Hong Kong Travel, China

Hong Kong harbour overview, China

Victoria Harbour seen from Hong Kong Island’s Peak looking towards Kowloon on the New Territories (mainland). Photo by Base64.

Why Hong Kong travel?

A masterly description by PJ O’Rourke from ‘Eat the Rich‘:

People packed, scenically dazzling and historically fascinating, this tiny but affluent ex-British colony is a kind of muggy mini-China experience, with skyscrapers, colourful temples, old ladies performing t’ai chi, great food, too many pedestrians chattering incomprehensibly, efficient – notably the MTR (Mass Transit Railway. i. e. tube/metro/subway) – and often quaint transport systems, terrific harbour and island views and some fine beaches – especially on the outlying islands.

Unfortunately sea water around here is generally very polluted so don’t plan on swimming unless you are a tough and fortunate cookie.

Hong Kong can be inexpensive (if you choose with care), safe and offers fantastic short holiday experiences though the heat, humidity, poor air quality and jostling throngs of humanity can get tiresome after not too long.

Hong Kong attractions

A Star Ferry at Tsim Sha Tsui Pier, Kowloon side with Hong Kong Island in the background. China

A traditional and still must-ride Star Ferry at Tsim Sha Tsui Pier, Kowloon side. Hong Kong Island is across the harbour. The ferry is a regular commuter vessel so cheap, cheerful and never full up. Photo by Baycrest.

• See the sensational panorama from The (Victoria) Peak, Hong Kong Island’s highest (and coolest) point, where both day and night time views are magnificently different but basically looking over Victoria Harbour and the New Territories. Don’t consider any other transport than the steep and groaning Peak Tram, an historic funicular railway built in 1888.
The Peak suffers from tourist shop abuse but you can escape that by taking a stroll around the 3. 5 km Peak Circle Walk or having dinner in Peak Lookout’s garden.
Get there via bus 15C from outside Central Pier or walk from MTR Central Station, Exit J2, to the Peak Tram Lower Terminus on Garden Road.
Alternatively if you’re in a hurry take Bus 15 from Exchange Square bus station which is near Exit D of MTR Hong Kong Station.

• Drink in the Night light show: Hong Kong’s static night lights are mesmerising (as pictured above) but at 8pm the island’s flashiest buildings put on a stunning, co-ordinated light show.
Find a glass-wall bar or board a harbour junk cruise for an eye-battering spectacle which is better viewed from the Kowloon (mainland) side.
Try Felix, the Philippe Starck-designed, double-height cocktail bar on the 28th floor of the Peninsula Hotel for awesome views in a magical environment.

• Take the Star Ferry from Kowloon to the Island or vice-versa. Another traditional cheap and cheerful Hong Kong transport institution the ferry offers terrific fish-eye views of the city and busy harbour action, putting you comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with the city’s denizens for practically nothing.

• Hop on a night time, antique double-decker tram ride to/from Causeway Bay – Admiralty (the full monty is from North Point to Western) is another virtually free tour enjoyed by all and almost equal to the Star Ferry.

Hong Kong Things to Do

• Ocean Park Hong Kong is a marine-life theme park offering rides, shows and live animals, combining entertainment with education. It’s located on the south coast of Hong Kong Island and has differing areas connected by Cable Car and a funicular train known as Ocean Express.
Special exhibits are Adventures in Australia displaying live Australian animals and history of the continent, Shark Mystique, an aquarium of sharks and rays, Polar Adventure including meeting king penguins walruses, seals, arctic foxes and snowy owls. Old Hong Kong looks at local culture in the British era while Thrill Mountain is all about wild rides. Rainforest takes you on a raft through a tropical rainforest complete with sounds and animal sightings and Aqua City runs a multi-sensory show and Grand Aquarium. And there’s plenty more. . .

• Go shopping in Stanley Market on HK island, another long standing HK attraction, prettily located in an affluent part of the Island next to a couple of beaches, the market operates daily but is best at the weekend when the main street is closed.

• For real Chinese markets head for Mongkok in Kowloon by MTR (metro) in search of just about everything at a knock-down price except serious food; to the Electric Road food market by tram for kicking and screaming eatables; to Causeway Bay by tram 7-9pm.

Ladies’ Market on Tung Choi Street is a lengthy stretch of 100 stalls of bargain clothing, accessories and souvenirs for women, and bargaining here is a must.

Temple Street Night Market is another bazaar for incredible knock-offs, named after the Tin Hau temple at its centre, and is a place for visitors to see a real Chinese market in colourful, haggling action as well as low cost eating and drinking scenes. It’s open nightly.

Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade

Kowloon Clock Tower, Hong Kong, China

Kowloon Clock Tower. Photo by Lauri Silvennoinen.

