From its calm harbor and serene monasteries to bustling street markets and delicious noodle shops, Hong Kong lives up to its “Pearl of the Orient” nickname. Which makes it a challenge when you only have 40 hours to explore this cosmopolitan jewel of Asia.
Arriving on American Airlines’ inaugural flight to Hong Kong at 6 p.m., I stepped off the plane and received irrefutable evidence that I had left the Texas climate behind: the smell of the salty sea breeze.
Our flight attendants cheerfully ushered us on our way to clear customs, because they, too, only had 40 hours in the city before they’d board the return flight. Time was wasting and I was eager to get to my hotel, drop my bag and get to the sightseeing.
Victoria Harbor and Victoria Peak were both on my list. A trip to Lantau Island to see the world’s largest bronze Buddha was a must. And, of course, there had to be shopping. I had heard that Hong Kong’s street markets were the best place to test your bargaining skills, and I was up to the challenge.
Never miss a local story.
But first, food.
Noodles on every corner
It’s an understatement to say I love Chinese food, and more specifically, Cantonese-style Chinese dishes — which, happily, are found all over Hong Kong. It’s probably because I grew up with Cantonese grandparents who steamed whole fish and made char siu ribs in our kitchen.
Searching for my favorite Chinese comfort food, a hot bowl of noodles with steamed wontons, I soon discovered that there are noodle shops on almost every street. Crammed into tiny spots, sometimes with only a counter and a few seats for patrons, noodle shops offer the cheapest and most satisfying meals in the city.
A few blocks from my hotel in Kowloon, I walked into Chee Kei and was seated at a two-person table and given a menu in English, as I had requested. Much to my surprise, the restaurant seated a young Hong Kong woman right across from me. With little space, the noodle shop fills all of its empty seats with hungry customers, regardless of who came together.
Luckily, she had her head buried in her smartphone, so I didn’t have to make any small talk. Instead, I focused on the menu and its enticing descriptions of congee with a whole crab, braised beef over dry noodles and the traditional wonton soup.
I couldn’t help myself: I’m a traditionalist. The wonton noodles nestled in a light, sweet onion broth tantalized my travel-weary tongue, while a cup of warm jasmine tea settled my time-zone-confused stomach. The five shrimp wontons were steamed to perfection and the skinny noodles were cooked to the proper crunch-to-soft ratio. Nom nom!
Skyline views from rooftop bars
With my tummy full, I decided to head to Victoria Harbor for an evening stroll down the Avenue of the Stars promenade.
Filled mostly with tourists posing with the Bruce Lee statue or by the sidewalk bearing the names of famous Asian movie stars, the promenade features an unfettered view of Hong Kong island’s skyline.
I don’t care that Dallas’ skyline recently beat out Hong Kong’s lighted high-rises in USA Today’s reader poll. Hong Kong’s numerous condominiums and business towers shine brightly at night with neon light strands and high-definition billboards, and the skyline even has its own nightly laser light show, the Symphony of Lights. Take that, Dallas.
But for an even better view of the harbor, I knew I had to go higher. Rooftop bars are plentiful in Hong Kong and define the social scene in a city that rarely sleeps.The Felix is on the 28th floor of the Peninsula Hotel, which opened in December 1928 and bears the distinction of being Hong Kong’s oldest hotel. Here, windows stretch more than 20 feet from the restaurant floor to a circular bar area that seemingly floats in midair, giving guests a spectacular view of the skyline while they sip raspberry ripples or blueberry bellinis.
I decided to sample the Felix 75 — the bar’s signature drink. The champagne fizz tickled my nose and the zing of the lemon juice was balanced by the faint aroma of jasmine. Staring out at the harbor and entranced by the skyline’s dancing lights, I was content and, soon, ready for dream land.
Sleeping, or not sleeping
Or at least I thought I was.
The difficulty of traveling to Hong Kong from Texas is you skip over half a day before being flipped upside down by the 13-hour time difference.
My spacious, deluxe room at the Langham Hotel featured a soaking tub, a Victorian settee and a “Blissful Bed.” Alas, the blissfulness of the bed eluded me. So, I munched on the fresh dragon fruit from the fruit basket provided by the hotel and perused the Internet on its exceedingly fast and free Wi-Fi.
The Langham is decidedly British — as are many Hong Kong hotels that cater to corporate and luxury travelers. Never mind that the Brits gave control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. As a nod to its royal heritage, at 7:05 every night, the hotel lobby is filled with the sound of the Big Ben tower’s bell chimes while butlers make a grand entrance to serve guests cocktails, signifying the “change of day” when work is done and play begins.
