Welcome to second instalment of my Brian’s Travel Spot series, which started with my flight out to Hong Kong via Dubai. This post covers my time in Hong Kong, an amazing city which I first visited in 2008. That was primarily a business trip, but I tacked on some sight-seeing time at the end. Hong Kong had never been on my destination list, but I fell in love with it and have been wanting to return ever since.
Trying to sum up Hong Kong in a single post, let alone a 200 word introduction is futile: much like any big city, Hong Kong is an amalgam of different areas. This is particularly true when you throw in Kowloon, the New Territories and the outer islands. In nutshell, though, Hong Kong (the island) is a mountain in the sea, densely forested, both by trees and the skyscrapers which sprout up with amazing frequency. Think midtown or downtown New York, but done as the British would do it, in a “let’s muddle through” sort of way. Hot, humid, loud and busy, it exhilarates and exhausts me in equal measure.
This post is covers my four days in Hong Kong and, as with all the others, is split into a number of sections, so don’t forget to check back during the week for regular updates. For now you can read about:
- My first impressions of Hong Kong
- My lovely hotel, the Ibis North Point
- Some tips on surviving Hong Kong
- Getting around Hong Kong
You can read about my first impressions of Hong Kong after the gallery.
When I first visited Hong Kong in 2008, it was with no great expectations. I caught an absolutely horrible cold on the flight over, so spent the whole trip disgusting ill. What’s more, on my first morning, feeling the onset of the cold, I went up to my room to lie down after breakfast. The next thing I knew it was three o’clock and housekeeping were knocking on my door, wondering when I’d be going out so they could do my room. And that was my sleep patterns blown for the trip. So, on top of the cold, I had the worst jet-lag I’ve ever had on a trip and yet I still loved Hong Kong.
Why? I can’t tell you. Perhaps it was (and is) that it’s so different from anything I’ve experienced before. I’ve never been to China (that’s next week!), nor, before coming Hong Kong, had I been further east than Poland. And yet, amongst everything that was new, there was an element of the reassuring: this is an ex-British colony that was only relinquished in 1997. English is everywhere and while it makes me lazy, it means I can get around with supreme ease. They also drive on the left, which is pleasingly reassuring.
Culturally, I have very little to compare it to, the closest I have come to anywhere like this is Chinatown, where I stay (more out of habit than anything else) when I go to New York. On one level, Hong Kong is like any large city: I guess that’s part of why I like it so much. I just like big cities, although I’d hate to live in one for any length of time. I also like that it is so connected to the water. Hong Kong (the city on the northern edge of Hong Kong Island) is largely built on either mountain slopes (like Mid Level) or on land reclaimed from the sea (like Wan Chai). Facing it is Kowloon, built on the southern tip of the New Territories, the (small) chunk of mainland China that Britain acquired from China at the same time as Hong Kong. Ferries constantly criss-cross the narrow stretch of water, connecting the two, still popular as a practical means of transport today despite the advent of Metro lines and at least one road tunnel.
When I was here last, I stayed in Wan Chai and, despite it being simple to go two stops down the metro to Central, I’d catch the Star Ferry to Kowloon and then back form Kowloon to Central, just so that I could admire the view of the Hong Kong skyline from the ferry. It’s less than £1 round trip and a fraction of what you’d paid for any sight-seeing trip.
On that trip, I explored Wan Chai, Central and Victoria Peak, the mountain behind Central. I also went hiking in the hills above Hong Kong and got out to the New Territories, all things I would recommend that you do if you can. However, on this trip, as well as exploring Hong Kong’s coffee shops (most of which weren’t here eight years ago), I wanted to get out to new parts of the island. I’m staying in North Point and so explored that area and Causeway Bay, as well as getting out to the southern part of the island, somewhere I want to explore some more.
Normally with these Travel Spots, I tend to do things chronologically, largely because, for the previous ones, I’ve been almost constantly travelling. This trip is different since I’m spending relatively long periods of time in the same place, punctuated with shorter periods of frustration when faced with the inadequacies of airports around the world (I’m writing this during one of these shorter periods). So, rather than do a day-by-day account, for Hong Kong at least, I’m doing a series of themed updates to this post, starting with some observations about my hotel.
On my last trip, eight years ago, I stayed in a business-orientated hotel near the Convention Centre in Wan Chai. This time, because I’m paying for it myself, I’ve moved slightly down-market and slightly further away from the centre, ending up in the Ibis in North Point, a situation I’m entirely happy with. Most hotels, in my opinion, vastly overcharge for what is, essential, a bed I can sleep in at night, plus, if I need it, a desk I can work at. Other than free, working Wifi, I don’t need a lot else.
