Hong Kong's Star Ferry: Seeing the City by Boat

Hong Kong's Star Ferry is a treat for tourists and a part of work life for residents.
Hong Kong's Star Ferry is a treat for tourists and a part of work life for residents.

Hong Kong’s Star Ferry: A Trip Worth Taking!

By Rick Granger

When my wife and I moved to Hong Kong, we soon found that the coolest thing was being surrounded by its waterways. During our time in Hong Kong, water was as a form of transportation to and from work every single day of the year for two years! We rode a high speed catamaran ferry to Hong Kong island from Lantau where we lived.

We would go buzzing between container ships the size of skyscrapers on their sides, around classic Chinese Junk boats, and even between the occasional special forces training boats as they whipped around on training exercises. Hundreds of ships of all different sizes fill Victoria Harbour and present obstacles for high-speed travel.

Cylindrical mooring buoys the size of garden sheds poked out of the water every mile or so in what I can only assume was some kind of grid. Trash dotted the surface of the water and occasionally got sucked up into the water inlet for the high powered turbine engines which powered the vessel.

The sight of the odd piece of lumber floating on the water would send shivers down the spine as it went whipping by at 45 miles an hour.

Occasionally the high speed ferry would come to a silent halt and an announcement would come through in Chinese, then in English, asking for patience as the crew cleaned “debris which has block-ed the water inlet”. They would fire the turbines backwards to shoot out whatever got in there, and then we’d be off again in a forward direction. Usually this took no more than a moment.

Hong Kong's Fast Ferry

The fast ferry was one of the coolest parts of living in Hong Kong – it brought us our twice daily 25 minute tour of the world shipping industry as seen in Victoria Harbour and the South China Sea. Our 2 year old son was always standing at a window watching the endless collection of ships, small and large, passing by at nearly 50 miles an hour.

The Star Ferry was, however, cool for the exact opposite reasons. It crosses the shortest point between the two land masses, Hong Kong Island’s Central District and the mainland side’s Tsim Sha Tsui, at a speed of around 5 miles an hour. It’s open to the humid East Asian air, and is protected from rain and wind in no way. It’s slow, and hot – or cold if it’s winter - noisy, smells of diesel fuel, and pitches and rolls with the waves of the south China sea as its turbulent currents squeeze between China and Hong Kong.

Sea spray splashes up fore and aft, and even from the sides! The water churns violently where the propellers push and pull the vessel along. These are found on both ends of the ship. The vessel never turns around, rather it pulls straight in, unloads, and pulls straight out to do the same on the other side. The ships are ingenious, and they’re old – some more than 60 years old.

The design is double decker, and the second floor is where the windows are - the nice chairs and the air conditioning – but who wants those things on a harbor crossing anyway? For a little over $6.30HK (just under a dollar US) you can experience the same journey that millions of people have been taking for a century.

The best posture to take, though, is that of not being in a hurry. Let all the locals rush out in their hurried way before you bother standing up – but don’t linger too long, or you will swept right back to your seat by the oncoming passengers who are going to rush to their seats.

Rushing to a Short Ferry Trip

This is one of the funnier moments in the day in Hong Kong; people rushing on to a ferry that goes so slowly across such a short distance, and then rushing back off at the other end. It’s as though, in their minds, they’ve somehow run the distance themselves and don’t want to miss a second at the finish line and lose their rightfully earned finish time!

Route map of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong.
Route map of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong.

The only other thing that can beat this experience is the Star Ferry Harbour Tour! This is the Star Ferry at its best! It’s the same type of ancient vessel that plies back and forth all day long, except this one’s high class. The there are no crude wooden benches, no diesel smell, no heat or humidity.

When you board the ship at the tour pier you walk through high-gloss hard wood doors filled with huge glass windows. Everything on the ship is polished and clean. The floors, rather than showing decades of foot traffic wear, are highly polished hardwood as well. Brass monopolizes the fixtures market.

Round four-person tables dot the wide-open air-conditioned deck with plush hunter green armchairs set at each one. Around the room are large glass display cases with Hong Kong’s Star Ferry history highlighted throughout. After visiting the bar, passengers can sit in front of picture windows to watch Hong Kong pass by at a leisurely few-miles an hour. It’s opulent. If you use your imagination, you can see yourself some member of British aristocracy a hundred years ago being ferried around the colony for whatever official purpose - with important leisure to attend to.

At each end of the deck is a private outdoor veranda – private only by virtue of the mere fact that no one ever rides the tour ferry. It’s $50HK (around $7US) and goes from pier to pier to pier to pier in a square. There’s no reason to ride it unless you’re a tourist – or, an expat who simply wants to enjoy Hong Kong’s magnificent skyline at midday, or at dusk, whenever you choose.

Hong Kong. Mridula Dwivedi photo.
Hong Kong. Mridula Dwivedi photo.

The verandas include large padded white benches, and tables for enjoying a snack or a meal. With the wind blowing in your face, or at you back, there is no better place in Hong Kong for a snack. You still get the rhythmic chugging of the old diesel engines, and the pitching and rolling of the sea – but the experience is altogether different. You feel clean. You feel separate. You feel opulent.

It’s a trip well worth taking!

The Harbour Tour is as kid-friendly as it gets in Hong Kong! Bring your family on board and immediately the staff will take an interest in your children. The sights outside the windows are engaging enough that you little ones will not notice the time it takes you to leisurely grab a snack and return to where they’re seated. The staff is friendly and helpful and will, more than likely, treat your children like visiting dignitaries.

The Star Ferry Harbour Tour can be boarded at any of the four Star Ferry Piers found in Central, Tsim Sha Tsui, Wan Chai, or Hung Hom. Any taxi driver in the city, all of whom speak English, will swiftly deliver you to the nearest Star Ferry Pier without delay or confusion! There is no best time to go; Hong Long is beautiful as seen from the ferry at any time of the day or evening!
Information can be found at:

Star Ferry website
24-hr Hotline: (852) 2118 6201
Tel: (852) 2118 6208
Fax: (852) 2118 0032
Email

Travel writer, photographer, and artist Rick Granger has spent the last ten years living as an expatriate making himself at home in the US, Southeast Asiaand the Caribbean. Read his travel blog.

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