Hong Kong was a bittersweet stop being our last Asian destination (for now). The city was a huge metropolis where we enjoyed the unique blend of British and Asian influences and and lots of dim sum.
Day 1 – Thursday, April 23, 2015
We arrived in Hong Kong just after noon and had no problems with immigration or customs. From the airport there is an express train ($80 HKD) into the city. We took the train, which was quite nice, and arrived at the Hong Kong station approximately 45 minutes later. The train offers free shuttle buses to some hotels, but we were disappointed to find that ours wasn’t one of them and that we couldn’t take the bus to a hotel which would be near ours. Instead we walked the mile to the hotel through the small winding streets of Kong Hong. My first impression was of how vertical the city is. We took elevated walkways and escalators for a part of the way. Not only was the walkway elevated, but the buildings around us had stores, spas, and restaurants in the third floor windows which the walkways passed. Later I learned that this are was called the Hong Kong Mid Levels and that the covered mid level escalator system is the largest in the world.
We got to our hotel around 2pm and were able to check in right away. Jon had booked us at the Butterfly on Hollywood. The Butterfly is a chain throughout Hong Kong with buildings in several nice locations. Our hotel lobby seemed luxurious and the halls are Hollywood themed with flashing lights and director chairs. The biggest stand out feature of the hotel to us is the inclusion of a mobile smart phone in each room. The phone provided allows for local calls, but more importantly internet service as we explore the city. The phone also had a directory of restaurants and attractions and directions to them.
Tired and homely feeling from our early morning flight, we rested in the hotel room and cleaned up a bit. We stayed in the room far longer than we normally would. Around 4pm we rallied and started to look for restaurants. We walked slowly towards our intended destination.
To me, Hong Kong felt like the most exotic and authentic city we’ve visited. The buildings are a bit old and the streets are narrow and winding. The entire city is hilly and pedestrian stairs cut through blocks connecting streets. Merchants had wears for sale on the streets (but maybe they were aimed at tourists). The people we passed were a very diverse group but they seemed like they lived there.
Dinner for us was at Lin Heung. Lin Heung is advertised as a dim sum restaurant, but we were disappointed from the start. When we arrived, dim sum had already stopped for the day. Regardless, we sat down and looked at the menu. The restaurant was mostly empty and had no atmosphere going for it. Even worse was that our cups and saucers weren’t very clean. The waiter brought over very hot water and rotated the cups in it before serving tea. This was very strange, but we thought it was to clean the cups. The food was also disappointing and they were out of one of the items we ordered. Even if we were told their dim sum was excellent, I doubt that I would go back.
From Lin Heung we had no idea what to do for the rest of the evening, so we walked to Lan Kwai Fong (LKF). LKF was listed in the mobile city guide from our hotel and we went there because it was the closest attraction we could find. LKF turned out to be a ‘nightlife’ area of Hong Kong. For us, it was a few blocks of bars. Lots of people were out walking around, however none of the bars were overly crowded. We noted how the people there seemed to be professionals of our age and not the young crowd we sometimes encounter on our travels. We stopped twice for drinks and made sure to go to bars with a happy hour, which most had. The first stop was Muse which we enjoyed. After Muse we went to the Hong Kong Brew House to try some local beers. We were shocked that they were out of all of the local draughts on the menu, especially because the prices were higher than other bars in the area. After the Hong Kong Brew House we made our way through the streets and back to the hotel to call it a night.
Day 2 – Friday April 24, 2015
It was already a hot and sunny day when we left our hotel. We had spent some time doing a bit of research on restaurants and headed straight to Maxim’s Palace City Hall for dim sum. The reviews we read recommended Maxim’s for the atmosphere as well as for having traditional dim sum. Maxim’s is a bit difficult to find and is on the upper level of the city hall building. We got there very shortly after they opened at 11am and were seated without a problem. By the time we would leave an hour later the line was out of the door.
The atmosphere was opulent. It was a drastic change from the restaurant we had attempted to get dim sum at the previous night. White table cloths, harbor views, and crystal chandeliers. We were eager to start our meal and quickly ordered the first two dishes which came by. Throughout our meal we tried two shrimp dishes, bbq pork buns, soup dumplings, vegetable dumplings, Chinese broccoli, and shrimp with crab roe dumplings. The food was good, but we didn’t feel that it had even the same variety being offered from the carts as our favorite dim sum restaurant in DC, Fortune. For a while we even got frustrated waiting for more food carts to come. Many people were just ordering form the waiters, so we did that too.