In the case of the Ibis, I paid under £40 a night for a more-than-adequate room. Even accounting for breakfast (more on this in future update), I was still looking at less than £50 a night, which, for a major city, is a bargain. The room was excellent and had everything I needed, plus it came with the bonus of a harbour view. When I’d booked, I’d been a cheapskate and selected a city-view room, which, with hindsight, was not money well spent. How I ended up with a harbour view, I’m not quite sure, but there it was when I opened the blinds: a quite staggering visit overlooking Kowloon on the other side of the bay.
Had I been there 20 years ago, it would have been even better since I was directly opposite the site of the old Hong Kong airport, essentially a long runway jutting out into the harbour on the Kowloon side. Imagine the fun that I’d have had watching the planes landing and taking off! Mind you, I probably timed my stay reasonably well, since, judging by the building site directly below me, plus the size of the buildings on either side, the Ibis North Point won’t have a harbour view for much longer, at least not on the 17th floor where I was.
So I took it while I had it and, since I spent an average of two hours each day sat at the desk, facing the window (I’ve had to work on this trip), the view was very welcome. I’m not sure what the city view rooms would have been like, but judging from the windows in the stairwell (I walked down to breakfast one day, just for the hell of it) I’d have been looking into someone’s apartment window in the residential block that soared up a few metres away behind the hotel!
In terms of location, the Ibis North Point is pretty good. Although it’s a little to the east of Central, it’s only six stops on the metro, which takes maybe 15 minutes, tops. The metro entrance is one minute’s walk away (you’ll spend longer getting from your room to the hotel door and longer walking around inside the station, getting to the trains, than you will going from hotel to station, which is by far the shortest part of the trip!). What’s more, the First Ferry to Hung Hom (over in Kowloon) is just five minutes’ walk.
I’ll leave you with a final observation for those who enjoy coincidences: the Ibis North Point is on Java Road.
Some Tips on Surviving Hong Kong
When I say “surviving Hong Kong” I don’t mean to make it sound like a big and scary place. I felt perfectly safe in Hong Kong, people were polite and helpful and on the whole, everything went very smoothly. This is more the day-to-day survival, starting with breakfast.
Normally I don’t eat a lot for breakfast, although I find this changes when I travel, particularly in America, where I eat huge breakfasts (partly because it’s hard not to) and then don’t eat as much during the day. This was also the case in Hong Kong, where the hotel was offering an all-you-can-eat buffet. So I did, stocking up on food that largely kept me going all day.
My foodie friends will be disappointed with me, especially since Hong Kong has a reputation as a foodie paradise, but I really didn’t eat out much. Part of the problem is that I don’t like dining alone (check out Runaway Kiwi’s take on dining alone). I’m fine in the setting of a coffee shop, where I’ll happily have breakfast, lunch or brunch on my own, but there’s something about the more formal setting of a restaurant that I really don’t enjoy. So for my time in Hong Kong, I ate all I could at breakfast, then had a late lunch at whatever coffee shop I ended up in and that tended to keep me going all day, with maybe a cake or two to fill in the gaps (there was a very good Chinese bakery around the corner from my hotel, so the odd sticky bun may have been consumed in the evening). I also think the hot and humid weather, which we’ll come to in a minute, also helped supress my appetite.
The downside to this is that I didn’t eat a lot of Chinese food, which is a shame, since I felt I was missing out. The breakfast buffet was very western and the coffee shops even more so (more on this in another update). I did manage to get a couple of Chinese meals. The first was when popped over to the New Territories to see the folks at Decent Espresso (again, a topic for a future update to this post) and John took me out for lunch at a lovely Chinese restaurant. I also had lunch when exploring Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong Island, where I ate at a rather touristy restaurant with a glorious sea view.
A few words about the weather, which was remarkably consistent while I was there. If you count the four full days of my stay, plus the days I arrived and left, the day-time maximum temperature probably didn’t vary by more than a few degrees, while the temperature in general was in a band between 27⁰C and 33⁰C. There is something quite glorious in being able to wander around at nine o’clock in the evening in just a short-sleeved shirt.
My memories of Hong Kong were of the heat and humidity, but I didn’t find it so bad this time around, although it was very humid all the time. On my first day, I’d decided to visit a few coffee shops, but it turned out to be a remarkably sunny day (one of the down sides to being so hot and humid is that Hong Kong is often cloudy: looking back at my photos from eight years ago, I was surprised to see how many of the views were obscured by cloud).
With this in mind, I started to question my strategy. Did I really want to be inside coffee shops on a glorious day like this? Actually, it turned out that I did. While the weather was glorious, by the time it got to two o’clock in the afternoon, I was very glad to be ducking into an air-conditioned coffee shop to get some respite from the heat. Indeed, this is my main tip for surviving Hong Kong: it can get very hot during the middle of the day, so if you are feeling the heat, just duck inside somewhere. It doesn’t have to be a coffee shop; any large shop will have decent air-conditioning and will provide some respite from the heat. Better still, pop into a shopping mall, of which there are plenty, particularly in Central and the surrounding areas and over in Kowloon.
