GoNOMAD in Hong Kong
Our stop in Hong Kong was intended to be a short break from sightseeing and moving around: a week to recoup, regroup, rest, relax and take advantage of such luxuries as reliable photo processing, English bookstores, high speed Internet and delicious food.
But Hong Kong turned out to be more than rest stop. From the madness of Mong Kok to the laid back beaches of Lamma Island, our “quiet” week quickly filled up.
The Hong Kong Express
Fortunately, we had 27 hours to rest on the train from Beijing to Hong Kong. In our private, deluxe sleeper compartment (with lace window curtains and silk flowers!), we read, wrote, slept and dined on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (a treat!) while the landscape of South China passed by our window: rice fields, small villages, jungles, the misty mountains of the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys.
It was so wonderful to see the lushness and greenery after two weeks of Mongolia’s desert and steppe.
When we arrived in Hong Kong the next afternoon, we were well rested. It was a good thing, too. Hong Kong hit us like a typhoon. As soon as we stepped into the chaos of Kowloon, we were swept up into the dynamic, intoxicating and exhausting mix that is Hong Kong: part East, part West, no other city can compare in sheer energy, and of course, commerce.
Our hotel, the Salisbury YMCA, was only a short taxi ride from the station. Right next to the famous Peninsula.
Hotel with the same 5-star views of Victoria Harbour, the YMCA is only steps away from Nathan Road (like NYC’s Times Square) and the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Terminal. It also has 4-star rooms, two swimming pools, a fitness center with rock climbing walls, cafes, restaurants, bookstores and even computer rentals with in room data ports! In other words, the Y has the perfect location and facilities for a budget price.
We could easily have passed our time without leaving the hotel. We both had work to do (Josh’s school work needed attention) and we could swim, rock climb, and watch movies. But Hong Kong beckoned. From our window, we could see the dramatic mountains of Hong Kong Island, the incredible glass and steel skyline, the world’s busiest harbour filled with ferries, cruise ships, freighters, junks and sampans, all forming a backdrop for a jumble of neon signs overhanging crowded streets, Chinese markets, electronics shops, noodle stands, boutiques and street vendors.
There was so much to see and do. One excursion per day, we agreed. We were supposed to resting. But, we would explore the Must-Sees and try to find some off-the-beaten-path attractions.
No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a trip up Victoria Peak for a bird’s eye view of the city, harbour, islands, and sprawl of the New Territories, so we planned our first excursion to the mountains. Before we could get to the peak, however, we had to cross Victoria Harbor via ferry. The 7-minute Star Ferry ride through the maze of floating craft from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central is by far the most scenic, dramatic and relaxing commute I have ever taken. The famous Hong Kong skyline approaches; ferry horns blare; sampans and junks, sails flying, ride alongside. Josh and I loved the Star Ferry and every time we boarded it (at least twice a day, and especially at night) was a peak experience for both of us.
From Central, we took a bus to the Garden Street Bus Terminal to board the famous cable tram to Peak Tower. Built in 1885 to great skepticism, the Peak Tram is a near vertical 15- minute ascent to the plateau beneath the summit. In fact the incline is so steep, the wooden tram’s floorboards are built on an angle to make it easier for passengers to stand upright while riding.
The tram stops at Peak Tower, a dramatic structure with shops, restaurants, viewing platforms, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium and a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. It was a slightly cloudy day so the view wasn’t as good as we hoped, but when the skies opened for one of those Hong Kong thundershowers, we were glad we were at the Tower. After watching clouds roll in Josh and I sat out the rain by admiring the strange collection at Ripley’s and posing for photos with Hong Kong’s most famous son, Jackie Chan, in the wax museum.
When the rains stopped, we headed to another of Hong Kong’s Must-Sees: Aberdeen Harbor. Located on the other side of the island, Aberdeen Harbour is one of the most colorful and congested bodies of water in the world. Sampans ply the waters, fishing boats, and other small craft navigate amazingly between larger ships. It is a scene that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, except that now it takes place in the shadow of modern skyscrapers.
