Former British territory returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong is a captivating mixture of tradition and modernism where Hong Kong Disneyland co-exists with museums for artefacts of Imperial China, Buddhist temples and colonial buildings.
Both Cantonese and English are official languages so, even if you only speak English, you will have no problems communicating. The only, rather comical, time when I had problems being understood was in a restaurant when I asked for more toast and was offered a stack of napkins!
If you are going to stay on Hong Kong’s Island, you won’t need to rent a car as the metro system and bus services are very efficient, covering most of the major attractions. Outside of the city, having your own wheels will give you greater freedom to explore off-the-beaten-track places.
The best time to visit Hong Kong is from October to December: the hot, stifling and humid summer is over, but temperatures are still pleasant. Avoid the first week of October though, which is a national holiday and sees millions (literarily) of Chinese tourists descend on the area.
I visited Hong Kong end of October and, after an uneventful 11-hour flight, was welcomed by very hot and muggy weather.
The transfer to the city centre was an efficient affair aboard the Airport Express train to Kowloon station. We purchased a round-trip return for the reasonable price of $HK300, which also included unlimited travel on city rail.
Our Airbnb accommodation, on the other hand, was a bit of a disaster: we found the previous tenants still in the apartment when we arrived, and had to be housed in another apartment temporarily. However, after this initial hiccup, the flat proved itself to be perfectly adequate. Though small, it had everything we needed and was conveniently located off Nathan Road, an incredibly vibrant area 15 minutes’ walk from the waterfront.
The day of our arrival happened to be the Rugby World Cup semi-final and we headed out to Delaney’s Irish Bar in TST where we found a big expat crowd, including some All Black jersey wearing fans! It is a good venue for informal eating, with mains costing around $HK200 (although a NY steak will set you back by $HK600); a 650ml Heineken/Carlsberg beer, $HK17 and tap beer $HK60.
There’s a number of organised tours you can sign up for, but getting around is so easy that you can explore Hong Kong on your own, and at your own pace.
The Peak, also known as Victoria Peak, is probably the most famous destination in the city. The highest point on the island, it benefits from cooler air and consequently attracted the rich and famous in the colonial era. It is still rather affluent today, but it is the impressive views that it affords over the cityscape and the bay that draw crowds.
To get there, you should definitely take the Peak Tram which is an attraction in its own right: as you make your ascent at impossible angles in this historic funicular, you can see skyscrapers slide right next to you.
A Symphony of Lights
An absolute must-see attraction, Victoria Harbour turns into a dazzling stage every day at 8pm for 13 minutes with this multimedia show: forty buildings on both sides of the harbour light up with colour laser beams and perform a memorable spectacle on a background of music and narration celebrating the diversity and spirit of Hong Kong.
The show is free and no tickets are needed. There are two good vantage points on land, on Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade by the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and on Golden Bauhinia Square, however, the best place to enjoy this show in all its splendour is from a boat on the water, as we did on our way back from Lamma Island.
Although Lamma Island is only a 30-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong, the island is a world away from the bustle and crowds of HK. Buildings higher than 3 storeys are prohibited, there are no cars except fire trucks and ambulances and people get around by foot or bicycle.
The ferry will take you to Sok Kwu Wan (Rainbow Bay), the eastern village. About an hour’s walk away lies Yung Shue Wan (Banyan Tree Bay), a quaint seaside village on the northern coast with many restaurants and a community of expats drawn by the natural beauty of the island and its relaxed, hippy lifestyle.
Tip: if you like a bargain, go to the Island Society Bar. It offers half price beer if you have a $HK20 note!
Of course, we couldn’t go to Lamma Island without spending some time on Hung Shing Ye beach, a sheltered cove with pristine water and sand, popular to just kick off your shoes or have a barbecue as the evening sun sets and is reflected off the sea. We certainly enjoyed a drink or two, while taking in the interesting surroundings populated by a collection of boom and shark nets, and a rather large powerstation!
A visit to the 34-metre high Big Buddha on Lantau Island is a must when visiting Hong Kong. Erected in 1993, it took 12 years to complete, and if you are determined enough to climb the 268 steps that lead to the statue, you will be rewarded by sweeping views over the mountains and the sea.
