As an expat living in Hong Kong, naturally, I write a lot about the daily absurdities complexities of life in a foreign land, but these days as a – shall we say – more established expat, I get asked a lot about the best hotels to stay in (no prizes for guessing my answer here), the best places to eat and shop; and what to do once you arrive in the proverbial “city that never sleeps!” Yep with 24 hours on the clock you can pack A LOT in to your visit to the far East!
So, whilst I have absolutely no intention of turning my blog into a glossy travel website feeding you a perfectly edited version of Hong Kong’s most alluring hot spots — in the next couple of months, I will however, deliver a few pertinent ‘go-to pieces’ for the first timer’s visit to the skyscraper capital of the world!
I’m calling it the “Big 5!”
So I’m going to help you tick all the boxes.
Number 1: Even if you haven’t managed to fly yourself up (or down) to Hong Kong yet – I have no doubt you’ve seen the picture-postcard skyline Hong Kong proudly claims ownership of?
Is it as dazzling and luminous as the pictures paint? I’ll let you be the judge. But for me, every time I see the magnificently eye-catching display of lights, colour and bling bouncing off a thousand skyscrapers before me, it really does take my breath away. It’s a view I never tire of. But I reckon, as well as a bird’s eye view from afar, you also need to get up close and personal with the bright lights that are boldly beckoning your attention.
What better way than diving into the harbour! So my advice, jump on a boat and float your way across the Fragrant Harbour to inhale the magic.
Now, there are a number ways to get yourself on a boat in Hong Kong.
The easiest, is to take a ride on the iconic Star Ferry, which has been crossing Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour for around 120 years. Ten minute long trips run from 630am to 1130pm daily, costing as little as HK$2.50.
Alternatively, the oriental pearl’s last remaining authentic Chinese junks, including the Aqua Luna or the Duk Ling operate regular harbour cruises with various packages to suit your holiday tastebuds. Ok, so it is kind of commercial, but you’ll still get that over all oriental tingle as you sail down the majestical harbour!
Even better, a night ride will have you watching the renowned Symphony of Lights show – a razzle-dazzle of lights beamed from over 30 skyscrapers in sync to music. This light show is visible in all its resplendent glory at 8pm every night, but without music (and I’m not one to be a party pooper) just a warning, it may not meet your expectations.
Want to explore a little further afield? Take a ferry out to Lamma Island and indulge in a delicious Chinese-style seafood feast, while you kick back and immerse yourself in the rugged charm of this ancient fishing island, where locals still get around using small carts and bicycles.
Alternatively, take a day trip to what many call Hong Kong’s very own Treasure Island – Cheung Chau. This pocket-sized paradise is 7000 years old and just a 30 minute boat ride from Hong Kong, filled with temples, seafood restaurants and sandy beaches, not to mention a mountain of history.
If you’re blessed with enough time, hire one of the hundreds of Junks available and take a day trip to the outlying islands where you can breathe in the other side of this mad land. Many visitors (myself once included) wrongly believe Hong Kong is little more than a chaotic and bustling city, packed to the rafters — but there’s much more to this cosmopolitan hub than first meets the eye. Trust me when I say, ‘a tropical oasis awaits you.’
Check out the stations themselves but seriously, note how there are potentially a gazillon people chugging through but it’s complete and utter ‘ordered’ chaos. No rubbish. (No eating.) And no hooligans.And trains run every few minutes, without fail.
I recommend you jump on board the MTR and head out to Tung Chung. At Tung Chung check out the outlets if you fancy a bit of retail therapy.
Then you can take on the world in a glass bottom ‘cable car’ across Lantau Island with stunning views all the way up to the Big Buddha.
On a clear day, these views are magical. The bronzed buddha in the distance is truly a mystical sight to behold. (Don’t bother if it’s anything but clear skies though.)
Even better, the Big Buddha is not only about temple-worshipping, Ngong Ping Village(whilst not really a village in the true sense of the word) is home to a myriad of shops (including a very fine shoe shop ladies), plenty of cafes (including StarBucks to give it that all-important touristy edge) and some al fresco dining pubs. Grab your tickets online to avoid the queues.
Take a double decker bus and wind your way across the island to Stanley or Shek O Beach…(Do me a favour and make sure you sit up top and up front of the bus for some real roller coaster-ride action and spectacular scenery!)
Stanley is a little more touristy, but with the famous Stanley Markets and plenty of western style, outdoor dining restaurants along the water front, it’s definitely worth checking out on a sunny afternoon. As one of the more earthy spots on the map, it showcases a different side to the inner city glamour. I caught the bus out here a couple of months ago…. it was like stepping back in time into a beachside village from a bygone era. Eat at any number of roadside food stalls or the cheap and cheerful Chinese bistros in the town’s centre; pick up a bucket and spade from one of the colourful stalls selling all things beach-friendly and head down to the sand.
Take a Ding Ding – yep that’s what they call trams here….and ‘ding ding’ your way along the island from Central to Wanchai or as far as Causeway Bay…..it’s cheap, a tight squeeze and a little bit local, but a great, fun way to take a trip through the centre of the island and get a feel for Hong Kong’s true heartbeat.
Admittedly, the one and only time I tried a ‘ding ding’ was during my very first trip to Hong Kong as a fully-fledged tourist. If you get claustrophobic just remember, a little bit of push and shove doesn’t hurt in these situations. Not that I’m condoning physical force, just saying! Avoid ‘peak hour’ if you can, more often than not, I’ve seen queues backed up for miles. If you get on, it certainly gives you a unique perspective of Hong Kong. Hang on!
It wouldn’t be a trip to Hong Kong with out hailing down one of the city’s iconic red taxis now would it? Trawling the streets day and night, this is surely an experience in itself….(bonus points if you can manage to hail one down AND the driver gets the gist of your destination AND agrees to go in your direction!) Don’t be scared though, it’s all about the challenge (says she who had a meltdown on a very questionable journey that had me travelling in the opposite direction with no clue how to get back on track!) Did I mention I had a baby on my lap?
I can laugh now.
(PS. Don’t attempt if you are prone to bouts of car sickness, these old cars have a tendency to attract some heavy breaking from drivers (who blame the cars, of course)!
Tip: Most drivers don’t accept $500 notes so have something a little smaller on hand. Cash only too! And if there’s a red ‘out of service’ card on the dash board, this doesn’t mean it’s out of service (of course), it simply means the driver will cross the harbour for you. Yes! Many drivers prefer to stick to one side of the city. Kowloon or HK Island and never the twain shall meet.
So that’s my ‘Big 5′ when it comes to must-do experiences in Hong Kong!