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Hong Kong Overview
There's one constant in Hong Kong -- change! If you visited a few years back, you may not recognize the place. So, how did Hong Kong get to where it is today? There are nearly 5,000 years of Chinese history and traditions there, overlaid with 150 years of British colonial influence. Ceded back to China by the British in 1997, the city remains a "free-market zone" within the communist Chinese system. Locals still refer to the "border" of mainland China, and visitors from the West must acquire tourist visas in order to cross -- although visa regulations for China seem to be in constant flux, so be sure to confirm the current situation.
In terms of cultural diversity, architectural innovation, infrastructure and cosmopolitan edginess, it's hard to beat Hong Kong. The city is also one of the most vibrant commercial centers in the world. Hong Kong is the foremost deep-water harbor in Asia, a fact evidenced by the scores of cargo vessels carrying manufactured goods to the rest of the world. Of course, it's also a first-rate shopping destination, much to the delight of cruise passengers who discover they can shop the city's biggest mall without even leaving the impressive terminal.
Hong Kong is composed of three main districts. The Kowloon Peninsula houses the famed Ladies' Market and Temple Street Night Market, the upscale shops on Nathan Road's "Golden Mile," several museums and the busy, tourist-friendly Tsim Sha Tsui area. Connecting Kowloon to mainland China are the scenic New Territories, where you'll find elaborate temples and woodlands. Hong Kong Island, across Victoria Harbour, contains the city's financial district. Dubbed the "concrete forest," Hong Kong Island offers a stunning juxtaposition of imposing skyscrapers set against the towering slopes of Victoria Peak. But travel to the other side of the Peak, and you'll find beaches, islands, an amusement park and Stanley Harbor -- with yet another renowned market.
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In this financial capital, where money flows like water, what could be more appropriate than a cocktail flecked with gold leaf? AquaSpirit (29/F, One Peking, 1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, 3427-2288) shakes up the Aquatini, HK$118, with Grey Goose vodka, Chambord, a splash of lychee liqueur and real (edible) gold leaf. AquaSpirit is one of the city's favorite watering holes, with views that match the showy cocktails.
Jade holds great symbolism in Chinese culture, and either faux (like most of the stuff on display at the Jade Market (bargain hard) or the real thing (be sure to buy from a reputable dealer, like Chinese Arts & Crafts: 3 Salisbury Road, +852-2735-4061; be prepared for sticker shock) makes a good souvenir. Look for necklaces, pendants and other jewelry. On the kitschier side, look for weird and wonderful iPhone covers, or snap up a few "Bruce Lee is my homeboy" t-shirts at the markets.
Cantonese and English are the official languages. Most shopkeepers, hotel personnel, restaurant and service workers speak some English. Cantonese is the most widely spoken Chinese language in Hong Kong, though use of Mandarin is growing. All major signage is in English or is bilingual, as are many locals. It's entertaining to eavesdrop on pedestrian conversations as they veer between English, Chinese and even Indian dialects.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
ATM's are widely available -- as nearby as the cruise terminal -- and dispense Hong Kong dollars. It's best to check with your bank prior to departure for information about surcharges. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Don't be shocked by price tags; there are several Hong Kong dollars to one U.S. dollar.
Since commerce is king, most major credit cards and traveler's checks are accepted throughout the city. When using your credit card, you may be asked if you'd like to charge in your home currency. For the best exchange rate, we recommend you always request that the charge be made in local currency. On the same note, check with your credit card company to see if they tack on any fees for overseas charges. (A 3 percent fee isn't uncommon.) Several credit card companies now offer no-fee foreign transactions.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships now dock at Hong Kong's Ocean Terminal in Victoria Harbour at the southwestern edge of the Kowloon Peninsula. It's a superb location, within walking distance of world-class shops, restaurants, museums, landmark hotels, markets, parks, the underground transit system and the renowned Star Ferry.
A second cruise terminal at the former Kai Tak Airport runway on the East Kowloon waterfront is expected to open in mid-2013. It will have two alongside berths, with support facilities to accommodate simultaneous berthing of two mega-cruise vessels (gross tonnage of up to 220,000).
Nearby attractions to the Kai Tak Terminal include Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, Kowloon Walled City Park, Chi Lin Nunnery / Nan Lian Garden and Lei Yue Mun Seafood Bazaar. Ten minutes away, Festival Walk shopping complex features many international brands. However, the new terminal will be less conveniently located for Star Ferry trips to Hong Kong Island, the markets and other classic Hong Kong tourist attractions.
