Hong Kong – Jewels and a Junk

    Over too many wines and vibrant conversation I was recently told travellers should get ‘beneath the skin of the city’. It’s a wonderful notion to think we have the luxury of unlimited time to dig deep and burrow into the veins and heart of a city. In reality, too many of us find budget constraints and other commitments directly affect our opportunity to stay long enough to truly get beneath a city’s skin.

    The quickest way to tap into a city’s soul is to be prepared, do your research and create a list of must-visit places and things-to-do so that when you arrive at your new destination you won’t waste precious time wondering where to go first and getting lost in a maze of streets heading to who knows where.

    Hong Kong is one such city where making a must-do list is a priority. A  major stop-over destination en route to other ports of call, Hong Kong is filled with brilliant jewels of every description – from pearls and jade to glittering skyscrapers and million dollar views. It’s also full of junk – from fabulous floating junks to copy-copy and bargain hunter rubbish. Take it all in your stride and you’ll love every minute in this extraordinary metropolis.

    Getting around

    If you have a couple of days set aside then it is recommended you purchase an “Octopus card”  to tackle Hong Kong’s transport system. This card is essential to get around. You can travel by subway, train, tram, bus, minibus and ferry using your pre-paid Octopus card (similar to New York City’s MetroCard and London’s Oyster card). http://www.octopuscards.com

    You can purchase your card for about HK$150 (about AUD$20) of which HK$50 is refundable deposit and HK$100 credit. At the end of your time in Hong Kong any money left on the card will be returned to you. Octopus cards can be purchased at MTR subway stations and at the Airport Express Counter.

    The card is easy to use – simply wave it in front of the yellow Octopus readers, the machine automatically deducts the correct amount and off you go! If you’re worried about how much credit you have used or you want to add more credit to the card simply head to the signed machines inside the MTR stations. These cards can also be used at some major stores who accept the card such as KFC and McDonalds.

    Friends are often horrified when I suggest they take a HopOn HopOff or Big Bus tour soon after they arrive at their destination. It’s very touristy but it’s a simple, inexpensive way to get around the city, gain an understanding of its history, culture and lay of the land.

    Once you have settled in, a delightful place to decide on your next move is to pop into Kowloon’s The InterContinental. Renowned for its harbour-edge location, the InterContinental’s Lobby Lounge is a sublime space where you can soak up the expansive views of the harbour and enjoy a relaxing high-tea or a cocktail while considering your ‘plan of attack’.

    Here are some ideas to help get you started…

    One of the best experiences is to take a cruise across Victoria Harbour to Central on the Duk Ling, a beautifully restored authentic Chinese fishing junk owned and manned by Chinese fishermen. You can purchase tickets in advance from the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s office at the Star Ferry Pier at Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Make sure you have your passport and cash (Hong Kong dollars) at the ready to buy tickets ahead of time. The cruise takes about one hour from one side of the harbour to the other. If you’re staying in Kowloon and heading to the Peak it’s a fun to way to get there.

    If you are unable to secure passage on the Duk Ling then the next best option is an iconic cross-harbour journey on the Star Ferry (tickets from Star Ferry Pier, Kowloon Point).

    For the of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and harbour head to The Peak on Central; if you’re wanting panoramic mountain views then Lantau Island will tick all the boxes.

    When it comes to a spectacular night view and sky-high culinary experience – book a table at The Peninsula, on the 28th floor of The Peninsula Hotel.  An early seat at the Felix Bar (also at The Peninsula Hotel) will secure the perfect vantage point to watch the dazzling Symphony of Lights show featuring a swirling kaleidoscope of light patterns illuminating skyscrapers and light beams dancing across Victoria Harbour. The show’s staged around 8pm nightly. If you’d prefer to watch this spectacle from ground level then the best vantage point is along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront between the Avenue of Stars and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Kowloon. Remember to get there early before the crowds start to amass.

    Another fine dining and superb views option is Kowloon’s Aqua restaurant, 1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui.

    While on the subject of memorable views, the funicular railway is a wonderful mode of transport to The Peak (also known as Victoria Peak). There are restaurants at The Peak but remember you’re there for the spectacular views not the food. Try to go on a day when the sky is clear and the city’s skyline pierces the clouds. If it is overcast your time there will still be enjoyable but the breathtaking vista won’t be at its very best.

    While on Central head to the seemingly endless escalator and walkway system that takes you to the post Mid-Levels, passing through trendy SoHo with its retro bars (great place for night owls). The world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system, which stretches over 800 metres, consists of a series of 20 escalators, three inclined moving walkways and connecting footbridges. To complete the Central-Mid-Levels escalator system from one end to the other will take about 20 minutes. However, taking the escalator system will afford you the opportunity for a mid-way stop to indulge in beverage or two and bite to eat or taking a detour to Graham Street, part of Hong Kong’s oldest street market.

    For a newcomer to the area, the easiest way to access the beginning of the escalator system is via 100 Queens Road, Central.

    If you have time, visit the Zoological & Botanical Gardens (Albany Road) with its intimate collection of monkeys and birds – it’s an absolute treat for animal lovers.

