One of the greatest legends in Macau’s history and hospitality scene is that of the former Bela Vista Hotel – the inimitable Grande Dame of the colony, handed back to the Portuguese in 1999 and presently the Residence of the Portuguese Consul General.
Perched on the edge of Penha Hill, and with gorgeous and expansive views over the former Praia Grande, or Esplanade, from way back in the days when the Sai Van, or “West Bay” Lake 西灣湖was actually a Bay opening out into the South China Sea, the Bela Vista has seen and partaken in much of its host colony’s recent history.
The building, with its ornate neoclassical design, was erected in 1870 as the private residence of a British expatriate couple. No doubt recognizing the potential of the gorgeous location and views, the couple turned it into the Boa Vista Hotel in 1890. Over the next century, it would shift hands multiple times, becoming a hospital, a school and reverting to a hotel more than twice. It acquired the name “Bela Vista” in 1936 – and that name would last till its decommissioning in 1999.
The weekend I arrived in Macau, the Bela Vista appeared to have just undergone some routine conservation and restoration work. From my vantage point along the Avenida da Republica, I saw that a small section of the façade was clad in scaffolding and that the building itself seemed to have acquired a fresh new coat of yellow paint. On a whim, I decided to see if I could not perhaps enter the grounds.
I discovered, to my utter delight, that I could!
The main gate had been thrown wide open by the contractors and workers that were still laboring to take down the scaffolding on site. Because it was lunchtime by the time I got to the building, no one appeared to be around. And so I slipped past those gates, picked myself daintily across the hundreds of piles of scaffolding, and went round to the front of the building.
There, I stood for some time, admiring those famous balconies with their arched balustrades, and imagining what the view must have been like twenty years ago from way up there. “Bela Vista” means “Beautiful view” after all, and I wished so hard I could have seen what that view had been all about.
Unfortunately, there was no way into the building, since the entire main entrance – which was at the back of the building facing away from the sea – was clad in canvas and clearly still in the midst of major restoration. I had to satisfy myself with the view from the Bela Vista’s front courtyard, which, I had to admit, was far less captivating than what it must have been in the old days when you looked out into the open sea, instead of Casino-land.
Nonetheless, I counted myself extremely lucky to have been able to step into the grounds of the Bela Vista. If it hadn’t been for the restoration works, I wouldn’t have had the chance. I knew then, also, that I would probably never see the building this close again.
All was not lost, however, with regards to my wish to experience the high life on the Bela Vista’s famous balconies. It turned out that one of Macau’s more contemporary five-star hotels – the Grand Lapa – had quite cleverly incorporated these famous balconies into the design of its signature café-restaurant.
As a matter of fact, the café-restaurant itself went by the name of Café Bela Vista!
I zipped across town to take a look, and found myself completely won over. The restaurant space was laid out such that part of the seating area recreated the balconies of the Bela Vista, complete with arched balustrades, swirling fans, rattan chairs and waiters in formal livery.
True, the windows looked out upon a sea of greenery, rather than upon the sea itself. But the atmosphere felt thrillingly authentic. Requesting a table by those windows and sipping at a glass of crisp white wine, I felt like I was really at the Bela Vista Hotel, back in 1999 – that fateful final year when the Hotel took its very last cohort of guests, and then shut its doors forever.
I spent the rest of the afternoon lingering in the shade of the palm trees, and enjoying the cool wafting breeze from the ceiling fans. I reflected on all that I had seen of historic, colonial Macau thus far; the Macau that preened right outside these balustrade windows… And I thought:
Que uma bela vista! What a beautiful view!