My paradise: Hong Kong highlights

by Nano Betts
TRAVELWITHNANOB.COM

What a perfect getaway! I won’t lie, Hong Kong has never been on my radar as a travel destination until I started following my lovely London bloggers who endlessly rave about the Pearl of the Orient and even then, I was never fully convinced that I’d love the city so much.

I didn’t know what to expect in Hong Kong and was so happy to discover a real cosmopolitan city with its own character, local identity (so unlike mainland China) and pizzazz. Hong Kong is like a melting pot offering a mix of British colonial history with a rich Chinese culture and tradition. Despite its chaos and mess, it has a terrific verve and frantic energy that will keep you coming back for more.

It also makes light of New York’s skyscrapers and San Francisco’s hills. For uninitiated, HK consists of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories, and well over 200 different islands in the South China Sea. I was thoroughly impressed how modernized and completely westernized it was. The vertical city with its futuristic architecture is eye-catching, although the sheer number of concrete high-rise apartment buildings was quite mind-boggling.

Those traveling there for the first time should not worry, superb public transportation system, cheap taxis and even cheaper Uber service, and bilingual signage make it a cinch to navigate. We caught an Airport Express fast train which was cheap and comfortable way to get to our Airbnb. We chose to stay in Central’s Soho neighborhood –an incredibly lively place with bohemian vibe that also turned out to be a perfect location for exploring the city. I made sure to rent a portable wifi at the airport so we’d have internet connection 24/7.
Having spent only four days in Hong Kong, I’m in no way a fitting candidate to offer you a “guide” of the city per se. In fact, we barely made a dent on all the things to do and see in Hong Kong. However, I’ll gladly share the highlights of our getaway to help you plan your Hong Kong trip.

Aqua Luna Cruise
Since we arrived in the afternoon, we decided to take it easy on our first day and spend some time wondering the neighborhood and walking along the pier to get the feel for the city. I pre-booked tickets for the famous Aqua Luna sunset cruise which takes you around the Victoria Harbor on a junk boat, one of the few remaining traditional red-sailed Chinese boats in the world. We set off for a blissful 45-minute ride around the harbor, taking HK’s arresting shimmering cityscape while enjoying a glass of wine. It was such a pleasant, carefree AND romantic way to ease into our vacation and soak up the city views. We also enjoyed renowned Symphony of Lights right after the cruise, a spectacular light and sound show at Victoria Harbor that incorporates a dazzling array of colorful lights synchronized to music.

Soho
We absolutely loved the élan that this area in Central oozes. It’s a quite charismatic and bohemian neighborhood filled with numerous galleries and art shops, restaurants and bars. In fact, it is a haven for pub crawlers and gets pretty packed on weekend nights. I loved finding colorful murals along the way as well as discovering street markets on the alleyways.

Soho is also home to world’s longest escalator which allows commuters to get to their street without mounting endless flights of notoriously steep stairs and slopes. Comprised of 20 escalators and moving walkways, it takes 20 minutes to complete.

We also checked out Man Mo, a little unassuming temple within a minute walk from our apartment. It is located on Hollywood Road and pays tribute to the God of Literature and the God of War. It was extremely chaotic due to workers renovating it and tourists mixing together in a cramped space, but I still liked the sight of giant hanging incense. I wouldn’t qualify this place as a must-see, but it won’t hurt to check it out if you are in the area.

The Victoria Peak
The second day of our trip was completely lost due to a strong typhoon that hit the city. We spent most of our time chilling indoors and savoring amazing food and drinks. This meant we had to make up for it next day, which thankfully, was bright and sunny (and HOT and HUMID). We opted to book a 24-hour hop on/off bus tour taking tourists all around HK’s main sights. The deal also included tram tickets and admission to the Sky Terrace 428 on Victoria Peak, which allows truly breathtaking panoramic views of the city. We hopped onto the Peak Tram which turned out to be a bit exhilarating ride as it mounted at a pretty steep angle. A 360-degree view of the city was absolutely worth it, and I would encourage everyone to there if you have time.