We boarded a sampan for a short ride through the harbor to the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, a Hong Kong institution, for lunch. A gilded Chinese palace floating (anchored, actually) in the middle of the crowded harbor: huge, bright, and unmistakable, the Jumbo is a great place for dim sum lunch, another Hong Kong Must-Do.
So, we did Dim Sum at the Jumbo, feasting on an assortment of spring rolls and dumplings, surrounded by Chinese brocade and red lanterns, watching sampans cruise by, fishing nets hanging from their masts.
After lunch, we headed back to the Y, but not without a stop to ride the Central and Mid-Level Escalators. The longest outdoor escalators and stairs in the world, these covered people movers carry commuters and sightseers over 800 meters from the office buildings of Central to the restaurants, shops, bars and residences of the Mid-Levels. In the mornings, you can ride the escalators down, but from 10:30 am until midnight, you can ride them up the mountain, stopping at various streets to poke around. Walk down a little, then pick up the escalator again, like a living Chutes and Ladders game. In fact, Josh and I had so much fun, we forgot about the fact that we had exceeded our one-excursion per day rule. Oh well, this was Hong Kong, after all.
The next day was another rainy one, so our excursions would be indoors again. Fortunately, Hong Kong has a number of first-rate museums that are both kid-friendly and fun.
The Hong Kong Space Museum and Theatre was across the street from our hotel and made an easy trip. We spent the morning looking at space rocks and NASA rockets and enjoying the star show at the planetarium. The IMAX theatre was showing the Antarctica film, which we had already seen, so we skipped it and headed to the Hong Kong Science Museum a few blocks away.
Four stories tall, the Hong Kong Science Museum is a fantastic, hands-on interactive learning center with exhibits on everything from robots to Chinese medicine, all with comprehensive English explanations. It’s a well-deservedly popular place with both kids and adults, and for the rest of the afternoon, we joined half of Hong Kong’s school children learning about energy, computers, physics, health, optics, weather, and even Chinese mathematics! Every 10 minutes or so, there was another demonstration of some kind from cloud making to computer graphics, and Josh was enthralled. So was I. My interest in Chinese medicine was well taken care of through the exhibits on herbs and their qualities and uses, as well as acupuncture, moxibustion and massage. And Josh got his science classes for the month!
Hong Kong lives to shop. In fact, you can probably find anything in the world in Hong Kong’s stores and markets, and you could spend most of your life just discovering where to buy what you need. But Josh and I only had one day to devote to Hong Kong’s markets.
We began with a trip across the island to the small, trendy expat community of Stanley, known for its restaurants, windsurfing beach and famous market. For an hour or so, we prowled the alleyways crammed with shops and stalls selling everything from Pashmina shawls and silk bed sheets to souvenirs. Compared to mainland Chinese markets, Stanley was disappointing, but we did manage to find a few things for friends back home including silk bathrobes and handmade beaded purses.
We fortified ourselves with a good fish and chips lunch on the seaside promenade, and then headed back to the central area of town to check out the food and antiques markets of Sheung Wan and SoHo. After sifting through old jade, coins, and Mao memorabilia, we wandered through the open-air fish markets of Central, gawking at the incredible variety of seafood available – everything from eels to frogs to whole snapper the size of my arm! It made us hungry again, so we headed back across the harbor to Nathan Road – the shopping center of Hong Kong – and prowled the electronics shops before stopping to eat at one of the many seafood restaurants that display their menus in fish tanks in the windows!
Sated, we walked further up Nathan Road into Yau Ma Tei for the Temple Street Night Market, where the action starts when the sun goes down. Three blocks of lantern-lit stalls selling fake watches, toys, electronics, clothing and other knick-knacks makes for some scenic haggling, but not much in the way of unique merchandise. On the side streets, open-air food stalls sell noodles and seafood, Chinese pharmacies sell herbs, and Chinese opera performers entertain the non-shoppers.
While the party goes on until midnight, we were shopped out by 11, and staggered back home, our bags surprisingly light for a day of shopping Hong Kong-Style.
