The last time I was in Hong Kong, it was under British control, so I was curious to see what, if anything had changed. Well, as it turns out - a lot, and nothing. But, with only a few days to explore what had and hadn’t changed, I needed to get moving!
Hong Kong, officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China, is actually three regions – Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories and Outlying Islands. It’s bordered on the east, west and south by China's south coast at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, and on the north by the Sham Chum River in the city of Shenzhen. Hong Kong’s a lot bigger than you may think – it covers 427 sq miles with a population of over 7.3 million. To give you some context, New York City is 302 square miles with a population of around 8.5 million.
The history of Hong Kong is long and complex, but to be brief on the last hundred years or so, in 1898, Britain obtained a 99-year lease from the Qing or Manchu dynasty (the last imperial dynasty of China which ruled for three centuries). On July 1, 1997, sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from British colonial rule to Chinese rule and Hong Kong became an SAR. Today, Hong Kong maintains a mostly separate political and economic system from China. 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the handover, so there are signs everywhere for HK20!
On my first visit, the Kai Tak airport was still open. By the 1990’s Kai Tak was one of the busiest airports in the world (and widely touted as having the most dangerous airport take offs and landings due to strong crosswinds, the surrounding mountains, oh yeah, and landing between buildings), but had limited room to expand since it was located in the busy Kowloon district. This time, we landed at Chek Lap Kok airport. Opened in 1998, it’s built on an artificial island formed by flattening and leveling Chek Lap Kok and Lam Chau islands, and reclaiming land.
Getting There/Here We Are!
After 19 hours on a plane due to delays and a plane change, I couldn’t wait to get off. We got cash from an ATM in the airport, and picked up our shuttle, tucking in for the 45 minute ride to our hotel in Kowloon. Although you have to arrange your own transportation to and from the airport, you have a bunch of options. You can hire a limo, which as you can imagine, is fairly expensive. The Airport Express train links Hong Kong International Airport to Hong Kong's central business district and buses connect the airport with most of the city. Either of these is probably the most economical of all the choices and great if you’re traveling light, but if you have a lot of big bags like we did (we were carrying our scuba diving equipment on our way to Palau), it can be a pain to lug everything. The middle option is taking a taxi or a shuttle. They’re about the same price and we settled on a shuttle since we weren’t sure a taxi could fit all of our stuff. We arranged our shuttle online before leaving the U.S. Unfortunately, our flight out of Hong Kong was very early in the morning, so the shuttle wasn’t running. As a result, we took a taxi to the airport and it turned out that the taxi could fit all of our bags.
Note on getting money: When withdrawing money at an ATM, you may see a choice that includes withdrawal from “current account”. That just means your checking account, but it took a minute to figure that out. Also, remember you may be charged transactions fees, so keep that in mind when figuring expenses.
Day 1: Kowloon
Hong Kong is still the shopper’s paradise that I remember, with no shortage of places to “shop ‘til you drop”. Although we’re not shoppers, we strolled the very popular shopping area of Nathan Road, mainly because it was close to our hotel. It’s crowded with those buying and those selling and if you’re claustrophobic, this might not be for you. Besides actual shopping in stores, there are countless street markets, including those at the far end of Nathan Road, such as Yau Ma Tei (Fa Yuen Street Night Market) and Mong Kok Ladies' Market. And don’t forget the Jade Market. Nathan Road runs the whole length of Kowloon, but the northern part of the road is the place to go if you’re looking for bargains.
On the southern end of Nathan Road is the Landmark Shopping Mall, with five floors of high end luxury shopping, and I mean luxury. Sure, all that "bling" is fun to see, too, but you can see that anywhere. Where else are you gonna find a Jade Market? Go for visiting the street markets. Just do it in doses because it can be overwhelming.
Day 2: Macau
Even though we’re not gamblers, we decided to check out Macau, labeled the “Vegas of China”. We’d also read that the Historic Center was only a 10 minute walk from the casinos and was worth a visit, so we were in! We took the one hour ferry from Kowloon, but there’s also service from Hong Kong Island. You'll need to bring your passports. Visitors from the U.S. won’t need visas, but in addition to your passport bring the portion of the immigration/customs form that you received when you entered Hong Kong because you’ll have to show both when you go through customs on the Hong Kong side. When you arrive in Macau, just take any one of the free casino shuttles located just outside the main entrance of the ferry terminal. Once you get to the casinos, you can stay at the casinos or head on out.
Like Hong Kong, the Chinese government assumed formal sovereignty over Macau. In 1999 Macau became an SAR after more than 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and the Portuguese influence is still visible everywhere – even the sign over the port terminal is in Portuguese and Chinese!
While the Historic Center was interesting, it’s a pretty small area, so we decided to head over to the Macau Tower. It was a bit of a hike, but the walk was scenic. The Tower measures 1,109 feet from point to point and in a video at the tower, graphics of airplanes were lined up end to end to give some idea of just how tall it is. While we ate an unimpressive lunch on the observation deck, we watched people bungee jump off the 764 foot high platform, which WAS impressive. I passed on the bunging jumping, but it was fun to watch!
As we walked back to the ferry terminal, we wandered through some of the casinos. They were very glitzy and what you’d expect, but nothing to write home about. I had expected a much more “Vegas-y” sort of scene, but really it was just casinos dotted along the landscape. Still, I’m glad we visited.
Day 3: Hong Kong Island
On our last day we wanted to visit Victoria Peak, so we took the 10 minute ride on the famous Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island. We walked to the Garden Road Peak Tram Lower Terminus - to wait in a long line to buy tickets and wait in an even longer line to get on the funicular. You can buy one way or round trip tickets. We bought one way tickets and walked down. Yeah, um, I’d recommend the round trip ticket. The walk down is beautiful, but the steep decline is also a full leg workout and that may not be what you’re looking for on your vacation.
That aside, even though I’d previously visited, the Victoria Peak experience was pretty cool and had changed a bit since my last visit. The iconic Peak Tram funicular, opened in 1888, moves at six feet per second, beginning at Garden Road and ending at the Peak Tower. The Peak Tower, originally built in 1971 (and reconstructed in 1993 and 2005), is situated at 1,400 feet above sea level and gives an incredible panoramic view of Hong Kong. The Tower has shops on the lower levels and restaurants on the upper levels so you have great views of Hong Kong while you’re eating. At the peak, there are also walking trails and we did an hour loop along one of the trails. The views were fantastic and made for great photos, but when it started to pour down rain, we put the cameras away and scrambled for our umbrellas!
Once we made it down, we decided to do a bit of last minute sightseeing, so we walked through Hong Kong Park, the zoological and botanical gardens. It was pretty incredible to see all of the flowers and animals in this natural setting smack in the middle of the city!
Next, we visited the Man Mo Temple, a temple dedicated to the god of literature and the god of war. The two gods were popular with students hoping for good results on their school exams and that appears to continue. We saw students holding their exam entrance tickets praying for good luck!
So, even though there's a different airport and a different tower at the Peak since my last visit, Hong Kong continues to be shopping nirvana. It's also still a vibrant, bustling city with tons of things to satisfy every kind of visitor. Yeah, maybe I didn’t make it to every single tourist point. Hopefully I'll check out some more on my next visit!
Have you been to Hong Kong? What did you do? Let me know about it on Facebook!