Stanley, Repulse Bay & Aberdeen
Thanks to the time-efficient bus tour, we did manage to take a ride to the south of the HK island and get a glimpse at a golden beach of the Repulse Bay and floating village of Aberdeen. We walked around Stanley which seemed like such an atmospheric and pleasant seaside area with cute little cafes on the waterfront. Guidebooks always stress the importance of seeing the historic Murray House. Apparently, this Victorian-era building built in 1844 had housed officers’ quarters in Central before it was moved to Stanly in 2000s. While I appreciate the history, I was a bit disappointed to see it has been turned into an H&M store!

Street markets
There is certainly no lack of shopping malls filled with any brand imaginable on this planet in Hong Kong. However, for a taste of something more local, we headed to peruse the city’s famous street markets in Stanley. While the endless rows of stalls are filled with lots of knock-offs and kitschy merchandise, we did find a few stores selling gorgeous handmade items like lacquerware, crockery and art. We shopped our hearts out and got a few art pieces. Other popular markets include Ladies’ Market, Night Market and Jade Market, which sadly we didn’t have time to hit.

Promenade on Tsim Sha Tsui
I literally couldn’t get enough of the spectacular views over Victoria Harbor and decided to head to Tsim Sha Tsui to enjoy it from a different angle, and stroll along the beautiful promenade.

The big buddha on Lantau Island
On our last day, we traveled to the Lantau Island. The adventure started with a 25-minute scenic ride on a cable car which took us to Ngong Ping village. You have an option to ride on a crystal bottom gondola, but it was an extra 1-hour wait time. Plus, to be honest, with my fear of heights, the standard car was exhilarating enough. I’m pretty sure J shared the sentiment. I highly recommend pre-booking your cable ride tickets so you don’t have to line up for over an hour like we did.

The village at the end of the ride attracts thousands of tourists daily who flock here to see Tian Tan (The Big) Buddha. It was quite a remarkable sight to see the huge bronze statue loom overhead, as if floating in the air above the lush verdant forest. If you feel brave enough, you can climb 262 steps and see it up close, plus enjoy the views from the observation deck.

We also visited the monastery grounds and the most spectacular gold-drenched main hall which houses dozens of Buddha statues.

5 o’clock cocktails
Hong Kong knows how to do a Happy Hour right. Central, especially Soho, seems to be the place to be if you’re yearning for your 5 o’clock cocktail. It reminded me of London where I often saw folks dressed up in suits gathering in front of pubs with a glass (or bottle) of wine and chatting their hearts out after a long day at work. The place is awash with cheery bars and we picked a random one for couple of pre-dinner drinks on our final night. In general, HK has one of the best and tallest rooftop bars in the world – the glitzy Ozone Bar housed on the 118th floor of The Ritz Carlton!

Luxury dining & local cuisine
You certainly don’t have to worry about missing your meal in Hong Kong. From hole-in-the-wall and mom-and-pop shops serving traditional Cantonese fare to the most sophisticated Michelin-starred restaurants offering western epicurean delights, the choice is dizzying. The city is notorious for its splendid fine dining scene and J and I indulged in our fair share of outstanding dinners during the trip. Highlights included tasting menus at Amber and L’Atelier by Joel Robuchon, Peking Duck at Lung King Heen and dim sum at Tin Lung Heen.

Besides its multitude of high-end restaurants, Hong Kong is filled with old school no-frills haunts where you can get a taste of local cuisine. No visit to the metropolis is complete without trying dim sum and BBQ pork buns, so we headed to Tim Ho Wan, one of world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants; here I successfully satisfied my cravings for both.

We also loved our dinner with a playful twist at Yum Cha in Central, where food is not just tasty, but incredibly adorable!

Naturally, we only managed to scratch the surface in four days. Next time I’d want to have breakfast at the  Elephant Grounds, try the praised Afternoon Tea at Intercontinental Hotel and iconic Peninsula, savor dim sum served in an old-school way at Maxim’s, slurp on beef brisket at Kau Kee, check out hip and trendy Little Bao, try the famous Tai Cheong egg tarts and egg waffles, enjoy cocktails at Ozone Bar, wine and dine at Vea, Mott 32 and 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo among many many other places. I mean, there is so much to try, one lifetime wouldn’t be enough.

Hong Kong is a real haven for lovers of urban adventures and food enthusiasts. I wish we had more time to explore Kawloon, peruse the neon-lit streets of Mongkok, visit humble fishing villages in Tai O or hop on a ferry to Macau. Alas, we’ll have to wait till next time…

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