To see which ships are scheduled to berth where, consult the Ocean Terminal schedule and the Kai Tak Terminal schedule.
For those with limited time and unlimited resources, shopping opportunities abound at the port itself, home to the gigantic Ocean Center and Harbour City shopping complexes. You'll find three floors of designer boutiques, gourmet specialty stores and department stores with both local and international choices. An entire section of the mall is devoted to shops selling children's items. One of our favorite chocolatiers in the world, Jean Paul Hevin of Paris, has a boutique selling jewel-like candies and macaroons. The City Super has a food court that's good for a quick bite. There's even a Starbucks in the complex.
You'll also find ATM's and free Wi-Fi in the terminal mall complex (though strength of the signal varies). Pacific Coffee has Internet-connected computers, which are free to use with a purchase. (When folks are waiting, there's a 15-minute time limit; if you're waiting, feel free to start the timer found next to the computer.)
Step outside the terminal, and you're in a shopper's paradise. A custom-tailored suit in one of the city's renowned tailors' shops is just minutes (and a few hundred dollars) away. The best-known of these shops belongs to Sam of Sam's Tailor Shop, at 92 Nathan Road in the Burlington Arcade. Sam has measured the inseams of such notables as Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles. Exquisite silks, jade and gold jewelry, arts and crafts, textiles, and antiques can all be found at China Cultural Arts, a high-end shop located on Salisbury Road, also within minutes of the Terminal.
Definitely take a stroll along the Kowloon waterfront, just to the right of the terminal. It's an amazing vantage point for admiring the cityscape of Hong Kong Island. See if your hands fit into any of the impressions left by Hong Kong movie celebrities on Avenue of Stars -- the city's equivalent of Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
The Star Ferry pier is to the right as you exit, with boats buzzing back and forth to Hong Kong Island. Its building also houses the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau. The mass transit system's Tsim Sha Tsui and East Tsim Sha Tsui underground station entrances are a five-minute walk east of the cruise terminal on Middle and Nathan Roads.
Hong Kong is compact, with abundant taxis and excellent public transportation, making local travel quick and convenient.
On Foot: Many of Kowloon's tourist attractions are within a 20-minute walk of the port.
By Star Ferry: These beloved historic boats are a great way to get to Hong Kong Island for a pittance.
By Tram: Double-decker trams offer some of the best city views and run from early morning hours.
By Bus: There are also buses, which run throughout the city. They're ideal if you want to get to Stanley Market.
By Underground: The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is slick, clean and efficient. Its lines run throughout Kowloon and under the harbor to Hong Kong Island.
By Taxi: Hong Kong taxis are plentiful and fairly inexpensive.
By Airport Train: Special airport trains run from Kowloon station and Central station on Hong Kong Island. The system also provides free, frequent shuttles to the stations from major hotels. Once at the train station, you'll be able to check your luggage in for your flight, which is a great convenience.
By Escalator: Hong Kong Island has a series of free escalators, called the mid-levels, created to transport commuters up and down the middle section of Victoria Peak. Aside from morning commute time, when they run downhill, they travel uphill and have spawned small restaurants and bars along their hilly path.
Watch Out For
Along Nathan Road, you'll likely be hustled by men selling "designer" watches and handbags. Buyer beware.
Hong Kong's bustle reaches a peak during rush hour, so be prepared for crowds on mass transit, particularly the MTR. Anytime of the day, though, the city's crowds and heat can be a bit overwhelming. Be sure to take a break now and then -- afternoon tea is the perfect opportunity to get off the streets and relax.
Smog is a fact of life in Hong Kong, and it can often blot out some of the legendary views. Locals blame the smelly haze on mainland China.
The Star Ferry docks are just a stone's throw from the Ocean Terminal. Connecting Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, it's a scenic and affordable way to begin a tour of the island.
The highlight of the island is Victoria Peak, the tallest mountain in the city, and the most popular tourist attraction in all of Hong Kong. The Peak Tram funicular railway takes visitors to the summit for a fantastic panoramic view of Victoria Harbour, Kowloon and the New Territories. The Peak Tower and Galleria complex atop the summit is filled with restaurants and even a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" Museum. There's also a walking trail that encircles the summit, offering a pleasant stroll through lovely gardens and, of course, a breathtaking 360-degree view on clear days. If you're visiting on your own, it's best to get an early start. Crowds can cause the wait to be an hour or more. Tip: If you go as part of a tour or shore excursion, you'll be in a separate, faster line.
