As we boarded the tram – truly the “little engine that could” – and settled into seats that canted at 45 degrees – we watched commerce and traffic slip away. We chugged through subtropical jungle, glimpsing the lavish villas and fancy cars of Hong Kong’s movers and shakers.
Ten minutes later, when we disembarked on the Peak, Avery and I exchanged one of those “uh, oh, tourist trap” glances: To get to the very highest point required a pricey additional ticket. Instead, we chose to amble on the footpath known as Lugard Road, looking down upon the tops of immense skyscrapers (three of the 12 tallest in the world are in Hong Kong. From that perspective they seemed as insubstantial as single LEGO blocks).
We took the tram down, and then boarded a red double-decker bus, clutching our hats as we careened down the mountain towards the ferry dock. Calvin Klein’s male underwear model stood an impressive 27 stories tall on the façade of the soon-to-be-leveled Ritz Carlton, black and white, in really tight briefs. “Wow,” I gasped. Avery rolled his eyes.
On the South China Sea
I have a penchant, shared by my son, for dismissing famous tourist opportunities – afternoon tea at the Peninsula Hotel, for instance – for paths much less traveled. Thus, we planned to spend the afternoon and evening of the second day in Macau, meeting up at the New World China Ferry Terminal in time for the 2:30 boat, the Macau Limited.
After some intensive stamping of passports, we boarded a high-speed catamaran, settled into cozy lounges and traversed the South China Sea for an hour. We emerged in a completely different world. Macau is China’s Las Vegas, with that “what happens in Macau, stays in Macau” flavor.
We ogled the casinos as the taxi rushed from the ferry to Largo de Senado, the famous square, transporting us to Portugal in the late 1500s. We stood there for a minute, disoriented by the swirling paving tiles and the bright yellow buildings trimmed like wedding cakes. When we came to our senses, we were stuffing ourselves with Chinese pan-fried noodles in the Wong Chi Kei Teahouse, all venerable dark wood, surrounded by ghosts of Chinese merchants and Portuguese traders haggling over the price of tea.
Macau is far from pristine: McDonald’s has its place of honor in the square, and there’s a store devoted to selling multi-thousand dollar massage chairs, which we commandeered for a half-hour, discussing how we might ship them. Between wandering the winding alleys, stopping in antique shops – Foo dogs? Bust of Chairman Mao? — and checking out the impressive Ruins of St. Paul’s (with an irony-provoking backdrop of the new Grand Lisboa Casino, which looks like a 1950s UFO spouting flames) there’s plenty to do.
When we got hungry (again) we stopped at the unquestionably Portuguese Restaurant Platao, on a quiet, cobbled backstreet, grateful for the crunch of grilled sardines and the sharp bite of linguica and bacalau.
What to Do in Hong Kong
With seven million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated – and polluted — places on earth. But the crowd is packed into towering housing projects that fill 30 percent of the Special Administrative Region’s 426 square miles. The other 70 percent of the SAR is comprised of county parks and rural hinterland, including the 264 Outlying Islands. These are places most citified Hong Kong tourists, more inclined to pack stiletto heels than hiking books, never get to see.
Just beyond the city, accessible by public transportation, there are 180 miles of linked hiking trails through forests and farmland, as lush as Hawaii and far less trammeled. For a taste of Hong Kong on the wild side, in 30 minutes, you can take the ferry out to Lamma Island’s Yung Shue Wan harbor and spend the morning as I did, on a one-way walk, first through an artsy little hamlet, populated mostly by expats who like the beach life, and then into hills with dramatic views of the sea. After an hour and half, when you’re good and hungry, you’ll be ready for one of Sok Kwu Wan’s restaurants, not at the oddly named Barbecue Butterfly Garden, but at Ta Yuen Seafood, where I had the best stir-fried garlic prawns I’ve ever tasted, before boarding the ferry back to Central.
