Like many people, when I heard Macau I thought gambling. After all, flashy behemoth casino resorts like the Venetian, Grand Lisboa, Wynn and others attract those who make the ultra-short hydrofoil trip from Hong Kong not for Macau's lush parks and gardens but for the joy (or heartbreak) that awaits at the craps and baccarat tables. Then again, those non-gambler members of the family may find themselves ensconced with the masses who are mesmerized by glitzy sound and light shows where trees rise from the ground and transform through all four seasons in under what seemed like four minutes, dragons roil across a domed midnight sky of fire and ice, and the resident Cirque du Soleil troupe perform their aerial acrobatics in an otherworldly realm.
But, given the nature lover that I am, I sought out Macau's more serene side -- and found plenty of it. In fact, flora-draped parks and gardens are an easy walk or taxi from your hotel, wherever that may be because this peninsula -- and its two tiny offshore islands -- all on China's south coast, is petite. So small, in fact, that a local told me a rush hour traffic jam is when it takes 15 minutes to get home.
During my five days in Macau, these are some of my many eco-adventures:
1. Camoes Garden -- Dedicated to Portuguese poet, Luis de Camoes, this garden is coated with dense foliage, including some towering Ficus trees with impressive buttress roots. Despite the sweltering heat, I found plenty of shade under the tree canopies. It's worth wandering around the meandering paths here to find locals performing tai chi exercises with brightly colored fans as well as those walking barefoot along an ultra-rough pebbled trail as a form of reflexology. (Some people find it better than a traditional foot massage.) Other residents meditate atop giant boulders while small groups of men enjoy card games in a gazebo.
2. Guia Hill -- Despite temperatures soaring into the high 90s and humidity feeling like it was over 90%, I didn't want to miss walking along the shaded 1.2-mile jogging path that encircles Guia Hill, Macau's highest point and home to China's oldest coastal lighthouse. I tackled the path after 5 pm on a weekday and found plenty of joggers and walkers -- some sans shoes -- sharing the path which still felt serene. Along the way are spots with panoramic city views as well as side trails leading either up towards the lighthouse or down to an adjacent park, Flora Garden.
3. Flora Garden -- I rushed past the zoo, cable car and aviary to check out the less tourist-laden sections of the park. Instead, I climbed steeply up the many-tiered park to find secluded alcoves, belvederes and a narrow stone path surrounded by dense foliage that leads eventually to the main jogging path around Guia Hill.
4. Lou Lim Ieoc Garden -- Anyone who loves landscape design will enjoy wandering this classic Chinese garden complete with a moon gate, placid water features, winding paths and dozens of rugged and oddly-shaped stones pockmarked with holes -- some allowing you to climb stairs above it all or penetrate into shallow grottoes. One section of a pond had voluminous lotus leaves coating its surface. This property is also the site of arts and crafts exhibitions -- when I visited on display was a calligraphy exhibit.
5. Dr. Carlos D'Assumpcao Park -- Just steps from my hotel along the harbor, the MGM Grand, I found a small rectangle of peace. Early Sunday morning, I strolled along the paths that bordered and crossed over a pool where lily pads floated, and then continued along a straight avenue lined with shade trees. Nearby, local men and women practiced their slo-mo tai chi choreography.
6. Carmel Gardens -- Located on Taipa Island, these gardens are named for the pastel yellow painted church, Our Lady of Carmel, a neo-classical building sitting at one of the upper gardens. Here I found dozens of blooming flowers, palms and conifers as well as a flora-covered pergola. Then I walked a narrow path down to a lower garden where a couple of men were planting and weeding. These gardens are especially delightful for the offshore bird sanctuary as well as the five restored mansions that have been mostly turned into museum pieces that provide a window into Macau's past.
7. Seac Pai Van Park -- On Coloane Island I spent time walking the main Coloane Trail that looped around the upper reaches of the park. Though I was told that it'd be difficult to find my way given that the trail signs are in Portuguese and Chinese, that I'd find myself alone on the trail because it was noon on a weekday, and that the heat would be unbearable at this time of the day, I had no trouble. Not only that, but walking this path was one of the highlights of my trip. Yes, I met few people along the path that's about 5 miles long. But the handful of folks I ran across were all hiking the same level path and all were helpful when I showed them my map. In addition, all trail intersections are carefully marked -- it's hard to get lost. Plus, if you were the least bit confused, you could walk up (not down) and you'd find yourself at the A-Ma statue set atop the island's highest point. (From there you can walk the paved path down or see if the free shuttle bus is running back to the main road.)
Don't miss the informal arboretum at the start of the trail where all the trees -- whether laurels, soapberry or tropical ornamental -- are labelled with Latin names for those with botanical interests. The trail is dotted with perfectly placed pagodas and benches to rest, gaze at the views of the beaches or waters far below or just relish the serenity. Something I found at all these parks and gardens.