Square, and order a glass of what turns out to be very acceptable Portuguese wine, and a meal of excellent curried crab baked in its shell.

Once fed and watered, I'm ready to get down to business. In Macau, this means gaming. In China, whole families will make a point of placing bets around the lunar new year so that they know what fortune has in store for them. However, gambling is banned outside this enclave, so millions of Chinese head to Macau to indulge. In 2001, Macau's gaming laws were liberalised, allowing overseas companies to set up here. The developers immediately arrived, bringing Vegas razzmatazz and an array of casinos with them.

At the Wynn Macau, Abba's "Money, Money, Money" blares out from unseen loudspeakers as four-storey high plumes of water and fireballs pulsate and writhe in time to the music. Every quarter hour, 200 water nozzles, 800,000 gallons of water and 1,000 coloured lights begin a choreographed display to show tunes selected by the US gaming mogul Steve Wynn.

The lobby buzzes with busloads of Chinese tourists. I'm joined at the concierge desk by a vision in sequin-trimmed jeans, a diamante-encrusted red T-shirt and a gem-studded fur coat. The dress code is flashy: if you have money here, you flaunt it. Many of the women are dressed in red (considered lucky) and there a few rakish hats in a variety of colours, notably excluding green. (Green hats are the height of bad fortune here; they suggests that the wearer has been cuckolded.)

I spend some time with the concierge, cribbing up on the customs of my fellow gamers. Numbers are hugely important: it's thought that they can determine a person's fate. Four is unlucky, as it sounds like the Chinese word for death; many hotels don't have 4th or 14th floor as a result. Seven can also signify death; one can mean loneliness; and 58 sounds similar to "won't prosper" in Cantonese. On the other hand, three, six, eight and nine are linked with good fortune.

Will the credit crunch hit Macau hard? Las Vegas is certainly having a tough time, so it's possible that its eastern equivalent will struggle to keep up the glitz and the glamour in 2009. In the Chinese calendar this is the year of the Ox, when the horoscope is all about diligence and hard work. Then again, the number nine is linked with good fortune; perhaps I should try my luck after all.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there

The usual approach to Macau is to fly to Hong Kong, served non-stop daily from Heathrow by Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk ), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathapacific.com), Qantas (0845 774 7767; qantas.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; virgin-atlantic.com).

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemy footprint.travel).

Frequent jetfoils link Hong Kong and Macau. Turbojet (00 852 2859 3333; turbojet.com. hk/eng) runs every 15 minutes from 7.30am until midnight daily and costs from HK$134-168 (£12-15).

Staying there

The Wynn Macau Hotel & Casino, Rua Cidade de Sintra, Macau (00 853 2888 9966; wynnmacau.com). Doubles start at HK$2056 (£183), room only.

Eating there

Ristorante Platao, 3 Travessa de Sao Domingos, Macau (00 853 2833 1818; plataomacau.com).

Fisherman's Wharf, Avenida Da Amizade, Macau (00 853 8299 3300; fishermans wharf.com.mo).

More information

00 853 2833 3000; macautourism.gov.mo

Go against the grain to find a heavenly escape

The place to start reading a guidebook is the end. I don't mean the index (though the start of this one is appetising enough: "activities 86-98; see also bungy jumping, canoeing, cycling, diving...". Nor do I suggest you commence with the practicalities that some travel-guide publishers consign to the latter part of their books. Once you are sitting comfortably, where you should begin is with the last geographical page.

The latest edition of Lonely Planet's Bali and Lombok (£14.99) is an excellent example. Page 326 recommends you should "avoid staying overnight" in Labuhan Lombok, which some will regard as a challenge; on your way out of town, "look out for the giant mahogany trees about 4km north of the harbour". And if you keep going until the end of the page, you will find yourself in Heaven.

"The road to Heaven is pretty terrible", the authors warn, but it certainly looks worth the journey. "Heaven on the Planet" is a resort comprising a scattering of chalets among the cliffs; at sunset, "the rippled bay flashes hot pink then melts into a deep purple before the light fades and stars carpet a black dome sky". Ooh er; another arak (palm-sap spirit), please.

Moderation in all things is a commendable maxim – but the exception is travel. By picking up the trail from where the guidebooks end, you step into the unknown. Scary, yes; uncomfortable, sometimes; profoundly rewarding, often.

Basel airport is a singular place. For a start, it is ostensibly a Swiss airport surrounded by French territory, and connected to Switzerland's second-largest city by a "land corridor" (with high, barbed fences as I learned to my cost earlier this year when I found myself on the wrong side with a flight to catch). If, though, you can make a more conventional approach to the airport, you will quickly find yourself in a departure lounge where you can work out what sort of traveller you are.

This is the only airport I know with an exhibition of sand from around the world – all within a glass cabinet adjacent to the bureau de change). It takes you around the world in 95 neat piles of grains, from Abu Dhabi (grey, granular) via Mauritius (creamy powder) to Aruba (gleaming), not forgetting Bali.

The beach in Thule in Greenland looked identical to that of Phuket, but I can guess which gets most sunseekers. You can even make same-country comparisons; Benidorm's sand looks a lot gentler and more appealing than that of Palma de Mallorca.

The entry from Death Valley looked, well, dry and lifeless, while the most striking is the grainy ochre from the Namib desert.

Most appealing, though, is a split decision between the pure gold of the Tunisian Sahara and the pale pink sand from the Baie des Trépassés at Pointe du Raz, the "Land's End" of France in Brittany.

So, what kind of traveller are you? Are you content to assimilate the quartzite diversity of the planet and then obediently board your easyJet Airbus. Or are you tempted to head straight for Greenland, however heavy the Thule surcharge, to feel that exotic sand between your toes?

This time, I am chastened to admit, I obediently boarded the London plane. But I am already planning a trip to Heaven – and beyond.

Simon Calder

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