Also on the island, Hollywood Road is a mecca for antiquers, with shops and galleries lining the street. The area around Western Market (a beautifully restored colonial building with nothing much exciting inside) is filled with food shops that sell all sorts of Chinese delicacies, including birds' nests and shark fins for soup. As you explore these areas, keep an eye out for small, local street markets that stretch up narrow streets or stairways.
If you have time, pop in for afternoon tea at the swanky Peninsula Hotel on Salisbury Road, Kowloon, and get a taste of the bygone colonial era. Many hotels offer their own versions of this British tradition, but reservations may be necessary, particularly at the most popular places -- and that includes the Peninsula.
The Hong Kong skyline is transformed each night at 8 p.m. into a tapestry of colored light by means of computer-controlled lasers. The show is synchronized with music and narration. The best spot for viewing the Symphony of Lights is along the Waterfront Promenade, just beyond the Star Ferry terminal.
The city's markets are legendary. In the afternoon, the Ladies' Market springs up along Tung Choi Street, offering clothing items, souvenirs and tchotchkes like dim sum fridge magnets. As is true for all these markets, bargain your heart out. The Temple Street Night Market offers similar items, plus food stalls and a section of street entertainers, like jugglers and opera singers. To see the latter, try to arrive before 9 p.m. Stanley Market, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, is a collection of tiny indoor and outdoor shops. You'll find silk robes, jade jewelry (or at least jewelry that's supposed to be jade) and small porcelain goods. The market is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
In Kowloon, the Tsim Sha Tsui area offers vibrant shopping districts, colonial architecture, modern high-rises and lovely parks. It is home to Nathan Road -- a must-see, especially at night, when clubs, restaurants and hotels switch on their gaudy neon signs. Kowloon Park, which is on Nathan Road, is a lovely refuge in the middle of the bustling city, with fountains, a rose garden, a waterfowl exhibit and more. In the morning, you'll encounter folks of all ages performing Tai Chi exercises near the outdoor sculpture garden and lake.
If you've maxed out your credit cards, consider visiting one of the three museums along the harbor: the Museum of Art, Cultural Center or Space Museum. Banners announce special shows. A bit farther away, you'll also find the Science Museum and the Museum of History.
For a unique experience, check out the Yuen Po Bird Garden (Yuen Po Street, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.), where older gentlemen bring their pet songbirds to show them off and give them some fresh air. There are also stalls that sell birds, live crickets and other avian treats. Was it just our imagination, or do local wild birds also congregate to taunt the caged beauties? There's also a small Flower Market nearby.
The Floating Fishing Village at Aberdeen on Hong Kong Island isn't what it once was. Much of the harbor has been taken over by mega-yachts. But it's still possible to take a 15-minute cruise through the scene, both rich and poor. You'll also travel past Jumbo, which bills itself as the world's largest floating restaurant. If you go, keep an eye out for the little boats that scoot around scooping up trash from the water.
Been There, Done That
Looking for something a bit different?
In addition to its three districts, Hong Kong encompasses an array of outlying islands within an hour's ferry ride. Each offers a number of outdoor activities that are a marked contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city. Cheung Chau is a perfect getaway for biking enthusiasts, as there are no cars on the island. Lantau Island is home to the ultramodern international airport. You'll also find superb beaches, scenic walks and a monastery with the world's largest seated bronze Buddha, as well as Hong Kong Disneyland. Finally, since you can never be too far from shopping, the island also has an outlet mega-mall, City Gate Outlets. Visit Lamma Island for great seafood and scenic surroundings. Sai Kung, referred to as Hong Kong's "back garden," offers numerous outdoor dining establishments.
If you've got a few days in Hong Kong, consider a trip to Macao. The former Portuguese colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1999. The island is about an hour from Hong Kong by "jetfoil" boat, and it makes for an amusing excursion. Macao's primary claim to fame these days is its Las Vegas-style casinos, some operated by Las Vegas gaming consortia. It also has a historic sector that is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Macao is jammed on weekends and holidays with folks coming to party from Hong Kong -- and long waits at customs -- so it's best to visit during the week.
If you'd like more adventure, take a visit to Mainland China. It's pretty easy to get to the city of Shenzhen, a special "economic zone" in the southern coast of Guangdong Province. You'll need a visa, obtainable in Hong Kong, though it can take a day or two to process. A 45-minute train ride will take you to the Chinese border, or you can opt for a one-hour jetfoil ride instead. Shenzhen is a haven for those interested in fake designer goods, and it also has a few noteworthy amusement parks, in addition to thousands of years of history.
