If you’re travelling to Europe from Australia via Asia you'll most likely to be touching down in either Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong, depending on which airline you choose. To break up that incredibly long flight from one side of the world to the other, a stopover of 2 nights, at least in one direction, is always a good idea. If you’re flying Cathay Pacific you'll go through Hong Kong, the perfect place for a quick stop over.
Hong Kong is neither a city or a country; it is a Territory, essentially a collection of islands, cities and towns that have continued to boom since 1997 after being handed back to China by the UK. Its actual title is Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and for official purposes is part of China, however an agreement was made during the Thatcher era that its capitalist economic system would continue for 50 years after takeover i.e not much has changed and the Hong Kong you visit today is probably as much, if not more, of a thriving and exciting melting pot than it was before '97.
Question: How do you know where to go or what to eat to make the most out of a short stopover?
Answer: My big tip when travelling to somewhere new is to talk to your taxi driver on the way from the airport. They normally know the best spots to eat and will soon poo-poo any of your suggestions as being too touristy or expensive. On a recent stopover in Hong Kong, with a limited 2 night and 3 whole day stay ahead, I made sure to get the lowdown from our taxi driver Barry.
That’s why within one hour of landing at 7am after a 12 hour overnight flight from Europe, we’d headed off to Barry's first recommendation - the nearest eatery to our hotel for breakfast 'Hong Kong style': glutinous rice with lotus leaf, and pork with shredded vegetable noodle soup.
Tah Hing, 14 Science Museum Road, Tsim Sha Tsui Kowloon, was a no fuss local joint where a drawer at the end of your table opens to reveal piles of chopsticks and soup spoons; the sort of place I’d have walked straight past if Taxi Driver Barry hadn’t given it his thumbs up. A post flight local breakfast was the perfect way to head off the oncoming jetlag, and I couldn’t help but think of Anthony Bourdain, and his Layover series and how he'd essentially be eating for 48 hours.
Exploring Hong Kong in a short space of time is quite simple to do; It helps that it's so easy to get around; the underground MRT system is quick, clean and convenient, taxis are plentiful and cheap, and if you want a more scenic journey the Star Ferry takes you from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island seamlessly, and also to the Outer Islands if you have more time. The best thing to do is pay $150HKD for an Octopus Transport Card allowing you to hop on and off every mode of transport quickly.
After some freshening up, and a bit of relax and rejuvenation time by the hotel pool, we were ready to venture out to eat again. It’s almost sacrilegious to have gone 3 hours or so without food in Hong Kong. From our taxi driver’s recommendation list it was time to try roast goose. I’d asked him where was the best place for Chinese Roast Duck, he responded that Hong Kong locals prefer roast goose to duck, and the best place to try this local favourite was Chan Kee in Mong Kok. We ordered the roast goose with bbq pork and roast sucking pig with rice. How did it compare to duck? In all honesty goose is very similar to traditional Chinese roast duck in texture and look, but the taste of duck wins hands down in my humble opinion. The bustling district of Mong Kok ,where Chan Lee Goose Restaurant, is located should be on every HK visitor's list. Hong Kong’s most populous district, it is famed as being one of the world's most highest density residential areas. The maze of streets are dotted with market stalls selling tropical fruits, flowers, sports shoes and so on, Chinese traditional medicine practitioners and Bubble Tea shops. You really get a taste of the 'real Hong Kong' with neon signs and locals dashing around when you visit the area.
Still only Day 1 and this visit was beginning to feel like an Anthony Bourdain style Layover. From Mong Kok on Kowloon side, it was an MRT ride to Central on Hong Kong Island to check out the Mid-Levels Escalator system. The Mid-Levels is the world's longest outdoor covered escalator system complete with footbridges and 14 exits, allowing commuters and locals to get off and head to their offices or lunch dates along the way. Walking the Mid-Levels is the perfect way to explore the bustling streets of Central, what was Hong Kong's oldest market district. Today Central is wall-to-wall designer boutiques (as an aside I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many branches of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and Chanel in any other metropolis in the world) and chain stores, cafés, bars and restaurants. The Mid Levels are basically a collection of long uphill moving walkways from where you can watch life outside from the relative cool comfort of a roofed structure. There’s no aircon as such, but in July they definitely offer respite from the humidity outside. The Mid-Levels - where the journey is as good, if not better than the destination at the end, depending that is, on where you get off along the way. Interestingly the walkways change direction in the evening so commuters can make their way back down easily and catch the MRT home from the bottom.
By late afternoon on this first day in Hong Kong jet lag and overwhelming humidity was taking its toll and it would have been so easy to give into it, and head back to the hotel. Instead we headed to one of the busiest tourist attractions at sunset on earth - Victoria Peak. Barry our trusty taxi driver had told us 6-7pm was the optimum time to head to the peak for sensational vistas across Victoria Harbour as the day comes to an end, and the lights of the skyscrapers come on. What he didn’t tell us was that thousands of other tourists had been told the same thing!
