Mention Hong Kong and most people will think instantly of skyscrapers packed tightly between tall mountains and the long, busy harbour front. It’s one of the most recognisable views in the world. But I came to explore another side to this Asian megacity – and found pockets of quiet contemplation in a city of 7 million people, as well as pretty wooded valleys, green nature reserves and clean, sandy beaches. Can this really be Hong Kong?
James Ross, who has lived in Hong Kong for the past 13 years, was the first person to suggest to me that Hong Kong offers more than a typical metropolis, incredible and unique as it is. James told me that within 15 minutes drive of the busy central district, I could be “in a country park, hiking with a rucksack on my back, spending a whole day on the mountains enjoying the scenery and the quiet.”
You’ll most probably arrive at Hong Kong Airport. It’s built on reclaimed land 21 miles or an hour’s cab ride from central Hong Kong. The fast Airport Express train takes around 25 minutes and is the easiest way to access the city.
The first time I came to Hong Kong I saw everything I had expected – huge housing complexes line the tracks and it’s busy, congested and built up. I stayed in the central area of Hong Kong Island, with its densely packed high rises blocking the daylight when you’re down at street level. Look up and the first four storeys are filled with brightly coloured billboards shouting for your business in Chinese. Look higher and you’ll see tiny apartments and flats with washing strung out of the windows.
Some of Hong Kong is attached to mainland China. Before you cross the water to Hong Kong Island, you go through Kowloon on the northern side of the famous Victoria Harbour. The area leading from the waterfront in Kowloon is like Oxford Street in London, lined with malls and posh shops running up Nathan Road. There are lots of hotels and this is where I stayed – the Harbour Plaza 8 Degrees. Like many in Kowloon it has only recently been developed.
Across the water is Hong Kong Island, which contains the financial district and feels like a second city centre. It’s here where you’ll find more references to the days of British colonial times with grander buildings and the older, high-end hotels. Urban Hong Kong offers tourists the mix of bars, restaurants and shopping you’d expect from a major business centre. At first glance you could be in New York or parts of London – they even have Top Shop and Marks and Spencer!
There are also some rather expensive places to eat from Michelin-rated restaurants to posh afternoon tea experiences. Try high tea at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, where you’ll be serenaded by a string quartet as you sip your Earl Grey. But when you wander away from the downtown you’ll find more traditional restaurants offering chicken cuts we wouldn’t normally consider in the west as well as stores selling hideously ugly dried fish, Chinese herbs and remedies.
You’ll get a cheaper hotel in Kowloon rather than the ‘old money’ area of Central Hong Kong Island and you needn’t worry about being on the other side of the water from the sights. Public transport is cheap and efficient. And if there are a few of you, just grab a cab. They are so affordable. A 20-minute journey shouldn’t cost more than £10. For speed, the underground is cheap, fast, clean and air-conditioned. So you can get around easily and there are lots of English signs and announcements.
In fact, riding some of the transport systems should be top of your to-do list, especially the iconic Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour. You buy your token from a machine – about 25p one-way – then board the two level, open-sided green and white boats. Most of the fleet were built in the 1960s and 1970s, so definitely have a retro feel! Take your wooden seat and then take in the view of the waterfront and the famous skyscrapers crammed onto the flat land in front of the mountains.
Make the crossing to Kowloon at night and at 8pm you can see a free light show. As you look back towards Hong Kong Island, tower blocks across the water light up in a spectrum of colours in time to music as laser beams shoot out into the night sky and dance to the rhythm.
Get up early the next day and ride another iconic people mover. For the best views of the city, you can’t beat the Victoria Peak tram. It’s a 1.4km long funicular railway that rises 400m above the city. The tram carries 11,000 people each day and at times, you can end up queuing for over an hour for the 5-minute ride. It’s just under £3 one way. It operates from 7am, so get up early to beat the crowds at the bottom. Alternatively, grab a cab to the top and ride the tram back down. Keep checking the weather because fog and mist can obscure the view from the top and of the 1800-foot summit higher up. If you wake to sunshine, do it while it’s clear. There’s a park, which provides a calm oasis at the top.
