Earlier this month I spent five days in Hong Kong. You should go. Why?
- Hong Kong is still one of the world’s great cities
- There are very few tourists
- You can visit Disneyland and Ocean Park and not queue for rides and attractions
- There are bargains to be had – the markets are quiet
- Hong Kong has sites and attractions you haven’t seen yet
- Enjoy a country walk to a beautiful beach
- If you’re rugby fan, you MUST attend the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens at least once
- It’s safe: Hong Kong people support democratic reform but deplore violence
- It’s cheap – packages with major carriers are a bargain, and the public transport system is a dream
- It would demonstrate your support for the HK people
‘Aha’, I hear you say, ‘so what makes you an instant expert?!’ My five days doesn’t qualify me, of course, but I should add that I lived and worked in Hong Kong on and off for about 15 years, including seven years at the now infamous Hong Kong Polytechnic University. My children grew up and went to school there, and I still have friends in Hong Kong, both permanent residents and expatriates.
Why did I go back for a visit? Well, the other university I worked for, the Open University of Hong Kong, was having its 30th Anniversary Celebration dinner, and I’d received an invitation. At first I didn’t think I would go, but then I reasoned that it provided a good excuse to visit Hong Kong and catch up with old friends (literally old in some cases). An additional factor was that I’d been searching for a special bottle of whiskey (Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Single Malt) for my son’s 40th birthday, and discovered that although it was no longer available in Australia, I could buy it in Hong Kong. The final clincher was the cost: a direct return flight from Melbourne with a major carrier plus accommodation at an excellent hotel was A$1200.
Though the plane on the way to Hong Kong was full, I subsequently discovered that nearly all my fellow passengers were in transit to other destinations. Thus the immigration was a doddle – no long lines and very few people collecting the baggage. Totally unlike the ‘old days’, when I’d feel superior coming in with my Hong Kong Resident’s card and passing rapidly through immigration, while the poor tourists joined the massive queue that snaked back for miles. I went to the machine to top up my Octopus Card (stored value card with which you can travel on anything anywhere, as well as make purchases) only to find it was out of date (mine was probably 20 years old). A polite attendant replaced it and I was on my way.
There’s a rapid transit railway (MTR) from the airport to Central, but I prefer the more scenic and peaceful bus. It’s a bargain, and the A21 bus took me to within a very short walking distance of my hotel. Incidentally, walking is one of the great pleasures in Hong Kong (apart from in the heat and humidity of summer) and in checking back how far I walked there in my five days, my iPhone tells me it was a total of 68.8 kilometres! I arrived around mid-morning, and was delighted that I could check in immediately (another benefit of few visitors). The hotel is in Mong Kok (Kowloon side) and I noticed signs of the recent unrest, including graffiti and broken traffic lights.
That afternoon I walked to the nearby MTR station and headed to Kwun Tong to collect the whiskey, for which I’d previously paid. It took a while to locate the warehouse (on the 8th floor of an industrial building), and found that it wasn’t there! The date I’d nominated for collection was two days later. Fortunately they agreed to deliver it to the hotel (yes I should have rung and checked).
That evening I walked the considerable distance from the Hotel to Delaney’s bar in Tsim Sha Tsui – it was there that we watched the Rugby World Cup semi-final in 1999, the glorious occasion when Sterling Mortlock intercepted Carlos Spencer’s long cut-out pass and ran the length of the field to score a try. All Blacks sent home, Australia on to victory in the final. On the way I passed through the Temple Street Market (very quiet), as well as Kowloon Park, where there’s a public swimming pool we used to frequent as well as some interesting flora and birds. Delaney’s was quiet, with my few fellow patrons being locals rather than tourists.
The next day I did one of the usual touristy things – a trip to Stanley, on the south side of the island. In the old days, we’d take the MTR to central then hop on a bus that meandered up and over mid-levels and on to Stanley. What I hadn’t realised is that there’s now another MTR extension – the South Island Line. If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you’d realise how amazed I was to get on at Admiralty Station and get off about three minutes later at Ocean Park. Yes, they’ve dug a tunnel straight through the mountain! From there it was a lovely minibus ride along the south side of the island to Stanley. Yes it was quiet, both because I was early and because of the lack of tourists. Happily Pacific Coffee is still there, with its big red comfortable lounge chairs where I could enjoy my flat white and cake while browsing the South China Morning Post. Wandered at my leisure and found suitable presents for all six grandchildren.
Took the slow bus back to Central, where there’s a stop right by one of the MTR exits, making it simple to get back to Mong Kok to prepare for the evening’s festivities at the big event. This entailed putting on a lounge suit and tie, something I hadn’t done for many years. For a change of transport, I took a double-decker bus down Nathan Road to Star Ferry and hence across the harbour to the Wanchai Ferry Pier, close to the dinner venue.
I was somewhat surprised how much I enjoyed the evening, given that it was massive event, with 100 tables of guests. The food and wine (Australian) was good (Asian cuisine is more suited to large groups of diners than Western cuisine), the entertainment and speeches not too overpowering, and it was great to catch up with so many old colleagues. Buses had been arranged to take guests back to Kowloon, but it was easier to just walk to Wanchai MTR and head back to Mong Kok and my hotel.
The next day, after a quiet morning, I again walked down to Tsim Sha Tsui, this time to the Star Of Canton (restaurant on 17th Floor of The One) for a much quieter and delightful yum cha lunch with a small group of work friends. Truly delicious and yummily finished off with mango pudding (don’t know why this is never seen in Australia). It was wonderful to both reminisce and discuss our various life paths and activities. And the view across the harbour is amazing.