Normally I avoid shopping malls like the plague since I find them soulless places, but in Hong Kong, the lure of air-conditioning and free Wifi made them irresistible targets. They are also guaranteed to have toilets, although in Hong Kong’s defence, it probably has more public toilets than any city I’ve come across and with the odd exception, they have been sparklingly clean and well maintained.
Getting Around in Hong Kong
Starting with the ride in from the airport, which takes 20 minutes on the dedicated airport train, travelling around Hong Kong is generally fast, efficient and cheap. The largest travel expense is getting to and from the airport: pretty much everything else is ridiculously cheap by western standards, with most fares costing well under a pound.
The first thing you need to do is to obtain an Octopus Card. Most travel systems have contactless fare cards these days, but Hong Kong was ahead of the game: I already had an Octopus Card from my previous visit eight years ago and what’s more, it still worked, albeit requiring a few key strokes from the man at the information desk at Central Station to reactivate it. Nevertheless, that’s impressive!
The Octopus Card isn’t just for travel by the way. Most places (convenience stores, supermarkets and cafes for example) will take Octopus as payment. Just tap and go, much as you would with a contactless card. The only thing that lets Octopus down in the rigmarole you go through in order to put money on it. The Octopus machines only take cash, so I was left in the absurd situation of going to a cash point and inserting a piece of plastic in order to receive a bunch of notes, which I then fed into another machine so that their value could be loaded onto another piece of plastic. Really? C’mon, Hong Kong, you’re letting the side down!
That aside, Octopus is amazing, and has been from the start. One of the reasons I don’t actually know how much any of the various methods of public transport cost is that I’d put 100 HKD (Hong Kong Dollars, about £10) onto my Octopus and off I’d go, tapping away until I ran out, when I’d put another 100 HKD on. One of the many nice things about the Octopus is that you can go overdrawn with it (I managed to get down to -25 HKD when paying for some coffee) so even if you are running low, you won’t get stranded. There are also plenty of Octopus recharging machines, although I only saw them at metro stations (where they are outnumbered 2-to-1 by cash points!).
Talking of the metro, Hong Kong is blessed by a fast, efficient system with a frequent service. The lines are all modern (under 50 years old) and air-conditioned, which is a blessing. If you are on Hong Kong itself, the Island Line will be your friend, which runs from east to west along the north shore, connecting all the main areas. There are also three cross-harbour lines at Central, Wan Chai and North Point, with the rest of the lines serving Kowloon and the New Territories. The downside to the Metro is that, particularly on the island Line, it is always busy. I never got a seat and was often squashing in with my fellow passengers, regardless of the time of day.
The stations themselves are large and spacious, especially the new ones (think Canary Wharf station on the Jubilee line). However, they are also extensive, with multiple exits, so you can sometimes get lost. You can also face a long walk between your entrance finally getting to the trains (think Bank/Monument in London, only they are all like that!).
For the places where the metro doesn’t run (the rest of Hong Kong Island for example) there is an extensive bus network. The routes are mostly served by double-deckers and some small, 16-seater minibuses which seem to run on many of the same routes. I’ve never quite worked out the difference between them: I just hop on the first one that’s going in my direction. Tap your Octopus and that’s that: you’ll be charged the full fare to wherever the bus is going. If you get off before the end, just tap your Octopus again and you’ll be refunded the difference.
The buses aren’t as fast as the metros, but they do go where the metro doesn’t and, of course, the views are much better! There are also several cross-harbour services which use the road tunnels connecting Hong Kong Island with Kowloon. However, an alternative to the cross-harbour lines (metro or bus) are the many ferries which plough back and forth across the calm waters of Victoria Bay.
During my first visit, I stayed in Wan Chai and would regularly get the Star Ferry to Kowloon and then back from Kowloon to Central rather than go the two stops on the metro. It was slower, but the views, particularly of the Hong Kong skyline, were amazing. This time around, I used the First Ferry which ran from just outside my hotel in North Point to Hung Hom in Kowloon, a slightly less convenient dropping off point, but still worth it for the ride. If you have plenty of time, you can then walk along the water front to the Star Ferry pier or hop on a bus.
The final public transport option is the tram. These amazing machines are a throw-back to a bygone age. Infeasibly narrow, with two decks, they run along a route that pretty much mirrors the Island Line, only above ground. They are immense fun to ride, but only if you can get a seat (particularly if you are tall like me). However, as a practical means of transport, they are a poor option. The service is infrequent, with long gaps between trams, which then arrive three or four at a time. They are also very slow, seeming to give way to everything else on the road! If you’re in a hurry, jump on the metro or, if you want to see the views, get a bus.
The final option, of course, is to walk, but I’ll leave that for another topic. Don’t forget to check back over the weekend for another instalment.
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