The first time I went to Macau, I was 14, sullenly following my parents on a package tour. I remember the tour coach idling in front of Stanley Ho's famed Casino Lisboa, with its splashes of neon lights. I remember pressing my nose against the coach window, looking at the local men in brown jackets, trying to figure out who were professional gamblers or triad members. Such were the mystique and stereotypes from countless Hong Kong films in the 1980s.
More than 20 years later, I have returned to Macau for the Mid-Autumn Festival, with husband and two kids in tow, determined to explore the Chinese special administrative region on its - and my - own terms. Can you make a Macau trip without having a flutter in the casinos? I'm not a wagering woman, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that yes, yes, you can.
We make our base at the Hotel Sofitel at Ponte 16 (www.sofitelmacau.com, rooms from S$279), which overlooks the Inner Harbour with China on one side and Macau's old historic quarter on the other. The view from the hotel's club lounge on the 17th floor is breath-taking: A jumble of squat grey buildings sit like Lego bricks in the foreground while, in the distance, the fountainesque lights of the Grand Lisboa - the Lisboa's younger and flashier sister casino-hotel complex - sprout like the city's plumage.
For a different experience of the former Portuguese colony's famed historic centre, with more than 20 locations classified collectively as a Unesco World Heritage Site, we take a late-night walk on the eve of the Mid-Autumn public holiday to the lantern-strung Senado Square. As the summer heat rises and dissipates from the cobblestones, we pose for charming night shots in front of the yellow-and-green facade of
St Dominic's Church, Macau's oldest church dating back to the 16th century, at one end of the square - sans other tourists in our frame. (We would return the next day, in sunshine, to visit the free and fascinating Treasure of Sacred Art Museum, housed in the church's bell tower, which has about 300 artefacts related to the Roman Catholic faith.)
Our game plan for a gambling-free Macanese holiday involves visiting interesting museums, many of which are housed in sensitively restored buildings that show off the distinctive local architecture while giving a sense of life as it used to be in the former colony. My favourite is the Tak Seng On Pawnshop (396 Avenida Almeida Ribeiro, tel: +853-2835-7911, open: 10.30am to 7pm, closed first Monday of the month, admission: 5patacasor S$0.80). Established in 1917, the architecture and interiors of the pawnshop have been preserved and are open to those curious about the goings-on in a traditional pawnshop. My eight- and four-year-old sons have a ball of a time, taking turns to play pawnshop manager and patron, stamping pawn tickets with red ink and toting up prices on an abacus. There is something simple and unpretentious about the place, with no fancy multimedia or gadgetry, which captures the imagination.
While there are "must-visit" spots to check off one's list if one is on a whistle-stop tour of Macau, such as the iconic Ruins of St Paul's and the famed A-Ma Temple, a lesser-known, but possibly more peaceful and meditative sight would be Mandarin's House (10 Travessa de Antonio da Silva, open: 10am to 6pm, closed on Wednesday except public holiday, www.wh.mo). The huge, 4,000 sq m mansion of author-merchant Zheng Guanying is a thoughtfully restored example of a private, traditional Chinese residence.
From our hotel room, nightly, we can see the beacon of the Guia Lighthouse. Unable to resist its silent pull, we make our way to the light and its accompanying fortress on our third morning in Macau. Built around 1865, the lighthouse is said to be the first Western-style lighthouse in either East Asia or on the China coast. These days, the working light is off-limits to visitors (although we try to peek through the keyhole of its sturdy, double-padlocked doors), but the Guia Fortress is not. The 17th-century colonial military fort - erected after an attack from the Dutch - also has a small chapel, in which delicate frescoes of angels and kirin-lion hybrid creatures can be found. We do as the locals do and hike around the fortress, watching elderly couples feed doves before descending into the tunnels beneath, where old photographs and wax figures of colonial soldiers show what the fort was like in the past.
When night falls, head to the St Lazarus district, once the shelter of leprosy patients - hence its rather unpolitically correct Cantonese name of fongyantong, which means "crazy people hall". Touted by travel websites as a "true unknown outside of Macau", the district is now the not-so-secret go-to for those willing to go off the beaten path.
If you are there on a weekend, visit the new Gallery G32 (Rua De Sao Miguel No. 32, tel: +853-2834-6626, open: 2.30 to 5pm, weekend, cipa.org.mo/G32_eng.php), a former family home which has been painstakingly restored in a vintage style worthy of a Wong Kar Wai movie. Stay for dinner at the excellent Albergue 1601 restaurant (www.albergue1601.com), and make sure you have the Macanese Chicken, in a delicious, mild curry-like stew, Portuguese sausages, spicy African Chicken and soupy seafood rice. Prices are on the "splurge" side, but the romantic atmosphere and hearty fare make it a memorable meal.
Another highlight is the Taipa Houses Museum (Avenida da Praia, Taipa, tel: +853-2882-7103, open: 10am to 6pm, admission: 5 patacas, free for those under 12 or above 65, housesmuseum.iacm.gov.mo/engmain.html), across the bridge from Macau's centre, near the reclaimed Cotai Strip area where the new casinos glitter. Comprising five mint-cream green houses, these used to be holiday beach homes for high- ranking officials and Macanese families.
If you have time, like we did on a five-day, four-night trip, venture to the Macao Museum of Art (www.mam.gov.mo), which has an excellent display of calendar posters, featuring those rouge-cheeked, wavy-haired Chinese beauties hawking products such as perfumed water and cigarettes, as well as famous paintings on loan from French museums. Also check out the Macao Science Centre (www.msc.org.mo), designed by I. M. Pei's firm, Pei Partnership Architects, which has more than enough themed rooms to entertain curious kids.
On the last night of our trip, the husband and I venture out for a quick dinner on our own. We decide to cut across the Venetian's large gaming floor to get to the restaurant quicker. Watching the mainly Chinese punters huddled around tables or staring at computer- generated croupiers, I wonder at the appeal of this indoor, smoke- and adrenaline-fuelled activity. Then, helping myself to a free bottle of water from a complimentary heap near the jackpot machines, I pass through, ante-free and easy.