Erected in 1915 at the start of the Kowloon – Canton railway line, the old station is now gone but this brick and granite tower remains as an historic monument and a reminder of the British era. It’s near the Star Ferry terminal and the start of the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

• Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade makes a delightful walk beside the harbour past the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the Hong Kong Space Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Avenue of Stars and its rippling bronze statue of Bruce Lee.
The Promenade is next to the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Wong Tai Sin Temple

Wong Tai Sin Temple water garden, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China

Wong Tai Sin Temple water garden. Photo by Arun.

• Wong Tai Sin Temple is a popular Taoist shrine (with elements of Buddhism and Confucianism) for the simple reason that, apparently, ‘What you ask for is what you get’; that being said, for a tourist it is beautifully constructed and adorned with many spectacular statues and ornaments so makes a brilliant diversion from the modern high-rise madness of most of Hong Kong. Wong Tai Sin is on the south side of Lion Rock in the north of Kowloon.

• Hong Kong Disneyland encompasses seven themed lands and is open both day and night with the Disney Paint the Night spectacular, Flights of Fantasy Parade, Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch Runaway Mine Cars, Toy Story Land and more. Disneyland’s FASTPASS is time-saving and available in this theme park.
Get there via MTR Disneyland Resort Station.

Hong Kong Beaches and Islands

Kadoorie beach, with shark netting, hong kong, china

Kadoorie beach, with shark netting. Photo by Minghong.

Kadoorie Beach is on Castle Peak Road and is well-equipped with shark net, changing rooms, showers, toilets and lifeguards during April to October.

Hong Kong’s winding coastline is packed with bays and beaches, many sheltered by mountains, so they are generally calm and inviting.
However, sadly sea water quality has deteriorated in the last few years as the population has expanded and several popular beaches have been closed due to pollution.
Many of the beaches suitable for swimming are managed by HK’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), and are referred to as gazetted beaches. Some other beaches are privately owned or not gazetted, but still publicly accessible.

Since 2013 over forty of Hong Kong’s beaches are managed by the LCSD, 12 of them on Hong Kong Island and the rest in the New Territories. Shark nets have been installed on at least 32 beaches and there have been zero human fatalities since installation in 1995, though there have been many shark fatalities.

Repulse Bay is one of the best Hong Kong beaches, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, easily accessible and featuring fine imported sand, clear water running at temperatures of between 16C and 26C, shark nets and lifeguards stationed in a traditional-style Chinese beach hut. Needless to say there are eating and drinking facilities nearby and the place is popular, in fact it’s shoulder-to-shoulder in summertime.

A little further away and less crowded but still excellent bathing beaches are Deep Water Bay, Middle Bay and South Bay.

Hong Kong encompasses over 200 islands with at least three that come with fast ferry connections, comfortable uncrowded living conditions in tiny tourist hotels alongside fishing villages and sea views, excellent eateries, good walks and soft, user-friendly beaches.

The nearer Outlying Islands take around half an hour by fast ferry or an hour by slow boat.

Cheung Chau Tung Wan Beach, with shark netting. Hong Kong Island, China

Cheung Chau Tung Wan Beach, also with netting. Photo by Minghong.

Cheung Chau is where wind-surfing is only slightly less popular than praying at the ancient Pak Tai Temple,
Lantau offers wild, protected views, a mountain cable car ride, a giant buddha at the Po Lin monastery and the plastic Chinese village of Ngong Ping, while Lamma, the nearest to HK is a pleasant, quiet, car free island of trees, green hills, yellow beaches, good bars and restaurants and a monstrous power station.

Sai Kung is a peninsula about 30 minutes from HK centre by MTR (tube) and mini bus 101. The little town is agreeable and well provisioned while the country park offers superb walks and the beaches are equally terrific. Just don’t go in the sea!

Daytime activities

Lion Rock on the MacLehose Trail, Hong Kong, China

Lion Rock on the MacLehose Trail. Photo by Minghong.

Hiking: The 100km MacLehose Trail is renowned for hiking just a few miles from downtown Hong Kong, undeveloped as it’s too pointy. Lantau Island also offers excellent marked trails.

Biking: Hong Kong has good tracks around the harbour and in the New Territories. There’s plenty of bike hire available.

HK also hosts several impressive museums, a couple of colourful temples, tranquil green parks and lively amusement parks.

Go to the Races: Sha Tin racetrack, 20 minutes by train from Kowloon, is massive and is a excellent place for people watching if you can stay away from the betting: drunk expats are raucously omnipresent as are the notorious Chinese gamblers. Buy a tourist ticket beforehand from one of the Jockey Club shops – you’ll need a passport.

Festivals

The Chinese New Year Jan/Feb is unbearably crowded but the Dragon Boat Festival in May/June is brilliant; the Lantern Festival Sept/Oct is luminous and the Festival of Asian Arts in Oct/Nov is a big international attraction.