Continuing my gastronomic journey, that evening I revisited an old favourite, The Spring Deer, down in Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui (alert readers will have noticed I spend far more time on Kowloon side than the Island side, a legacy of having lived and worked there). Not easy to find, as it’s up the stairs in a somewhat daggy old building – look for the signs and follow the arrows. It’s a wonderful old restaurant, with decor straight from the1960s. The food is good northern Chinese fare, washed down with Chinese tea and Tsing Tao beer. But even better than that was seeing Nic (aged 88) and Winnie in such good health and spirits.
On to the weekend. A cool but sunny Saturday morning, and it’s a short walk to Dundas Street to catch the minibus to Sai Kung, out in one of Hong Kong’s lovely country parks. The 16 seater minibuses are a feature of the public transport, regular and efficient (and cheap!). I get off at Hebe Haven Yacht Club, as it’s here that Nic keeps his boat Cloud 2, and old wooden junk. I’m the first there, but know what to do and where to go, having been here often during my time of residence (as a guest, never a boat/yacht owner).
We motored out and across Port Shelter, then between Sharp Island and Kai Sau Chau (HK’s Main public golf course) and on to Sheung Yu, where we drop off Nic’s son Doug to do a training run across the hills in preparation for the Four Peaks Race. The drop off was not as easy as it sounds. We had to anchor out in a bay and get him to shore in a tender. It was one of those old small fibreglass dinghies in need of repair. And we couldn’t find the bungs, so Nic tore up a rag to stuff in the holes. There were no rowlocks or oars, so we had to use a couple of short kayak paddles. Doug and and I managed to paddle us to shore, then Nic and I paddled back against the wind and current. I was surprised we made it safely back to Cloud 2 without incident.
We headed off to Sha Kiu Tau, where we anchored, were taken ashore by a small power boat from Yau Lei restaurant, had a short walk around the foreshore, then just as we settled down for a beer Doug trotted in, having covered about 8 kilometres of hilly paths. Back to Cloud 2 for a long and leisurely barbecue lunch (nice little charcoal bbq set up in the prow did the trick), washed down with beer and wine. Up with the anchor and slowly back to harbour. I should add that a recent addition to the boat is a windlass, for pulling up the anchor – it had in the past been a rather Herculean task at times, and the nice little motorised winch was a blessing.
To get a great overall picture of the area, take a look at this short video (includes great drone footage), which takes you from Pak Lap Wan (mentioned below) over the hill to Sha Kiu Tau.
It takes a good hour or so to get back, and then more time packing up and heading back to Kowloon. Nic and Winnie gave me a lift to a spot close enough to walk to the hotel. This was now the evening, and I was able to meander along the Mong Kok street market (Ladies Market) on the way back.
And the next (and final) day? After a delicious apricot tart with my flat white at an excellent French cafe, it was back to do it again, although this time just with Nic and Winnie, with no complicated dropping off and picking up, and no barbecue on the boat, rather a terrific seafood lunch at Yau Lei restaurant back at Sha Kiu Tau after a pleasant morning slow trip in Cloud 2. You are guaranteed the seafood is fresh, as it’s alive when you arrive. Our steamed prawns, along with fingernail clams in noodles, fried squid and some greens, were delicious, washed down with Tsing Tao beer. Not a lot of fellow diners, just a few groups of yachties.
And this time we walked further, across a hill to a pristine beach in a beautiful bay (Pak Lap Wan), where just a few intrepid campers and hikers were the only others present. We could have gone for a swim, but though sunny it wasn’t hot, and the water had cooled off from its warm summer temperatures. Along the way we passed a couple spreading out their fish to dry on the foreshore, as well as visiting a small temple where a group were having a day of festivity, with burning incense and roast pig.
I’ve told this part of the tale in detail partly because it’s not often visited by tourists, but could/should be. There are no roads to Sha Kiu Tau, you have to go by boat or walk. If you’re in a group, pool your resources and hire a boat at Sai Kung, otherwise go as far as possible by minibus and taxi, and walk the rest (it’s not far off the famous MacLehose Trail).
And there are other great walks and beaches in the area. My other favourite is Tai Long Wan (next to Ham Tin), which when the swell is right becomes surfable (but be careful of rips). It’s a full day’s outing, and we used to do it in the late 1980s via a ferry from near the Chinese University to Check Kong, then a walk up and over the saddle to the beaches.
My flight wasn’t until midnight, so I had time to freshen up back at the clubhouse before being dropped off again in Mong Kok. Back to the hotel, pick up my suitcase and walk to the A21 bus stop. Quick checkin at the airport (no waiting!), a snack and check of duty free (mostly high end stuff, not very interesting) then on to the flight. With so few passengers, had three seats to myself and was able to manage some sleep on the way home.
A wonderful and memorable five days.
Postscript: You may be wondering why I haven’t talked more about the troubles in Hong Kong. Yes, of course I’ve been following the news, and been in contact with friends there. I felt highly confident that I would be perfectly safe, and I was. Hong Kong has always been peaceful, and its people are fundamentally opposed to violence. I saw no unrest while I was there, and was aware that on my final day there would be a demonstration in Central.
As you’ve read, I was a long way away in the north-east New Territories. As we were lunching, Nic introduced me to a friend, who happened to be the manager of the Pacific Coffee chain of cafes. He was on the phone with his managers in outlets along the path of the demonstration, and was sent updates and photos of progress. A few of his outlets had been closed down in earlier incidents, but he’d been able to reassign staff, so no-one had lost their jobs. There was no sense of anger or particular concern, just due care and diligence.
So, getting back to where we started, visit Hong Kong now! If you’ve been before, go back, revisit old haunts and try some new ones. If you’ve never been, go – you’ll love it.