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Layovers aren’t all about hiding in a coffee shop, or stalking around duty-free shops for the umpteenth time. Lily took a couple of days for her Hong Kong layover, but was it worth it?
Changing face of Hong Kong
A lot has changed in Hong Kong over the years. And I don’t just mean in the ways you already know about – the tiny fishing village to British Colony or quasi-independence to major tourist hub. To me, more recently, Hong Kong has changed in a different way, reaching yet another new incarnation (as if the previous list wasn’t head-spinning enough!)
I didn’t go to Hong Kong before the hand-over, or just afterwards, I should add. I didn’t go when you still arrived into the old Kai Tak airport, zooming dangerously close to skyscrapers and landing in the thick of it all. I didn’t go when it was this fresh, liminal space between old and new, or East and West.
Yet somehow, I feel I do know about that Hong Kong: it’s shaped by endless stories from elderly relatives about when it really was the gateway to Asia. It was an absolute hive of activity and industry, everybody wanted in and as a tourist you could soak it all up in a place where many other millions wanted to be too. Standing at the top of Victoria Peak… what view on Earth could better show you the fruits of human ingenuity and entrepreneurship?
But now, I would argue, those days are gone. Hong Kong still has a whisper of its glamorous past and In the Mood for Love aesthetic (one of my all-time favourite films by the way – if you haven’t seen it, you really should!). But for glittering vistas of steel, doesn’t Dubai outdo Hong Kong?
Moreover, doesn’t the huge movement of holidaymakers to Asia mean more and more ‘melting pots’ across the region, including Thailand, Singapore, Bali and so on? Nothing seems to stand still. and it’s my own fault going to Hong Kong with long outdated expectations. I thought I was going to feel at the centre of the world!
But these days? I couldn’t shake the sense that I was in a place slightly past its peak. Rather than a tourist hub, it felt like Hong Kong was sitting back a bit and taking a well-deserved rest. An older uncle on the holiday scene, as opposed to a fresh, young buck.
Is Hong Kong worth visiting?
I remember a conversation over dinner with the head concierge of the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. She told me that, like many others, she’d moved from Hong Kong to Shanghai for a better life and job (she’d only recently returned because of her husband). “Me too” chimed in her underling, “people come to Hong Kong just to have fun”. Being in a place set up just to have fun, surprisingly perhaps isn’t all that fun. Maybe some would disagree? I’ve never been to Vegas, I’ll admit. But it seems that it’s not just me that thinks the transformation of things (like the famous dai pai dongs into super-slick malls, and the arrival of Disneyland) have changed Hong Kong once again. It all feels just a little bit too ‘set-up’.
So, you ask – should I give it a miss? With so many other spots to see in the world and so little time, maybe my air miles are better gained by going further east? As a travel consultant who designs travel itineraries for a living, I often need to consider whether something is worth doing or not. Time and money are limited, but options for travel are not. So how can I best advise clients what to do with their precious holidays? For me – the question is simple: Is X, Y, Z worth travelling to Hong Kong (or any other place) for? If enough X, Y & Zs can be amassed, then a trip is worth it. Good, eh?
Hong Kong; stopover or straight-through?
First off, let’s start with the famous Po Lin Monastery & Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island. Accessed by a whopping 5.7km cable car, the journey really is just as superb as the destination. Suddenly being in a tiny plastic globe above the South China Sea and knowing I couldn’t even see the terminus station (as we went through valley after valley and in and out of clouds) was truly amazing.
At the end of the cable ride, you are rewarded with a distant Buddha perched on the mountains, and a short walk up the steps to his base. I happened to be there on ‘Buddha’s Birthday’, so there were heaps of people, cows(!) and flags everywhere. I soaked it all up with one of Hong Kong’s famous pineapple buns. Interestingly no meat was allowed anywhere on the temple grounds – a sign of the strict Buddhist code the monks wanted to adhere to. Is it worth travelling to Hong Kong for? Honestly – yes!
