Hong Kong Explore the city's hotspots

Hong Kong is an eclectic mix of the old and the new, cobblestone streets and historic architecture juxtaposed with trendy cafes and modern art galleries
The sky bar at Ce La Vi serves panoramic views
The sky bar at Ce La Vi serves panoramic views

There was a nasty cultural revolution in progress across the border when I first visited Hong Kong. My ship had docked at Ocean Terminal in Kowloon and a smoke-belching ferry took me to Hong Kong Island. There I was besieged by an army of reed-thin men who made a living pulling rickshaws. They wanted to show me the sights of the island. Those sights were, basically, the junk boats in Aberdeen, the chaotic old city and the Tiger Balm Garden. The garden was built by the makers of a local ointment that soothed aching muscles. At one point, it was Hong Kongs most popular attraction, kitschy statues and sculptures depicting scenes from Chinese folklore.

That was a long, long time ago. Tiger Balm Garden could not survive Hong Kongs real estate boom. It was demolished years ago to make way for a housing development. The rickshaw pullers, too, are only a memory now. Once a sleepy backwater, todays Hong Kong is a prosperous, energetic town with a skyline matching that of Manhattan. You will find here restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls that are as good as those anywhere in the world, if not better.

Hong Kongs population is half of Delhis, but it attracts more tourists annually than all of India. My heart sank when I saw the serpentine queue ahead of me at the immigration counter on arrival, but to my amazement, I was out of the airport within minutes. Thats modern Hong Kong for you, efficient and business-like.

During my first visit, the chaotic old town with its crumbling buildings resembled Mumbais Bhendi Bazaar. Now, the place is an eclectic mix of the old and the new, cobblestone streets and historic architecture juxtaposed with trendy cafes and modern art galleries. Arguably, this is the most interesting part of Hong Kong. The best way of exploring it is to grab a map from your hotels concierge and take a walk through the streets and alleys. Hollywood Road is its main drag. You can pick up souvenirs, porcelain and ceramics here. If you have serious money, you can even buy Ming-era antiques from reputable dealers. Visit the galleries in PMQ, a building that was once police married quarters, hence the name. Three years ago, the administration converted it into an arts hub with studios and workshops on all four floors.

The Man Mo Temple, also on Hollywood Road, is one of the citys oldest shrines and worth a visit. It was built in 1847 during the Qing dynasty, and is dedicated to the Taoist gods of literature and war. Besides being a place of worship, the Taoist shrine was used in its earlier years as a court of arbitration to settle disputes between local merchants and their colonial masters.

Wander down Possession Street, where the British landed in 1841 and took possession of the island. There are traditional teahouses in the old city, such as Gongfu on Staunton Street, that serve classic dim sum, small portions of fried and steamed food. Tai Cheong Bakery on Lynhurst Terrace is famous for its egg tarts. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, pronounced them the best in the world. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.

Victoria Peak is the highest point on the island and the most popular destination for tourists. Once you reach the top, you will understand why. It offers a magnificent view of the city, the waterfront and, on a clear day, the green hills of the New Territories. There are trails on the Peak for hikes or leisurely strolls. The residential properties here are the most expensive in the world. Three years ago, a villa was sold for nearly $90 million. There was a time when Peak residences were reserved exclusively for Europeans and a tram line was built in 1888 for their use. The best way to go up is by this tram that rises almost vertically, defying gravity. Dont be discouraged by the queue. They run frequently and the wait is never long.

A visit to Lantau, Hong Kongs largest island, is worth it if you have the time. Much of it is still forested and rural, but Disneyland is located here. I went to Lantau to see Ngong Ping village and its monastery with a 250-tonne bronze statue of a seated Buddha, reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world. You will find a choice of reasonably priced restaurants, where you can have your lunch and beer before you head back. The best way to reach the monastery is by cable car from the bus station below. You will get a spectacular view of the bay and the mountains on the way.

Hong Kong is a foodies heaven. Almost all cuisines of the world are found here. Some food experts are of the view that Chinese food in Hong Kong is better than on the mainland. Dont be afraid to ask for fork and spoon if you are unable to handle chopsticks. They can be tricky for beginners.

There are restaurants to suit all pockets, but vegetarians should be cautious. The Chinese eat just about everything that does not walk on two legs. They have no concept of vegetarianism. There are a hundred ways you can eat meat accidentally. The vegetables are often cooked in meat stock and served with oyster sauce. Chicken powder is a common ingredient. Vegetarians should avoid places where the staff do not speak English and therefore cannot understand your order. Hordes of Indian tourists come here month after month, in all seasons, and hotels and upscale restaurants have just begun to grasp the Hindu concept of vegetarian food, that eggs too are taboo to some people.

If you are still finicky, there is no shortage of Indian restaurants. The Gaylord in Kowloon has been operating since 1972 and you will get your sabzi, dal tadka and roti here. The Grassroots Pantry on Hollywood Road is a fine non-Indian vegetarian eating place where you will find Italian pastas , Chinese hotpots with only vegetables floating in the broth, as well as meatless wantons and noodle dishes.

I eat nearly everything, though I draw a line at frog legs. I leave that to the French. One of Hong Kongs top Chinese restaurants is the Michelin one-star Summer Palace in Island Shangri-La Hotel. I had an amazing lunch in the opulent, palace-like dining room with chandeliers and lush oriental carpeting. The food was Cantonese-style and cooked to perfection.

