Top-notch hotel under $100: Macau's best boutique stay

Top-notch hotel under $100: Macau's best boutique stay

The student-run Pousada de Mong-Há is so pleasant one guest has never left ... for more than 20 years
Pousada de Mong-Ha's atrium
Less than $100 with good service in Macau? You're dreaming -- unless you're at Pousada de Mong-Ha.

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 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 walking 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.

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Pousada de Mong-HaWarning: You may not want to leave.

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.

Check in any time you like, but you may never leave

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,” she says. "He loves it here and he’s part of the family."

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 byproduct of its main function, which is as Macau’s training hotel for its booming hospitality industry.

Lo says the hotel’s laid-back atmosphere is an essential part of the school’s curriculum: a place where hospitality students can acquire skills before taking up jobs in the high-powered casino hotel industry.

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Pousada de Mong-Ha's directorPousada de Mong-Ha director Helena Lo (sitting): No matter what, you must not forget to smile.

“In casino hotels the pressure is really high, they operate very quickly, and sometimes they forget to smile," says Lo. "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 5 a.m. -- 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 seat belt.

What to do, eat and see in the neighborhood

In the center of Macau, Senado Square is the place to start exploring the historic town on foot.

While the square is a surging mass of shoppers at almost anytime of the week, its colonial-era architecture -- including a 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, you move up the hill to the Ruins of St. Paul’s.

Pousada de Mong-Ha's suiteThe government-run institution isn't allowed to advertise, but word of mouth has made it popular.

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.

The street that runs next to Senado’s only McDonald’s leads to the Ou Mun Cafe (Block A, 12 Travessa de S. Domingos, Avenida de Aimeida Ribeiro; Mon, 11 a.m.-7 p.m, Tue- Sun, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.).

A favorite haunt of the local Portuguese community, it serves great coffee and toasted sandwiches.

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Jardim Luís de Camões park has a beautiful garden named after the territory’s national poet, where locals can be heard practicing the erhu (a two-stringed Chinese violin) out of earshot of the neighbors.

Easily missed in the warren of streets behind Senado Square is the Lou Kau mansion (7 Travessa da Se; 9 a.m.-7 p.m.), 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, 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 wouldn't 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.

Pousada de Mong-Ha's bathroomThe hotel in Macau's inland area retains its Portuguese style.

Be quick or they may be booked 

The only thing you’ll have to be quick about is booking into the student hotel before it becomes an international hit.

It's already gained glowing reviews from Michelin, the Louis Vuitton cityguide and won the Travelers’ Choice Award from Tripadvisor in 2011.

It’s number three on the latter's list of best bargain hotels in China in 2013.

As a government-run institution, the Pousada de Mong-Há isn't permitted to advertise, but the hotel seems to have built a strong brand simply by being professional and friendly.

“Word of mouth,” says Lo. “It’s very powerful.

“We have to increase this a little bit in the near future because the rate is getting too low. 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 offer in Macau -- that's especially true with the special administrative region of China already sagging under the sheer weight and number of 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,” says Lo.

Pousada de Mong-ha, Colina de Mong-ha, Macau; +853 2851 5222; rate from $77

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