I read with interest a piece in the travel section of CNN's website highlighting "insider" tips on what to see and do in Hong Kong. One of their own, a locally based correspondent answered about a dozen questions but more like someone well connected with an expense account who lives for the perks of an exotic assignment as opposed to those interested in going but are more budget conscious. By the second question I already felt the need to take out a new line of credit. Moreover, some of the captions offered by other travelers complained of the humidity, the smell and the crowding.
These are ringing endorsements, local high society and unprepared visitors? Having once earned a living flying to Hong Kong on a regular basis I thought I might take a stab at the same questions and paint a more accessible picture of this exciting city.
Where can you get the best view of the city?
Victoria Peak. This is the post card view of Hong Kong, day or night, just like the Eiffel Tower from Palais de Trocadero in Paris. The Peak Tram, an old funicular railway, has been running since 1888 and though modernized still operating with 19th century fares at $5 per adult round trip.
Which restaurant would you take your loved one to for an anniversary or other special occasion?
Being single I couldn't honestly say. One thing I have learned, though, is to ask and/or follow the airline crews who know all the intimate little corners and quality establishments for good drink and good food. The Lufthansa crews regularly pull up at "Biergarten," one of my favorites, off of Mody Road in Kowloon.
Where is the best place to people watch?
Without question the Star Ferry. Ordinary Hong Kong and budget tourists have long known of the green and white double deck boats chugging the harbor between Tsim Sha Tsui and Central on Hong Kong Island for a steal at barely 40 cents a ride. There is no better ground level view of the skyline.
How do tourists stick out and what's the best way to blend in?
Pick the one that is not Chinese by birth then look a little closer. Sailors on shore leave are easy but the dead giveaway is the civilian who looks lost or is looking up and walking in circles at the same time.
What is your favorite neighborhood?
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. The veritable beating heart of Hong Kong. Shops and eateries of every description line the streets and laundry really does hang in the breeze over the back alleys. This is guide book gritty, kitschy, noisy and crowded Hong Kong.
Where do you go to relax?
The waterfront on Kowloon side. Locals, tourists and exhausted businessmen shorn of shoes but still on the phone come here all day and all night long. In the background is the neon overload of the Hong Kong Island skyline while visitors take a moment to reconnect with self and others.
What essential thing should visitors see/experience if they only have a few hours?
The Po Lin Monastery. Accessible by bus from the nearby airport on top of a hill on Lantau Island it is perfect for an all day layover without the hassle of getting in to town. The world's tallest sitting buddha gazes down from its perch among green hills while below is a taste of Asian monastic life unexpected in kinetic, frenetic Hong Kong.
What's the biggest tourist trap?
Here the CNN correspondent and I agree: the electronics shops along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. Gawk if you must but buy absolutely nothing. The prices are hyper-inflated in anticipation of serious haggling (woe to the one who doesn't) with no guarantee any of the "not available anywhere else" merchandise, worthless "warranties" and all, will work once you get home.
Is there a "tourist trap" that's actually worth seeing?
Repulse Bay. A big flea market on the east side of Hong Kong Island, get there by bus over the mountain from Central. It's a relatively quieter side of Hong Kong with great views and pricey real estate that features a warren of small shops selling trinkets, ornaments, artifacts and five-dollar-per-dozen tees.
Where's your favorite place to spend a night out on the town?
Lan Kwai Fong. This is where the Anglos go on Hong Kong Island for a little touch of home. It evokes an Asian styled version of Chicago's Lincoln Avenue or Soho, London, packed with nightspots catering to expatriates who speak English and share similar tastes in their weekend nightlife.
Are there local specialty dishes or drinks that visitors must try?
Chicken Feet Soup. I simply couldn't wrap my teeth around the more exotic dishes on the table but I did like the flavor, it was filling and fun watching people watching me deal with the feet.
What is a good local souvenir?
Jade, arguably more than any other gemstone, is China. There is something for every wallet though it can be hard to tell authentic jade from soapstone, serpentine or carnelian. Still, a small translucent dragon pendant at any price is still pretty and no one at home need be any the wiser.
And finally, two questions they didn't have on their survey:
When is the best time of year to go?
When it's cool! The Tropic of Cancer runs all but right through the place on a similar parallel to Key West, Cabo San Lucas and Dubai. June through September is sweltering with August being the worst of them all. Hong Kong is equally prone to the monsoons of Southeast Asia which also tend to happen this time of year. It is cooler but progressively cloudier from October to March.
What feelings does one have or experience with Hong Kong?
"HK" is like New York, virtually never resting and always something going on. Come to Hong Kong to feel energized, excited and enraptured. Go to the beach to recharge but go to Hong Kong to revive.