My first course was a dim sum trio of scallops, pork and shrimps, and I followed that up with sliced barbequed suckling pig, so tender it almost melted in my mouth. Soups are not necessarily the first course among the Chinese, so I followed that with a bamboo fungus broth with mushrooms. The servings were all mercifully small and left me with room for steamed fish with bean curd. I ended with a portion of pan-friend vermicelli with prawns. One diner, an Indian of course, asked for chilli sauce and spread it on his orders.

Cantonese cuisine is very subtle, not spicy, and the chef would have considered his act a culinary sin of the highest order. I stayed two nights at the Island Shangri-La, a very posh hotel located in the heart of the city close to the business district. It soars 56 floors high above an upscale mall where, if you have deep pockets, you can buy Louis Vuitton luggage, Hermes scarves and Gucci shoes. My room had a sweeping view of the harbour and on the floor above me, there was a lounge for favoured guests with complimentary tea and coffee all day and cocktails at sunset.

Now let me tell you about the breakfast at Island Shangri-La. In all my years of travel, I have not seen a more sumptuous buffet spread. This was the first time I came across fresh raspberries and cream in the morning. There was, of course, the usual assortment of breads, bacon, sausages and eggs any way you wanted them. But Island Shangri-La goes an extra mile with stations for Chinese, Japanese and Korean dishes, as well as an Indian section for those missing their parathas.

I went for a bowl congee, Chinese rice porridge. I topped it with finely chopped ginger, garlic, dried shrimps and a touch of sauce. Delicious I followed that up with salmon baked Japanese style. I was tempted, but left the noodles, the dim sum and sushi for the next morning.

Hong Kong knows how to party. There is something for everyone British-style pubs, hip coffee hangouts, karaoke joints and jazz bars. The nightclubs are packed every day of the week with the citys glitterati. The dress code is casual, but no sandals and shorts are allowed. I am a nightclub person. I headed for Ce La Vi, the latest hotspot, and ordered a Berry Cobblera heady cocktail of gin, blackberries, lime juice and honey. The drink was not cheap, but it came with a 360-degree view of the city from the rooftop of a high tower. And the DJ knew his job. Cest la vie in French translates to thats life, but the owners, for some reason, have decided to spell it differently.

I spent my last night in Hong Kong at the Kerry Hotel across the harbour in Kowloon. It is part of the Shangri-La group and opened its doors six years ago. The architecture is very modern and it attracts a younger clientele. You feel you are in a resort that has been transported and placed in an urban setting.

The Dockyard restaurant is in a garden, separate from the main hotel building. Its nine kitchens cook up everything from pizzas and hamburgers to tandoori. A live band plays in the evening. My last meal in Hong Kong before I headed for the airport was in the hotels Hung Tong restaurant. Steamed crabs with truffles and winter melon. No better way to end the trip.

The Information

Getting There
All Indian metros are connected to Hong Kong via direct or one-stop flights. Fares from Delhi cost upwards of 26,000 (round trip, economy). Visa on arrival is available to Indian citizens who intend to stay for fewer than 14 days, but a pre-arrival registration has to be completed online (immd.gov.hk/eng/services).

Where to Stay
Designed by Andre Fu, the plush Kerry Hotel on Kowloons waterfront offers beautiful harbour views and 546 elegant guestrooms split into eight standard and club room categories, and three types of suites (from HKD 1,530 per night doubles shangri-la.com/hongkong/Kerry).

Another luxury offering from Shangri-La is the Island Shangri-La which offers 565 spacious rooms and suites that feature Asian-accented European furnishings. Each of them comes with breathtaking views of the city, the Peak or Victoria Harbour (from HKD 2,805 per night doubles shangri-la.com/hongkong/islandshangrila).

What to See & Do
Take a stroll on Hollywood Road to shop for some mementos and antiques, and visit the art galleries in PMQ. Dont miss the Man Mo Temple while youre here. Take an elevator ride up to Sky 100 Hong Kong Observation Deck on the 100th floor of the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon (HKD 188 forwalk-ins, HKD 169 online sky100.com.hk) for a 360-degree view of the citys skyline. Take the 5.7km cable-car ride to the Ngong Ping Village on Lantau Island to see the Big Buddha (a day pass costs HKD225 upwards np360.com.hk).

Hong Kongs Metro is clean and comfortable and is also the easiest way to get around the city. You can also take a 1D hop-on-hop-off tour with the Big Bus Company ($55.30 including some entry passes bigbustours.com). Check out Soho and Lan Kwai Fong for their nightclubs.

Do carry a business card of your hotel with its name and address printed in Chinese. It comes in handy when hailing a taxi.

Where to Eat
Go to one of the delightful teahouses on Possession Street for small bites of steamed food and, of course, tea. Dont skip the best egg tarts in the word at Tai Cheong Bakery (taoheung.com.hk) on Lynhurst Terrace.

If you choose to stay at Island Shangri-La, you will be spoiled by sumptuous meals at the Michelin one-star Summer Palace. For a bite of authentic Chinese cuisine, try the Lei Garden Restaurant (leigarden.hk) in Tsim Sha Tsui dont miss their red date cake. Those with a sweet tooth must pay a visit to the popular Xiao Tian Gu (852-28826133) in the Tai Hang neighbourhood. At Ngong Ping, vegetarians will relish the fare at the Po Lin Monastery kitchens (plm.org.hk), and on Lamma Island, try the exotic Green Cottage (852-29826934) at Yung Shue Wan village.

If youre a stickler for Indian food, Gaylord Indian Restaurant (mayfare.com.hk) in Kowloon will satiate your cravings for roti-sabzi. On Hollywood Road, Grassroots Pantry (grassrootspantry.com) is another option for a wider gastronomical palate.

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