As the ferry from Hong Kong pulled into the terminal slip, I peered through the rain-fogged windows at a huge, glowing red sign: "SANDS...

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MACAU — As the ferry from Hong Kong pulled into the terminal slip, I peered through the rain-fogged windows at a huge, glowing red sign: “SANDS.”

Farther along the waterfront, I could make out the looming hulk of a volcano — of the man-made variety, erupting daily on schedule.

In the taxi on the way to the hotel, I gawked at the towering skeletons of hotels and casinos that have turned Macau into a giant construction site. Not content with aspirations to be the Las Vegas of Asia, this Chinese territory — the only place in that huge country where casino gambling is legal — is betting that it can beat Vegas at its own game.

Last year, 100,000 Americans visited Macau (also spelled Macao), most of them taking side trips from Hong Kong, and Macau is building luxury hotels with entertainment and world-class shopping in hopes of increasing those numbers. Macau may not be Vegas, but it does have history and a certain Chinese-Portuguese exotica.

If you go


Getting there

From Hong Kong, TurboJetSeaExpress offers 24-hour ferry service from Hong Kong to Macau (about 50 minutes). Fares start at $

East Asia Airlines’ Heli Express has frequent service in 12-seat helicopters from the Hong Kong ferry terminal and the airport to Macau. Fares begin at $200.

Where to stay:

(To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 853 (country code for Macau) and the local number.)

• Wynn Macau: This new star has it all: casino, multiple restaurants, spa, salon, pool, upscale shopping arcade. Large, beautifully appointed rooms. Doubles from $333 (brochure rates). 986-9966,

• Mandarin Oriental: An in-city resort with pool, tennis, spa, small casino, good restaurants. My “deluxe city view” room faced a garish casino and was dated, but the Old World lobby is lovely. Doubles from about $178. 567-888,

• Pousada de Coloane Beach Hotel: Away from the casino madness, this hotel with pool on Coloane Island has 30 rooms in rustic Portuguese style. Restaurant and dining terrace serving Portuguese specialties. Doubles from $93. 882-143,

More information

Macau Government Tourist Office: 866-656-2228 or

This fall, the $1.2 billion Wynn Resort and Casino opened, the 22nd casino here. Steve Wynn, chief executive of the Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts, and longtime rival Sheldon Adelson (Las Vegas Sands Corp.) are at the fore of a casino-hotel boom here, although gambling — legal or illegal — has been going on for centuries in Macau, 40 miles from Hong Kong on the southeastern coast of China.

Since 1999, when Macau was handed over to China after 442 years of Portuguese rule, it has been a special administrative region, existing much as Hong Kong does under a “one-country, two- systems” policy.

East and West meet in Macau, where Portuguese and Chinese are the official languages for the 500,000 residents. Neo-classic colonial Portuguese buildings with balustrades and shutters borrow their brilliant reds and yellows from Chinese temples. Blue and white street signs are in Portuguese and Chinese. Visitors will find Chinese noodle shops, Portuguese restaurants dishing up bread soup and places serving Macanese cuisine, which borrows from both, adding African and Indian influences.

Made prestigious list

Last year, the historic center of Macau was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. There are temples and churches; the most recognizable sight is the ruins of St. Paul’s, sitting atop wide, grand steps. The church was built by the Jesuits in the 17th century but today is only a facade, having been largely destroyed by fire in 1835.

Macau’s contrasts make it intriguing. About a dozen square miles, including Taipa and Coloane islands, it is a pastiche of Portuguese, Chinese and Macanese cultures. And, yes, Vegas-like lights and action.

Like many Westerners, I had an image of Macau — gleaned largely from old movies and such — as a crime-riddled den of iniquity. After four days here, I had quite a different image.

Macau billionaire entrepreneur Stanley Ho had a monopoly on casino licenses here until 2002, when the government, intent on boosting tourism, began offering concessions to outside investors. Two years later, the Sands Macao opened what it claims is the world’s largest casino — 229,000 square feet on three levels, with 740 tables and 1,254 slot machines.

The Sands is not a hotel, but it does have 51 suites for high rollers. The casino is so successful that it paid for itself in its first year. Under construction is Sands’ 39-story Venetian Macao, which, with 3,000 suites, will be the centerpiece of the glittery Cotai Strip development on reclaimed land that connects Taipa and Coloane. The Venetian will be an entertainment destination, with gondolas and sampans plying canals, a theater just for Cirque du Soleil and a huge shopping arcade, designed to help Macau shed its image as a day-trip destination.

Development of 197 acres on the Cotai Strip, projected for completion by 2009, will give Macau 20,000 additional hotel rooms. Many marquee names have signed on, including the Four Seasons, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, Fairmont, Shangri-La and Intercontinental. On mainland Macau, four hotels with casinos, including MGM Grand (opening next year) and Sofitel, are planned or under construction. There are 12,000 hotel rooms in Macau; projections are for a total of 54,000 in a decade. With $5.3 billion last year in gambling revenues, Macau is poised to overtake Las Vegas, which in 2005 had total revenues, including from off-Strip sites, of $7.6 billion. In Macau, 95 percent of the casino action is at the tables, while in Nevada it’s slots — 67 percent statewide, 52.2 percent on the Las Vegas Strip. Asians, who are serious gamblers, made up 97 percent of the area’s 18 million visitors last year — more than half of them from the mainland.

The new Macau

A portent of the new Macau is the Wynn Macau, undeniably glamorous and elegant, in a Las Vegas-meets-Asia way. The lobby overlooks the gardens and pool. The shopping arcade is a who’s who of fashion: Prada, Dior, Bulgari, Fendi, Chanel, Armani, Piaget, Tiffany, Rolex, Louis Vuitton.

A tranquil spa upstairs offers an extensive treatment menu, including Thai massage and a caviar facial. There are four “serious” restaurants: Chinese, Japanese, Italian and the eclectic, 24-hour Cafe Esplanada. Then there’s Tryst, a disco that’s open most days until 7 a.m.

At that hour, I was more likely to be sleeping on my pillow-top mattress in my palatial room, which I had booked on the Internet for $205. It was done in shades of copper and gold, with flat-screen TVs in the bedroom and the bathroom.

Wynn Macau’s elegant, 100,000-square-foot casino, tucked discreetly in the back of the 24-story hotel, was packed opening week. I tried my hand at one of the 380 slot machines, which have symbols such as dragons, but never quite got the hang of it. I inserted a $100 Hong Kong bill (about $13) and up popped a staggering array of game choices, none of which I understood. So I just kept pushing buttons until my money was gone.

The old Macau

Macau is marred by ugly high-rise apartment buildings, many for low-income residents. But behind them are intriguing narrow, crowded streets with overhanging balconies.

One morning, I joined early shoppers who had come to the Red Market to buy the best giant mussels, eels and other live delicacies. In a food stall adjacent to the 1930s red brick building, a roast pig, stuffed and festively wrapped in pink paper, awaited pickup for a special feast.

I enjoyed strolling the cobblestone pedestrian streets around pretty Senado Square with its pastel buildings and 17th-century St. Dominic’s Church. I watched the faithful lighting incense sticks at the 16th-century A-Ma Temple (Macau residents are primarily Buddhist) and walked the streets of old Taipa.

I lingered at the wonderful Museum of Macau, which opened in 1998 on the foundations of 17th-century Monte Fort. Exhibits, including re-creations of old Chinese shops and facades of houses in different styles, depict Eastern and Western cultures over the centuries.