Coloane: Macau Beyond the Casinos
Everyone knows Macau’s reputation as a high-roller’s paradise. Thanks to its many casinos and its relentless promotion of gambling tourism, it’s now the second richest place on earth. The International Monetary Fund predicts it will top the list by 2020. It’s also the most densely-crowded territory on the planet.
The Portuguese ran Macau for centuries and legalised gambling in the 1850s. But the modern gambling boom began after the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1999. China ended the monopoly that Hong Kong businessman Stanley Ho had on gambling, and casinos began popping up like mushrooms.
But there’s another part of Macau that many people don’t know about. And for senior travellers, it provides an unexpected and refreshing respite from the teeming casino and shopping strips.
Coloane used to be Macau’s outermost island, separate from the more developed island of Taipa. That changed in 2005 when a reclaimed area of land, known as Cotai, turned the two islands into one.
Cotai quickly became a busy casino and tourism belt rivalling Macau’s peninsula, which is on the Chinese mainland and is the most developed part of the territory.
Despite losing its geographical independence, Coloane has retained much of its old charm. It seems far away from the glitz of Cotai. This will no doubt change, given Macau’s population pressure, but for now it’s still the territory’s green lung, an unhurried place that remains steeped in history, both Portuguese colonial and Chinese.
Buses run regularly to Coloane but unless you’re carrying only an overnight bag, it’s probably easiest to take a taxi.
There’s not a lot to do on Coloane, and that’s really its attraction. It’s hilly and largely rural, and there’s plenty of greenery. It has several hiking trails with views of the hills and sea. There’s a golf course too. But most of all, it’s a place to unwind.
Its main settlement, Coloane village, is a sleepy little place on the southwestern coast overlooking China’s Guangdong province. Spending time exploring it is one of the pleasures of visiting Coloane. It still has a Portuguese flavour, with its narrow lanes and old houses, and it’s pleasing simply to stroll along the waterfront.
If it takes your fancy, a heritage walk leads you to several of the village’s most memorable buildings. These include four temples; the oldest, the Tin Hau Temple, was built in 1763 and has a large statue of the Chinese sea goddess A-Ma, also known as Mazu.
In the middle of the village you’ll find the Chapel of St Francis Xavier, a tiny church the Portuguese built in 1928. Some say its baroque design - a distinctive yellow and cream façade with bright blue doors (see header photo) – reminds them of Goa in India. There’s another link too: St Francis Xavier is buried in Goa, while a relic believed to be one of his arm bones was kept in the chapel for some years from 1978 before being moved elsewhere in Macau.
The chapel also once held the bones of Japanese Catholic priests crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 (the bones were later moved to a Macau museum) and the chapel still draws Japanese Christian visitors.
In the small square outside the chapel is a monument to a local victory in 1910 over pirates, who used the island as a stronghold in the days when Macau was a centre of trade between China and the West.
Coloane has two main hotels, both promoting themselves as places to enjoy peace and quiet. The Grand Coloane Resort, formerly the Westin, is a comfortable seaside hotel designed with couples and families in mind. Its spacious rooms have views of the sea and the hotel gardens. The hotel runs a regular shuttle bus service to and from Cotai and the peninsula.
The Pousada de Coloane is older (it was there when I first visited Coloane in the 1970s) but has been renovated and has large, comfortable rooms. It stands on a hillside a short walk from the sea. You can walk to the village too, or if you prefer, climb the stairs from the pool to the main road, where buses run in both directions: to the village, and to Cotai and beyond.
There are several good eating places to choose from. The best-known is probably Fernando's, near Hac Sa beach, which has been serving Portuguese dishes for more than 30 years. It’s popular and doesn’t take reservations, so you may have to wait your turn.
And if it’s Macau’s well-known Portuguese egg tarts that you’re after, drop into Lord Stow's Bakery in the village. Its egg tarts are considered the finest in all of Macau.