    When it comes to retail therapy and souvenir shopping, many tourists hanker after the thrill of the markets, particularly those that sell ‘copy’ products. Without wanting to be a wet rag, once you’ve been to one market you’ve seen them all. Unless you’re after copy-copy bags or tourist trinkets for family members then you really only need to spend time in one of the markets. As for the other markets, simply breeze in and breeze out purely for sightseeing purposes. Have a look at the market hit list and then decide which one is more suited to your needs.

    For rough and tumble, the Ladies Market, located along Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok is the most famous. It’s the busiest market overflowing with household items, toys, clothing and lots of glitter. Foodies should head to the night time Temple Street market when it morphs into one big open-air restaurant with street food sellers setting up tables for famished locals and passers-by.

    Stanley Market is great for ‘market beginners’ wanting to pick up Hong Kong themed souvenirs. It doesn’t have the hustle and bustle or hard-core haggling of the other markets. There are no bargains to be had but you will find silk clothing, ‘copy’ sports clothing, and embroidered linen.

    Don’t get taken in by the markets that sell electronic equipment – there’s no guarantee you’ll end up with a bargain with many of the products poor copies or old stock.

    Last but not least, there’s the Pearl and Jade Market. Start at the junction of Kansu and Battery Streets, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon).  This market is home to hundreds of stalls selling a variety of wares, particularly jade rings, bangles, pendants and earrings, strings of pearls and semi-precious stones. But beware. Just because the sellers tell you it’s jade, it may not be. If it is stamped 18K gold, it probably isn’t. Beware of the lustre on some of the pearls – it may just peel away before you get home. Rule of thumb, haggle and don’t pay too much. If you want to guarantee you’re buying quality pieces visit the accredited jewellery shops instead. Always remember you are in the land of ‘copy-copy’.  Take it all in good fun and pick up some token treasures that will make great memories.

    There are other markets on Kowloon to consider too. The Bird Garden, Goldfish Market + Flower Market are all in close proximity of each other. The Bird Garden (Yuen Po Street) contains highly prized songbirds in bamboo cages for sale. The Goldfish Market (Tung Choi Street) features an extensive series of stores and fresh water aquariums selling all sorts of sea creatures including baby turtles swimming around in plastic bags. For animal lovers these markets can be a little overwhelming so perhaps give them a miss.

    The Flower Market is a hidden oasis in the middle of a sea of concrete buildings. This place is a treat for the senses with its profusion of flora of myriad shapes, sizes and colours. There are rows upon rows of shops, stalls and stands overflowing with fragrant and vividly coloured blooms, bonsai trees trimmed to perfection, and freshly-cut flowers.

    For real retail therapy of the high-street variety there are two key locations: Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) and Central.

    Kowloon’s Nathan Road is the main retail stretch in Tsim Sha Tsui with other streets radiating from there. This precinct is full of major department stores selling designer labels: Harbour City, Festival Walk, Elements, iSquare and Lane Crawford to name but a few. If you want to go straight to the luxe shopping area start in Canton Road!

    Central is also a shopper’s paradise with its collection of designer boutiques and high-end department stores. Top spots: IFC Mall (check out the landscaped rooftop for million-dollar views), The Landmark, Prince’s Building, Alexandra House and Charter House.

    In reality, department stores are usually the same from big city to big city. My recommendation is to try 1881 Heritage which was the headquarters of the Hong Kong Marine Police from the 1880s to 1996. Just a few steps away from the Star Ferry Terminal (and opposite Harbour City), This Victorian-era building is home to the likes of Cartier, IWC, Mont Blanc, Shanghai Tang, and Vivienne Tam. While you’re there, look for the Time Ball Tower which once provided a vital service to ships in Victoria Harbour. Hullett House, part of the old colonial complex, is a brilliant place for after-hours drinks and dining.

    Having travelled to China, Thailand and Hong Kong I will readily admit temples are not ‘my thing’.  However, if this is your first trip to Hong Kong then the locals and travel agents will suggest you explore maybe Man Mo or Wong Tai Sin Temple. There are plenty to choose from. For a more exhilarating adventure I recommend taking time out to see Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha) on Lantau Island. The only downside is you would wipe out at least half a day from your sightseeing itinerary. Take the MTR to Tung Chung station; it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car terminal. This 25-minute aerial ride is not for the fainthearted. The 5.7km long cable ride stretches precariously high across Tung Chung Bay and the mountainous island leaving you feeling either empowered by the spectacular 360 degree view or completely terrified. For the less adventurous select the standard cabin; for the fearless, the glass bottom cabin will suit nicely.

    When you reach the top you’ll come face-to-face with typical tourist attractions, but walk straight past and head for Po Lin Monastery’s vegetarian restaurant where you can try well-priced food prepared by devout monks. After you’ve enjoyed your welcome feast it’s the ideal time to attack the long hike up steep stairs to the massive 34 metres high Buddha and sweeping views.

    There are a couple of other transport options to reach the mountain top but for time-poor tourists who love a scenic ride then this is the best and preferred way to travel.

    Final say: Usually 10% service charge is added to the bill. If not, leave a tip.