Hong Kong is often compared to New York City, and why not? After all, many aspects of the city invite this comparison: its population of nearly 7 million people, its powerful skyline with towering buildings, its fast-paced downtown streets lively with restaurants, shops and bars as businesspeople try to cross the busy streets and flag down taxis. It's also one of the world's financial capitals.
But it's on the way to Stanley Market, one of Hong Kong's famous open-air markets filled with hundreds of vendors, all willing to negotiate with their customers, that visitors will see a different side of Hong Kong, a look that's a bit different than the Big Apple.
A bus from Kowloon to Stanley, a coastal village on the southern side of Hong Kong Island, will offer a view of the city's greenery, its mountaintops, its winding dirt roads, and a glimpse of both locals and tourists sunbathing and splashing at some of Hong Kong's 41 beaches, 12 of which are on Hong Kong Island.
Most beaches have facilities for swimmers, including changing rooms with showers, lifeguards, and shark nets. Don't be alarmed: The reason for the nets is mainly due to panic during the early '90s when there were several shark attacks. Sharks are rare in Hong Kong waters, says Winnie Chan, tour guide for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, so, when you visit the city and need relief from its usually sticky, humid weather, you can safely join the locals at the beach.
Chan says some of the best beaches in Hong Kong are in Cheung Chau, which has both the Tung Wan and the Kwun Yam stretches of sand.
Perhaps Hong Kong is a little New York mixed with a touch of California. And generally speaking, it is exactly how many tour operators and agents describe it—the perfect blend of Eastern and Western cultures. "If you are looking for food, for hotels, shopping and scenery, Hong Kong will never let you down," says Chan.
Easy access to Hong Kong Island is available at the very affordable Star Ferry, which only costs 15 cents a ride and leaves from Kowloon, which is the most urban side of the city. Shoppers take note: On Kowloon, Harbour City, a seemingly neverending shopping complex, will exercise your credit cards with more than 700 restaurants and shops.
For a more traditional Chinese shopping experience, there is no better place than Stanley Market. Day and night, Stanley Plaza is packed with tents upon tents filled with merchants trying to sell customers everything from key chains to T-shirts, from Chinese arts and crafts to replica kung fu swords.
And the best part? "Negotiating," says Chan. "Some vendors are willing to go down as much as 30 percent, but it all depends. That's one of the best parts of shopping here—getting them to go down on the price."
In fact, some shop owners might give you such a good deal that on your way out you might hear them jokingly say, "Have a nice day and don't come back again."
For sightseeing, climbing more than 250 stairs at the recently opened Ngong Ping 360 will get you a close view of the Giant Buddha, the world's largest outdoor seated Buddha statue. A walk around the park attraction on Lantau Island that this writer got to experience in June (the official opening was September 18), also provides the opportunity to dine at several restaurants, as well as visit an authentic Buddhist temple where locals burn incense before entering. It is reached via a cable car that offers panoramic views of the South China Sea and various peaks, dominated by the 85-foot bronze Buddha statue known as Tian Tan.
A visit to Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island should be considered mandatory. Try to get a seat on the right-hand side at the front of the tram for the best ascending views. Once at the top, stroll the perimeter and marvel at the stunning Victoria Harbour vistas. There are restaurants here and shops, and even a Madame Tussauds.
When night falls, a multitude of neon-lit towers cast a glow on the water, announcing that Hong Kong nightlife is ready to begin.
Insider Tips on tours, hotels and restaurants
The nearly 15-hour flight from New York's JFK to Hong Kong International Airport is operated by several airlines including United and Cathay Pacific.
Tour operators include General Tours (www.generaltours.com), Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com), Pacific Delight Tours (www.pacificdelighttours.com), Pleasant Holidays (www.pleasantholidays.com) and Altour (www.altourleisure.com). Commissions usually start at 10 percent and can go up to 16 percent, depending on volume.
Travel Bound (www.booktravelbound.com) has launched FIT packages to Hong Kong. Prices start at $745 per person and include roundtrip economy air, at least four hotel nights, daily breakfast and sightseeing.
Some notable hotels in the city are the Peninsula Hong Kong (luxury), the Sheraton Hong Kong (deluxe), the Marco Polo Hong Kong Hotel (four star) and the Kowloon Shangri-La (deluxe). The best rooms are "any that offer a view of Victoria Harbour," says Terry McCabe, Altour's national director for leisure. "The higher up the floor, the better the view and the higher the rate," he says.
For dining, Yung Kee, in central Hong Kong, provides an authentic experience; its claim to fame is a succulent roast goose with plum sauce. Victoria City Seafood, in Wanchai, is the most famous dim sum restaurant on the island. Fook Lam Moon in Kowloon has a panoramic harbor view and specializes in northern Chinese food.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board's web site is www.discoverhongkong.com . Agents can contact Chip Cooper (212-421-3382, [email protected]), market-ing manager for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, with questions. — JP