Travelled and written by Ceil Miller Bouchet
Vibrant, cosmopolitan and exotic, Hong Kong is a feast for the senses. When my family lived in Shanghai a over decade ago on a five-year expat stint, I loved our occasional escapes to Hong Kong for the jolt of sophistication, East-meets-West charm and shopping. Even then, the former British colony was truly China’s “World City” in terms of lifestyle, architecture, economy and infrastructure.
In March I returned to Hong Kong with my daughter, for the first time since we moved back to the States in 2003. Then, my five-year-old Annie spoke fluent Mandarin and even told her new American kindergarten class that she was part Chinese! Over the years, her Mandarin has given way to French but even so, I wanted to share my love of China with her before she leaves for college in the fall. Our main goals on this “China light” urban insider trip? Eating (both), shopping (daughter) and exploring (mom).
Hong Kong is an ideal introduction to China because the downtown center is multinational and easy to navigate but with a short tram, taxi or subway ride you can immerse yourself in a very local Chinese environment.
To get around Hong Kong, you need to know that the city is made of two main sections: Hong Kong Island (where the main business districts, transportation hubs, shopping and nightlife neighborhoods are found) and Kowloon, across the harbor, a bustling Chinese district where there’s a more local flavor.
Since we were staying for a week and we wanted to immerse ourselves in neighborhood life, we rented a small apartment in Sheung Wan, a Brooklyn-type neighborhood on Hong Kong Island.
But there are lots of wonderful hotels in Hong Kong, of course, befitting its world class city status. On Hong Kong Island, Annie and I loved the Four Seasons for the central location but especially for the outdoor pool area, with hot tub overlooking Victoria Harbor. Even if you don’t stay at the Four Seasons, it’s worth booking a spa treatment or a mani-pedi in the new harborfront Nail Bar (the ladies are experts at nail art, as Annie learned) and paying for access to the extensive indoor wet area and outdoor pool.
For a taste of the bygone colonial era, try The Peninsula Hong Kong, in Kowloon, with its legendary afternoon tea, rooftop helicopter pad and fantastic dim sum luncheon in the historic Spring Moon Cantonese restaurant. The Pen’s indoor swimming pool, with views of Hong Kong Island’s skyscrapers across the bay, is a real oasis. Just down the block, there’s the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, in the International Commerce Center skyscraper, with its buzzy Lost In Translation vibe and spectacular views from the lounge and bar on the 102nd floor. Also in Kowloon, the Intercontinental Hotel looks like a cement block dropped in front of Victoria Harbor but the hotel’s waterfront lobby bar, romantic Alain Ducasse French restaurant Spoon or outdoor tropical-themed pool and lounge are great places to enjoy the “Lite-Brite” nighttime view of Hong Kong Island across the harbor.
Our favorite shopping was at the PMQ, a hub for creativity and design launched in 2015, with hundreds of cool pop-up style boutiques, cafes and restaurants in the 1950’s-era former married police housing quarters (“Police Married Quarters” or PMQ). You can easily spend a half-day there wandering the unique, stylish boutiques, having coffee and eating. Don’t miss Goods of Desire, a Hong Kong lifestyle store for gifts with a contemporary, designer touch.
For a “Times Square-meets-Blade Runner” experience, head to Causeway Bay. Annie hit up the NikeLab store there, for shoes she couldn’t find in the States. Not far from the PMQ, we poked around atmospheric Gage, Wellington, Stanley and Wyndham Streets for “RayBan” sunglasses and “antiques.” We made a culture stop at the ancient Man Po Temple on Hollywood Road, while we were in the neighborhood.
If you like the Chinatown atmosphere, try the “Ladies Market” in Kowloon, home to knock-off bags and trinkets as well as a host of souvenirs, clothing and such. We spent a lot of time at Innisfree, near the Ladies Market. It’s a Korean Sephora-like boutique with high quality organic beauty products (the masks make great gifts!) On the way out of the Four Seasons, we enjoyed wandering through Lane Crawford (Hong Kong’s best department store, like Nordstrom’s).
Our eating goal was simple: dim sum. We ate Michelin three-star dim sum in the contemporary, luminous Lung King Heen, probably our most delicious fine dining meal. We took a dim sum making class in the kitchen of the legendary Peninsula Hotel (they turn out 2,000 pieces of dim sum per day!) followed by a dim sum lunch among business movers and shakers in the hotel’s 1920’s style Spring Moon Cantonese restaurant. (Believe it or not, we returned for the Peninsula’s amazing high tea, our mother-daughter tradition, if bit touristy here.) We didn’t make it to Duddells, although the upstairs dining room comes high ly recommended for dim sum, rooftop views and old world feel (not to mention two Michelin stars). But we did stop at any street place that looked good or had a line outside for bao and pineapple buns with milk tea plus one memorable late lunch at 27 Hillar Street, where the line was out the door at 3 pm and we had no idea what we were ordering as we checked the dim sum menu, all in Chinese!
We shook off jet lag by walking from our apartment up to Victoria Peak. It took us more than an hour of straight uphill via streets and then park trails. (We took the old-fashioned tram back down.) The sweeping views were just as good from Pacific Coffee at the Peak Tower as from the windy sightseeing deck. From the top, we noticed that, despite the dense population on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, there were vast swaths of forested hills, woodlands and beaches. Later we learned that over 50% of the Hong Kong territory is made of parks. In fact, there are lots of trails within easy reach of the city. The Dragon’s Back is especially popular, according to local friends.
Another unforgettable experience? The foot massage. For Chinese people, reflexology is a social experience, where you book a room with friends, have some wine or tea, and chat. It’s also a great way to combat jet lag and sooth tired feet! One afternoon, Annie’s Hong Kong-based future Barnard college classmate took us to her mom’s favorite place, a chain called Happy Foot. It was utilitarian but clean, and the three of us laughed the whole time, snapping silly pictures in our private, closet-sized room. I barely noticed the strong-handed massage work until the next day, when my calf muscles were sore! For a calmer, more soothing atmosphere, head to Ten Feet Tall. You can order a glass of wine or pot of tea from the restaurant upstairs.
We spent a relaxing morning at the new Hong Kong Asia Society, a stunning mix of contemporary and colonial architecture right downtown on the lushly forested site of the British Army’s old barracks and arsenal. And of course, we got plenty of fresh air by taking the iconic, old fashioned Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, a fifteen minute crossing that has been in service since 1888. Those views! What a way to enjoy this unique city hovering between land and sea, where East and West intertwine like nowhere else on our planet.
Guest blogger Ceil Miller Bouchet is a travel writer for The New York Times, NatGeo Traveler, Indagare and others. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @ceilbouchet. She and her daughter travelled with a Corroon Big Daddy and a Dolci+Limoni Weekender.