After last night's visual fireworks, morning in Hong Kong feels amazingly low-key. The magically illuminated skyscrapers that starred in Symphonies of Light, while admittedly still impressive in height and sheer numbers, look -- shocker -- just like plain ol' buildings sitting, serene and slumbering, against the mountainous landscape. As I'm crossing from Kowloon over to Hong Kong Island on a Star Ferry this morning, it all feels a bit like the morning after, as if the party girl who raucously danced on table tops in a fleshy bar last evening is now in work mode, clad in a staid suit.
Last night's time in Hong Kong was a bonus because of our missed calls at Vietnam. Today is our real port of call.
Moved from our anchored position in the middle of Victoria Harbour to a dock-side post at Hong Kong's cargo facility, the ship is a lot easier to get on and off (there were two hour waits at the tender dock last night as passengers attempted to return to the ship). The usual fleet of motorcoaches is lined up dockside in a diagonal pattern; in addition, buses will carry passengers on trips to Lantau Island to see a monastery, or on culture-themed excursions to the Hong Kong Museum of History and the Wong Tai Sin Temple. Passengers have also opted to explore historic villages in Hong Kong's New Territories region. Some will even trek to Macau -- via turbo jet fast ferry. Macau, historically part of the Portuguese empire before being handed over to China in 1999, has both cultural merits and contemporary ones (it's billed as the Las Vegas of Asia).
Instead of such worthy sightseeing, I'm indulging in a shopping expedition, Hong Kong's most popular diversion. A good supply of motorcoaches is waiting for those of us more involved in independent endeavors, and just as in Singapore, the 30-minute trip from ship to central point in Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui is free of charge.
It doesn't matter that we aren't actually shuttled to Hong Kong Island because it's so easy to get to via ferry. Rides cost 2.20 HKD (go to the second level to buy tickets and make sure to carry low denominations), which is breathtakingly cheap at 30 cents U.S. (and even more of a bargain for those passengers for whom the euro and GBP are main methods of currency). The ride takes about 10 minutes, maximum -- and get this: no tunnel traffic jams!
A quick heads up: one of the most interesting shops in Hong Kong is located just inside the Kowloon terminal (on the way to the ticket booth); it features the work of photographer Laurence Lai, whose matted cityscapes are enticingly displayed. One of his gorgeous photos of Hong Kong Island is the only souvenir I hand-carried home.
My first stop is at Stanley Market for a couple of reasons. The town of Stanley, located on a peninsula on the other side of the mountain range, is a destination in its own right -- locals and tourists alike head not just to the market's stalls and shops but also to the town's beaches and café-lined waterfront promenade. But the market is the real draw, especially if you're looking for good deals on clothing, artwork, souvenirs, silks and collectibles. Getting there is not necessarily easy -- or convenient -- though it is ultimately worth the hassle. After the ferry deposited me in Central, I snagged a taxi (111 HKD or a quite reasonable $14.25 U.S.) for the ride to the island's other side. Allow a full 30 to 45 minutes each way. Bus service is also available from Central, the Hong Kong Island ferry terminal, but obviously the trip takes longer. Taxis were plentiful at Stanley for the return trip to Central.
As I left Hong Kong Island's sleek and urbanized Victoria Harbour to head toward the other side of the mountain rage, I marveled at the lush terrain that overlooks the South China Sea -- gardens, golf courses and serene beaches ringing inlets all had allure. We passed Repulse Bay with its many restaurants; it's a magnet for those Sapphire Princess officers and staff who were lucky enough to get a day off in port.
The market itself -- though crammed with sellers and buyers -- was tremendous fun and not at all exotically intimidating like others, such as Istanbul's Bazaar, that I've encountered on my travels (there's very little of the hard sell, for instance). In some of the clothing stores, overstock merchandise with labels like Nautica and Garnet Hill were quite visible and so, so cheap! There were numerous high-end linen shops that also sold beautiful silk negligees and pajamas that seemed to be a higher quality than those displayed at in-town tourist venues. On my Sunday morning visit, a pair of German women, clearly expats, loudly discussed their finds. They were so quite obviously Stanley Market veterans, plowing confidently through the crowds, that I tailed them, stealthily, or so I thought, in hopes of finding the very best shops (indeed, that’s how I glommed onto the linen stores selling silk nightwear).