The most popular way to reach Victoria Peak is on the historic tram, one of the world's oldest and most famous funicular railways which opened in 1888. The peak tram rises to 373 meters above sea level, leaves at 15 minute intervals and only takes 120 passengers at a time. It’s said to take 11,000 passengers per day on average and when we arrived at the Peak Tram terminal, it felt like they were all queueing in front of us! It turned out the wait which we'd feared would be well over an hour was only around 25 minutes and absolutely worth it in the end. Tip – take a hand held fan and plenty of water for this wait, especially in the more humid months.
Once you’ve bought the tickets for the tram and while you wait to board, do check out the history gallery between the ticket office and the tram. Maybe it’s because I’m such a history buff but I’m a sucker for this kind of info.
"From 1908 to 1949, the first two seats in the front of the tram were reserved for the governor of Hong Kong, to which was attached a bronze plaque reading: "This seat is reserved for His Excellency the Governor". The seats were not available to ordinary passengers until two minutes before departure"
The ride on the tram itself is roughly 5 minutes, but the views across Victoria Harbour that greet you at the top will stay with you for a lot longer. The steep tram ride takes you to the Peak Tower with many viewing terraces and copious shopping and eating opportunities – this is Hong Kong after all – although I’m still trying to figure out the relevance of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co up here. Madame Tussauds is also in the Tower complex should you be inclined to visit. Take a few escalators to the top of this building and you’ll reach Sky Terrace, with its 360 degree panoramic view. Stunning yes, but it seemed that day's 11,000 other visitors had headed here for their selfies, so we headed back down to a lower terrace, affording almost as good a view but where I didn't have to apologise for standing in front of someone’s perfect Instashot.
As dusk fell and the lights started to come on across the city skyscape, the rain came down so we dashed back to the return tram. Fortunately the queue isn’t quite as long on the way down. From the tram terminal we jumped on a bus that was headed straight to Central Star Ferry wharf, a short 5 minute drive away.
You can’t visit Hong Kong without at least once taking in the crossing of Victoria Harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong (or vice versa) on a Star Ferry. Taking a ferry at night is the perfect way to absorb the sheer scale and size of Hong Kong and enjoy the night light show put on by the skyscrapers. The ferries leave every 10 minutes or so and the journey back to Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon from Central Hong Kong side, takes about 10 minutes. We jumped on the ferry in search of a food memory from way back.
Some meals stay with you forever, and so it was with a meal I had over 20 years ago on my first visit to Hong Kong, with family who lived there at the time. To be precise it was one dish from that meal that stayed with me; the most sumptuous garlicky juicy tiger prawns served in their shell. I'd been told the restaurant was still there - Peking Garden, Star House conveniently located right next to the ferry terminal at Tsim Sha Tsui Kowloon. Well it was supposed to be anyhow, but as bad luck would have it Peking Garden was shut for renovations. Noooo! All was not lost though, a phone call through to the restaurant’s voicemail told us that their sister restaurant M&C Duck was very close by. No garlic prawns on the menu sadly, but lobster soup was a decent trade off as was their speciality and evidently something the locals thought it was worth queuing for, their delectable Peking duck.
And so ended Day One in Hong Kong.
Jetlag works in mysterious ways. It either deprives you of sleep or gives you too much, as it did that night and into the next morning. I woke late on Day 2 and looked out the window to torrential rain and almost no visibility at all. There was a Cat 3 cyclone warning for Hong Kong so original plans for that day had to be scrapped.
We were staying at the perfectly located and rather wonderful The Hotel Icon on Kowloon, deservedly rated no 3 (out of 731) for Hong Kong hotels on Trip Advisor. Cyclonic conditions offered the opportunity to leisurely enjoy the buffet breakfast at the hotel, consider wet weather options and work up an appetite for a special lunch that day.
A short stroll from Hotel Icon you'll find the Science Museum, the Space Museum and the superb Hong Kong history museum, where I was headed. In what seems a lifetime ago I graduated university in history so I relish the opportunities when travelling to find out more about a destination's history.
Hong Kong has a fascinating history, largely down to its location and position as a sea port; through Chinese dynasties and clans through to the Opium Wars which led to British colonialism, the brutal Japanese occupation in WW2 and finally the handover back to China in 1997. The museum plots the colourful history in 8 galleries through the ages from prehistoric times to present day, with dioramas, 750 graphic panels and scaled reproductions of peasant dwellings, junk boats, cultural celebrations, and fashions. Allow at least two hours or ideally more to get the most out of the museum and also take in some of the short documentary films. I learned so much about what makes Hong Kong the exhilarating place it is during my visit to the History museum - thoroughly recommended.
And then it was lunch time. Lung King Heen is situated in the Four Seasons Hotel overlooking Victoria Harbour and is the first Chinese restaurant to be awarded 3 Michelin stars, and sits at no 80 in San Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurants List 2018. The largely seafood menu, exquisite dumplings and impeccable service sets the bar for world class restaurants. It’s pretty much compulsory to experience at least one dim sum lunch on any trip to Hong Kong as dumplings are a ubiquitous Hong Kong dish, and Lung King Heen's Chef Chan Yan Tak’s takes dumplings to an entirely new level.