Accommodation

The most famous hotel in the city is The Peninsula, a lovely old low colonial building on the Kowloon shore with a famous tea time string quartets, but looking rather cramped these days.
The really awesome luxury hotels stand tall on the shore of Hong Kong Island, offering incredible views of the harbour and lights of Kowloon, though the peninsula does have an amazing, high level cocktail bar, Felix, on the 28th floor.

The cheapest accommodation in HK is a famous and long-running backpacker institution, Chungking Mansions. Sounds stately doesn’t it? Think again. Chungking is well located in the centre of Kowloon’s action but don’t consider it if you have claustrophobia as it’s 17 floors packed with budget hotels, guest houses, curry shops and ethnic minorities with barely a window visible, likened to a walled city by some.
But, if you have no fears and a tight budget head out to 36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui.
Chunking is conveniently close to various public transport facilities such as airport buses, regular buses and MTR (metro) rail services.
Don’t book in advance, just show up and find the grubby office that acts for all the Chungking accommodation.

Best seasons

Hong Kong’s weather is unpredictable and can change very suddenly. It’s more sub-tropical than most of China so the best time to visit differs from the mainland.

Best: September-December. Autumn/Fall is a pleasant and sunny season with T-shirt days and less rain and dramatic changes than other months. Generally temperatures are around 24C (75F) but can drop below 10C on December nights.
January- February winter temperatures drop to a chillier average of 17C (63F), again with little rain.
March-May, springtime sees comfortable conditions but showers can be very heavy, heading towards storms. Average 20C-25C (68F-86F).

Worst: June-August. Don’t even think about going to HK in summertime. It’s all heat with overpowering humidity that has locals as well as tourists sopping wet in minutes and endless showers or severe storms if that’s not enough of a downer. Temperatures average 28C (82F), even at night, but the air feels murderously oppressive.

Hong Kong seen by first-timers

Kowloon buildings, Hong Kong, China

Kowloon buildings, one of the densest population centres on earth. Photo by Wing1990h.

email from Tara

The place is growing on both of us. . . slowly. It is a huge culture shock – I can’t describe how densely packed the skyscrapers are but it is like every fifth building is a skyscraper, and it is not uncommon for them to be 70 storeys high.

Beneath the skyscrapers there is an underworld of tangled banyan trees and steaming Chinese markets selling all sorts of weird and wonderful things we can only guess at – at odds with the trams emblazoned with Marks & Spencers adverts, which snake their way through the streets.

Life is very frank here – people picnic on the sides of busy highways and wear surgical face masks when they have a cold. Yesterday was the day off for all the Filipino maids in HK (that is the main workforce here). So the walkways of the fancy pristine shopping malls crammed with Diors, Louis Vuittons and Versaces were full of hundreds of Filipino girls sitting on flattened cardboard boxes eating noodles, playing card games and chattering away. That is what they do with their one day off, and they were having a great time and looking far smilier than the affluent locals.

The wealthy locals, meanwhile, are very into this concept of ‘face’ – everything is about how they appear to the rest of the world.

For example, designer dogs are very popular here (many of them sporting the latest fashions themselves) but owners employ dog walkers as they don’t want to be seen on the streets.

It is a city of contradictions, with the black-lacquered 20th floor rooftop Armani bar, where a gin & tonic will set you back $20, to the tiny two-seat dim sum restaurants where you can get a fabulous huge bowl of pork and vegetable dumplings for around £2.

People have a lot of pride here, we haven’t seen a single beggar (except for one with no arms who was ‘legitimately begging’).

There is a pervasive sense of hope, even from the poorest stall-holder; everyone has a vocation and they are not going to sit around waiting for a freebie (mainly because they won’t get one! ).

We are currently staying with friends who live in a beautiful apartment in Sheung Wan. This is a nice area to the West of the Peak (the main mountain on HK island which everything revolves around and the higher you go, the more expensive the apartments, until you reach the top – Severn Road – the world’s most expensive real estate per square foot). Here there is a higher ratio of jungle to scraper and a lot of ex-pats have made it their home.

