I have several British friends that live or have lived in Hong Kong, and knowing a thing or two about British history, I expected the city to have a familiar English feel. After all, Prince Charles only handed over the keys to the Chinese in 1997, and it had been a British territory since 1841. But Hong Kong is not British at all. It is integrally Chinese. A crazy, eye-popping, futuristic cosmopolitan landscape that provides Asia with a center for its many worldwide commercial ventures. Hong Kong is a mind blower.
We met up in the city with our travel mates, Jeff and Erik. They flew west across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco, and we flew east from London, over Russia and China. Both were twelve hour flights on Hong Kong's major carrier: Cathay Pacific. We arrived on the other side of the world within ten minutes of each other. The massive futuristic airport called Chek Lap Kok is built on a manmade island jutting out into the South China Sea. Even landing in Hong Kong is exciting! The infrastructure of the city is superb, with one of the best transport systems in the world. We were quickly and efficiently delivered to our spanking new hotel, The Icon, within minutes of our arrival.
Hong Kong began life as a harbour, and has grown up to be a colossal harbour city. The two main parts of the city lie on either side of the mega busy waterway named after Queen Victoria, the English monarch at the time. The south side of Victoria Harbour is Hong Kong Island, with its glittering skyscrapers set against a majestic green mountain called The Peak. The north side of the harbour is called Kowloon. Perhaps less glamorous than Hong Kong Island, but the views from this side of the water are more spectacular. And in this vertical city, it is all about the views.
The Icon Hotel is on the Kowloon side, with a ninth floor outdoor pool, fabulous bars and restaurants and five star service. And sure enough, the views from our 23rd floor suite were staggering. When dusk fell, the Sci-Fi buildings came alive in a blaze of lights. I stood in front of our floor to ceiling windows and imagined myself in a real life version of the film Bladerunner. If any city in the world is ready for flying police cars and floating neon dirigibles promoting The Off World Colonies, it is Hong Kong. It was time to beam down and explore.
Kowloon has a sweeping boardwalk along the waterfront called The Avenue of the Stars. Statues of Bruce Lee and other Chinese matinee idols line the promenade. Bus loads of Asian tourists line up, very politely, to have their pictures taken next to them. They all have umbrellas to protect them from the searing sun and the pounding rain which alternates minute to minute. But rain or shine, it is always hot and humid here, just inside the Tropic of Capricorn. Springtime temperatures average 85F during the day and 84F at night.
Our walk down the promenade brought us to The Peninsula Hotel. An ageless landmark for decades, it remains the poshest address in town. With a fleet of British racing green Rolls Royce's, the hotel is only for the Conde Naste set. But the super chic restaurant on the top floor called The Felix gave us the opportunity to pretend to be rich and famous for a few hours. Every plate was a work of art, and the views from the double height, all glass room were also mouth watering. Even the urinals in the men's room were mounted on soaring glass walls. I'm sure many a Chinese business man has relieved himself here thinking he was pissing on all of Hong Kong.
One of the oddities that we noticed about Hong Kong was the toilets. There are signs throughout the city pointing you in the direction of the one nearest you. However, when you actually seek them out, you are sent on a wild goose chase that can take you down three hallways, up four flights of stairs, over a bridge and into a tunnel before you find it. My advice is to set out for the toilet long before you actually have to go.
Besides food, the other thing the locals here are obsessed with is shopping. Never before have I seen a collection of malls on top of malls, with escalators delivering the punters over roads and through commercial buildings to the next shopping center beyond. It is endless. Hong Kong is an international trading capital, and with the prolific amount of luxury goods on offer, you get the feeling there are some serious expense accounts keeping the economy booming. We walked up the wacky Nathan Road, packed with suit makers and electronic shops, flooded with neon signs promoting every imaginable product and service. There is a monumental demand for both cheap knock-offs and poncy designer labels in this land of mass consumerism. In Hong Kong, more is better.
Several times during our stay, we took The Star Line Ferry to cross over Victoria Harbour. This is the best value attraction in town, at about 80 cents. Day or night, the views from these boats are fantastic, and they run every 15 minutes or so. The other star attraction is the tramway that goes up to The Peak. For about $6 you can board the clanging red carriage, that climbs up out of the concrete jungle, through the green one, and drops you at the highest point in the city. At the top is another series of malls (surprise, surprise) but beyond them is the incredible futuristic observation platform with exhilarating views and some nice restaurants to hang out in.
The other side of The Peak is called the Southside. A far more relaxed area with green jungle space, some extravagant villas, and even a sweet, quirky beach area called Stanley. There is a pretty bay to swim in and a selection of beach restaurants along the front with nice terraces. We found one called Spiaggia and ordered up some Singapore noodles and tiger prawns. Freddie was admiring the huge shrimp and asked our waiter where they came from. He wasn't sure, so he asked a more senior member of staff who informed us they were "from out of town". We waited until he walked away before cracking up.
There is much more to explore in Hong Kong that we didn't have time to get to. There are outer lying islands with swimming beaches, Hong Kong Disneyland and a monastery with the world's largest seated Buddha. Not far away is Mainland China for further discovery. But I was content that we had packed our four days with the best that this city of the future has to offer. At the rate that The World City of Asia is expanding, I have a feeling it won't be long before I am back for another visit. Perhaps next time will be on a space ship.