“Why bother going into one of the casino gambling halls?” asks Jacky Higgins, co-founder of MacauSoul, a Portuguese wine lounge housed inside a traditional colonial building.
“Just walk around the streets. It’s totally fascinating.”
Her husband and co-founder David Higgins, wearing a light blue, three-piece suit, with his silver hair tied back in a ponytail, has just taken us on a short walking tour of Macau, stopping by to visit a few friends.
Jacky is opening the popular city venue just as we arrive.
Though it’s just a stone’s throw from the Ruins of St. Paul’s and the selfie-stick filled Love Lane, dark and lofty MacauSoul feels worlds away.
Opened in 2008, the Higgins’ intimate retirement project has become a favorite refuge for locals and an alternative destination for tourists looking to escape the casino frenzy in the gambling capital of Asia.
The retirement plan: MacauSoul
Originally from England, the Higgins moved to Hong Kong in the late 1960s.
On the weekends they regularly visited Macau, a former Portuguese colony, and were attracted to its laid-back vibes – a contrast to fast-paced Hong Kong.
But there was one shortcoming.
“If you wanted to have a drink in the afternoon, you’d really have very little choice,” says Jacky.
“You either went to a hotel bar or you sat on the pavement outside a noodle shop and drank beer. There was nothing in between.”
When the couple retired and moved to Macau in 2004, they decided to build a place where people could sit comfortably and have a reasonably priced drink.
MacauSoul was born.
“MacauSoul is a wine lounge,” explains David.
“It’s a new concept – or a different concept – and one that we tried to create in order to fill something that we felt was missing in Macau.”
Asia’s best Portuguese wine bar
Incorporating elements of Macau’s colonial background, MacauSoul – the name also gives a nod to Macau sole, a local specialty fish dish – specializes in Portuguese wines.
“Because we knew a little bit about Portuguese wine and it was so underrepresented here, we really went into it big time to try and get a good repertoire at decent prices,” says David, a trained vet who moved to Asia a few decades ago.
“And now we have the reputation of being the best place in Macau – possibly in Asia – to drink Portuguese wines.”
MacauSoul’s comprehensive wine menu boasts more than 100 bottles in the bar alone and an extra cellar elsewhere.
“We have one or two wines which we can honestly say – because we know from our producer – that we’re the only place in the world where you can buy that wine,” he says.
In addition to wines, MacauSoul also offers a number of house-made snacks including David’s sourdough bread and Jacky’s Madeira trifle.
In the basement of the 2.5-story-high MacauSoul is a specially built stained glass music booth stocking David’s favorite music.
“Mostly jazz, but we have some classical music too,” he says.
“It’s my happy place. I come and hide here when it’s too much outside. Our bottom line is to offer people what we like and that includes the wines, the foods, the ambiance, the things in it, the music.”
If there are two things they don’t like, it’s technology – they don’t have a computerized system or a credit card machine – and the changes that have swept through Macau in recent years.
Standing against change
“The major change, following the handover and the introduction of the new casino concessions, brought in a massive amount of a completely different culture and completely different expectations,” says Jacky Higgins.
“Unfortunately, it also made the place very expensive and a lot of the local Macanese people found that they couldn’t afford to live here anymore and they’re now living in China and crossing the border every day for work.”
In contrast, MacauSoul has become a city icon, attracting people who want a taste of the real Macau.
“One friend said to me, ‘A few years ago when the Hong Kong expats came to Macau for the weekend, one thing they had to do was go to Fernando’s.
“‘Now they’ve got two things to do: They’ve got to go to Fernando’s and go to MacauSoul,’” recalls David.
“A lot of people describe this place as an oasis. They come here knowing there’s a watering hole in the middle of the desert. They know they can find some culture in the middle of a culture-less city.
“So I have no intention of changing this.”
A homey oasis in a tornado
MacauSoul is an archive of David and Jacky’s lives, displaying everything from the couple’s travel memorabilia to antique furniture from their old Hong Kong apartment.
On the way up to the bar’s semi-open attic, Jacky looks up at the decorations hanging from the bar’s high ceiling.
“We haven’t talked about the 7 Up signs,” Jacky says to David .
“You can’t tell your entire life in a day,” replies David.
The homey atmosphere is one of the biggest reasons MacauSoul has amassed a devoted following.
“It’s like our second lounge room,” says Kerill Ezzy, who has been visiting regularly with her partner Jason Graham since they moved to the city in 2009.
Witnessing the changes in Macau, the Australian couple plans to move.
“We’ll still come here even if we don’t have a home here anymore,” says Graham.
“It’s like a little oasis from the tornado in Macau,” says Ezzy. “You can step out of here and it’s a complete contrast with all the shops selling souvenir biscuits and tourists.”
“You could be 400 miles away,” adds Graham.
MacauSoul, 31 Rua de Sao Paulo, Macau; +853 2836 5182