A Frequent Visitor’s Personal Favorites

By Brenda Fine

Energy. That indefinable rush. That invigorating surge visitors say they feel when they visit New York City. I live in New York, right in the heart of Manhattan, but I must confess the only place on earth that gives me that zap of energy is Hong Kong.

There’s something about that big, sprawling, bustling, crowded city that makes me want to get out and taste every delicious-smelling dish on every incomprehensible menu. To shop every designer boutique and low-end stall of knock-off “Rolex” watches and “genuine” jade amulets. To peer into dusty old herbal medicine shops with their jars and bottles of dried exotica. To revisit the Peak. To revisit the Giant Pandas at Ocean Park, and the Giant Buddha at Po Lin Monastery. To relive wonderful old memories, and to create exciting new ones.

Sunset over Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour (© 2009 Brenda Fine).

I get a buzz just walking Hong Kong’s crowded streets. Just staring at the iconic skyscraper skyline, watching Victoria Harbour where traditional Chinese junks vie with oversized freighters for their share of water, listening in on the babble of international accents as people chatter away in everything from Mandarin, ex-pat British, Hindi, Indian to, yes, even the occasional smattering of Brooklyn-ese.

Hong Kong, like New York, is supremely geared to welcome visitors. For starters, there’s an overload of hotels for every pocketbook. You can start at the top with grande dame colonial superstars like the Peninsula and the Mandarin Oriental, or search out more affordable overnights in places like the hip Jia, Philippe Starck’s boutique hotel that’s really more like a collection of small apartments than a traditional hotel, or go right on down the scale to budget-friendly places like the Salisbury YMCA (which, interestingly, shares the same posh neighborhood and harbor views as the Peninsula, but rents its rooms for substantially less.)

Maybe part of this “energy” thing is that Hong Kong, like New York is in constant flux. Everything changes, sometimes overnight. Construction sites are everywhere, very few places remain unchanged for long. New buildings, new ideas, new perks.

On our most recent trip we decided to try out one of these new ideas, the Oyster Card, which is basically a transportation card. For HK$220, about $28 US, you get a 3-day Airport Express Tourist Octopus Hong Kong Transport Pass, good for a ride on the Airport Express, plus 3 days of unlimited travel on the MTR (subway/metro). And you’ll get a $50 deposit back when you return it.

We purchased our cards immediately upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport. Then, while still inside the Arrivals Terminal, we walked a few feet beyond the ticket booth and boarded the Airport Express train for a speedy and traffic-free ride to Kowloon Station. From there we boarded a connecting (and free) shuttle bus that delivered us directly to our hotel. Bingo. Inexpensive, time-saving and efficient. Some new ideas really are better.

During our 30+ years of visiting Hong Kong we’ve always stayed in hotels on the island side. But for this visit, we decided it was high time we sampled the Kowloon side. After a lot of research we selected The Langham in Tsim Sha Tsui to be our home-away-from-home.

Turns out we couldn’t have made a better choice. This beautiful hotel (a member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World) manages to combine the best of classic Asian with international contemporary.

Another handy element is the Langham’s location which places it within easy walking distance of the Star Ferry and the MTR ( Mass Transit Railway, Hong Kong’s subway system), as well as the famous shopping areas, sites to see, and museums of Kowloon.

Shopping at Stanley Market, Hong Kong (© 2009 Brenda Fine).

The Langham is blessed with an incredibly hospitable staff. Even for Asia, renown for its high levels of service, the Langham stands out. This became evident from the very first warm greeting of the bellman who personally escorted us to the front desk. The check-in staff was equally welcoming and efficient, answering questions, expediting the formalities and then personally escorting us to our room where they spent time patiently explaining the various amenities and technical elements (wired and wireless connections, DVD player, iHome audio dock, etc).

Our room was newly refurbished and attractively decorated in soothingly neutral colors and textures. Despite being a bit on the small side, it managed to incorporated most of the comforts of home — plus all those electronic bells and whistles — we could have wanted.

The only drawback was the view. Our trio of bay windows looked down onto a street choked with construction equipment and mess, and the view in our sightline straight across the street into the windows of an office building. We kept our shades lowered all the time (except for brief morning weather-report glances to see if pedestrians were carrying umbrellas or wearing jackets.)

