travel

Hong Kong: A beginner's travel guide

Will Stroude discovers that Hong Kong is still king when it comes to visiting the Far East.

2016-11-15

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 270, summer 2016.

With Asia continuing to explode as a tourist destination, Hong Kong remains the number one hotspot for any globe-trotter keen on an excursion to the East. A city that still rises far and above the rest when it comes to cultural diversity, modernity and general wonder, it hasn’t lost any of its buzzing international character in the two decades since “The Handover” in 1997.

The limited land space on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon peninsula sent the urban architecture skyward throughout the 20th century, with more high-rises over 150 metres than seemingly any other city on Earth. The result is a breath-taking subtropical metropolis where shabby-chic mazes of vine-like concrete meet the glossy glass-paned frontages of cutting-edge trade.

The first port of call for any new visitor has to be Victoria Peak: a short cable-car ride takes you straight from the city streets up the side of Mount Austin, where you can take in the sheer scale of the playground before you. If there’s a more magnificent urban view on offer, I want to know about it.

From high-end shopping to breath-taking historical sites, Hong Kong has something to please first-time vistors of every persuasion.

As with all great cities, Hong Kong is what you make of it. Whether it’s clearing out high-end designer shops and boutiques at the sprawling Pacific Place mall or trawling for trinkets at the chaotic local stalls of Mong Kok or Temple Street Night Market, there’s oodles of culture to suit every brow.

There’s also plenty of fine dining (and art) to enjoy along the Kowloon waterfront, overlooking Hong Kong Island, but the true culinary delights are the local eateries on every street corner, where you can enjoy lip-smacking bowls of noodles.

While the European knack for blasting through sights over the course of a weekend mini-break means some people think twice about travelling halfway round the world for a city stay, HK has a trump card in the form of the stunning landscapes and beaches of Lantau Island and the New Territories. Just a hop, skip and a jump away on the city’s easily navigable metro system (the MTR, which costs quite literally pennies to use), Hong Kong’s outlying islands can absorb days of more relaxed exploration in themselves.

Hong Kong's New Territories offer a stunning retreat from the captivating chaos of the city centre.

We spent a full day on Lantau Island, visiting the Buddhist Po Lin Monastery, home to the 250-metric-ton bronze Tian Tan Buddha (or more simply, the Big Buddha as everyone calls it) and a major tourist attraction in its own right.

But if the idea of cleansing your spirit on the hillside isn’t your bag, don’t forget Hong Kong’s other sister “Special Administrative Region” just across the estuary, the casino mecca of Macau. The Vegas of South East Asia, it’s just an hour’s ferry ride away and perfect for a day trip or overnight stay if you’re planning on giving your triceps a proper workout on the slots.

Back in central HK though, one experience to definitely plan for is the nightly Symphony of Lights. Divisive among the locals, every night at 8pm the skyline is illuminated for 15 minutes by multicoloured lasers, flashlights, fireworks and music in the world’s largest permanent light show; and while residents might understandably be crying into their dim sum after seeing it for the 365th time that year, it’s undeniably spectacular (even if you never thought you needed to see the windows of a 400ft tower recreate space invaders).

A nighttime harbour cruise is the perfect vantage point to experience Hong's Kong's stunning skyline.

You can take in the nightly marvel on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, overlooking Hong Kong Island, but to really have your own little moment you can’t beat a night-time sail round the harbour. Aboard the Aqua Luna you can absorb the atmosphere on one of the last Chinese junk ships to be hand-crafted in Hong Kong, indulging in a cocktail or cheeky beer while spread over its cabin or al fresco decks.

The dichotomy between the iconic ancient ship design and the fearsome monument to modernity back on shore is amazing, and given that prices are an absolute steal, it’s a definite highlight among the morass of sights to experience.

Saying that, our first day of sightseeing was delayed for the best part of an hour after discovering a channel playing back-to-back episodes of Asia’s Next Top Model; a damning indictment of my “cultured traveller” credentials assuredly, but it summed up perfectly Hong Kong’s enduring appeal. While its sub-tropical surrounds and buzzing culture are incomparable, there are still enough familiar cues about (English road signs included) so that you don’t suddenly find yourself overwhelmed traversing the city — as in, say, Tokyo.

As for the gay scene, you won’t find the heady queer heights of Thailand or even Taiwan, but while it’s relatively small it’s definitely a welcoming affair. As with much of Asia, LGBT rights lag way behind in the territory, but the gay community is certainly visible, as keenly demonstrated by the thousands of marchers who turned out for the city’s Pride festival in November.

Hong Kong's LGBT community is increasingly vocal and the city's scene is blossoming.

The legal stuff might have some way to go, but as a modern, cosmopolitan city with plenty of international influences, gay visitors shouldn’t face any problems when it comes to hotel bookings, being affectionate or partying. The gay drinking holes — perfect for an evening of bar-hopping — are centred around Soho and the nightlife hotspot of Central, with the action tending to start fairly late before the crowds move on to small but disco-fuelled clubs such as Propaganda on a Friday and Saturday night.

With a healthy mix of Western ex-pats and friendly, often English-speaking locals though, it’s easy to mingle and find out where go on any given weekend.

We stayed at the OZO Wesley; ideally located in the heart of Hong Kong Island’s Wan Chai district and just across the road from the boutiques of Three Pacific Place. With the harbour and city landmarks just a few minutes walk away, OZO was the perfect base for a day’s exploration, while Wan Chai itself offers a small enclave of fine eateries and bars on charming little roads such as Star Street. Like the city, OZO Wesley caters perfectly for travellers, offering a sleekly efficient service.

In typical Hong Kong style, the rooms are compact, but with suites on offer and a clever use of space, it packs in all the essentials for your stay. Luxuries such as room service might be foregone but the difference ends up straight in your back pocket, and there’s still a well-kitted-out fitness suite for those so-inclined.

OZO Wesley is ideally located in the affluent Wan Chai district on the north shore of Hong Kong island.

OZO Wesley’s ethos is perfectly summed up by the reception — aka The Spot — which offers paperless, on-screen check-in and features futuristic computer hubs complete with recommended tourist itineraries, flight times, maps and up-to-date weather information (all of which is accessible from your room’s TV, too).

And while it might be set in one of HK’s trademark towers amid the buzz of the city, the serene rooms and blackout curtains offer an oasis of calm (and an incredible night’s sleep) — not that you want to miss anything.

Flights from London and Manchester with Cathay Pacific cathaypacific.com

Aqua Luna tours from $120HK (£10.90). Visit aqualuna.com.hk or call (852) 2116 8821

Stay at OZO Wesley Hong Kong, with rooms from £74/night on a room only-basis, exclusive of taxes and surcharges, dependent on season and availability. Visit ozohotels.com