Hong Kong & the Great Outdoors
At the brow of the hill, early morning fog rolls through sub-tropical undergrowth. Then, dipping down to sea level and curving around the coastline, the view clears to reveal a long, pristine sandy beach. In the sky, a Crested Serpent Eagle circles above the ancient fishing village of Tai O.
Here the road ends, and you step into old China of temples, dragon boats and clustered alleys filled with local fresh fish, shrimp paste, clams and more. Bright red flowers fallen from cottonwood trees pepper the landscape as sea ebbs and flows under the village’s stilted houses.
Less than an hour ago, I arrived at the global transport hub of Hong Kong’s international airport on a quest to discover unhurried Hong Kong, beaches, walks, cultural heritage, an altogether slower pace from the breathless, busy rush of a city better known as a shopping and sightseeing stopover.
But, away from glittering skyscrapers, almost half the territory is wilderness and coastal country park.
My Tai O Heritage Hotel on Lantau Island was built in 1902 as a Marine Police base to keep watch on pirates and smugglers from mainland China. It has been classily converted into nine luxury suites across two floors of whitewashed colonial terraces. The reception is the old jail room with police cells still intact. You get there by boat from Tai O village or a twenty-minute walk and everything is disabled accessible.
Many staff are Tai O villagers, and manager Karl Law arranges tours. As an acclimatiser, Karl took me on the three-mile walk up Tiger Hill along well-constructed trails. Among views over islands and shimmering seascape is the astonishing sight of the longest human-made sea-crossing in the world, elegantly slicing above the water’s surface. This is the new 34-mile road route from Hong Kong into the old Portuguese enclave of Macau (of which more later) and, if you have a visa, onto mainland China.
The Tiger Hill walk ends with a sea of colourful flags around the Yeung Hau Temple dating back to 1699 and dedicated to an historic Chinese general. On the beach below, villagers collect clams.
Nearby is the amazing Tian Tan Buddha, a massive outdoor 112-foot-high bronze Buddha statue, gazing down on all to symbolise the harmonious relationship between man and nature. From here run many walks, part of the 43-mile Lantau Trail that loops around the island.
Photo credits: Tai O Heritage Hotel; Ocean Park Fullerton Hotel; Humphrey Hawksley
Hong Kong has a handful of holiday-style resorts, including the beach-side Gold Coast Hotel with large outdoor spaces and tropical gardens, all designed for families and activities, even a kids’ ‘glamping suite’ as a sleepover bedroom with little patterned tents.
The newest is the Fullerton Ocean Park on Hong Kong Island where all rooms have a full floor-to-ceiling sea view, with a to-die-for 180-foot infinity pool. Swim while watching fishing boats and container ships criss-cross sea lanes. Then chill out on a cabana with a cocktail and a good book.
The Fullerton’s ‘Fun’ desk arranges anything from local walks to ziplining and yacht charters as well as visits to the nearby aquatic venue at Ocean Park. An hour-long ride on Dorothy Chu’s sampan around the Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter gives colourful context as Chinese corporate mega-yachts moor alongside rusting old fishing boats from another era.
The south side of the island has a string of safe, swimmable beaches from Repulse Bay, famous from the movie Love is a Many Splendoured Thing to the more remote Shek O peninsula where a stroll across Lovers’ Bridge to the headland encapsulates this rugged, beautiful environment, a blend of Bali and the Scottish Highlands.
For a dip toward ‘hurried’ Hong Kong, an hour-long Aberdeen Country Park walk through woodland around the dramatic Victorian-era reservoir takes you to Wanchai Gap and from there a bus or taxi to the Peak with its breath-taking harbour views. The famous Peak Tram delivers you down to the heart of Central where you come face-to-face with Hong Kong’s more familiar noise, bustle and jostling.
The Wanchai red-light district of Susie Wong has mostly gone now. But a hidden secret in what looks like a run-of-the-mill office block at 300 Lockhart Road is the Michelin-starred, Zhejiang Heen restaurant. Its executive chef, Pan Jiulong, tells how designing exotic menus keeps him awake at night. On the walls are his photographs with Asian megastars who have dined there.
Hong Kong is among the most visited destinations in Asia. But few travellers take advantage of its great outdoors, hidden deserted beaches, islands, local food and walking trails.
And I almost forgot, when in Tai O, drop into the waterside Solo Café with its Eurasian signature dish of tofu cheesecake washed down with locally-brewed Sampan sweet and sour lager.
Now, there’s a Hong Kong holiday afternoon.
HH – September 2023
Humphrey travelled to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific and stayed at the Tai O Heritage Hotel and the Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel.