If Seoul is the young upstart and Tokyo the quirky older sister, Hong Kong is the glamour girl of Asia – smart, stylish and home to so many luxury stores they should declare a Year of the Handbag.
This former British colony that clings to the southern edge of China is the third-most-densely populated place on the planet. Most of its 7.1 million inhabitants are clustered in cloud-piercing tower blocks on Kowloon or Hong Kong Island but, in reality, the Special Administrative Region of China is actually spread over 1,130km², much of it taken up with the New Territories to the north and more than 260 islands.
Conservative Hong Kong Island, often called ‘Hong Koncrete’, is the postcode of choice for most expats. It’s where white-collar Hong Kong goes to buy, sell and exchange the millions that give the territory its reputation as the trading floor of Asia. The bars and restaurants of Lan Kwai Fong are where they let down their hair.
Slightly scruffier, Kowloon is the place to be parted from your cash. Shopping here is an Olympic sport, serving up equal amounts of mall madness, street markets and Visa-melting stores.
But there’s more to Hong Kong than making and spending money. The so-called ‘Fragrant Harbour’ is also criss-crossed with hiking trails, including one of Asia’s best, the Dragon’s Back, or, if you’re after something more strenuous, the 100km MacLehose Trail, which was once used by Britain’s Gurkha soldiers to keep fit. There are also some great beaches, including hidden coves on Lantau, Lamma and Cheung Chau Islands, where you can escape the hordes of people.
You’ll need feeding after all that exertion and Hong Kong has more than 12,000 restaurants to choose from, including Tim Ho Wan, the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, where the legendary char siu bao (baked pork buns) cost around NZ$10. Just be prepared to queue.
HONG KONG INSIDER’S GUIDE
Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery: This seated bronze Buddha is 34m tall, the largest of its kind in the world and sits atop a three-tiered altar and a six-tonne bell that rings 108 times a day. At the adjacent Po Lin Monastery, the monks cook and serve delicious vegetarian meals.
Mid-Levels Escalator: Catch the world’s longest escalator – actually 20 separate escalators – from Des Voeux and Queen’s Roads in Central to the Mid-Levels. In the morning, it runs downhill, taking workers into Central and, at 10am, changes direction to go uphill until midnight. Hop on and off to discover quirky shops and cafés.
Pirate Island: Tiny Cheung Chau Island has been used as a bolt-hole since pirates and smugglers hid there centuries ago to prey on passing ships. These days, the island is one of the last places in Hong Kong where families still live on wooden junks. Try to time your visit for the annual Bun Festival (held in the fourth lunar month), a colourful Taoist celebration for the god Pak Tai.
Kowloon Park: Wedged between the glitz of Canton Road and the grime of Nathan Road, this 13.3-hectare walled park has a colourful history, first as a garrison serving various emperors and then as a hub of gangsters, gambling, prostitution and, if you can believe it, illegal dentists. When the British took possession, they turned it into its current urban oasis of plants, pavilions, ponds and a hedge that’s shaped like a dragon.
GALLERIES & SHOPS
Koru Contemporary Art: Owned and operated by former Palmerston North gallery director Mark Joyce, Koru has been showcasing a range of local and New Zealand contemporary artists since 2001. Based in Aberdeen in Hong Kong Island, Koru specialises in wood, stone, glass and mixed-media works.
White Cube Gallery: An offshoot of the famous London gallery (and the first of the White Cube galleries to be located outside the UK), this two-storeyed temple to cool opened in the heart of Central’s financial district in 2012.
Bang Bang 70’s: This diminutive shrine to the Disco era features clothing, shoes and accessories that are rare or no longer in production.
Grafter Workshop: The grafters behind this sassy streetwear label started in 2005 with the aim of plugging the gap between expensive designer gear and mass-produced, high-street threads. Their menswear range features funky patterns and is hand finished.
EAT & DRINK
Ammo: The latest eatery from local celebrity chef Tony Cheng, Ammo takes its name from its location’s former life as the British Army’s magazine compound. The menu merges classical Italian with an Asian twist.
The Peninsula: A classic British afternoon tea at this Kowloon stalwart is an institution but if that’s not your cup of green tea, then try Felix, the Philippe Starck-designed restaurant on the top floor where the views will stop your heart.
C’est la B: Local celebrity Bonnae Gokson’s cake shops are an offshoot of her fine-dining restaurant, Sevva. They’re also a calorific delight, featuring cupcakes and macarons that will have you wishing you had packed elastic-waisted trousers.
Lung King Heen: With a name that translates as ‘View of the Dragon’, this Michelin three-starred restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel is helmed by Chan Yan Tak, a master of combining textures and flavours.