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Macau's Islands Provide a Relaxing Getaway : Away from the lively peninsula life, Taipa and Coloane offer rest and relaxation.

March 22, 1992|By ROGER CATLIN | HARTFORD COURANT

MACAU — If Macau is the place to go for a Hong Kong getaway, the outlying islands of the Portuguese settlement are the place to really unwind.

The Taipa and Coloane islands dangle like alluring earrings from the lobelike peninsula of Macau.

While most visitors stay on the main peninsula, where the garish tower of the Lisboa Hotel and its casino is the attracting beehive, it is on the islands that the pace truly slows and relaxation begins.

The 1.6-mile causeway bridge to Taipa, the first of the two islands, begins at a busy traffic circle across from the casino. Many recommend renting the inexpensive Mokes, a cross between a Jeep and a Go Kart. They look like they're fun to drive all around the hills and shoreline, but they also mark you as a tourist as much as a funny hat would. We opted for the bus.

Taipa, especially the side facing Macau, is abuzz with development. The most prominent edifice on the island skyline is a Hyatt Regency. But as the winding shoreline drive continues, more traditional sites, such as the Pou Tai Un Temple and the Four Faces Buddha Shrine, appear in this area, which is 500 years older than Hong Kong.

Once you've crossed the 1.4-mile bridge to Coloane, the second island, the modern hotels drop from sight and the land's agrarian nature, which has sustained settlers for years, becomes prominent.

Rubbing elbows with the other bus passengers, many of whom are students at the University of East Asia in Taipa, is the kind of experience that allows you to feel the life of Macau. But unfortunately for my wife, Diane, and me, we found out on our trip last year that it allows you to experience the language barrier, too. The bus driver knew no English, and by the time we reached the back side of Coloane Island where our hotel was, none of the remaining passengers did, either. Armed with just a crude guidebook map, we made our best guess about where to get off the bus and ended up walking a mile back. But that had its delights.

After the busy roadsides of Hong Kong and the 24-hour casinos of Macau, the isolation of Coloane is a relief. Take a stroll and you may sight a Moke every five minutes or so, then the last bus perhaps. Every so often you pass an outdated six-foot roadside sculpture of a soda bottle of Coke or Fanta, with the amusing and succinct message (in Portuguese): "Bebe Coca-Cola." It would be a kitschy '50s collectors' item in the United States.

Our hotel d, the Pousada de Coloane (suggested to us by friends), was about as far from the hubbub of Macau as you can get. Set on the Choc du Van beach, a sandy cove where the murky water from the China Sea laps onto the shore, it bills itself as the only beachfront hotel in all of Macau. Its view of the sea and the spike-peaked mountains of the Chinese mainland beyond stir the imagination. For just that reason, patrol boats keep watch for illegal crossings.

An overcast sky during our visit made the water seem darker, but it didn't dissuade the occasional lone swimmer from taking the plunge into the midwinter cold. We reserved time in the sauna at night and seemed to be the only hotel guests to do so.

After dim sum daily during travel in Asia, the Portuguese-influenced menus of Macau are a refreshing change. You can enjoy a fresh green salad with a bottle of Portuguese red wine, in preparation for the main course. Another Portuguese favorite is caldo verde , literally translated as "green soup," made with mashed potatoes and green vegetables, typically kale. Olive oil flows easily and is often left at the table with the wine; the oil is a special ingredient with the Portuguese sausage and the bacalhau, or codfish.

Travelers who miss fresh-baked bread can delight in the continental bread rolls. There is a kind of food native to the territory: African chicken, as served at the outdoor table of Henri's Gallery, along the Macau harbor shore on the Avenida da Republica, is grilled with hot spices. Another preparation, Galinha a Portuguesa, is chicken baked with potatoes, onion, eggs and saffron. Henri's also specializes in garlic prawns, spicy prawns and prawns fondue. If you must, there is also Chinese food on the menu.

The Bela Vista, one of the most celebrated restaurants, with its towering views of the surroundings, was closed for renovation during our visit, but finding other recommended restaurants provided unexpected fun.

GUIDEBOOK

Calling on Macau

Getting there: There are more than 100 scheduled daily sailings each way between Hong Kong and Macau, at rates of about $5-$20 round trip. Jet-propelled hydrofoils are fastest (about 55 minutes) and the most comfortable.

Where to stay: There are about 16 hotels, with rooms running from about $50-$200 a night.

For more information: Contact the Macau Tourist Information Bureau, P.O. Box 1860, Los Angeles 90078, (213) 851-3402. Best guidebook is from Lonely Planet; includes bus routes and great maps.

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