Peace and quiet are rarely terms a prospective holidaymaker would apply to Hong Kong.
Instead it is the city’s iconic skyline, bright lights and gleaming glass towers that remain routed in popular imagination. And while nothing quite captures the experience of everyday Hong Kong like squeezing through the crowds of shopping mecca Mong Kok, it becomes easy to forget how much of the archipelago remains unspoiled by human development.
Nowhere is this clearer to see than from Victoria Peak, the highest point on the central hub of Hong Kong Island. Rising 552 metres, the venerable vantage point is famous for its 360-degree view of Hong Kong Central’s skyscrapers, the famous Victoria Harbour and the bustling mainland sprawl of Kowloon to the north. But cast your eyes around and you will be greeted with stunning views of thick forest covering most of Hong Kong Island’s southern face. Mountains loom on the horizon as your gaze sweeps the panoramic view, as mist enshrouds the quiet fishing island of Lamma in the distance.
The summit can be reached by the Peak Tram, a 120-year-old railway built by the British for the rising number of colonial families moving to the quiet hillside. Prior to its completion, these families were wholly dependent on sedan chairs carried by their personal staff. Such a method of transport has since been confined to the past along with many other relics of Britain’s colonial history, but visitors wishing to skip the Peak Tram queues can reach the top easily on their own two feet. Though a relatively steep ascent, the road to Victoria Peak is smooth terrain and the surrounding woodland canopies give something of a shady relief from Hong Kong’s notorious humidity.
To make the experience even more special, arrive an hour or so before sundown to watch as the city skyline lights up to its famous postcard picturesqueness.
On Hong Kong Island’s eastern side is the beautiful park of Dragon’s Back Ridge, where forest-covered footpaths wind along the thin coastal peninsular. Easily accessible by Hong Kong’s underground rail system, the MTR, the hike includes one steep climb up 250 steps through the eerie Cape Collinson Cemetery, but from then on the terrain flattens out for a relatively easy hike. For the next few kilometres, much of the views are covered by thick foliage, but it soon opens up to overlook the majestic Clearwater Bay Peninsula.
On a windy day, paragliders can be found launching themselves from the cliff top and into the bay, which can make for a welcome picnic stop.
One amusing quirk to note as you walk is the frequent sound of Cantonese pop music coming from local hiking groups, who play it on speakers as a way of spicing up their walks. Hikers who prefer to stay tuned into nature be warned.
Across the water
Beyond Hong Kong Central are 260 outlying islands, of which the majority are uninhabited. However, those that are give an incredible glimpse into rural Chinese life. Even the biggest of these, Lantau Island, boasts a spectacular landscape of beaches, lush valleys and the South China Sea despite playing host to Hong Kong Airport and Disneyland.
And there is no better way to experience these views than by riding the Ngong Ping 360 across the island plateau.
The cable car leaves from the town of Tung Chung, easily reached from Central by MTR, and finishes 25 minutes later at Lantau’s most famous attraction: the enormous Tian Tan Buddha.
Perched at the top of 268 steps. The 34-metres-tall statue is the largest bronze seated Buddha in the world and is unsurprisingly a hugely popular tourist destination.
Just across from the statue is the colourful Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery, which boasts the impressive Hall of the Ten Thousand Buddhas – an enormous space with tiny Buddha statues etched into its every crook. The Monastery is still active and if your visit coincides with prayer time, it is well worth spending a few minutes listening to the monks chant within.
The monastery also has its own vegetarian restaurant, where you can enjoy a number of mouth-watering Chinese dishes made with Bean Curd, as well as traditional desserts such as mango pudding.
Before leaving the Ngong Ping area, a short walk down the quiet, peaceful Wisdom Path, where an ancient prayer is inscribed on a number of wooden columns set in a figure eight, should not be skipped. Away from the maddening crowds at the Buddha, the path is the ideal place to experience some inner calm with a backdrop of beautiful mountain scenery.
Getting around Lantau is relatively easy by bus, so if time permits the Tai O Fishing Village on the western coast offers a quaint look into Hong Kong’s rural history. Cross the wooden footbridge that links the tiny village and barter with a local fisherman for a boat ride around the village’s traditional South China stilt houses, a rare find in 21st century China.
An even rarer find around Tai O is the endangered pink dolphin, a species declining in number as its habitat becomes increasingly polluted and lost due to industrialisation.
Hong Kong Dolphinwatch also runs cruises three times a week with the aim of creating boat journeys than cause minimal disturbance to these gentle creatures.
Taste the sea
Another outlying island made for an idyllic day trip is the dumbbell-shaped Cheung Chau, a 40-minute ride by fast ferry from Central.
Teaming with colourful fishing boats anchored in the harbour, the island is a seafood lover’s paradise. Wander through the bustling marketplace and expect to see fishmongers and customers grappling with live crabs and mantis shrimp on top of the sight – and smell – of hundreds of fresh catches drying on the stalls.
There are numerous small restaurants along the main street and visitors with a Cantonese-speaking companion should opt for the outlets without English menus for the best deals.
Served on plastic plates and bowls, our Dhs17 meal came with soup, a fresh fish stew and a bowl of rice washed down with a warm cinnamon-infused soymilk.
But don’t fill up too much at one place, as elsewhere, down the stretch numerous street food outlets start serving classic dishes of hot fish balls and succulent curried octopus for less than Dhs10.
Return to Hong Kong Island in the evening by the slower 80-minute ferry and take the time to once again enjoy the views of Central’s breath-taking skyline – a feast for the eyes to accompany the feast for the belly.