Steamed Lobster with scallop dumplings come in their own individual steamers and were almost too aesthetically beautiful to eat but we managed. An introduction to the health benefits of Bird’s Nest Soup was a revelation as was the soup itself. Overall it was the wok-fried prawns with organic black garlic and chilli, not to mention the crunchy and textural quail san choy bow that were the dishes I’d remember for a long time to come.
It almost goes without saying but, as with any trip to a major Asian city destination, you need to reserve some time for shopping. It is estimated that Hong Kong has a couple of hundred shopping malls of different sizes, and the cyclonic rains offered the perfect opportunity to visit a couple of them. The IFC Mall is attached to the Four Seasons so perfect for walking off our incredible lunch. The IFC is home to the usual high end suspects Dior, Armani et al as well as more mainstream COS and Zara. But for a more wow, and totally exhausting, mall experience we then headed to Times Square in Causeway Bay. There’s 14 floors of mid range to luxury stores here, including Marks & Spencer and the flagship Lane Crawford store. If the thought of 230+ shops, mostly chain stores, is too daunting simply stand on the ground floor and look up. That’s an experience in itself.
As the saying goes “Hong Kong Must Eat” so after a day spent indulging in a Michelin star lunch, hitting the huge malls and sunset cocktails at The Icon, it was time to think dinner.
There is said to be 15000 registered eateries across Hong Kong so one would need two lifetimes to try them all. We’d mentioned to our 'fountain of all knowledge' taxi driver Barry that we were looking to try the best seafood in Hong Kong, and he’d told us to head to steamy Temple Street Night Market. He’d convinced us that although the market itself is full of fake tourist tat (and yes it is, but it’s still worth walking through for a stark contrast to the flashy malls) that there are Chinese seafood restaurants on the street corners that the locals frequent. We opted for the aptly named Temple Street Spicy Crabs precisely because it was filled with locals. It got bonus points for having buckets full of live crabs outside. Even better the elusive garlic prawns in their shells were on the menu here – perhaps not as great as I’d remembered eating all those years ago at Peking Garden, but still a dish worth hopping back on a Cathay Pacific flight to eat again sometime in the near future.
One can imagine Anthony Bourdain loving eating at a place like this – sitting on a plastic stool, downing cold cheap Tsingtao Beer in between mouthfuls of spicy crab and razor clams. Travel in Asia doesn’t get much better than that, particularly when the evening is complete with a late night foot massage at a parlour around the corner, to cure those achy feet at the end of a long and tiring couple of days.
On the third and final day come hail or shine we were heading to the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. Indeed both rain and shine did come out that day.
Next to the Victoria Peak Tram, the Ngong Ping cable car to Tian Tan Buddha is the most popular tourist attraction in Hong Kong. Similar to the Tram ride, the journey is equally as breath taking as the destination, rising over the mountainous terrain and across the water with views towards the International Airport. The majestic bronze Big Buddha is the second largest outdoor sitting Buddha in the world and there aren't sufficient words to describe the first sight one catches of him rising on top of the mountain, as the cable car gets closer.
You can walk the 268 steps to the Big Buddha platform and visit the Po Ling Monastery, but on a humid and steamy wet day this wouldn't be recommended for the faint hearted. Anyhow the view one gets of Buddha from Ngong Ping Village, or even from the cable car is extraordinary enough. I thoroughly recommend the 'Walking with Buddha' animated film that you can view in the village; it tells the story of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became Buddha, and his path to enlightenment from a prince living in an opulent palace to becoming enlightened in the forest. This would be a perfect introduction to Buddhism for children too.
The heavy rain didn’t allow us to linger too long in Ngong Ping and the extreme weather was threatening to to close the cable car as it had the previous day. However before we took the return ride there was just enough time to visit the serene Tea House next to the cable car terminal.
Partaking in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony should be on everybody’s must do list in Hong Kong. Tea is still quintessentially Hong Kong and it's charming to think that its one of the few cultural traditions that binds the city’s dual British and Chinese identities. We were encouraged to enjoy the organic “Blooming Tea’ and delighted in watching the tea leaves bloom into an breathtakingly beautiful orange flower as it brewed.
Back down to Hong Kong Island and with a few hours left before the flight back to Sydney, there was time for just one more meal and that meal had to include the ubiquitous dumpling.
Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao has 14 branches across Hong Kong and has won Michelin stars in Singapore too. The Pork Dumplings in Chilli Sauce and their signature Xiao Long Bao were utterly delicious – who doesn’t love to slurp the hot soup out of a Xiao Long Bao? I’m not sure what to say about the roast pigeon dish I ordered though, except that I felt the need to give it a go because when in Asia you just have to try. That is after all what Bourdain would have done.
- Walk along the shoreline at Tsim Sha Tsui to see Hong Kong's grand hotel The Peninsula
- Say hi to the Bruce Lee statue at the Avenue of the Stars
- Take a Junk Boat trip
- Visit Stanley Market
- Enjoy a Seafood lunch by the seas on Lamma Island. Next time…
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