When you get down the hill, another travel experience is to ride the narrow trolley buses. Known as ‘ding dings’ locally (because of the sound of their bell) they’re great fun and really cheap. They’re also busy so expect to stand until a seat becomes available. 11,000 people ride the line each day. You can ride for about an hour, from one end of the waterfront to the other, and get a great view of city life. Tram stops are placed around every 250 metres as they run across central Hong Kong from Kennedy Town. They’re really narrow, with just space for a single seat and a double in each row and there’s no air conditioning. Some are wooden and there’s still one tram in the fleet with rattan and varnished teak seats!
Another must-do travel experience is the Central Escalators. You can get around the steep slopes of the Queen’s Road area, where there are lots of bars and restaurants, using a series of eighteen escalators and three moving walkways. The system is 2,600 feet long and climbs 443 feet in height. It’s like the conveyor belt they had on the Generation Game! You have to try and remember which restaurants look interesting as you go past and recall where they were. It’s one way – you need to walk down but that’s easy.
Hong Kong is a shopping heaven but you need to be organised. High-end designer shops are located on Hong Kong Island or in the shopping malls around the cruise terminal in Kowloon. But James suggested that I should get off the beaten track and go to where the residents of Hong Kong do their shopping. If you want cheap knock off T-shirts, Chinese art, fabrics or sunglasses then head to Stanley Market on the south side of Hong Kong Island. You can also buy suitcases there to fill with your purchases! It’s like a British Sunday market but much cheaper. It’s a pleasant one-hour bus ride to Stanley, winding along the wooded coast road past beaches and bays. Grab a top deck seat for the best views. Former fishing village Stanley is now a popular beachside town.
But if you’re looking for something unique and specialist, you should check out the markets. Jade is considered a lucky stone in China and Kowloon has a jade market where you can buy it in any shape or size. There’s Cat Street market for antiques, a dried seafood market (it reeks) and a toy market. If you need new trainers then you’ll find ‘Sneaker Street’ in Kowloon. In the evenings there’s the busy Temple Street Market selling everything from watches to leather goods and cheap souvenirs.
My favourite is Tung Choi Street North, which is known as the ‘goldfish market.’ Shops are packed with aquariums displaying a dazzling array of colourful fish. In one shop, owner Kim proudly showed some three-inch long, flat, sail-shaped discus fish, covered in stripes of different colours – reds, oranges and turquoises. Kim says the fish are popular because they don’t require much space and are affordable to buy and keep.
Another amazing area is the bird market in Yueng Po Street. Stalls sell tiny, exquisitely coloured songbirds in beautiful, ornate cages. It’s also a meeting place where bird owners gather with their pets. Although it’s sad to see these pretty animals caged, it’s clear that the old men who carefully carry them around are proud of their feathered friends. They’re effectively taking them for a walk. Flower Market is also in Kowloon – on Flower Market Road – and if you want electronics, there are numerous street markets, but the best place is Wang Chai Computer centre on Hennessy Road on Hong Kong Island.
Everywhere you go in Hong Kong you’ll see how differently Chinese people view health and wellbeing. Ok, we’ve had a few Chinese medicine shops open in the UK. But in Hong Kong, you’ll find places dispensing herbs and sometimes odd-looking concoctions as often as you find pharmacies in Britain. Reflexology and massage businesses are everywhere, so I went for a foot massage. The masseuse put on latex gloves. That didn’t happen a decade ago when I last had one – maybe my feet have become even less pleasant! And for an hour, without any communication, she pummelled and pounded my soles and pulled and twisted my toes. I can’t say it was pleasant but I did feel refreshed at the end.
