Feeling Hong Kong’s Energy

Hong Kong is probably the most energetic city in the world. It’s got the bright lights of Vegas, the hustle of New York, the swank of Rodeo Drive and the fantasy power of Disney World all rolled into one vibrant city. It is the gateway to China, and was recently returned to China after a long history as a European trading center and British crown colony.

While a lot of Hong Kong’s historical past has been destroyed by unprecedented modernization, the city has not lost its essential character. Crowded, exuberant, busy and relentlessly enterprising, it is a destination to absorb rather than explore. On my first visit to Hong Kong, I found it has a curious effect on Western travelers: The longer you are away, the stronger the call to return.

What to see

The city is divided into two main sections — Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, which is attached to mainland China. Between them lies beautiful Victoria Harbor, one of the busiest harbors in the world.

A trip to Hong Kong is simply not complete without a trip up Victoria Peak, or simply “The Peak,” on Hong Kong Island. Views from the top are nothing less than spectacular and are equally breathtaking day or night. A ride up in a taxi offers an interesting peek into living on Hong Kong, and the century-old Peak Tram is a relaxing way to get back down. While there isn’t much to do up on The Peak, there are a few tourist shops and one or two very decent restaurants.

The Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island is worth a look, as it is home to “Asia’s largest seated outdoor Buddha statue” (not to be confused with any other position or location). After climbing the steps, you’ll have breathtaking views of the mountains climbing from the sea. The Buddha itself is larger than life, and the monastery affords a sharp look at life as a Buddhist monk.

A short drive from the monastery takes you to an old fishing village called Tai O, a great place to see old China in action. While I expected a quaint fishing village, this was a bustling mini-city with small outboard motorboats darting among the houses and stores, which are built on stilts. But aside from some modern conveniences, life here is as it was years ago. There are villagers peddling their wares (usually fish) on the streets, and mothers maintaining homes for their families.

At one time, Hong Kong was one of the best places to go for first-rate merchandise at bargain prices. Unfortunately, West has met East and the bargains are not so great any longer. Still, the emphasis on shopping in Hong Kong is incredible — it is a hobby there. Electronics are still well-priced, but stick to the larger stores as many of the independent shops in Kowloon, especially on Nathan Road, and are run by triads-China’s age-old mafia.

Shopping plazas are everywhere in Hong Kong. Nathan Road in Kowloon, often the first stop for shoppers, offers bargain goods, souvenirs and luxury items. Causeway Bay, on Hong Kong Island, has more upscale brands and foreign imports.

But for a unique shopping experience, you must sample the markets. Be sure to bring your bargaining skills. My son was able to negotiate jade stones for his entire third-grade class in the Jade Market, which is located at the junction of Kansu and Reclamation streets. The market offers loose jade as well as ornately carved sculptures. The Temple Street Night Market kicks into life in the late evening and offers table after table of cheap clothing, pirated CDs and video games, food stalls, and little trinkets. On the south side of Hong Kong Island is Stanley Market. This, the most popular market with tourists, offers all the souvenirs you can handle along with several very good antique shops. Stanley is also a great area to explore; it has several temples, and many good restaurants and pubs.

What to eat

There is no shortage of restaurants in Hong Kong. You’ll find everything from the generic Hard Rock Cafe to Jimmy’s Kitchen, an 80-year-old expatriate favorite in Kowloon. Hong Kong’s biggest tourist trap (and a must-see for the first-time visitor) is the famous floating Jumbo Restaurant. The Chinese themes are overdone, the food is overrated and not terribly authentic, and yet the experience really is worth the all the nonsense.

One of the best restaurants is Felix, which sits on the top floor of the Peninsula Hotel. Expect to pay a lot for a spectacular dinner offering some equally spectacular views of Hong Kong. Make a later reservation so you can take in the beauty of Hong Kong all lit up at night. Or simply hang out at the bar. If you happen to be of the male persuasion, check out the men’s room. Let’s just say I had never experienced a clear urinal with a view before!

For trendy, hip and popular, head to Hong Kong Island and the district called Lan Kwai Fong. The areas called Soho (“South of Hollywood Road”) and Noho (“North of Hollywood Road”) have a trendy mix of restaurants and cafes and are very popular with the expatriate community.

A short stroll, or stumble, from Soho or Noho is Hong Kong’s version of a red light district: Wanchai. The area is filled with nightclubs, strip clubs, pubs and pick-up joints. Many of these, such as Joe Banana’s, still have a dress code; call ahead to ask. And if you have visions of James Bond ordering his martini in the speakeasy called Bottoms Up (it does exist), then you’d better e-mail me for the details — it’s not pretty!

Where to stay

Purists will say that the only place to stay in Hong Kong is the Peninsula Hotel, but I would be inclined to look to the Intercontinental (formerly the Regent), across the street. Perched on the edge of Victoria Harbor overlooking Hong Kong Island, the hotel occupies probably the finest piece of real estate in the city. It also has great dining, a wonderful bar, and a beautiful infinity pool with separate temperature-controlled chambers all overlooking the bustling harbor three stories below.

Some oddities

The Hong Kong Science Museum on Kowloon is one of the best science museums I have ever seen. It covers everything from mathematics and meteorology to food science and occupational safety. It also has a huge and interesting section on sexuality, though I found it odd that there was not a single mention of AIDS in the exhibit.

When navigating around Hong Kong, you need to watch your step. Not only does the country not require ramps for accessibility, Buddhists consider them bad luck. They believe bad spirits cannot climb steps but they can come up a ramp, so every building will have some small step at the entrances (go ahead, check — I dare you to find one that doesn’t).

You may be in a James Bond mood but, sadly, there aren’t a lot of rickshaws around to shuttle you across town. As a matter of fact, there are only four and they are tourist attractions at the Star Ferry dock on Hong Kong Island — but again, worth the price for the experience.

There are plenty of side trips and sightseeing tours to take — too many to mention, but talk to your hotel’s concierge; he will steer you to something interesting. Pay a few extra bucks and see if the hotel can take you to or from the airport — I did and was greeted by a vintage Rolls Royce.

Finally, since the gents got their men’s room tip, I’ll offer the same to the ladies: Public restrooms for women in Hong Kong apparently have urinal-like devices in the floors and not a lot of privacy. While waiting for a friend to emerge, I watched many Westerners coming out with the same confused look on their faces!

If you have some time and are looking for a memorable trip, head to Hong Kong. The flight is a bit long, but the memories will have you coming back for more.

For more information, check out the Web site of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

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