After awhile, seeing me linger in every store they entered, they began to eye me warily as though I were a stalker and I slunk away.
Bargaining is de rigueur here though the retailers tend to look pained whenever a shopper (i.e. a tourist like myself) tried the tactic. Every time I heard a shopper begin negotiations, I couldn't help wondering whether the retailers were thinking, "Bloody amateur" or "Ouch, my profit's already lean on that fleece shirt-silk kimono-leather handbag." Still, an already fantastic deal on four pairs of Calvin Klein socks for a total of 100 HKD (about $13 U.S.) turned into an even better one when, as a result of fairly tentative efforts to bargain, the shopkeeper, with a huge sigh, threw in an extra.
The price worked out to $2.60 apiece -- for socks whose U.S. tag, already marked on the package, was $9.50 each. That's a deal by any standard.
It's easy to get lost for hours in the relatively compact market, but do try to make time to visit Stanley's adjacent waterfront as well. I popped into Bayside, a cafe fronting the harbor, for a quick snack of spicy coconut soup (here's a hint: it's a lot less spicy if you don't actually bite into the chile peppers as I did) and a Tsingtao (a Chinese beer), served (oddly) in a glass advertising the Danish Carlsberg. I could have stayed, just admiring the parade of people not to mention the sailboats skimming the wind, all day.
Even if Sapphire Princess was in port for a whole day -- the ship departs tonight at 6 p.m. -- time passes more quickly than you expect, and all the more so in a city that's so fascinating. Heading back across Hong Kong Island to meet Teijo (the man is typically banned from shopping expeditions, and I do believe he's grateful for it) for a trip up to Victoria Peak. At 1,811 feet, it's Hong Kong's tallest mountain.
But frankly, at 2 p.m. already -- and with the last ship shuttle departing from Tsim Sha Tsui at 4 p.m. -- we were simply out of time. Instead, we wound up at Harvey Nichols, part of the exclusive London-based department store chain, and enjoyed a peaceful lunch (a quite robust serving of fish and chips) at Fourth Floor, its cafe. Then we headed back to Tsim Sha Tsui via subway, which is just as easy to negotiate and every bit as clean as Singapore's. Once we got to the shuttle, unlike the situation in Singapore where 500-plus folks waited to board the buses back to the ship, there was no line at all.
Hong Kong went by way too quickly. "Sampling" ports of call is a major plus for cruising to an unfamiliar region, but this is one place that calls for a return -- and a land-based vacation at that.
Though Sapphire Princess was docked in the decidedly industrial cargo port area (smaller ships can sidle up to the cruise piers right in the heart of the city), the ship's captain made up for that on our way out. Departing at 6 p.m., darkness had already fallen, and the moon was full. Instead of taking the quick and relatively simple route out of town via more direct seafaring routes, we instead cruised right through Victoria Harbour and out the other side.
It was the kind of magical experience you can only have on a ship. Imagine this: our gargantuan vessel gliding slowly through the festively lit skyscrapers (back in party mode once again) through the heart of the city, as myriads of fast ferries, tourist vessels and fisherman's boats parted to make way. Passengers once again lined the upper decks as the stereo system played suitably romantic tunes like Hayley Westenra's haunting "You Are Water." As people sipped cocktails and chatted easily to strangers, there was a sense of bonhomie that I hadn't previously felt on this journey with its many different groups of travelers speaking different languages. We all lingered there longer than necessary as the lights finally petered out, and we re-entered the South China Sea, just enjoying the moment.
Tomorrow: Storm clouds, both literally and figuratively, descend on Sapphire Princess once again.