The city hall building is along the harbor, so when we finished eating we walked along a waterfront promenade and to Tamar Park. The previous evening, when we were deciding what to do, it seemed as through everything was across the harbor near Tsim Sha Tsui, so we made that our destination for the day. The metro system was easy enough and we were there quickly.
The north side of the harbor also has a promenade, the Avenue of the Stars. The Avenue of the Stars is Hong Kong’s Walk of Fame. We walked along most of it enjoying the view and reading the names on the stars. We only recognized a few; Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Bruce Lee, who is Hong Kong’s ‘Star of the Century’. Along the way two separate groups of school children learning English approached us and had questions to ask for a class.
From the Avenue of the Stars we walked past designer stores and to Kowloon Park. Kowloon Park was difficult to get into. The entire west side (from which we were approaching) appeared to be a tall retaining wall. Eventually we worked our way into the park. We had seen from a map that they have a Chinese garden pond, but were surprised to find a small aviary of tropical birds. The park also had a flamingo pond, hedge maze, and sculpture garden.
To escape the sun, we ducked into the Hong Kong Museum of History ($10 HKD). The museum starts with the geologic history of Hong Kong (400 million years ago) and continues until the present day. Exhibits focused on the prehistoric tribes in Hong Kong, the Chinese dynasties, the four emerging ethic groups in Hong Kong, the Opium Wars, the British occupation, the WWII Japanese occupation, and how it emerged as the important port city it is today. The exhibits were a bit wordy and it was hard for us to follow the route chronologically within each area, however the displays were very well put together. The exhibit rooms were huge which allowed for replicas of forests, boats, festival displays, and 19th century building to be displayed. We still had two exhibits to go when they made the 15 minutes until closing announcement.
Wanting to stay until dark, we walked to a Mexican bar for some drinks and to kill a little time. After the sun had set, we walked back to the Avenue of the Stars to see the city skyline at night. The city is lovely lit up at night with reflections off of the water, and everyone in the area must know that because it was crowded. While we were at the waterfront a loud speaker announced that the light show would be starting at 8pm. We didn’t know anything about a light show, but we stayed to watch it. ‘A Symphony of Lights‘ is the world’s largest permanent light and sound show and features lights on 40 Hong Kong buildings. It also explained the large crowd. The light show was a nice find on such a warm evening when you want to be outdoors.
For dinner, we took a metro to Four Seasons Claypot rice. We first found Four Seasons on the mobile city guide provided by our hotel and the idea of claypot rice intrigued me. The Trip Advisor reviews weren’t as good, but we decided to try it after we saw that it was featured on the TV show No Reservations. The restaurant was old and dingy, but the long line to eat there had me convinced we had made a good decision. Our orders were taken while we were standing in line because they said the food can take up to 25 minutes to cook. Just after ordering, the restaurant opened second room for seating and we were given a small table. Our meals consisted of the traditional claypot rice, or Bo Chai Rice; one with mushroom and chicken and the other with Chinese sausage and pork. We also ordered the fried oyster cakes which had been the highlight of the reviews. Our thoughts echoed those of the Trip Advisor reviews; the meal was surprisingly plain and we won’t be going back. The fried oysters were the highlight of the meal but we’d take the ‘Herr Family Oyster Pie’ recipe over it any day.
Day 3 – Saturday, April 25, 2015
For breakfast we walked from our hotel to Classified, a nearby restaurant. It was a lovely day and Classified was crowded with people, as were most of the other coffee shops. We were seated at a large communal table with a few other couples reading newspapers. Jon ordered the Classified Breakfast, similar to an American breakfast with eggs, toast, sausage and more. I ordered eggs Benedict with salmon, which I assumed to be the house specialty because of the large number of them being delivered to the other tables. The food was good and tasted fresh, but it took a very long time for my order to come to the table while Jon’s order got cool as he ate very slowly trying to wait for me to join him.
Next we walked to the Zoo in Central Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens are free to the public. We entered near the mammals exhibit. Although it is called ‘mammals’, the animals seemed to be limited to primates. The cages in the zoo might have been the most cage like (completely enclosed) zoo pens I have seen, although that isn’t to say that they didn’t try to mimic the natural environment inside. The first animals we saw were orangutangs. The orangutans were huge and looked a bit sad but, moved about occasionally swinging across their pen with fluid movements. I was impressed during our visit to see so many animals moving about.