Kowloon buildings, Hong Kong, China

The Kwun Yam Shrine in Repulse Bay. Photo by Wing1990hk.

email from Mandy

Hong Kong was vast, high, loud, teeming, seething, in constant motion as always. Not my kind of place, but had some fabulous Chinese food, (snake soup was a first) went to a couple of museums, admired the orchids in the flower market, but my favourite day was taking a taxi out of the madness and walking the Dragon’s Back, a fabulous path along a high ridge, with amazing views either side to the cliffs, the sea and the outlying islands. It was hard to believe that such hillsides of unspoiled jungle could exist within twenty minutes of the city. The walk ended in Big Wave Bay – a small cove, totally unspoilt, wide sandy beach lined with manchioneel trees, a few surfers catching the waves, a run-down little beach-side café selling us coconuts to drink, fat chance of a G&T.
In the evening went to Pier 9 and was picked up by a high speed boat and whisked off past the HK city lights to Lamma Island, where we had a lovely seafood dinner, sitting out over the water.

email from Chris Buckell

Cool Place. Bustling streets, crazy night markets (where I got the chance to do some “haggling” a la Monty Python ‘s Life of Brian) and some of the most exotic food imaginable. We feasted on snails, “Fook Kin” fried rice, razor clams, duck tongues (yes, duck tongues) and chicken feet. As the first non-english speaking country since leaving in November, our main method of communication involved pointing and shouting, with varying degrees of success. Strange; I’ve never been into a shop looking for a newspaper and come out with a tin opener, a bag of popcorn and a novelty lighter.

Plenty to see in HK, The Harbour comes alive at night, with light shows, concerts and loads of tourists. HK is the home of Kung Fu, and we caught a martial arts show in the Botanical Gardens. We then duly visited the Bruce Lee statue along the famous Avenue of Stars- similar to Hollywood’s walk of Fame. Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Bruce himself amongst others were notable entries. After an unsuccessful voyage to try and get into China (we were turned away at the border and sent back to HK) we spent our last day in the Space Museum.

Chinese food in HK

If you’re in this part of the world and itching for Chinese style seafood in a memorable setting there are four prime locations for seafood dining on the waterfront, it’s just a question of getting to them as none are on Hong Kong Island.

The places to go are the islands of Lamma and Cheung Chau, or Lei Yue Men and Sai Kung in Hong Kong city on the mainland.

Of the latter two, although Lei Yue Men is closer to HK Island, personally I prefer Sai Kung because it is charming and offers a scenic drive. In Sai Kung town there are a number of good restaurants on a delightful promenade with the possibility of a sampan ride around the harbour, or a post prandial stroll whilst you admire the small boats laden with fresh and dried denizens of the deep.

Chuen Kee is the largest eatery. Facing the water on the left is the older of the two Chuen Kee establishments which has great service but is sadly decorated with large sharks ‘fins. At peak times you will be given a number and then wait for a free table. Happily, the system is very efficient – even on a busy Saturday lunchtime during Chinese New Year I only waited ten minutes and there was plenty to look at during that time because the front of the restaurant is racked with tank upon tank of live fish and other sea creatures, some of which we had never seen before even though we are avid divers.

Once you’ve been called, you select what you want to eat from the tanks and are given a round numbered chip to take to your table so that the orders don’t get mixed up. Then you have a discussion with the waiter or waitress about how you would like each dish cooked, sometimes being given a clear steer – we were told that the shell fish we had picked would go best with a spicy sauce, for instance.

After that, it’s pure enjoyment as the courses are served in a sympathetic order from the most subtle to the most strongly flavoured. Our ‘uni’ (sea urchin) in sashimi style were on a par with the best from Chile whilst the steamed grouper and choy sum with garlic were historic.

Lei Garden on Hong Kong Island offers excellent Chinese nourishment, though is less focused on seafood. There are two locations – one at the International Finance Centre, which may be a tad more tourist friendly, and the other at Wan Chai (Hennessey Road) – but in both cases a reservation is strongly recommended.

Written by Daniel Nash Segundo

A Few Facts

Meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour’ in China’s Cantonese language, HK is the world’s densest land area, home to 14 million people – 95% Chinese – and is one of two ‘special administrative regions’ of China, along with Macau island (ex-Portugal) 37 miles (67 kms) away.

Hong Kong was a very profitable British colony from 1842-1997 and is still run by the Chinese government with a high degree of autonomy from the mainland.

Hong Kong island is the the original British colony and the most attractive playground in the area, with some staggeringly luxurious hotels, good beaches if you stay out of the water, and great sights such as the famous Victoria Peak.

The Kowloon peninsula, the mainland on the opposite side of the harbour, is where the serious eating, shopping and cheap hotels are to be found, while further towards China is the New Territories – offering the tourists little but views of monstrous ranks of tightly packed, apartment tower blocks embraced by green hills.

Hong Kong’s currency is the dollar, HKD or HK$, divided into 100 cents. Note that the currency of the People’s Republic of China is different – it’s the Renminbi (RMB).
This region is more sophisticated than mainland China so credit cards can be used freely and ATMs are everywhere. Unfortunately, unlike the rest of China, modest tipping is an institution.

Visas are not required for most western nationals visiting HK or Macau – although naturally a passport is necessary. Mainland China visas can be acquired in both these places and may be easier to acquire than in visitor’s home country consulates.