The hotel also features a club on the 11th floor for premium guests, offering a typical English breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails and canapes. I perused the many scones, croissants, sausages and dim sum provided for breakfast, lightly sating my appetite before heading out for my one and only full day in Hong Kong.
Reflecting with Buddha
Hong Kong can be divided into four distinct geographic areas — Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, New Territories and the outlying islands.
While most of the outlying islands are small and, in most cases, uninhabited, Lantau Island is a refreshing, tropical paradise outside of the hustle and bustle of the business and tourist districts on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Lantau is also home to the Po Lin Monastery and the world’s largest bronze seated Buddha.
I was ready to become enlightened and find inner spiritual peace. But first, I had to get there.
There are several ways to get to Lantau Island — home to Hong Kong International Airport and Hong Kong Disneyland. Tourists can take taxis to the island or hop on a ferry and then a bus that travels up the winding roads to the monastery. I decided to navigate the MTR, the sleek, modern subway system. It quickly transported me from Kowloon Peninsula to Lantau.
Since I chose to forgo the bus ride, the next step in my journey was a 3.5-mile stint on an elevated cable car to Ngong Ping Village, located next to the monastery. The cable cars, some of which have glass bottoms, provide a stunning view of the lushness of Lantau Island and its mountain peaks. I was amazed during the 25-minute trip by the numerous parks, waterfalls, small villages and remote beaches. I finally got my first peek at the Tian Tan Buddha statue.
Ngong Ping Village, clearly built to serve the tourists who visit the monastery, offers several cute souvenir shops. There are various lunch stops, along with an opportunity to watch a traditional tea ceremony or grab a Starbucks. Yes, the Seattle coffee giant is everywhere.
The village also features a multimedia exhibit titled “Walking With Buddha” that traces the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his path to enlightenment and becoming Buddha. While I found it a bit theatrical — courtesy of a smoke machine and strobe lights — the walls discussing the Four Noble Truths reminded me of why the monks devote their life to Buddha’s teachings, and got me in the mood for the actual monastery.
Founded in 1906, Po Lin Monastery is a short walk from the village. It was noticeably quieter, despite the hundreds of tourists who were making the trek to the Tian Tan Buddha. Several meditation halls and shrines to Buddha invite visitors to leave offerings of oranges, paper money and incense. The monastery also serves a vegetarian lunch to visitors, so I enjoyed a small custard tart and a black-bean filled jin dui.
The main attraction, though, is the Tian Tan Buddha. And on a steamy summer day, climbing the 268 steps to get to the base of the statue was sweat-inducing. Thank goodness they sell bottled water there.
Looming over everything at the monastery, the statue is 111 feet tall and weighs 250 metric tons. Buddha sits on a lotus throne and is hollow inside, allowing visitors to climb three stories inside in order to view the rice grain-sized Buddha relic. Considered part of Buddha’s preserved remains, it is a sacred item to Buddhist monks and photographs are not allowed.
The Buddha is also surrounded by six bronze statues called the Six Devas, each of which holds offerings such as flowers, fruit and music to Buddha. I didn’t bring any offerings, but the calmness that surrounds Buddha pervaded my spirit, creating an oasis of serenity during an otherwise fast-paced trip.
Dim sum for every meal
Back in the city, my quest was the meal that I had been looking forward to the entire trip. Dim sum.Did I say wonton noodles is my favorite Chinese dish? I lied. It’s dim sum.
Like noodle shops, dim sum restaurants can be found on every street in Hong Kong. But I wasn’t looking for average dim sum, I wanted the best Hong Kong could offer. Based on recommendations, I went looking for it at Tim Ho Wan.
Unlike other dim sum restaurants where the food passes by in bamboo steamers on carts, you order off the menu at Hong Kong dim sum restaurants. Because space is precious, restaurant owners don’t use carts, so they can fit more tables and accommodate more customers. At first, this was worrisome, because a cart makes it easy to simply point to what you want — my grandfather only taught me some of the names of the dim sum I used to eat — but here, I managed to point to the pictures on the menu instead.
Even though it was 3 p.m., the restaurant was full of diners and the kitchen was busy, hustling out steaming small plates of dim sum. I was very excited when I noticed the waiter coming to my table with flat rice noodles (cheong fun) drenched in soy sauce, shrimp dumplings (har gow), and fried egg rolls. I also tried the restaurant’s signature fillet fish on toast but found it a little too oily for my liking.