Most of the other monkeys in the zoo, tamarin’s, lemurs, and more, were much smaller than the orangutans. On the other side of the mammals exhibit we came to the gibbons who were extremely active, swinging along the walls of the pen at great speeds and spinning as they did so.
The other area of the zoo was dedicated to birds. Several of the bird species were the same as those in Kowloon Park which we had already visited. There were also some large cranes and bright red scarlet ibises, and flamingos. We were starting to get tired, so we skipped the botanical gardens.
From the zoo we talked about walking to Hong Kong Park, Hong Kong’s answer to central park. The Hong Kong Park website makes the park seem to mimic nature with waterfalls and gardens as well as community facilities and another aviary. On the way to Hong Kong Park we had to walk passed the line for a tram to Victoria Peak. The line was very long. We were planning to go to Victoria Peak later in the evening, but we decided we should start waiting in the long line now, before it got even longer.
Victoria Peak, sometimes just called “The Peak”, is the mountain that the back of Hong Kong abuts and is the highest view point for the city. To access the Peak, most tourists take the Peak Tram which is what the line we had seen was for. The Peak Tram ($83 HKD; round trip plus terrace admission) is basically an incline to the top of the hill which runs along a steep railway track. Being from Pittsburgh, inclines don’t excite me much, however the Peak Tram was an incredible steep ride to the top. Beware of the lines which can get pushy. Overall it took us about 90 minutes of waiting to get on the tram.
Victoria Peak has been built-up into a sudo tourist trap. After exiting the tram we were directed into The Peak Tower and through an area of souvenir shops that looked more like a flea market. The rest of Peak Tower was more organized stores and food stands. Outside is another mall which housed luxury stores. Although why you’d go all the way to The Peak to shop is beyond me.
The real reason to visit Victoria Peak is for the view. The tram line sells tickets that include access to the SkyTerrace 428. We had done a few minutes of research to determine if the view could be seen without paying for an observation deck (this was a good resource) but weren’t sure. The tram employees told us that you couldn’t see the entire view without going to the sky terrace. We decided to buy the Sky Terrace ticket. It also helped when we realized that the converted ticket price was only $11 USD for the ride and terrace. At the entrance to the sky deck we were given free audio guides that told the history of various neighborhoods and buildings that we could see.
The view from the top was fantastic. We had some smog, but overall the city is lovely. It was one of the tallest cities I’ve seen and with the water behind it, it reminded me a bit of Rio. We took tons of photographs, and when we had enough pictures we listened to the audio guides. I really enjoyed the audio guides and learned quite a bit. I wish I had known some of the interesting facts about the city development before our days wandering through it so I could have been on the look out for some the buildings mentioned.
By this time it was close to 6pm, but we wanted to see the skyline at night, so we found a bench and hunkered down to wait. It cooled down quickly as the sun set and the wind picked up. Slowly the lights came on in the city below. Around 7:10 it was dark enough for some photos of the city lit up. The ICC building had large words advertising light shows throughout the evening with one at 7:20. We waited to watch the show, but didn’t have the accompanying music to play with it. Without the music we lost interest quickly and left to get in line and go back down the tram. The line was still long, but moved quicker than it had earlier in the day. We were down in just under an hour.
One of the meals we wanted to try in Hong Kong was hotpot. We had seen several lists ranking the best hotpots in the city. Megan’s Kitchen showed up on many of the lists, and so we knew that was where we wanted to eat. While waiting for the tram down, we were able to use the complimentary hotel mobile phone to call and make a reservation. Megan’s Kitchen is known for two things; its distinct hotpot broths and for earning a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide. We were surprised that when we arrived at 9pm the restaurant was almost empty. (Later we saw on the menu that arriving after 9:30pm gives many discounts on the menu prices).
Megan’s had an extensive list of broths to pick from. Up to three broths can be sampled in one divided hotpot. We ordered the Tom Yum Koong cappuccino, creamy chestnut and mushroom, and clam chowder. Ingredients to cook in the broth are ordered ala carte. Our order included snowflake beef, beef tongue and cheese dumplings, rainbow cuttlefish balls, beef and papaya meatballs, Chinese lettuce, and assorted mushrooms. The meal was good. The highlight of the meal for me were the dumplings which were creamy in the center from the cheese. Jon enjoyed how unique the flavors of each colored fish ball was. The meal was fun trying different foods in the broths. The only downside of the meal was that with the lack of other customers the waiter was too attentive watching our every bite.
