It’s a little known fact that there are really two Macaus.
One is the high kitsch of Asia’s Las Vegas with its musical fountains, mind-blowing scale facsimiles of Venice and its frenetic gambling hordes.
The other is the gracious Portuguese backwater of Cantonese-speaking lusophones, Chinese bird fanciers with caged finches in manicured parks and some of the most beautiful colonial architecture in the region.
By either careful design or fortunate accident (the casinos tend to hug the waterside where they’re within easy staggering distance of the ferries) both of these worlds are invisible to each other.
Sitting in tranquil gardens further inland near the historic Mong-Há Fortress is one of Macau’s best-kept secrets – the Pousada de Mong-Há.
As a hotel it’s well-appointed, understated and, as the training facility for Macau’s Institute for Tourism Studies, manned by squads of eager students.
While it might be a cliché to say you’ll never want to leave, hotel director Helena Lo says that one of the hotel’s guests, in fact, never has.
“We have 20 rooms here in total but in reality there’s only 19 rooms because one of our guests has been here for more than 20 years,” she says, sitting amid the Portuguese ceramic blue tiling of the boutique hotel’s dining room.
“He’s a Portuguese gentleman in his 80s and his company is paying a long-stay package.
He loves it here and he’s part of the family,” she told Lunchmag.
Just the breakfast of omelette, French toast and Macau’s ubiquitous Portuguese bread rolls is enough to keep most guests on the repeat list.
But running a great boutique hotel – arguably one of the best and most reasonably priced hotels in China – seems almost a by-product of its main function, which is as Macau’s training hotel for its booming hospitality industry.
Helena says the hotel’s laid-back atmosphere is an essential part of the school’s curriculum: a place where hospitality students can get down their chops before taking up jobs in the high-powered casino hotel industry.
“In casino hotels the pressure is really high, they operate very quickly, and sometimes they forget to smile.
What I tell the students is no matter what, you must not forget to smile.
“Here they learn everything that goes with running a real hotel; from dealing with difficult guests to the 24-hour demands of cleaning and providing for a hotel.
“My phone is on 24 hours a day to help them – sometimes I even get calls at 5am – but as you can see, the students really serve with all their hearts.”
That’s not hard in Macau where, after the slightly starchy anglophone world of Hong Kong with its hearty expat banker culture and English-style pubs, you’re immediately aware that you’re in a slower and more generous Mediterranean world.
The students at the hotel will bring you a cup of tea on the verandah of the hotel, let you clamber over the hotel’s roof and herb garden and, getting into the center of Macau, the taxi drivers won’t make you put on a safety belt.
After arriving at the hotel, get the cab driver to take you to Senado Square in the center of Macau where most of the historic town is accessible on foot.
While the square is a surging mass of shoppers at almost anytime of the week, its colonial-era architecture – including the preposterously imposing post office built in the 1930s but made to look a lot older – is deeply charming.
Follow the mosaic of cobbles past St Dominic’s Church, one of the most outstanding examples of Portuguese baroque architecture in the territory, and up the hill to the Ruins of St Paul’s.
This bizarre and evocative structure – built in the early 17th century by Japanese Catholics and burnt to the ground in 1835 leaving just the facade – is all that remains of the Jesuits’ first church in China.
While local cafes may have been pushed out of Senado Square by retail chains such as Benetton and Starbucks, the Macanese love of coffee, Portuguese tarts and marking time in cafes still lives on in the square’s side streets.
Take the street that runs next to Senado’s only McDonald’s to reach the Ou Mun Cafe.
A favourite haunt of the local Portuguese community, it serves great coffee and toasted sandwiches.
Later, take a walk through the park Jardim Luís de Camões, a beautiful garden named after the territory’s national poet, where locals can be heard practising the erhu (a two-stringed Chinese violin) out of earshot of the neighbours.
Easily missed in the warren of streets behind Senado Square is the Lou Kau mansion, one of the few wholly intact Qing dynasty residences in China and an architectural time capsule.
Built in 1889 by a Chinese merchant who made a fortune operating gambling facilities (plus ça change), the sections of the house look into internal open-air atriums that drain rainwater directly through stone pools in the floor.
The high ceilings and open-air plan would not look out of place in any modern architectural magazine and only the tide marks of moss and damp on the walls give any indication that the building is almost 125 years old.
Chances are, however, that once you’ve checked into the Pousada de Mong-Há, you’ll want to take the day at the kind of slow and easy-going pace that Macau demands.
The only thing you’ll have to be quick about is booking into the student hotel before it becomes an international hit.
It has already gained glowing reviews from Michelin, the Louis Vuitton cityguide and won the Travelers’ Choice Award from Tripadvisor in 2011.
This year it’s number three on its list of best bargain hotels in China in 2013.
As a government-run institution, the Pousada de Mong-Há is not permitted to advertise, but the hotel seems to have built a strong brand simply by keeping it professional and friendly.
“Word of mouth,” says Helena.
“It’s very powerful.”
“We have to increase this a little bit in the near future because the rate is getting too low,” explains Helena. “We have to keep up to date with the industry and remain competitive.
“We don’t want people to come simply because we are cheap.”
Normally a low room rate would signal the collapse of any amenity a hotel might enjoy in Macau, with the special administrative region of China already sagging under the sheer weight and number of coin-counting mainland Chinese tour groups.
But it seems, at least for the time being, most mainland Chinese tourists are willing to forego a cheap room rate in a well-run and tranquil hotel for proximity to the gaming tables.
“We get some mainland tourists – most of them come for the food and of course this number is growing – but in the end, we’re just too far away from the casinos,” Helena says.
Pousada de Mong-ha
Colina de Mong-ha, China, Macau