Speaking of amusement parks, you'll also find Ocean Park on Hong Kong Island. In addition to rides, it has an aquarium and marine mammal exhibits. There's a famous racetrack, Happy Valley Racecourse, on the island, too.
While we don't recommend that you visit Hong Kong just for the beaches, there are a few spots where sun-worshippers can make a splash.
Best for a Quick Swim: On the side of Hong Kong Island opposite all those high-rises, there are two options at Stanley village: Stanley Main Beach and St. Stephen's beach. The water quality is decent, and there are plenty of restaurants. The Stanley market will entertain you, too. You'll also find a small beach at Repulse Bay. Frequent buses travel to Stanley.
Best for Sightseers: There's plenty to do on Lantau Island, so if you want to pack in a bit of everything, include Silvermine Bay Beach in your itinerary. It's located next to Mui Wo, which can be reached by ferry from Central Pier.
Best for Dedicated Beach Bums: If you're willing to travel to Lamma Island and then hike 40 to 60 minutes from Yung Shue Wan, you'll find the most pristine and least-crowded beach in Hong Kong, Lo So Shing Beach. There are changing rooms but few other facilities. If you want to walk for just 20 minutes, consider Hung Shing Yeh Beach. For both, take the ferry to Yung Shue Wan from Central Pier.
If you're a foodie, you've come to the right spot! Hong Kong's food-lovers will match you bite for bite. From dim sum (little plates or steamer-baskets of tasty morsels served morning through afternoon) and Peking duck to exotic (and questionably ethical) items like bird's nest soup or shark fin soup, the entire city is one big banquet. But it doesn't stop there. Creative chefs are also playing with traditional foods and creating innovative new menus.
Food appears in every possible setting -- from elegant hotel and romantic alfresco dining to the basic "come-as-you-are" food stalls, called dai pai dong. Of course, the most popular type of cooking is Cantonese-style. But you'll find restaurants that specialize in cuisine from every region of China. You'll also find an abundance of Western dining options, including the usual fast food suspects.
Texture has a major role in Chinese cuisine, with items like pig ears and chicken feet playing to sensibilities very different from Western tastes. Behind many ingredients, though, is the Chinese belief that food is like medicine. It can improve your complexion, your virility or your luck.
Hong Kong is home to the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan (Shop 8 Kwong Wa Street, Mongkok, Kowloon +852-2332-2896). This out of-the-way dim sum hole-in-the-wall turns out spectacular items made to order. A line starts forming at least a half hour before the doors open at 10 a.m. If you're not lucky enough to get a table at the first seating, the genial owner will put your name on the list and give you the approximate waiting time, easily passed by investigating the nearby street market and surrounding food shops. Trust us, the wait is worth it -- items like the pork buns or steamed shrimp and spinach dumplings redefined dim sum for us. Tim Ho Wan has a second outlet in the train station, Central, Hong Kong Island. It's lacking a bit in character (a tad plastic) and conviviality, but the food was nearly as good as it is at the mothership. At both, you check off the items you'd like to order on a paper listing. Closing times are variable, since they stop serving when they run out of food, usually later for the island outlet.
Want your dim sum close by? A five-minute walk from the cruise terminal, Jade Garden (up the escalator at Star House, Salisbury Road; +852-2730-6888) serves classic lunchtime dim sum in a vast room. (Dinners are regular Cantonese fare.) There are no carts; just check off your choices on a paper list, with help from photos on the menu. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. - 11:30 p.m.; Sunday and holidays, 10 a.m. - 11:30 p.m.
For a memorable splurge, head to Michelin two-starred (and #52 on San Pellegrino's 100 Best Restaurants list) Bo Innovation (60 Johnston Road, Hong Kong Island, +852- 2850 8371) for lunch or dinner. Alvin Leung, known as the "Demon Chef" applies modern culinary techniques to create captivating twists on traditional Chinese dishes (or, as he calls it, X-treme Chinese Cuisine). His radical take on soup dumplings is one of the world's great bites, and dishes like oysters served with a vapor that evokes the aroma of Hong Kong's harbor make dining a multisensory experience. Reserve in advance, and if you're able to book the "chef's table" (actually a bar overlooking the kitchen), it's likely the Demon himself will serve you while describing the origin of each dish. But even if you're seated at a regular table, the superb staff enhance the meal with explanations and revelations about what you're eating.