Day 4 – Sunday, April 26, 2015
When we woke up in the morning we knew we had one more high priority item to do in Hong Kong, and that was to try dim sum from Tim Ho Wan. We let ourselves sleep in and have a slow morning in the hotel room while we built up an appetite. Tim Ho Wan is known as the ‘cheapest Michelin Star restaurant’ in the world having been awarded one star in 2010. Tim Ho Wan now has four locations, and the original has moved. We wanted to eat at the original location but settled for its new location in Olympian City Mall. On the way there we took one of the many super skinny, double decker street cars.
The wait at Tim Ho Wan (THW) was surprisingly short. We added our name to a list and were seated about 10 minutes later. There were no dim sum carts pushing food at THW. Instead, a paper menu is handed out and you can mark the orders you want, much like you would do for sushi. We weren’t sure how much to order. This article said 8 dishes stuffed two people, so we ordered similarly. Our order included; steamed fresh shrimp dumplings, steamed dumplings chiu chow style, steamed pork dumplings with shrimp (we like dumplings in case you hadn’t noticed), steamed spareribs with black bean sauce, baked buns with BBQ pork, deep fried spring rolls filled with egg white and shrimp, and congee with pork and preserved egg.
The first order to arrive at our table was the baked buns with BBQ pork. These are by far the most popular item at THW and for a good reason. The BBQ pork buns are simply amazing. Jon and I both agree this was the highlight. The bun itself has a light sugar coating that compliments the pork wonderfully. I could have happily eaten an entire meal these.
Our next dish was the congee, which we both agreed we could have done without. The rest of the food was good, but not that different from what we can find at dim sum at home. The spring rolls and chiu chow dumplings are the other two items which got us talking a bit.
Although we had seen enough temples already on our travels, we decided to visit the big Tian Tan Buddha on Hong Kong at Po Lin Monastery. The Buddha is located in the Ngong Ping area high on top of a mountain. Ngong Ping can be accessed by bus or car, but the Tung Chung cable car ($165 HKD) is the usual method used by tourists to get to the Buddha. We took a metro to the cable car. When we arrived around 4pm there was no one in line and we had a cable car entirely to ourselves as we ascended the mountains.
The ride was nice, the car changes direction and climbs very high over several mountains. Below us, in the forested mountains, we could see long hiking trails. The trails were very well maintained looking with cemented stone walkways. Trails seemed to lead to the peaks of all of the surrounding mountains. Given more time, a hike might have been nice, however I’m not sure if there is much of a view with so many trees.
The Buddha isn’t visible until almost at the top of the cable route, where is sits to the side of Ngong Ping and overlooks the monastery. It is a 10 minute walk from the cable car to the monastery through Ngong Ping and streets of both tourists and roaming cows. Entrance to the Buddha is free unless you’d like to purchase a meal there. To reach the Buddha, 268 stairs must be climbed. The Buddha is giant, probability one of the largest in the world although I couldn’t find any proof. Some people are a bit disappointed to learn that the statue was only built in 1993 and isn’t ancient. The inside of the statue houses relics from Gautama Buddha. We were able to enter the statue and see the relics, however I think this was only because the meal service (which requires tickets) inside the statue base had finished for the day.
We also went to the Po Lin Monastery. Outside of the monastery Buddhists were lighting incense. Inside was one of the most colorful temples I’ve seen. Carved reliefs climbed the columns and walls leading to the brightly colored roof.
The cable car stopped operating at 6:30pm, so we knew we didn’t have too much time to see Ngong Ping and went to get in line which was already to a 70 minute wait. Ngong Ping was really a tourist trap and we didn’t feel that we missed much there. Besides for shops and restaurants, Ngong Ping has several theaters with 3D and other stage shows.
We weren’t hungry yet, so we went back to the hotel. Late in the evening we knew we should get dinner before everything closed, so we walked to Crowd Restaurant. We ordered a roasted chicken and broccoli with shrimp. Dinner was alright, but wasn’t anything better than the Chinese we find at home. We did have a nice conversation with a Canadian couple sitting next to us who were headed to Thailand.
Day 5 – Monday, April 27, 2015
Our flight was just after 11am, but we still had to be up early. We gave ourselves an hour to get dressed and packed, an hour to travel to the airport on the metro, and 2 hours for check in and security. Everything went very smoothly and we ate at the airport, although we didn’t have much time to waste. Then we were off to our first European destination: Budapest, Hungary.
Visas: Due to it historically being a British territory, Hong Kong has a unique ‘one country, two (government) system which allows Americans to enter for up to 90 days without requiring a visa. More information.