From tiny village harbors, there’s ocean kayaking and sailing, trips to pristine mainland strands and crescent beaches on uninhabited dollops of land sprinkled in clear turquoise waters. While playing among coral reefs and impressive geological formations – sea caves and arches — that date back 270 million years, it is impossible to believe that just over the mountains, you’ll find – yup – seven million people.
From June to December, the entire region is a steam bath, but in March, when my 18-year-old son, Avery, and I visited, the weather was perfect for an outdoor jaunt. After several days in the city, we’d had enough of the surging crowds, harsh air and chirping Hong Kong traffic lights.
Plying the Waters
I’d contacted Paul Etherington, a British expatriate who runs Kayak and Hike. He’s an expert on the Sai Kung Country Parks, a 49 square mile tract on the Sai Kung Peninsula in northeast Hong Kong. He owns a Black Mamba Fast Pursuit Craft, a boat with twin 250 HP engines designed by the Hong Kong Marine Police to chase smuggling boats in these open waters. We selected the Black Mamba Full Day Trip, a powerboat-kayaking-snorkeling-lunch extravaganza, for $112 per person. We’d make a Sunday of it, but we’d have to be on the MTR, as the (mostly) underground transportation system is called, by 7:45 am to make it from Central to the dock in Sai Kung on time.
Wearing as many layers as we could extract from the suitcases on what began as a cool and cloudy day, Avery picked out the transfer points from the Blue Line to the Purple Line on the MTR like a pro.
In Hang Hau, we jumped on the No. 101 minibus, and a few minutes later, settled into one of a string an open-air dim sum restaurant at the water’s edge. The woman sitting beside me shared her dumplings with a happy Pomeranian, who had arrived in his own stroller.
More intriguing to Avery were the young men at the next table, dressed to play paintball, oozing testosterone, their equipment in duffel bags splayed around their feet. They were waiting for a rented sampan – about $7 for a half an hour — to take them to a deserted island, where they’d play all day. My son looked at me wistfully, and I didn’t have to ask why: He’d have abandoned the Black Mamba in a second if he could have joined that crew.
Etherington’s boat was waiting at the Sai Kung dock promptly at 9 a.m. As described, it was fast enough to plaster your lips to your teeth in a grin, even if you weren’t smiling. It had police-style seats that faced the bow, and kept you from flying out even when traveling at full throttle, the craft’s nose high in the air. There were seven of us scheduled for the day’s trip, and in moments we were off, first to High Island, with just a handful of tiny houses, where in preparation for the Tin Hau Festival, celebrating the Goddess of the Sea, villagers had erected a massive scaffolding to support the stage for an upcoming opera performance that would draw thousands of visitors in the next few days.
The sun came out and the layers came off. We visited powdery beaches with no footprints and secret coves accessible only by boat. We climbed a rocky trail and stood at the top of the world, surveying dozens of islands sprinkled across the horizon. We saw none of the endangered pale pink dolphins, Sousa chinensi, that exist in these waters. (Technically, they’re white, but the activity of swimming makes the blood rush to their skin.) We studied pillars of hexagonal columnar basalt, created in ancient volcanic eruptions, and kayaked through a perilous doorway in the rock, as narrow as a tooth knocked out of a jack O’-lantern. We stopped to swim in 70-degree waters that Etherington found alarmingly chilly.
By the time we headed back at 3 p.m., we were ready for beer and platters of seafood, noodles and beef at Yau Ley, a laid back outdoor restaurant at the very edge of the sea. At the next table were two expatriate families, fresh off their yachts, lolling away a Sunday afternoon, while their kids frolicked on the beach beyond.
There was one item on our list, saved for last: blissful massages at the Tai Pan Reflexology Beauty and Foot Spa. Below ground, on busy Nathan Road, Avery and I, dressed in cotton pajamas, were pummeled and stretched like so much saltwater taffy. A man snored loudly in the next room, and occasionally a truck roared by, shaking the whole place. But by the time we got to our feet, we could feel the blood coursing through our veins, all for a mere $30 each for 60 minutes.
Read Taking on Hong Kong