Just more than a mile from the Ocean Terminal (best to take a cab) in the Kowloon district of Hung Hom is the 45,000-square-foot "concept" dining plaza, Whampoa Gourmet Place. More than 300,000 diners flock each month to the complex's myriad establishments, which serve traditional cuisine in settings reminiscent of Hong Kong dining establishments of the 1940's and 50's. Service is friendly, the prices are extremely reasonable, and it's another good place to sample dim sum.
Closest to the Pier: The Marco Polo Hong Kong Hotel and the Marco Polo Gateway Hotel (+852-2118-7232) are sister establishments, both located in massive shopping complexes on either side of the cruise ship terminal. You can't ask for a more convenient location for exploring Kowloon, or for jumping aboard the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island. Best of all, both hotels feature a direct, air-conditioned walkway right to the cruise ship terminal.
Best Blissful Haven: Everything about The Upper House (Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Hong Kong Island, +852 2918 1838) is designed to soothe the soul: glorious views, spacious rooms (splurge on one of the huge suites if you can), harmonious zen-like decor and staff who flawlessly orchestrate your every whim. From the "maxi-bar" (like a mini-bar, but everything's free) to bathtubs-with-a-view, this hotel gets it just right.
Best for Families: The Harbour Grand Kowloon (20 Tak Fung Street, Whampoa Garden, Kowloon, +852-262-3188) has rooms that are more spacious than typically tight Hong Kong quarters, and its big rooftop pool (with spectacular harbor views) is a great bonus for the kids. Though it's not near the MTR, the hotel runs shuttles to Tsim Sha Tsui every 30 minutes. Our only beef is the expensive Internet service.
Best Colonial Classic: The luxurious Peninsula Hotel (Salisbury Road, +852-2920-2888) in Kowloon is the "grand dame" of Hong Kong hotels. Completed in 1923, the hotel's imposing white exterior is usually lined with Rolls Royces, and the two-story lobby, with its glittering chandeliers and imposing pillars, is the best people-watching spot in the city.
Best Bargain: You couldn't ask for a better location than the Salisbury YMCA (41 Salisbury Road, Kowloon, +852-2268-7000), which offers clean, compact, modern hotel rooms -- some even with harbor views. The most upscale-looking "Y" we've ever seen, it's right next to the much-pricier Peninsula Hotel.
Staying in Touch
While there's free Wi-Fi in the terminal complex, Internet cafes with computers aren't as easy to come by as they used to be. Pacific Coffee, in the connected Harbour City complex, has two available computers, free to customers. Some other Pacific Coffee outlets (there are many around town) also have computers, but some just have Wi-Fi. The YMCA hotel, a short walk from the terminal on Salisbury Road, has a quiet area with several computer workstations available for use in paid, 15-minute segments. Printers are also available.
If you're booking a hotel, a word of caution: It's not unusual for Hong Kong hotels to charge for Internet access -- and in some cases it's quite pricey.
Best for First-Timers: Most cruise ships offer several different versions of a "Hong Kong Discovery Tour," combining coach travel with moderate walking. You'll visit Victoria Peak, temples, jewelry factories and one or more of the city's famous markets. Some tours include a visit to the Hong Kong Cultural Center or the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Full-day tours typically include lunch (though we were a bit disappointed to discover that our lunch was an international-style meal, not Chinese) and may also visit Aberdeen and Stanley Harbour, more far-flung destinations on Hong Kong Island.
Best for Connecting with the Culture: Some cruise lines offer Chinese cooking classes at local restaurants, while others have "Hong Kong Cultural Tours," which explore ancient traditions and customs. For example, the morning will begin with a lesson from a Tai Chi master; then it's on to a traditional dim sum lunch, followed by an afternoon tea ceremony. Some tours even include the chance to meet with a feng shui master to learn about the art of harmonizing spaces.
Best for Buddha Devotees: A trip to Lantau Island usually will include a visit to the Po Lin monastery and the world's largest bronze Buddha (200 steps if you choose to climb up). It may also offer a ride on the island's cable gondola. BR>
Best for Night Owls: A variety of tours showcasing the nighttime city lights are available from the various cruise lines -- from a trip up to Victoria Peak or a tram excursion to an open-top bus ride or a harbor cruise.
Best for High-Flyers: Try a helicopter tour for a bird's-eye view of Hong Kong's harbors, mountains, islands and cityscapes.
Best for Shopaholics: Some lines offer tours for dedicated shoppers. They take in destinations like Stanley Market, a jewelry factory and Hollywood Road's antique shops.
For More Information
On the Web: www.discoverhongkong.com, including a good overview for cruisers here
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The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Hong Kong/Macau
--by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor