When time isn’t too much of an issue, looking after yourself on long-haul means strategic use of stopovers. For the trip from Auckland to London, Hong Kong is a perfect half-way point.
I hadn’t had occasion to be in Hong Kong since 1984, when I was a sweet young 24-year old. It wasn’t a fleeting visit – I stayed nearly a month with friends and they lived a typical airline ex-pat life in a spacious house just beyond Saikung, which was ‘in the country’ back then. One of the first things I noticed in HK of today is how Saikung has become urbanised. It’s full of high rises. HK has always been vertically inclined, but its verticalness has really taken off in recent times.
Anyway, a three-night stopover in Hong Kong is the ideal way to break long-haul to London.
We chose to stay at the Novotel Citygate because it’s handy to the airport (just a 10 minute hotel bus ride away), has all the comforts of a 4-star hotel and is attached to what amounts to a covered town centre – a mega mall of outlet shops and restaurants with an MTR station, for quick trips into the city. What’s more, it’s set against a lush backdrop of forest-covered mountains.
Here’s what Murray and I found to do on our three-day stopover.
Soak up the sun by the pool
Getting your circadian rhythms back on track requires a certain amount of sun-exposure. This was easy for us, because we arrived at our hotel around 8am and couldn’t check in until 2pm. We were given access to the pool, along with its bathrooms and lockers. After a 12 hour flight, when very little sleep was had, applying ourselves to deckchairs for a couple of hours was delightful. Some napping was done, a swim was had and a pleasing level of pinkness achieved. The combination of swimming and basking eased us into HK’s tropical temperatures (32°C, feels like 38).
Gin & tonic at the Ozone Bar
Our last evening in HK scored 10 out of 10 on the lifelong memorability scale. Aided by a quick web search on ‘best bars Hong Kong’, we discovered the Ozone Bar on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. It’s the highest bar in the world, which suggest the prices might be sky high too. But we were pleasantly surprised. The ‘build your own G & T’ offer worked out at about NZ$20 a pop – and our drinks came with ample free bar snacks. Sitting on a bar stool sipping a designer G & T while looking down on HK from 490 metres above sea level is a heady experience. It’s even headier when you decide to stay until the lights come on… If you like drinking in high places, Ozone tops the lot.
Find some local food
The massive mega mall attached to our hotel proved to be an excellent source of sustenance. After drifting past cheek-by-jowl designer brand outlet shops in a semi-jet lagged state, getting slightly lost and learning to navigate by landmarks – Adidas corner, Tommy Hilfiger escalators, MaxMara street – we found a Vietnamese restaurant that hit the spot nicely. Dividing the prices by 6 to provide NZ$ conversion, our lunch cost about $25.
Buy snacks and wine
Have I mentioned the mega mall and its usefulness enough yet? While we managed to successfully stay out of the designer brand shops, because our suitcases were already stuffed full to accommodate three climates on a two-month trip, we happily ventured into the massive circular supermarket on the lower ground floor for snacks and wine. Pre-dinner is an important planning time, aided and abetted by alcohol and nuts. We found an excellent dry prosecco for about $20 NZ and a nut mix that turned out to be crackers moulded to look like nuts. Ha!
Catch the MTR into Central
Using the HK MTR turned out to be a piece of mooncake. The system is faultless. You can buy a one-day tourist pass for HK$65, from the information/ticket booth, and use it for all trains (except airport express) for 24 hours. After Auckland’s meagre rail network, riding the HK MTR is like trading a Nissan Micra for a Porsche. The trains are fast; hold-onto-your-hat fast.
Drink Chinese beer on the waterfront
Our mission when we arrived at Hong Kong station was to explore the city, and maybe catch a ferry to Lamma Island for lunch, however all the shops were shut and the ferries didn’t appear to be running. Yes, it was a Sunday, but HK is the city that never closes. What was going on? At the only waterfront bar that was open, we found out why. There was a typhoon warning in force. Everything except the railway, and the one bar we found open, had shut up shop and battened down the hatches. We consoled ourselves with Tsingtao beer, and resigned ourselves to making the typhoon our day’s entertainment. Never happened. The storm changed direction and missed HK entirely. The barman happily informed us that the warning had lifted, so we set forth to conquer the city on foot.
I blame the inability of GPS to find us amid all the highrises for our failure to find a restaurant for lunch. We started looking in entirely the wrong place, so resorted to Google Maps to find somewhere – anywhere – before hangriness and hangxiety turned our holiday mood to mud. Google suggested Mak’s Noodles, and we asked Lydia (the Google nav lady) to walk us there. Boy did she get confused. After walking in circles, rectangles and triangles, we finally found Mak’s. I made the mistake of walking directly into the restaurant and sitting down at a vacant table, only to be slightly told off by the proprietress. Protocol says you must always wait to be seated, even when the restaurant is nearly empty. Having made our peace with Mrs Mak, we watched the cooks building noodle dishes in the front window kitchen, while another made dumplings by hand at the table next to us. Watching the meister churn out dumpling after dumpling was mesmerising. He was the Bruce Lee of dumpling makers…so quick and agile.
Catch the gondola to the Big Buddha
This was the most touristy of our stopover activities, but I justified it by pointing out how it reflected the harmony of tourism and buddhism. Side by side they co-exist; a mutually beneficial arrangement. After a sky-high gondola ride shared with a posse of teen students from the UK, we landed in the artificially-created village of Ngong Ping. It was dripping in souvenirs, dumpling houses and 3D motion master experiences. A mini theme park in the clouds. But the major attraction was the big guy – the Tian Tan Buddha, 34 metres high, weighing 250 metric tons and masterminded by the monks of nearby Po Lin Monastery. Certainly the buddha is impressive, sitting on a three-platform altar and accessed by 268 stairs, but the monastery is even better (in my humble opinion). There’s nothing on the Po Lin monastery that isn’t carved. It is worthy of every heavenly superlative you can think of.
Order Peking duck
Crispy duck skin is greatly prized by most foodie nations, but none more than the Chinese. So no stopover in HK is complete without a Peking duck meal, even if it does leave you feeling just a little over-indulged afterwards. Our duck was consumed at Federal Palace, one of the restaurants in the ever-so-handy mega mall attached to the hotel. We watched as a whole roasted duck was expertly denuded of its crispy parts by our waitress. These were stacked artistically on prawn crisps and served with the usual ultra-thin pancakes, spring onions, cucumber strips and plum sauce. It was wicked, and I had to resort to using my hands. While I’ve passed Chopsticks 101, I’m a long way from the PHD-level chopstick mastery required for Peking duck.