Around Asia: 96 Hours in Hong Kong

Around Asia: 96 Hours in Hong Kong

I am a planner in all aspects of life. Most vacations I laboriously plan down to the hour - every activity, every meal is predetermined. But with our recent international move and upcoming wedding, I've had my hands full - and our trip to Hong Kong in June went (gasp!) unplanned. Not one dinner reservation. No tours booked. And it was the most perfect unplanned vacation ever.

Hong Kong has a certain energy about it that is infectious. Colorful and bustling, it is a city of stark contrasts - where the cultures of East and West live together in a strangely perfect harmony and glittering skyscrapers sprout from densely overgrown green mountains. It's a place that is easy to fall in love with - I certainly did.

Day 1:  Most of our first day in Hong Kong was devoted to David's quest for a custom suit (if you are looking for a recommendation in the arena of bespoke suits - and there are plenty of contenders in Hong Kong - check out Pacific Fashions in Kowloon). Between suit fittings we hopped aboard the historic Star Ferry for a trip to Hong Kong Island - a must-do if you are visiting! The ferry service has been in operation since the late 19th century, and provides one-of-a-kind views of the city's mesmerizing skyline. Later that night we met up with David's friend Kevin, who relocated to Hong Kong five years ago on a temporary work assignment...and decided not to leave. He and his fiancée, Chloe, treated us to a delicious dinner at Fu Lu Shou - a hidden, cozy little restaurant in the SoHo district that specializes in "traditional" Chinese food as it's perceived outside of China (think: Kung Pow Chicken). After dinner we stopped by The Woods, a lounge-y artisanal cocktail bar that offers up inventive drinks like the "Dirty Dill Martini," comprised of dill-infused Tito's vodka, pickle brine, Dolin Vermouth, mustard seeds and gherkin. The SoHo (South of Hollywood Road) district is chock-full of restaurants, bars and nightclubs - a great destination if you're looking to lose track of time on a Saturday night in Hong Kong.

Soaking in the skyline.

Waiting to board the Star Ferry.

Waiting to board the Star Ferry.

Day 2: I am always looking to get off the grid and into nature, and fortunately Hong Kong has beautiful hiking and beaches within easy reach. Our second day in Hong Kong we opted to escape the city for a hike to Sai Wan, a remote beach on the east coast of the Sai Kung peninsula. Getting there requires an hour-long taxi ride from Hong Kong to Sai Kung East Country Park. Luckily taxis in Hong Kong are quite inexpensive; the ride will only set you back about $30 (USD). Although most taxi drivers in Hong Kong speak English (a welcome change from Tokyo), it's a good idea to show your driver the destination on a map and pay attention during the ride - it's a large park. We ended up taking a wrong turn, which David (my map lover) thankfully caught. The taxi will drop you off at the trailhead to Sai Wan, which takes about 1.5 hours to hike. Despite the very intense heat and abundance of large spiders along the trail, this was one of my all-time favorite hikes and the most memorable day of our trip. The views of the neighboring islands and turquoise waters were simply breathtaking. At the end of the hike you are rewarded with a long stretch of coastline comprised of four separate beaches where you can cool off with a swim. We never made it past the first beach (Sai Wan), which has a little Chinese restaurant serving noodle and rice dishes alongside ice cold coconuts that are cracked open in front of you. After lingering on the beach until the first signs of dusk, we opted to forgo the hike back and take a water taxi for the return trip. This is a great way to see the unique coastline and a means to visiting the colorful Sai Kung pier, where you are dropped off.  

Enroute to Sai Wan.

Enroute to Sai Wan.

Still day dreaming about the view from this restaurant patio.

Still day dreaming about the view from this restaurant patio.

Nature's perfect beverage.

Nature's perfect beverage.

Beachgoers boarding the water taxi.

Beachgoers boarding the water taxi.

Approaching Sai Kung Pier via water taxi.

Approaching Sai Kung Pier via water taxi.

Open-air seafood restaurants line the boardwalk.

Open-air seafood restaurants line the boardwalk.

