Hong Kong has such a romantic aura surrounding it, rich in history, boys own tales and block buster movies. An island that served as the nexus for trading between two mighty empires for hundreds of years and celebrated for its grand casinos, towering modern sky scrapers, beaches, markets and now the world’s longest sea crossing bridge.
The flight from Heathrow took around 11 hours and a half, but as I was travelling with one of my oldest friends it went by in a flash. We landed at Hong Kong International at around 5.30 in the evening and grabbed a cab to our boutique hotel in Sai Ying Pun, an old part of town just near the university of Honk Kong on the upper West Side. After a speedy check in we went straight out to explore the area and get acclimatised.
What strikes most visitors first are the dense crowds of people thronging the busy streets. However we had landed just as the Chinese New Year was underway and the roads and alleyways were utterly deserted with just a thick wispy white fog drifting between the towering skyscrapers and the old wooden buildings. It was like a ghost town, we half expected some ethereal sampan to float down the hilly avenues trawling for souls.
Chinese New Year is a big holiday, all the businesses shut and Hong Kong hibernates during the day, coming out in force for the evening to celebrate. As night fell the restaurants began to fill up and the streets came to life with revellers. We found a superb restaurant on one of the main thoroughfares that specialised in duck, with the entire process from butchery to cooking carried out in full view of the diners. The staff spoke no English, which is unusual for Hong Kong, but gave the place an air of authenticity. This was obviously where the locals come and we dined like kings on the most succulent, fresh, sweetened duck fillets with noodles, washed down with Zhian Jing (hot rice wine) and Yum Cha, a zingy green tea.
Fortified by this authentic traditional cuisine we decided to visit Lan Kwai Fong which is the expat area full of bars and nightclubs. The better bars there are Insomnia, where you can sit in the window and watch the world go by, or Mine, which has a reasonable size front terrace with tables and chairs. Quintessentially have a very popular night club here too. Be prepared for hill walking as Hong Kong was formed over a super volcano 140 million years ago, many streets even have escalators going both up and down for a little assistance, particularly after too many dim sung.
The next morning we walked all over the island, exploring the parks and the port nearby. Literally no one around, like Danny Boyle had decided to film 28 days later in Hong Kong, a brilliant time to visit as we had the whole city to ourselves. Though this was not to last. As we approached the Peak hoping to take the tram up to the top of the island the crowds began to grow. It was a long wait at the lower terminal on Garden Road, so we gave up and decided to return to the port and take the ferry to Kowloon. The Star ferry takes you across Victoria Harbour in around twenty minutes to Kowloon, which is still part of Hong Kong but in mainland China. Kowloon is worth the visit for its markets, arts and entertainment district, particularly Nathan Road and the night market on Temple Street, that have absolutely anything you could think of, from bespoke tailors offering reasonable suits to jade jewellery, goldfish and those eponymous smiling golden cats in every possible size.
While you are in Hong Kong splash out and get a perfectly tailored suit in Kowloon as it’s a great story to tell your friends. Here is a list of tailors we would recommend. Empire International Tailors, Lee Baron, Rocky’s Fashions (don’t be put off by the name, they also do a quick turnaround), Gordon Yao & Co, William Cheng and Son and finally get a pukka three piece at Raja’s Fashions. Now that you are well attired, take one of the tour buses, the best way to see the whole island. We managed to catch the fantastic Chinese New Year fireworks display over Victoria Harbour from the bus, which lit up the entire bay with glorious multicoloured explosions.
Whilst known for having the most skyscrapers in the world, Hong Kong boasts a number of lovely beaches within a short bus ride on the South side of the island. Alight at Aberdeen where you can take a sampan and either sail along the coast or walk past Ocean Park to Island Road and the lovely Deep Water Bay Beach where the locals have picnics and barbecues overlooking a gorgeous sea view. Then continue along to coastal path, past the Hong Kong Yacht Club on Middle Island, until you come to Repulse Bay, a large open Beach with many hotels. I have a rule that I swim where ever I travel, (more of a guideline than a fast rule, depending on how freezing it is), so I managed to find a shop selling the most garish swim shorts in the world, and despite the huge numbers of Chinese all dressed head to toe in black I went for a dip, the water was wonderful, even in February.
The next day we took a sampan over to Macau to check out the casinos and see if we could win back some of the cost of the trip. Gambling in Macau has been legal since 1850 when the Portuguese took over. It has overtaken Vegas as the gambling capital of the world, known as the Monte Carlo of the East, perhaps not for its size, but more for the sheer amount of money that is gambled away here each year. This is the place to bet the kids college fund all on red or black, it really doesn’t matter as you’ll lose anyway. The Venetian Macau is the biggest casino in the world, with 3000 rooms, gondoliers and mock Italian streets. Bring a moped or you’ll never make it out. The City of Dreams is one of the most extraordinary architectural fantasies I’ve ever seen and The Wynn Macau resembles a psychotropic Disneyland, followed closely by the Grand Lisbon Macau, that appears to have leapt out of the film Fantasia.
There is no shortage of fabulous places to stay in Hong Kong which has many magnificent hotels, notably the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong with its massive rooftop garden and twin pools and the W Hong Kong, a stunning 5 star modern hotel with all the luxury trimmings. The new Indigo Hotel has a sublime pool on the 29th floor that ends in a glass panel that overlooks the city and the LKF Hotel in Lan Kwai Fong is perfect for social butterflies.
Hong Kong is a very popular destination, it combines the old with the new particularly well. You have the towering techno skyscrapers, casinos, 5 star hotels, Michelin starred restaurants and shopping malls along with traditional noodle bars, old style yacht clubs, beaches, bars, boutique hotels and tat shops. The people are kind, hospitable and international and the cuisine is varied and succulent. An exciting and thrilling place to visit, even for a short weekend. This glittering jewel in the South China Sea is the perfect base from which to further explore this fascinating part of the world.