A snapshot of the economic capital of the east, by Frederika Whitehead
THE area known as “Central” in Hong Kong has bustling, brightly lit, steeply hilly streets, lined with bars and restaurants, all of which are clad in neon. This is Asia’s New York. And it is a sight to behold.
On our first night we melted into the evening crowds and were quickly befriended by a small group of British ex-pats. “How long are you staying?” they asked. “48 hours,” we replied. They seemed disappointed but pressed on regardless. “Eat, eat,” they said. “We can’t just eat, we’ve got to see the sights,” we protested. “All everyone does in Asia is eat,” they replied. We relented as it was our first evening and they thrust small bottles of Moët into our hands, which they drank like beer, all the time telling us about ex-pat Brits they know “that came for a week and stayed for ten years.”
Is the Hong Kong express train also a time machine, we wondered: had we alighted into the economy of 2007? Hong Kongers seem to enjoy the kind of opulence that London hasn’t seen since before the recession.
Later that night, our new-found friends slid us onto the quaintly retro-looking Eastbound tram, promising more of the same the next day: more lavish food and drink, more parties: “This is Hong Kong,” they say. “Bright lights, shopping, eating and drinking.”
The next morning we tackled the Island’s number one tourist site: Victoria Peak. A cable car winched us up the almost vertical slope. From the top we looked down over Kowloon, Victoria Harbour, many smaller islands, and the scores of boats running back and forth and between them. We took a virtuously long walk around the circumference of the summit, trying to undo all the sins of the night before and build up an appetite for more of Hong Kong’s culinary delights.
Victoria Peak deserves its “must see” status. In contrast with the heat and crowdedness of the city, the shaded paths around the peak are cooled by the tree canopy and lined with bamboo, palm and rubber trees. We marvelled as butterflies the size of our fists criss-crossed the route in front of us, and the roar of the traffic in the streets below was almost drowned out by the sounds of the crickets, birds and frogs in the forest.
In the evening we changed into clothes suitable for fine dining and headed to the Harbour Grand in North Point to try out its famed tasting menu. Having marvelled at the acres of marble in reception – complete with a harpist flown in from Russia strumming from a gallery – and run a gauntlet of bowing and scraping hotel staff, we were shown to a table by the window. We took some advice from our waitress and settled on a range of dishes that she said would show the chef at his best. Each of the six courses was presented to the table, explained, and then whisked back to the kitchen to be plated up. Poached Korean pears stuffed with scrambled egg whites are followed by dim sum; thousand layer tofu with mushrooms and rosehips; parcels of chopped vegetables tied up to took like bundles of firewood; scallops with black truffles; guava filled with chilled sago cream – course after course of intricate delicacies all served with a view of the harbour to die for.
The next morning we took the Star ferry from Hong Kong Island to the market streets of Mong Kok.
We passed Mong Kok street vendors selling everything from goldfish to kites, made-to-measure suits to edible birds nests.
At the bird market, tiny songbirds, many-coloured parrots and Hornbills sang loudly in their cages, while feather fanciers bought bags of live grasshoppers, crickets and frogs as tasty treats for pampered avian friends. We wandered past old men sitting in the park listening to their caged pets sing: this, someone tells us, is the Hong Kong equivalent of walking the dog.
When we couldn’t walk any longer, we took a cab back to the hotel and dressed up for an evening at the Ritz. The Ritz Hong Kong boasts the tallest bar in the world. We sipped house speciality cocktails – the gin with yuzu honey marmalade was spectacular – watched the sun set over the islands and agreed that 48 hours in Hong Kong wasn’t enough.
NEED TO KNOW
■ Getting there: Emirates airlines has flights available from Gatwick with prices starting at £455 return.
■ Staying: Every room at Harbour Grand in Hong Kong has a view of Victoria Harbour to die for and the hotel's five restaurants cater for almost any palate. Rooms start at £268 per night (harbourgrand.com).
■ Eating: The choice was almost endless – but if you've tired of dim sum and fancy something European the Isola bar & grill on Finance Street does great Italian food for around £40 per head.