Day 3: This "vacation" was technically a business trip for David, so I spent our third day in Hong Kong doing some solo touring while he attended a conference. Before our visit I had read about the city's numerous street markets, and decided to use this time to wander aimlessly through three of them. First up was the Flower Market, which stretches for two city blocks from Prince Edward station. Every shop along the street has exotic florals on offer - from tiny succulents and cacti to buckets (buckets!) of proteas. I wanted to grab one of everything! The market was so lush and fragrant, it felt as if I'd walked into an urban concrete garden. When you've tired of smelling the blooms, you don't have to walk far to hit one of the city's most unusual markets: the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. Located at the east end of Flower Market Road, the bird garden is a gathering place for the city's bird lovers, who display their pets in intricate Chinese cages. It doubles as a market where you can buy pet birds, feed (including live insects) and gorgeous hand-painted porcelain feeding dishes. This was one of my favorite sights in Hong Kong! Before heading into my third and final market for the day, I took a short taxi ride to Mido Cafe for a quick bite. While the menu offering at this retro tea cafe may be off-putting (condensed milk and peanut butter toast is an option), the interior of the two-story restaurant makes a visit worth your while: vintage diner seating, mosaic-tiled walls and huge windows with mint green metal trimming. I finished my solo touring at the nearby Jade Market, where you can purchase endless variations of the beautiful green stone believed to bring a long life and good health to its wearer. The colorful stalls here are filled to the brim with bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, charms and figurines. Don't be scared to haggle here, or you'll end up (like me) overpaying for that buddha statue souvenir. For dinner that night, David and I satiated our dim sum craving at Tim Ho Wan, the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. We visited their IFC Mall location above Hong Kong station, and only waited about 30 minutes for a table. With eyes bigger than our stomachs, we ordered enough dim sum for a family of four (whoops!), including three orders of their amazing baked bun with BBQ pork. I admittedly spent much of the dinner ogling the meals of braver patrons who feasted on delicacies like chicken's feet. We capped our night with a drink at Ozone Sky Bar, the world's highest bar (we love record-setting establishments, obviously) perched on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong. While the atmosphere here wasn't my cup of tea, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better view of the city lights.

Freshly misted bouquets.

Freshly misted bouquets.

The Flower Market gatekeeper.

The Flower Market gatekeeper.

Even the flower bed fillers were photo-worthy.

Even the flower bed fillers were photo-worthy.

A busy morning at the market.

A busy morning at the market.

Adored the hanging garden above this shop entrance.

Adored the hanging garden above this shop entrance.

If you've seen my wedding stationary, you know how much I love proteas.

If you've seen my wedding stationary, you know how much I love proteas.

Feathered friends for sale at the Bird Market.

Feathered friends for sale at the Bird Market.

Readying the bird cages.

Readying the bird cages.

A canopy of cages.

A canopy of cages.

The live feed for sale made my skin crawl!

The live feed for sale made my skin crawl!

These guys were putting on a show for me.

These guys were putting on a show for me.

Beautiful porcelain feeding bowls.

Beautiful porcelain feeding bowls.

Mido Cafe, a retro dream.

Mido Cafe, a retro dream.

A jewelry maker at work in the Jade Market.

A jewelry maker at work in the Jade Market.

I couldn't even capture the entirety of our dim sum spread at Tim Ho Wan.

I couldn't even capture the entirety of our dim sum spread at Tim Ho Wan.

Taking in the light show from the 118th floor.

Taking in the light show from the 118th floor.

Day 4: Some might think it crazy to spend two of my four days in Hong Kong on a hike, but I couldn't leave without climbing the island's tallest mountain to Victoria Peak. Most tourists opt to ride the historic peak tram to the summit, but I prefer to earn the view. I took the Morning Trail up the mountain, starting at the marked trailhead on Hatton Road. The moderately steep path is paved and surrounded by thick, rain forest-like foliage. It's remarkable how quickly the city fades into a dense jungle of trees. The trail meanders through gardens, parks and a historic military site before reaching the peak - where it gets VERY touristy. Like, Madame Tussaud's wax museum touristy. Before you bail, I suggest forking over the $6 (USD) to visit the Sky Terrace 428, the highest viewing platform in Hong Kong. This is your best skyline photo opportunity, and the ticket includes an interactive touchscreen audio tour that points out noteworthy landmarks and their history. If you decide to hike the peak, you'll want to dedicate a full morning or afternoon to the excursion.

I couldn't leave Hong Kong without this snapshot.

I couldn't leave Hong Kong without this snapshot.

The green expanse of Mount Austin.

The green expanse of Mount Austin.

Where to stay? We loved the W Hotel (who doesn't like a rooftop pool on the 76th floor?) located on the mainland in Kowloon. Built directly above Kowloon Station, you can get from your hotel room at the W to the station below without having to step a foot outside - a huge plus in the sweltering Hong Kong summer. From Hong Kong Airport (HKG), you can take the Airport Express train directly to Kowloon Station in just 25 minutes. On the return trip, you can check your bags with the airline at Kowloon Station before boarding the train to the airport! Even better? The W Hotel gives you a smartphone to use during your stay - no need for a pocket Wi-Fi or Chinese SIM card to support your Instagram habit abroad. 

So many twinkling lights.

So many twinkling lights.

You might never leave the pool.

You might never leave the pool.

So long, Hong Kong!

So long, Hong Kong!

This travel guide is available as a GPS-enabled map with offline navigation. Click here to download the guide and receive turn-by-turn walking directions between sights -  no data plan or WIFI required!  
An Onsen Ryokan in Hakone

An Onsen Ryokan in Hakone

Nomadic at heart

Nomadic at heart