And then I had the bao.
I’ve had char siu bao before — that wonderful sticky sweet barbecue meat packed inside a doughy bun. I’ve had it baked. I’ve had it steamed. But I have never had it like I did at Tim Ho Wan. It is the lightest bao I have ever eaten. The sweet meat inside was infused with the flavor of hoisin. The dough was fluffy and airy and had been baked to perfection. Since it came three on a plate, I took one back to the hotel. It was still fantastic eight hours later.
An exercise in bargaining
Shopping is easy in Hong Kong. Haggling to get a fair price is not.
My first attempt was at the Jade Market, which features dozens of stalls filled with jade bracelets, pendants and figurines. There are also dozens of pearl vendors here. The market is the perfect place to get inexpensive jewelry, but don’t expect to get high quality at rock-bottom prices.
Since I have inherited jade jewelry from my great-grandmother, I was familiar with what to look for: clear veins of varying shades of green and not cloudy or diffused when the stone is held up to a bright light. I also know that real jade is cool to the touch.
Rows of jade merchants and their low prices made me feel uncertain. It seemed likely the items were imitation jade, but I was determined to purchase pendants for my mother, my daughter and myself, so I powered through. After perusing several vendors, I’d found the perfect pieces to take home as gifts.
There were two other street markets where I honed my haggling skills on souvenirs: the Ladies’ Market and the Temple Street Night Market. Both are open until around 11 p.m. and are filled with colorful vendors hawking souvenirs to tourists.
The Ladies’ Market, which stretches for a couple of blocks along Tung Choi Street, is a great place to find that distinctly Chinese cheongsam, or silk dress with a mandarin-style collar. This market cropped up in the 1970s, giving many of Hong Kong’s unemployed a place to sell homemade items. I decided to check out the handbags, watches and other ladies’ accessories that would easily fit into my suitcase.
While the Ladies’ Market had some local customers, the night market at Temple Street was full of tourists looking for deals. By the time I got to the third market, I finally figured out my bargaining strategy. I would show interest in an item — in this case, it was a Chinese lucky cat whose paw automatically goes up and down — and wait until the vendor approached me.
I’d ask the price, and if it was higher than the price for the same item I had seen at another stall, I would make a counteroffer. And then, the vendor would make another offer, to which I would wrinkle my nose and start to walk away. Every time, the vendor would wait and make the best offer after I was heading out of the stall.
My bargaining success netted me several souvenirs for my kids, including a USB keychain shaped like a monkey for my son, who was born in the Year of the Monkey, plus beautiful silk table runners embroidered with Chinese characters for my dining room.
Drifting with a drink
As the sun began to set, I returned to Victoria Harbor and went back in time, sort of.
Several boats take visitors into the middle of the harbor and offer dinner and drinks, but only the Aqua Luna makes you feel like you’re sailing on the South China Sea during the 1800s. The junk boat’s red sails set it apart from other boats in the harbor. You almost expect Johnny Depp to come swashbuckling in on the Black Pearl while you and Chow Yun-Fat captain the Aqua Luna into battle. The boat is known as the Cheung Po Tsai, named after a Cheung Chau island pirate who sailed the same waters I was about to traverse.
The 45-minute cruise is the easiest way to see the coasts of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, and with one of its specialty sunset drinks in hand, the bustle of the day’s sightseeing seemed to melt away.
The peak of perfection
My flight didn’t leave until 1:30 p.m., so I mapped a plan to fit in one last sightseeing excursion, starting at 8 a.m., when the tram to Victoria Peak opened.
I hopped on the Star ferry from the Kowloon side over to Hong Kong Island, then walked 20 minutes to the base of the peak where the tram connects Hong Kong’s business district with a viewing platform area. At almost 1,300 feet, Victoria Peak is the tallest point on Hong Kong Island. For decades, it was home to British diplomats and European businessmen. Chinese residents were only allowed in the area with special permission.
The funicular cars aren’t the most comfortable way to head up a hill, but the 5-minute tram ride is a must. I was unprepared for the breathtaking 360-degree view of the city. Since it was early in the morning, there were few tourists on the platform — which made it easy to snap the perfect selfie with Hong Kong in the background. Unfortunately, the smog gave the city a hazy glaze.
Originally, I’d considered skipping on a visit to Victoria Peak since it was listed in all of the tourist guides. Afterward, I was so glad I’d taken the time to go. That one last breathtaking glimpse of Hong Kong and Victoria Harbor was a perfect — and scenic — way to wrap up my delightful trip.