Hong Kong is epic. Everything about the city is exaggerated. The skyline. The escalators. The humidity. Once a busy trading port, it still thrives on exchange, be it financial bonds or dried fish.
Being an island, Hong Kong has to work harder than other cities because it can’t reach out into the suburbs for a helping hand. For visitors, this is great, making it quick and cheap to get around by taxi or public transport, although it’s chaotic and you’ll be lucky to find a driver who speaks English.
On arrival, take a stroll around the Wan Chai district, the city’s east end. Here, you’ll tap into the real pulse of Hong Kong. Grab a milk bun or some egg cookies from one of the many bakeries that line Hennessy Road and saunter past rows of Swiss watch shops, Starbucks and jewellery outlets until a sidestreet piques your interest. You might find a fish market next to a busy overpass, where razor shells, crabs and butterfly fish twitch and bubble in tanks or witness a live giant prawn jump out of polystyrene crate into Louis Vuitton handbag, as I did.
In between ‘kitten for adoption’ posters, you’ll glimpse impossibly narrow, fume-stained residential towers standing shoulder to shoulder, seemingly metres apart like a bleak optical illusion. Beyond these, Hong Kong’s iconic glassy buildings glint in the sun alongside works-in-progress propped up by bamboo scaffolding.
If jetlag threatens, quickly make tracks to Soho and grab a snack. A bowl of congee (rice porridge) at Sang Kee should do the trick. This family-run noodle house in West Central on Bute Street has brutal strip lighting and only five tables but it’s as authentic an experience as you’ll get. So sit tight on your stool and slurp it up with all the other old boys.
Right, now that you’re fully initiated, it’s time for the real fun…
The best way to get your bearings is to take the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak. The passage is steep and the wooden-slatted seats hard, but as the rickety old tram (which has been operating since 1888) elevates you above the island’s crowded residential Mid-Levels, the smog dissipates and you are enveloped by greenery. Enjoy this rare moment and absorb some of Hong Kong’s ancient history.
For lunch, an early Dim Sum feast is a must. For gimmicky fun, head to Jumbo, a floating three-storey Chinese palace in Aberdeen harbour that can seat up to 2,300. Or try City Hall in Central. Both are loud, popular with locals and ooze old-world charm. Waitresses push traditional carts of steaming sweet and savoury dumplings up and down, so it’s just a case of point and eat. Easy peasy.
Before the sightseeing continues, why not swing by the Grand Hyatt hotel’s spa, Plateau, for a quick massage to ease any post-long-haul aches and pains? The spa, one of the best in the city, is one of the few that welcomes non-guests.
Refreshed, it’s time to cross the harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. The easiest way is to hop aboard one of Hong Kong’s beloved Star Ferries. These are quick, regular and cheap as chips. In Kowloon, you can check out the city’s newest attraction: Sky100, an observation deck at the top of the new International Commerce Centre (ICC). It’s currently the world’s fourth tallest building and is home to a new Ritz Carlton hotel.
Alternatively, if you are in need of some threads, make a beeline for Nathan Road and have your inner leg measured for a new suit. Turning one around in 24 hours isn’t a problem.
Then grab a cab to the Peninsula Hotel – the grande dame of the Far East – for an exquisite high tea in the hotel’s palatial lobby. Unfortunately you can’t book ahead, so be prepared to queue.
Afterwards, if you are feeling flush, take the lift up to China Clipper, a swanky leather-clad lounge on the top floor filled with memorabilia harking back to the pioneering days of flight. After a stiff tipple, you can enjoy a 15-minute flightseeing tour of Hong Kong by helicopter. (Book through the concierge or Heliservices (www.heliservices.com).
At 8pm, the city’s skyline lights up with a spectacular albeit ecologically-reckless light and laser show. Watching neon bounce off Norman Foster’s HSBC building, IM Pei’s Bank of China building and César Pelli’s International Finance Centre is electrifying. The best view is from Tsim Sha Tsui’s Avenue of the Stars. This is Hong Kong’s equivalent of Hollywood Boulevard but instead of Brad Pitt or Bruce Willis’ handprints, expect effigies of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
If you can’t get off the Island for the Symphony of Lights (its official name), grab a beer on the terrace at Sevva, a hot-right-now bar in Central located on the 25th floor.
At dinnertime, make reservations at Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel (modern French) or for something less formal, take the advice of Amber’s chef, Richard Ekkebus, and hotfoot it to Yardbird, an unpretentious eatery recently opened by the former chef at Zuma. It is minimalist in design with wooden floors and concrete walls but the food is exquisite. Label Rouge chickens are flown in from France, grilled and caramelised over charcoal. With its own Sake brewery on the premises, you’ll also be well-oiled for Dragon-I, the city’s number one nightclub and your recommended next stop.
If you’ve been sent with a shopping list, get the gift-buying out of the way at Lane Crawford in Pacific Place. Here, you’ll find everything from Mulberry to Leica and you can even stock up on quirky gadgets for the tykes.
At lunchtime, the buffet lunch at The Verandah restaurant at The Repulse Bay, overlooking the sea, provides a relaxed atmosphere away from the hubbub.
Stanley Market (open everyday 10.30-6.30pm) is a ten-minute taxi ride down the road from Repulse Bay. Vast and colourful, it boasts a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from plastic beads to antique Chinese lanterns – you never know what you might find there. Maybe even a mogwai.
There is no better way to end the day than to dine at Michelin-starred Café Gray Deluxe on the 49th floor of the Upper House hotel. Located centrally in Admiralty, it is the perfect blend of scene and gourmet cuisine. First rate in every way from its ceiling-height bamboo screens to its fine bone China crockery, it draws an international sexy crowd (Hugh Grant among them) and is one of the city’s chicest addresses.
Follow this up with drinks at the Tasmania Ballroom, a Tom Dixon-designed hangout for fashionistas who like to play it cool with a game of ping-pong or pool (it’s the Shoreditch House of Hong Kong), before crawling to bed in time to rise afresh for your Monday morning meeting – which, by now, you’ll probably have forgotten all about.
FAST FACTS | FLIGHTS AND HOTELS
Leo travelled to Hong Kong with British Airways. BA flies twice daily to Hong Kong with fares starting from £685 return.
Leo was a guest of the Upper House hotel (www.upperhouse.com)
For more information on Hong Kong, visit www.discoverhongkong.com/uk