Macao — 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 Macao 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 Macao, most of them taking side trips from Hong Kong, and Macao is building luxury hotels with entertainment and world-class shopping in hopes of increasing those numbers. Macao may not be Vegas, but it does have history and a certain Chinese-Portuguese exotica.
I arrived in Macao three days after the September opening of the $1.2-billion Wynn Resort and Casino, the 22nd casino here. Stephen Wynn, chief executive and board chairman, was on hand for the festivities, which featured a shower of fireworks to the accompaniment of a Frank Sinatra recording of "Luck Be a Lady."
Wynn (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 Macao, 40 miles from Hong Kong on the southeastern coast of China.
Since 1999, when Macao 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 Macao, 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. (My worst culinary adventure: pickled pig's ear, gray, glutinous and crunchy.)
Last year, the historic center of Macao 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.
Macao'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 Macao -- gleaned largely from old movies and such -- as a crime-riddled den of iniquity. After four days here, I had quite a different image.
Macao 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 boasts 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 plush suites for high rollers. The casino is so successful that it paid for itself in its first year. Now 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 Macao shed its image as a day-trip destination.
Development of 197 acres on the Cotai Strip, projected for completion by 2009, will give Macao 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 Macao, four hotels with casinos, including MGM Grand (opening next year) and Sofitel are planned or under construction. And at Fisherman's Wharf, a 72-room Victorian-style boutique hotel called Rocks is to open next month.
Lawrence Ho, son of Stanley, is an investor in the Cotai Strip's City of Dreams, a multi-hotel-gambling-entertainment complex that will feature an underwater casino.
Meanwhile, older hotels with their smoke-filled casinos are being refurbished to meet the competition and retain their Chinese clientele. Just across the street from Ho's garish 1970s Lisboa is construction of his Grand Lisboa, a 44-story, lotus leaf-shaped tower.