Hong Kong Chills Out
Who knew the ultimate type-A city had a type-B side?
A quick ferry ride from the teeming streets and gleaming skyscrapers of Central and Kowloon are the Outlying Islands. Just because you're visiting one of the world's busiest cities doesn't mean you can't do a little island-hopping.
Virtually all visitors to Hong Kong begin and end their trip on Lantau, at Chek Lap Kok airport, opened on the north shore in 1998. By 2006, a new Disney park near the island's eastern tip is projected to add 5.6 million more visitors per year, many of them Chinese mainlanders. Until then, Lantau is tracked primarily by adventurous day-trippers, who revel in its beaches and 31 square miles of parkland.
Most ferries from Central land at Mui Wo. The town's main street is fringed with open-air seafood and soup stands, as well as restaurants serving Western cuisines. Start with a pub lunch at the British-themed China Bear, facing the dock -- and before your meat pie hits the table, you'll make half a dozen new friends from around the globe.
A five-minute stroll east along the coastal road ends at Silvermine Bay, where you'll find most of Mui Wo's lodging, including the top choice on all the Outlying Islands, the Silvermine Beach Hotel. Below its windows is a wide stretch of gold sand protected by a shark net. Or rough it: Nearly the entire western half of Lantau is within Nam Shan park, where walking paths swarm with butterflies. Camping anywhere costs nothing and almost always requires no reservation.
From Mui Wo, take bus #1 or a bike (Friendly Bicycle Shop, around the corner from China Bear, rents them for $4 a day) along the southern coast. Four miles west, Pui O's shell-lined beach attracts not only picnickers but also a team of water buffalo that, nearly every sunset, wanders from the nearby rice fields to cool off in the surf. Savor the spectacle over margaritas on the patio at Treasure Island, and then crash in its B&B rooms, which were added this year.
Three miles west is the pearl-white sand of Cheung Sha; overlooking the water is The Stoep, a Mediterranean and South African restaurant that's worth a stop. Past that, houses disappear, replaced by one gorgeous palm-shaded cove after another. Small vegetable farms form mosaics of green and yellow up the hillsides, and their laborers wear the same bamboo hats with fly netting that are seen in much of southern China.
Thousands of tourists, principally mainland Chinese, come each year to climb the 268 steps to Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery, atop a hill with views down to the South China Sea. The attraction is the summit's enormous Buddha sculpture, more than 110 feet from the pedestal to the curls on his head. In the adjacent cloisters, you can observe prayer rituals and recharge with a vegetarian meal ($4 for noodles and bean curd).
Tai O, one of Hong Kong's most unusual sights, awaits nearby, at the end of South Lantau road. Until recently, the village of Tai O -- actually on its own tiny isle -- could only be reached on small boats dragged from shore by ropes. Now there's a tiny bridge, but little else has changed in over a century: The village, often referred to as a Chinese Venice, is a jumble of wooden houses balancing on stilts over slow-flowing creeks. Like many of these islands, it was once a home to pirates.
You'll get glimpses of an old-fashioned life -- fishermen repairing nets, carpenters carving boats by hand, women laying the fresh catch out to dry on rooftops. Tours sold in Central take all day and cost at least $30. In Tai O, half-hour runs are $2.50, and sightings are guaranteed. There's no advance booking; you'll almost certainly be approached by salesmen as you roam the boardwalks.
With few Western residents and no Western restaurants, Cheung Chau is a throwback to a slower time. Here, incense sticks smoke in temples, and parks are filled with card games, the clatter of mah-jongg tiles, and gossip, pretty much as you'd find in towns throughout China.
Despite the density -- about 20,000 people on an island of less than a square mile -- Cheung Chau, with green hills framing its harbor plied by Chinese junks, is still a picturesque place to pass a few aimless days. Paths wind alongside tiny butcher shops, cheap noodle stalls, apothecaries offering mysterious herbs and Chinese remedies, and elders observing their families from benches in front of the old temples. On weekends, the population doubles with city folk soaking up the nostalgia and the sunshine.
"It's hard to imagine how idyllic it once was," says Canadian Murnie Weeks, an 18-year island resident who runs a tourist information booth. "But even with all the people," he says, "Cheung Chau is still a better place, where you can get away from Hong Kong and have a quieter life."