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 that both of the city's two terminals have impressive malls attached.
Hong Kong is comprises 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, known as Central, as well as Sheung Wan, a historic Chinese neighborhood where the British originally took control, which is being reborn as a trendy area. 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. Plan to add at least a few days if you embark or disembark here.
Cruise ships dock at two cruise terminals in Hong Kong. If your cruise documents don't say which terminal your ship will use, consult the Ocean Terminal schedule (http://www.oceanterminal.com.hk/) and the Kai Tak Terminal schedule (http://www.kaitakcruiseterminal.com.hk/)
Hong Kong's Ocean Terminal is located 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.
The Kai Tak Cruise Terminal opened on the East Kowloon waterfront in 2013. A refurbished airport, the terminal has two alongside berths, with support facilities to accommodate simultaneous berthing of two mega-cruise vessels (gross tonnage of up to 220,000). There is also a café, a gourmet restaurant, a wine bar, an expansive duty free shop and a large rooftop garden.
You'll need to take a taxi or shuttle to reach nearby attractions such as 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.