Just look at the snaps:
Hong Kong Island
Now, let’s back-track to Hong Kong Island. If I was going to recommend the best of HK Island to you, I would say start at the amazing Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong (who doesn’t want to wake up here!) then walk along Hollywood Road (just a 20-minute walk away via the famous Stanley Street).
Hollywood Road runs between Central and Sheung Wan and is stuffed with the best antique shops and little boutiques. They each have a pleasant ‘low-key’ atmosphere, with relatively lots of space and much fewer people than, say, Ladies Market on Kowloon. Here, I bought the (fake) jade rings and necklaces I was so determined to pick up, but they sell a whole range of things including Maoist memorabilia, ceramics and vintage postcards.
At the end of Hollywood Road is Man Mo Temple – dedicated to the gods of both war and literature! Inside, vast hanging cones of incense seemingly burn all day. It’s very atmospheric and I really did enjoy shopping on Hollywood Road (especially ‘Cat Street’ or Upper Lascar Row just off Hollywood) but I wonder, was it worth coming all this way for? I think it depends on your knack for bargaining for souvenirs… I’ll leave this one undecided for now.
After a quick stop at Man Mo temple, it’s time to do the most iconic of Hong Kong past-times, take a trip on the Star Ferry. For a few pennies you can take this historic boat across Victoria Harbour from Central Ferry Pier to Tsim Sha Tsui, the busy heart of Kowloon.
Sat on that little boat and seeing the famous skyline come into vision was hugely impressive. It was very misty and smoggy of course, Hong Kong rarely isn’t (hence the lack of photos from me), but nonetheless, who doesn’t’ recognise the exact shape of those daunting buildings seen in countless pictures and adverts? This is quintessential Hong Kong – it gave me goose bumps and was definitely worth the trip!
Hopping off the ferry, it’s time to explore Kowloon. The Old Clock Tower and Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade make for a good stroll around, all while looking at the opposite skyline again. Then it’s a short hop on the Tsuen Wan Line to Mong Kok and the notorious Ladies Market where, you can buy pretty much anything in a warren of street stalls. Nothing too unique or too cheap though, it has to be said…. Think novelty socks, electronics and knock-off bags. Interestingly, none of them said ‘Made in Hong Kong’ and not very many ‘Made in China’. India or Bangladesh was just as likely, making me think a true bargain wasn’t going to be had in these parts anymore.
Hong Kong shopping
Of course, everyone knows HK isn’t cheap these days, but who doesn’t like a bargain when shopping? I did think Hong Kong’s proximity to China would be good for the retail-inclined visitor. In all honestly though, I wasn’t blown away by this little corner. There are better markets out there, and when talking to interested parties, this wouldn’t be a reason to recommend visiting.
Stepping off Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, we shouldn’t forget that there are loads of surrounding islands (and not just Lantau either). One such is Lamma Island – where you can enjoy a small hike and amazing seafood. This whole island seems an absolute world away and was fascinating to explore. I loved how all the restaurants were on the seafront and had Chinese lanterns swaying lazily in the sea breeze.
It was good to get out of the city for a bit and look out on Hong Kong’s beautiful mountain ranges and coastline – the two always so close to one another. Lamma Island had such a laid-back, weekend-away-with-your-boyfriend feel, and I loved it. Was it worth coming all the way to HK for? If you love Cantonese style food done well including whole steamed fish, fresh crab, lobster and razor clams in the ubiquitous slimy, salty sauce which makes this region famous (which I really do adore) then yes!
Conclusion: Hong Kong warrants a few days of your life! Make use of Cathay Pacific’s great connections from the UK to stop over on a longer trip to Japan and you won’t be disappointed. No visa, no plug adaptor, no phrasebook… you don’t need to make any special requirements except getting a few Hong Kong dollars and then you can get so much more Asia, on just one trip!
Want to include a Hong Kong stopover on your trip to Japan? Contact our team of travel experts to find out more.