Hong Kong, lying at a particularly dynamic crossroad between East and West, is one of the world's most exciting cities -- and a key part of our itinerary, no question. But on a glorious, balmy Saturday afternoon after two full days in which the South China Sea has been a bit frisky, the fact that we're on land anywhere is reason enough for joy.
Our sail-in, with sun-starved passengers lining every possible railing on Sapphire Princess' forward upper decks -- as the first mountainous peaks came into view -- alludes to a most dramatic ambience. The atmosphere is quite celebratory, and as we get closer, it feels like bedlam as people jostled for space on the outer decks circling around the ship's running and walking track.
Completely nonplussed were the 40 or so participants of this morning's special activity: the cruise's On Deck for the Cure 5K Walk (it's part of a fleetwide effort to support the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which fights against breast cancer). They plowed through the crowds as seamlessly as the ship's hull is now slicing through the calm sea.
Since our rerouting away from a typhoon in the South China Sea over the past few days, Sapphire Princess has been more, er, entertaining than rides at an amusement park as the ship rocked and rolled, pitched forward then aft, and swayed from side to side. My supply of Bonine, my motion sickness potion, is becoming scarily diminished. The good news is, tucked behind the peaks of Hong Kong, the sea is now quiet. Even better? Hagibis, the typhoon that disrupted our trip and caused us to bypass Vietnam's Nha Trang and Vung Tau (Ho Chi Minh City) suddenly changed its mind and veered back out to sea. That's just great for locals there and passengers on the ship's next cruise, which retraces our itinerary from Beijing to Bangkok, will be able to make their planned calls (barring any more disruptive typhoons, of course).
But back to Hong Kong. What a city! We scrambled off the ship at 3:30 p.m., as soon as it had been cleared by immigration officials. Disembarking today is not a simple process: Because we've arrived a day before scheduled, there's no berth at the cargo port and so we're forced to anchor and use tenders to shuttle passengers to Hong Kong Island (early tomorrow morning the ship will be able to move to its berth, and at that point, buses will take us downtown).
One of the most vibrant cities in the world, Hong Kong reflects both its Chinese and British roots. As you may recall, the British ruled the city until a decade ago when it was handed back to the Chinese. There was quite a bit of speculation about China's impact on this fairly westernized city (the British strongly influenced life here, including its educational system and its free market economy). Though as we later observed outside of the Star Ferry terminal, the sight of political protestors offering leaflets on the crimes of communism (this would not be permitted in China) is one sign there's still a bit of Western spirit here. As well, Hong Kong is still a "free market zone" that, we observe in a Cruise Critic port profile, "is a veritable bastion for capitalism within the Communist Chinese system."
By the way, if you're planning to use the "Tour & Port Information" provided by Princess' shore excursion as a primary source of info, do beware: It's hideously outdated. That became quite clear when we read its rendition of Hong Kong's contemporary history. "On July 1, 1997, according to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration Hong Kong returned to China's Control." This is true. But the story continues: "Looking ahead, nobody possesses the crystal ball that will allow us to view post-British Hong Kong. In the interim…." Um, well, it's been 10 years now, and if there's still controversy about the impact of mainland China on Hong Kong since the handover, we at least have more info to work with -- whether via sections on history in Frommer's Hong Kong or simply by following news coverage. More commonly than not, passengers did bring their own guidebooks from home and so didn't have to worry about outdated information.
Hong Kong really began to attract Western attention way back in the mid-19th century during a series of opium wars (China's tea was another draw). Intrigued, the Brits acquired what we now think of Hong Kong in three sections. First, it acquired Hong Kong Island in 1842 as the result of the Treaty of Nanking. Next: The Kowloon Peninsula joined Britain after the 1860 Convention of Peking. Finally: the new territories came into ownership.
Ever since, these two places have long been of primary interest for adventurers and businessmen. In fact, they face each other across the expanse of Victoria Harbor, which runs through the middle. Hong Kong Island is the city's more contemporary section (it's the place for the latest and greatest skyscrapers, elite new hotels such as Four Seasons, and global-oriented shopping malls featuring Marks & Spencer, kate spade, Sunglass Hut and Brooks Brothers, among others). Kowloon, the more traditional part of the city, is on the peninsula side and is connected to the mainland. It is home to elegantly traditional hotels like Peninsula and Shangri La, and to Nathan Road, which is the preeminent shopping Mecca. Unlike Hong Kong Island, though, Nathan Road features a mix of global and local shops.
The two are connected via a ten-minute Star ferry ride or a trip on the MRT, Hong Kong's subway, not to mention through auto tunnels.
