∞Originally published in the Vancouver Sun September 13, 2014∞
After fighting the human crush of Kowloon’s chaotic streets, stepping through the stately gates of Hong Kong’s classical Nan Lian Garden comes as a relief. The garden, with its bonsai pines, Banyan groves, and peaceful pavilions, is home to the Chi Lin Nunnery, a welcome respite from the often overwhelming throngs. The Diamond Hill retreat, which dates from the 1930s, was rebuilt in the Tang Dynasty style a decade ago — each pagoda produced without a single nail — and its serene grounds, tea trees and koi ponds are the yin to the city’s nerve-jangling yang.
As I wandered its winding paths, the skies opened and sheets of rain sent what tourists there were scurrying for the shelter of shrines. For the first time since arriving in this frenetic global capital of seven million, I was completely alone. After a blissful, solitary turn spent watching raindrops pock lotus ponds, I ducked into the Chi Lin Vegetarian restaurant for steaming green tea and delicate Buddhist cuisine. Refreshed, it was back into the fray to marvel at the confluence of wealth, consumerism and sheer humanity that make this Asian supercity a must-see.
More than 54 million travellers visited Hong Kong last year, and with multiple daily direct flights from Vancouver, it’s easy to join them. But leave the five-star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury boutiques of Causeway Bay to the jet set. A stopover doesn’t have to be stressful, or expensive. There’s no need to max out credit cards if you focus on the affordable delights of local street life. Despite its size, the city is tailor-made for exploring by foot, with a superb public transit system of cheap trams, metros, ferries and taxis.
Here’s how to see the best of the city while keeping both your qi and your budget in balance.
Spend your first day among the cosmopolitan crowds of Hong Kong Island. Start early to sidestep crowds and take in sweeping views of the skyscraped landscape from Victoria Peak. The precarious ride up the Peak Tram (founded in 1888) to the 1,300-foot summit requires queuing after 10 a.m. Head up while it’s cool, grab a nai cha, Hong Kong milky tea, from a Peak Galleria café and fit in an hour-long stroll along Lugard and Harlech Roads. If it’s open, stop at the Tai Cheong Bakery for one of the best daan taat egg tarts in the city, then take the tram down and head off to explore.
Start with a wander through nearby Hong Kong Park, an urban jungle oasis where seniors perform tai chi at daybreak and photographers stalk butterflies around a central lake. Birdwatch at the in-park aviary (home to 600 birds from pheasants to mynah) then take a light lunch at the park’s lovely Lok Cha Tea Shop and museum, for dim sum with a choice of a hundred teas.
Then head west through Central’s chock-a-block coffee spots and high-fashion shops to wander SoHo and Sheun Wan for a taste of the old city. Following Hollywood Road, make your first stop a stroll through the 160-year-old Graham Street wet mar- ket and admire unusual produce, from rambutan to durian. Duck into one of the many galleries and antique shops along the way to browse everything from celadon pottery to modern Chinese art.
Follow wafting incense to the mid-19th century Man Mo Temple and slip inside to burn an offering to the gods of war and literature honoured here. Track down souvenirs and trinkets at the nearby Cat Street Market before heading into Sheun Wan, a boho area of temples, cafes and galleries, plus blocks of traditional businesses selling dried fish and unpronounceable ancient Chinese herbs.
Double back to Central’s Wellington Street for a classic diner dinner at Mak’s Noodle, where chefs make chewy strands by hand right in the window as they’ve done since this institution opened in the 1960s. A bowl of won ton noodles and some braised gai lan will set you back about $8 and is Anthony Bourdain- approved. Craving something more substantial? Tuck into a full Canton- ese menu or dim sum at the gorgeous art deco Luk Yu Tea House on Stanley Street.
Finish the evening in true Hong Kong Style — that is, not until the early morning hours. To get the full impact of this 24-hour city, stay in the heart of the chaos in Lan Kwai Fong, a nightlife district where revellers party into the early morning hours. The neighbourhood’s boutique Hotel LFK by Rhombus makes a good stay at a reasonable price (no easy feat in this city of high-end hotels) and offers a minimalist respite from the frenetic street beat. Enjoy a nightcap on its Azure Restaurant and Bar terrace or a morning snack of lai won boa custard buns in the sky-high restaurant.
On day two, cross Victoria harbour on a Star Ferry and devote the day to Kowloon. The ferries are a city institution (dating to the late 1880s) and provide exceptional views of the waterfront skyline for pocket change. Alight at either Central or Wan Chai pier and disembark in Tsim Sha Tsui, steeling yourself for the human multitude that is Kowloon. Here, two million people are packed into 47 square kilometres: that’s an astonishing 43,000 people per square kilometre. Walking along Nathan Road, the district’s main drag, it seems like all of them are out.
The southern end of the road, known as the Golden Mile, is a shopping mecca thronged with pedestrians, where international luxury boutiques coexist with street vendors and hawkers. For more affordable shopping check out the gritty Chungking Mansions nearby (hot cellphone anyone?) or hop on the metro and head north to Mong Kok’s street markets. Green thumbs will gape at walls of orchids in the flower market. Bargain hunters can binge on jade jewelry and satiny cheongsams at the Fa Yuen Street markets and Tung Choi Street ladies market.
When the masses get to be too much, retreat for a cup of yin yeung (half-tea half-coffee concoction) and a bo law bao pineapple bun at the Mido Cafe, a cha chaan tang vintage teahouse on Temple Street. For a longer escape, take the metro north to Nan Lian Garden or rest in Kowloon Park, admiring its lake of flamingos and topiary mazes.
In the evening, ramp up your yang energy again with a waterfront walk on the Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade. Stay for the Symphony of Lights, a free nightly light, sound and laser show at 8 p.m., a popular attraction that’s been running for over a decade. Then catch a cab to the Temple Street Night market with its carnival of fortune tellers and roving singers. Dine at the dai pai dong food stalls on an array of wok-seared seafood, and favourites like cheong fun (rice noodle rolls in sweet sauce), egg waffles and fried fish balls. For the adventurous, there are any number of questionable delicacies from stinky tofu to fried pig intestines. For the rest of us, Hong Kong itself, with all its sensory delights, is feast enough for the senses.
Travel funding was provided by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada’s Media Fellowship Program, supported in part by Cathay Pacific Airways. This piece does not necessarily reflect the views of either organization.
Hong Kong’s 250-plus islands make the perfect day trip, with frequent ferries to several locales, some of them less than an hour and $5 away.
- Lamma Island’s main attraction is Hung Shing Ye beach, a white-sand spread considered one of the best in the region, if you overlook the view of the power station. Take a half-hour walk from the town of Yung Shue Wan where you’ll dock, grabbing bottles of honey green tea and oven- fresh pineapple buns for a picnic. The protected swimming area is popular place to spend the day (take note of the posted shark warnings). Hikers can continue to the other end of the island and nish with a seafood feast in the town of Sok Kwu Wan.
- Lantau Island o ers the famed Po Lin Monastery’s big bronze Buddha, reachable via steady climb or by a 25-minute ride on Ngong Ping cable car to Lantau Peaks. There are beaches and waterfall hikes, or visit the Tai O shing village for pictures of its quaint stilt houses.
- It takes about an hour to walk around the sleepy car-free outpost of tiny Peng Chau Island, taking in the wet market and temples, and view from Finger HiIl.
If you go:
- Cathay Pacific (800-268-6868) and Air Canada (888-247-2262) daily, non-stop to Hong Kong from Vancouver.
- Visit the Hong Kong Tourism Board for more.
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