One of the most delightful features of the hotel was being allowed access to the hotel’s Langham Club, a luxurious lounge up on the 11th floor. (This privilege can be purchased as a surcharge, HK$400 and HK$600 — about US$51 and $77 — for single and double room occupancy respectively.) The Club’s welcome desk was always “manned” by two delightful young women who were as welcoming and helpful as they were knowledgeable about their city. They cheerfully booked restaurant reservations for us, plotted out routes on city maps to our various destinations, and shared insights into whatever we asked.

The Club itself is a series of rooms, set with dining tables as well as with comfy club chairs for relaxing and reading the various international magazines and newspapers there for everyone to enjoy. In the back are the business rooms – meeting spaces as well as the complimentary computers for accessing the Internet.

The Club’s generous buffet never closes, cycling through the culinary day, starting with a delicious breakfast spread of everything from lox and bagels to Chinese congee (and pretty much everything in-between), and then afternoon tea and snacks, then cocktails with hot canapés and even more snacks, and then late-night drinks for guests returning from their evenings on the town.

The Club seems to be a favorite of hotel guests, many of whom we met and chatted with on a daily basis during our stay. It is “clubby” in the very best sense of the word.

Another favorite meeting place is the Langham’s outdoor pool, located on the roof of the building. From up there it’s possible to imagine you’re far away from urban noise and crowds. There are tropical trees and umbrellas for shade from the sun, and plants everywhere, comfy chaises and, of course, waiters happy to serve drinks and light snacks. It’s possible to get a bit of a tan, swim some laps or just chill out for a while before plunging back into the “real” world of travel.

Months before all this, while making our reservations at The Langham , we realized that, because we would be arriving in Hong Kong late in the afternoon, we would probably be too tired from the long flight to want to rush out and try to find a restaurant for dinner that same night. So we emailed the concierge asking him to make a reservation for us “for an early dinner” in T’ang Court, the hotel’s Chinese restaurant.

Our idea of “early” was clearly much too early for the restaurant’s elite clientele. We arrived at 6:30 to find ourselves the only diners in this large and formal two-story restaurant, a lone table-for-two amidst a sea of beautifully appointed, but unoccupied, damask-napped tables. Uh-Oh! Empty is never a good sign in a restaurant.

But then the scene shifted as if by magic and suddenly the entire place was filled, bustling and bubbling with people – romantic couples, large and noisy multi-generational families, groups of businessmen straight from the office — in short, a typical Hong Kong crowd enthusiastically ordering up huge banquet-style meals and devouring everything in sight.

The Bird Market in Hong Kong (© 2009 Brenda Fine).

We soon discovered why. This is no mere “hotel restaurant.” T’ang Court is one of Hong Kong’s finest, having earned not only two Michelin stars, but also garnering star billing as one of only ten restaurants on the planet to make Travel & Leisure’s Hot List of the World’s 100 Fabulous Places and Things.

Given all these accolades, who could resist ordering the stir-fried lobster with spring onions and shallots (the 2002 Best of the Best Culinary Award – Gold with Distinction Award)? We also swooned over the award-winning batter fried shrimp, and a crab with rice noodles. Honoring its imperial name and roots, the restaurant treats its guests like emperors. Everything was orchestrated like a ballet, flawless waiter service, graceful touches like the instant replacement of our rolled moist towels the minute we soiled them with a single wipe of a sticky finger, discreet refills of our wine glasses.

We were definitely loving the Langham Hotel. But we were in Hong Kong to see Hong Kong. And so, early next morning, we hit the streets. And the ferry.

Eventually every visitor to Hong Kong rides the Star Ferry. I have no official stats to back up this statement, but I can’t imagine being here and NOT riding the ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong island at least once. It’s not only cheap (about 30 cents a ride) and dependable, but it’s also an enjoyable way to feel you are part of Hong Kong’s heartbeat.