The third area of Hong Kong that came under British rule in the mid-19th century was that of the "new territories." This includes more rural terrain beyond Kowloon, along with 235 other islands dotting the South China Sea. Of those, the most important, at least for tourists, is Lantau Island, a place that's home to both the world's largest outdoor Buddha sculpture and Disneyland Hong Kong.
Up close, Hong Kong is every bit as majestic as its photographs. Framed by stark mountains and gleaming, contemporary skyscrapers, Hong Kong Island's waterfront is breathtaking.
Hong Kong has some similarities to Singapore. It's incredibly easy to get around independently as long as you come a bit prepared. Signs are in Chinese and English -- just make sure you understand, for instance, that Tsim Sha Tsui is the central area of Kowloon and that "Central" actually refers to the main terminal for both ferry and bus traffic on Hong Kong Island. MRT, its subway system, is both clean and efficient.
You can get currency via ATM ($1 U.S. is worth about 7.80 HKD -- we took out 1,000 HKD, which felt like a shocking extravagance for a day and a half in port, but it was spent quite quickly!). Here, like in Singapore, credit cards -- including the usual suspects of Visa, MasterCard and American Express -- are accepted most places, save for taxis. Starbucks and McDonald's McCafes are dominant on city streets.
And, finally, as in Singapore, despite the fact that Hong Kong has a plethora of worthy cultural and historic diversions, shopping is the main activity here. In places like the IFC (a sleek new mall on Hong Kong Island that's a quick walk from the Star Ferry terminal) and its surrounding neighborhoods, you'll find mostly global stores that don't offer much of an Asian ambience (from Harvey Nichols to the Gap). And while the mainland's Kowloon features pretty much the same luxury boutiques you'll find in every major city on the globe, there are definitely more local options, such as antique sellers and bird markets -- not to mention plenty of street vendors pushing counterfeit "copy watches." They are everywhere. I heard that term so often my first day that it worked its way into my dreams that first night.
And by the way: Remember the saying "you get what you pay for"? Counterfeit means copy -- not "a fantastic deal on the real thing."
Oddly, on that first afternoon around the harborfront, I kept thinking of Venice. First, my sense of smell was aroused; the slight scent of the harbor, a soft salty brine, evokes memories. And okay, even if there are neither canals nor the moldering 14th-century buildings that are part of Venice, both are dominated by their respective water-based locales in a way that cuts to the heart of each place.
In Hong Kong, as in Venice, getting from place to place is more commonly experienced via water-based transportation (though the former has far more bridges and tunnels to facilitate passing from place to place than the latter).
Our first bit of Hong Kong adventure, at least the daylight part, draws to a close rather quickly as night sets in around 5 p.m. But by no means are we heading back to Sapphire Princess. First we stop in at the historic Peninsula, whose lobby is filled to the brim with people enjoying its famously elegant afternoon tea ritual.
Frankly, the combination of crowds of people sipping, onlookers standing nearby just watching the action, and the audible clatter of dishware magnified by high ceilings reminds me more of a bus station experience than one at the city's most elite hotels.
Instead of afternoon tea, we opt for an early dinner at Felix, also a part of the Peninsula. The stark, sleek top of the Peninsula restaurant, bar and nightclub is as elite in its own way as the tea room and features magnificent light-infused views of downtown and Hong Kong Island across the harbor. A theatrical place whose decor was designed by Philippe Stark, the Felix experience starts at the elevator when, upon doors shutting, the lights dim to a sultry blood red color as it ascends 28 floors. Inside the ambience is no less dramatic, but credit the huge, three story high floor-to-ceiling windows along with Stark's trendy minimalism. The entire room overlooks the lights of the buildings lining Hong Kong Island's waterfront. It's a fantastical setting, and if you pay more for the view than its not-quite Michelin-quality cuisine (the food was good but lacked the wow factor) well, the experience was unforgettable.
We dined early, 6:30 p.m. or so, so we could make it back to Kowloon's waterfront in time for the city's greatest show. Each night at 8 p.m., there's a "Symphonies of Light" performance. I'd expected some kind of fireworks presentation, with the lights perhaps reflecting off the gleaming glass skyscrapers fronting the harbor on Hong Kong Island. Nope, it was more unusual than that! Instead, over a dozen buildings participated in a light show that showcased each one in a different way with laser strobes and flashing lights turning on and off within the structures. Odd and extremely riveting, the concrete promenade that winds around the harbor on the Kowloon side becomes a huge city party with thousands of folks lining the banks. Buskers play instruments, fathers hoist toddlers on shoulders to watch the spectacle and a karaoke contest proceeds, undaunted by the classical music accompaniment to the "Symphonies."
Tomorrow: a full day in Hong Kong with time to explore beyond downtown.