The weather finally cooperated with us on our last two days in Hong Kong, so we planned to spend at least one of them at the beach. Hong Kong and the outlying islands have several beach options, including the exclusive Repulse Bay, but we chose to head to Lamma Island, known as Hong Kong’s Hippie Island.
Only 15 minutes by ferry from Central, Lamma is HK’s third largest island, but is about as far from the hustle of Hong Kong as you can get. With only two small towns, picturesque harbors lined with outdoor seafood restaurants, hiking paths along the beach, and no cars, Lamma seemed the perfect place to unwind and relax.
We arrived at about 11 and walked about 25 minutes through the small village of Yung Shue Wan past cafes, bookstores, tapas bars, and small markets to the Hung Shing Ye Beach. Thailand’s Phuket it’s not, but the small sandy beach does have a nice swimming area, rocks to sit on, trees to lie beneath, a cafe and restaurant, and changing facilities.
Josh and I settled in with our books, expecting to spend a few quiet hours in the sun. Soon, the beach filled up with families, and within an hour, some local kids had befriended Josh while their mothers and I started chatting. It didn’t take long for more mothers and kids to join, and for the next two days the Lamma Mamas (as we called ourselves) and our children sat on the beach, swam, ate delicious grilled prawns and mango cakes, and relished having made new friends. It was the best way to get to know Hong Kong and relax at the same time, and by the time we caught the last midnight ferry off the island back to Kowloon, we were sad to leave.
Sure, there was more to see and do in Hong Kong, but considering that we hadn’t planned to do much at all, we were satisfied. We discovered a kid-friendly city and made new friends, and even got all our work finished before moving on to Japan!
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
41 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Located just steps from Nathan Road and the Star Ferry Terminal, the family-friendly Y has comfortable rooms with minibars, TV, A/C and dataports, two indoor pools, a well-equipped fitness center, a rock climbing center, an affordable restaurant and café, laptop rentals and dataports, all at budget prices. Weekly rates as low as USD $60/double per night! ymcahk.org.hk
GoNOMAD has listings for budget hotels in Hong Kong.
Where To Eat
HK is known for fantastic food and has zillions of restaurants of all kinds from Mexican taco joints to Chinese noodle stands.
Jumbo Floating Restaurant
Not the best food in town (or the least expensive), but you can’t beat the atmosphere or the ride to get there! At light it’s a feast of lanterns, but during the day, you can get a cheap Dim Sum Lunch. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Happy Garden Noodles and Congee Kitchen
76 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui Cheap and filling, the Happy Garden makes some of the best homemade noodle soups and entrees in town. English menu makes it easy to choose what you like, but arrive early as the place is often crowded.
Man Fung Seafood Restaurant
Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island
Right along the harbor by the ferry landing, this seaside restaurant displays its catch market style, and serves (and charges) by weight. The fresh garlic prawns are worth the ferry ride alone!
What To Do
Space Museum and Theater 10 Salisbury Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui
Exhibits, planetarium and IMAX theatre all make for an educational and entertaining visit for kids. Museum open every day but Thursday. IMAX open daily except Monday.
Hong Kong Science Museum
2 Science Museum Raod, Tsim Sha Tsui East Multi-level interactive science learning center that will keep kids and adults happy for hours. Open daily except Monday. Free admission on Wednesday.
Take the tram to Victoria Peak and spend a few hours admiring the view, shopping, or checking out the wax figures at Madame Tussauds. Marche Movenpick is a Swiss chain with great, kid-friendly food and fantastic views. Pacific Coffee also has an outlet in the tower and is a great place to get a cup of coffee and check your email for free!
Get away from it all and take the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry from Central to either Yung Shue Wan or Sok Kwu Wan (also accessible from Aberdeen). A walking path along the beach joins the two villages which both have good seafood restaurants, cafes, and interesting boutiques.
If you plan to be in HK for any length of time, buy a rechargeable Octopus card, which is good for transport on buses, trams, metro and ferries. You can even use it in some vending machines and coffee stands. Buy it at any MTR station for HK$150 for adults, $75 for kids, with a $50 refundable deposit.
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