In fact, almost all of Hong Kong’s various transportation systems add a bit of a kick to a visit. Take the iconic, but heart-stoppingly vertical, funicular that caterpillars its way straight up to the top of the island’s famous Peak. Or those gee-whiz outdoor escalators (called “travelators”), a series of moving sidewalks that help ease pedestrian traffic by gliding the masses up to Mid-Levels (part way up that very same Peak)

There are trolleys, and taxis and other forms of mass transit, of course, But my personal favorite is the #6 bus that wends it is way out to Stanley on the southern coast of the island. It takes about an hour (there are faster ways, of course, but none as scenic as the #6) and you should be sure to sit on the right side for the best views along the route. You catch the bus in the heart of Central, but very quickly the city’s busy streets are left behind and the bus travels along through tropical settings green and leafy. One sharp turn reveals an expanse of beach and blue waters far below as you motor past Repulse Bay. An actual swimming and sunbathing beach, just minutes from the skyscrapers of Central.

The destination on this ride is Stanley Market. Although there are dozens and dozens of other markets throughout Hong Kong, this one is my personal favorite. Stall after stall tempts with bargains worthy of bragging-rights back home. Maybe those luminous pearl earrings aren’t really the best quality; they’re probably not even real at all. But for $20 I’m going to love wearing them and will think of Hong Kong every time I do.

Stanley is also right on the water, so we always rest up and refresh ourselves after shopping with lunch on a restaurant balcony overlooking the harbor. A lovely change-of-pace day in the country before heading back to the city.

We’ve visited most of Hong Kong’s well-known markets — the Jade Market, the “Ladies Market,” the Night Market, the Jade Market. All should definitely be seen. Once. But there are others, perhaps more “local” and less touristic, but ones that that we love to visit just for the overwhelming and authentic visuals. The Bird Garden, Flower Market and Goldfish Market, for example, are all neighbors along Price Edward Road West.

They’re pretty self-explanatory. Colorful blossoms spill out of every stall and shop along the Flower Market road, retailers bustle about making deals, housewives ponder their selections, nobody leaves empty-handed. Even if you’re a tourist, it’s impossible to resist the lure of these beauties – everything from familiar blooms like tulips and roses to Southeast Asian orchids, to strange and exotic plants we’ve ever seen before. (Nor can we ever figure out the names from the signs written in Chinese.)

Hong Kong's Flower Market (© 2009 Brenda Fine).

Nearby, the Bird Garden is a perfect postcard of all those images you’ve ever seen of people and their beloved songbirds. Everywhere throughout the gardens you see large cages aflutter with songbirds for sale; tiny cages, housing only a single beloved bird, hanging from tree branches everywhere; and countless groups of old Chinese men hanging out together, each smoking a cigarette and a holding aloft his own decorative cage. We have no idea what they’re saying, of course, but it’s clear that each individual man considers his to be the top songbird in the garden.

The adjacent Goldfish Market is much smaller in scope, although there are some pretty amazing day-glo reef fish flashing about in their watery showcases. In all, three markets, three brilliantly kaleidoscopic glimpses into everyday life in Hong Kong — all for the price of a single subway ride.

One other view not to be missed is the nightly light show. Don’t expect too much jazz or fireworks or any sort of July Fourth style pyrotechnics. These lights are a permanent installation, some 20 key skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island creating a dazzling display. Of the many ways to view this extravaganza (some people suggest going out on a boat in the harbor, others suggest various vantage points along the shore in Kowloon) we found one sure-fire winner. It’s Hutong, a restaurant on the 28th floor of a modern skyscraper on the Kowloon side, with a sweeping unobstructed view of the harbor and the skyline of Hong Kong island. The word “hutong” means an ancient alley or courtyard, a setting that is evocatively recreated in the décor of this decidedly-trendy restaurant. Everything is dark, focusing attention to the view beyond the ceiling-to-floor windows. Antique birdcages hang from the ceiling, red lanterns illuminate just enough to allow you to read the menu. We pigged out on drunken crab a crispy de-boned lamb (both house specialties). But the featured specialty was the light show across the harbor, as dozens of buildings, their shapes and heights outlined in rainbows of lights, lasers and searchlights sparkled and flashed across the night darkness of Victoria Harbor.

See what I mean about energy? There’s so much to do, so many options, so many sites and sights to see, so much culture to absorb, it’s impossible to learn Hong Kong in a whole lifetime, let alone one single visit.

And we haven’t even talked about the surprising stretches of natural, untouched lands to be found in Hong Kong’s outlying islands — tropical nature just waiting there to be hiked, biked and explored.

But that’s another story — another visit.

Monday, 12 October, 2009

© 2009 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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