What might surprise you about Hong Kong is that it’s not all built up. On James’ advice I caught the hour-long ferry ride from Central Hong Kong to Lantau Island – the airport is located here too, at the other side of a 3,000-foot peak. You’ll arrive at the small town of Mui Wo with its central square and a sandy beach bordering Silvermine Bay. It’s more Andalucía than Asia. At 6pm the handful of bars overlooking the waterfront are full of expats relaxing after a day’s work in Hong Kong, the city’s lights twinkling in the distance across the water.
There’s some beautiful scenery in the wooded mountains around the town. A 15-minute walk from the beach, through fields and forests, will bring you to the Silvermine waterfall. It’s a different and surprising side to Hong Kong. But even in the smallest seaside town, you have to expect the unexpected. Right opposite the Silvermine Resort Hotel, as soon as dusk falls, a convoy of horned, wild cattle walk through the town and camp on the beach! Lantau is famous for its feral cows and signs tell locals to be patient and embrace them.
I took a one hour bus ride to Tai O. The small town has been home to fishing families for generations and they’ve built their houses on stilts above the tidal flats. Photographers flock here because it’s so picturesque. You walk along a seafront path, past immaculate gardens – most in the eastern style with bonsai and topiary. The route is also lined with blue plastic drums full of shrimp paste. Locals catch them and grind them into paste, which is left to dry in the hot sun – it looks like fudge but a bit more aromatic!
The former police station and border lookout post high on the cliffs overlooking the sea has been transformed into a luxury hotel. The cells are still there, next to reception and you can take in the view from the lookout tower.
On the same island is the 112 foot high Big Buddha. The statue is on a hilltop in the middle of the island and is reached by 268 steps. There was low cloud when I visited and it was a case of “now you see me, now you don’t” so I didn’t walk all the way up because there was nothing to see. There are temples all around where you can get a blessing or take guidance about your future. You make a donation and take a wooden tube filled with bamboo sticks. Ask a question and shake the holder until one of the sticks pokes out and falls on the ground. They’re numbered, so you return to the booth and pick up a piece of paper saying what it means. Unfortunately it’s in Chinese so you’ll need to find a local to translate for you as I did!
Hong Kong has so many hidden breathing spaces. As people live in such close proximity, you can see why they are needed. I headed to the Chi Lin Nunnery near to my Kowloon hotel. It’s a group of cedar Buddhist temples, built in Chinese style at different levels into the mountain, and set around squares filled with lotus flower ponds. There are also beautiful landscaped gardens. When I visited, the nuns were chanting in unison, which gave a magical, ethereal feel to the place.
After a busy day in the heat and high humidity of Hong Kong’s summer, it was nice to get back to my hotel. The Harbour Plaza 8 Degrees is a short walk from the new cruise terminal so many travellers fly in, spend the night there and sail away the next day. It’s next to what was the old Kai Tak airport until 1998 and some rooms have an amazing view of the site. The former runway is now a green undeveloped passage, cutting through the colourful expanse of tall apartment blocks hemming it in.
In fact, the hotel’s name, Harbour Plaza 8 Degrees, is a reference to the old airport says Catherine So. It’s the angle that aircraft had to climb when leaving the notoriously dangerous runway and it’s been incorporated into the hotel’s design – the lobby roof and check in desks are inclined at exactly that angle. The hotel won Hong Kong’s Best Hotel Design Award when it opened in 2009. If you’re exhausted after a long flight from the UK, you can go to the shuttle bus counter at the airport arrivals hall and get a direct drop off at the Harbour Plaza 8 Degrees. There’s also a massive outdoor pool and sundeck, which Catherine said was designed to provide a calm retreat from the busy streets of Kowloon.
How To Get There
Hong Kong is often used a layover city for travellers flying on to Australia. This is a great world city with all the food, entertainment and shopping options you’d expect. But I discovered there’s more to the ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Turn a corner or take a bus and you’ll find calm spaces, wooded countryside and sleepy seaside coves. In fact, Hong Kong can offer lots of different holidays in one.
The best price for the 12-hour, non-stop flight was next March with British Airways. That was £452. Food is cheaper than the UK, with drinks a little dearer. Taxis are very affordable – a 5-mile cab ride costs around £8.