Getting there is fairly easy, it a 30-minute train journey to Tung Chung followed by a 45-minute bus ride, a great opportunity to take in the sights and live like the locals. A tip from a keen photographer though: if you are hoping to take pictures of the Buddha, midday is not the best time as the sun is directly behind it.
Tin Hau Temple, Joss House Bay
There are several Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong, but this one is said to be the oldest and largest one. Legend has it that two brothers built it in this location to show their gratitude to Tin Hau, the goddess of the Sea or Queen of Heaven for saving them from a strong storm while they were out fishing; the location being that where they reached the shore.
The temple is said to have been built in 1266 by Lam Tao-yi (林道義). There is a rock nearby, that was carved in 1274. It bears the oldest dated inscription known in Hong Kong. See more at Wikipedia.
This temple was, without a doubt, a highlight of my trip to Hong Kong. Facing the sea, its natural surroundings are simply breathtaking and you can even see mainland China on a clear day. The architecture of the building is nothing short of magnificent with its ornate decorations, and the interior follows the same opulent and flamboyant style, with seas of red and gold.
If you dislike spiders, look away now! If you don’t, enjoy this picture of a large orb web spider I found on a forest path – it was as big as my hand!
Food & Drink
Hong Kong’s colonial past is never clearer than in the food you can buy. From tiny no-frill noodle shacks to the ubiquitous Starbucks Coffee and McDonalds, and Michelin-starred restaurant, you can find everything and anything in Hong Kong.
Most probably not the most authentic culinary experience, McDonalds is nevertheless a very convenient place as you get 60 minutes of free wi-fi as a customer.
For a more upmarket experience, I can recommend the Eton Hotel on Nathan Road, a lovely place for a drink and nibbles. It was cooled down by a breeze when we went there, which was a relief from the stifling heat.
We also enjoyed Dan Ryan’s, a Chicago-style restaurant specialising in grills. If you are a carnivore, this is the place for you, with juicy steaks, ribs, BBQ food, but it also serves seafood, sandwiches and salads in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere with 1940s music in the background.
Wing Lai Yuen, situated at Whapoao, Hunghom, was a rather special experience as we were lucky enough to dine in a private room normally reserved for visiting politicians and Heads of State! Their menu is extensive and dishes beautifully presented.
Outside Hong Kong city, and particularly near the coasts, seafood restaurants abound. On our day trip to the Tin Hau temple in Clear Water Bay for example, we had lunch in one of the two restaurants of the small traditional fishing village of Po Toi O, so named from the bay being shaped like a fishing sack (Po Toi means ‘sack’). It serves a vast selection of very fresh seafood and is very popular at the weekend, with cars parked all the way up the hill.
If you are into retail therapy, Hong Kong is a dream come true for you. Most goods are tax free, except wine and cigarettes, which makes shopping in Hong Kong very attractive. You can find the usual international brands in shopping malls, but for a more authentic experience, head to Mongkok in the western part of Kowloon Peninsula.
One of the main shopping areas in Hong Kong, it is an amazing experience even if you don’t buy anything. Bathed with neon light, you can find pretty much anything in Mongkok from jewellery, cosmetics, fashion and electronics. Streets specialise in one type of items, making it easy to compare prices and make the most of your money. For example, Sai Yeung Choi Street is all about electronics and cosmetics while you will find clothes and fashion accessories in Shantung Street and Dundas Street. Come with realistic expectations though: although trinkets are cheap, you will find that the prices of international brands are on par with other countries.
In the same area, the Ladies’ Market is one of the most popular street markets. Packed with over 100 stalls, it is the perfect place to stock up on souvenirs and cheap clothing and accessories – it seems to go on forever!
Being a techno-geek my favourite store in this area was the Mongkok Computer Center on Nelson St. Endless small stores selling everything one could need for managing a digital career (or gaming). I picked up a pair of wireless Beats Headphones for a very reasonable price from the (official) Apple store located on Level 3. Note: you can buy Beats Headphones elsewhere in the markets – just be very aware you are probably buying a rip-off.
Another very enjoyable market experience that was minutes from our apartment was the Temple Street Markets. Incredibly vibrant and full of the freshest fruit and vegetables.