By LUXE City Guides; images by Calvin Sit
Serenity & Adventure
Mention Hong Kong and most visitors think of soaring skyscrapers, streets lined with glitzy malls and luxury boutiques, and almost any cuisine you can imagine served up in its thousands of restaurants and bars. It’s certainly that, but before Hong Kong flourished into a modern metropolis, it was a humble fishing village, and even today, despite land reclamation, the sea is never far away.
With more than 250 islands that make up Hong Kong, many of them uninhabited, escaping the city’s hustle and bustle is easier than you think. Venture beyond Kowloon and Hong Kong Island to one of these islands, and you'll soon encounter a more laid-back way of living, where locals greet each other by name and get together for tea, and uphold traditions you thought were long gone.
Many of the islands you will want to visit are to the south, part of Islands District, and are easily accessible from the Central Star Ferry Pier. These islands and their villages are surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes, including the deserted beaches of Pui O on Lantau Island, where water buffaloes roam the hills.
The islands’ beaches are also perfect for getting wet and wild with a variety of water sports, from stand-up paddle boarding to kitesurfing. Communities have cropped up around these activities, with instructors on hand to provide lessons to visitors and locals alike, before gathering for drinks and a bite to eat while soaking up the seaside atmosphere. So, get out of the urban centre and into the water, and discover a different side of Hong Kong that’s as action-packed or serene as you want it to be.
Catch a ferry or charter a junk to Po Toi for a cheap and cheerful seafood feast at Ming Kee.
Sip a cup of tea before buying fresh herbs to take home from organic farm Herboland on Lamma Island.
Take your pick of live seafood from the tank at the restaurants along Lamma Island’s waterfront at Sok Kwu Wan.
Take a surf or stand-up paddle boarding lesson on Pui O beach on Lantau Island.
Hire windsurfing equipment and head out on the water at Cheung Chau.
Much more than a teahouse, Herboland is Lamma Island's first organic herb farm tucked among the trees behind Hung Shing Yeh Beach. Stroll among the fragrant rosemary and verbena plants, sip a cup of herbal tea — there are 40 varieties available in the tea garden — and soak up some nature while enjoying the company of the farm's rabbits and parrots, or purchase some fresh herbs or handmade soaps to take home. The farm also runs events such as soap-making classes and tours.
Hong Kong is well-known for its delicious fresh seafood dishes, but did you know you can catch your own dinner, too? At Shui Hau Wan in the south of Lantau Island, low tide means about a kilometre of exposed seabed rife with shellfish ready for the picking. Rent clam-rakes and buckets from one of the nearby family-run shops, and you're set to harvest as many of the delicacies as you can find, with the mountains and sea as your backdrop. Head to Fung Wong Bungalow Centre to get your spoils cooked up into a meal.
Po Toi is one of the more difficult islands to get to in Islands District, but it’s worth the effort for the joy of dining at 30-year-old Ming Kee Seafood Restaurant. Occasional ferries depart from Aberdeen and Stanley on Hong Kong Island’s south side, or arrive by private or chartered junk. Once there, feast on seaweed soup with egg and dried shrimp, deep-fried freshly caught squid with salt, pepper and garlic, and other Chinese dishes at affordable prices while relaxing on the restaurant's rustic wooden deck. Wash it all down with a bottle of beer or two. Remember to book your seats in advance.
Tai Wan, Po Toi Island, Outlying Islands (View on Map)
+852 2849 7038
A former police station built in 1902 to combat pirates, this colonial jewel has been converted into a nine-room boutique hotel by the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation. Details such as the cannons and searchlights have been painstakingly preserved as reminders of the building’s heritage. Located on a headland, it provides stunning views of Tai O Fishing Village, especially from Tai O Lookout, the glass-roofed cafe at the top of the property. The property grounds are open to the public, so ask for a map at reception, or join one of the free guided tours of the hotel.
With its easy-breezy open deck and virtual toes-in-the-sand dining, Cheung Sha’s Bather’s restaurant has a relaxed, day-to-night, beachy vibe more commonly found in Phuket than Hong Kong. The modern European menu features homemade burgers, beer-battered barramundi and zesty salads, but you’re here for the flip-fresh seafood and plates to share – washed down with a craft beer or cocktail, but naturally. It gets packed on sunny days and holidays so be sure to book ahead, or go for breakfast at the weekend.
Don't let its simple appearance fool you — the humble fish ball, often doused in curry sauce, is a beloved Hong Kong and southern Chinese street snack, with many locals having their own favourite stall that they swear by. Cheung Chau, however, has a special place among fish ball aficionados, especially this counter next to the ferry pier, which offers up a variety of other meat and seafood balls (and even triangles) along with the classic curry fish ball. There’s no English signage, so look for the queue.
G/F, 106 San Hing Street, Cheung Chau, Outlying Islands (View on Map)
+852 2981 3050
For family, relaxation, nature, sightseeing, adventure
The Central Star Ferry Pier sits on iconic Victoria Harbour, against a backdrop of gleaming skyscrapers, with more high rises on the shores of Kowloon opposite. This is in keeping with Hong Kong’s image as a modern hub of travel and commerce — but board one of the ferries to Lamma Island and, a mere 30 minutes later, you’ll find yourself in a vastly different world.
Alight at Sok Kwu Wan Pier and you’re met with views of rolling, green hills and a multitude of low-rises — there is a three-storey height restriction — with colourful awnings. Breezy alfresco restaurants suspended overwater line the walkway, with tank after tank of live seafood. Venture inland and you’ll soon encounter residents walking their dogs or riding bicycles — there are no cars — along the narrow paths, hikers visiting for the weekend eager to explore the verdant trails, and beach-goers barbecuing up a storm on Hung Shing Yeh Beach on the island’s west. It’s this kind of laid-back island living that keeps tourists and locals alike coming back.
Ellie Hann, a kindergarten teacher who moved to Hong Kong from Bath in England, has been living on Lamma Island for five years. “I liked the idea of living on an island away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong,” she says. “It’s so green and tropical with plenty of wildlife, plus there’s lovely beaches nearby as well as great hikes. And there’s Lamma Rainbow Restaurant, which is second to none.” Among the array of restaurants are cosy cafes, some of which combine tea and food with enjoyment of the surrounding wildlife, such as teahouse and organic herb farm Herboland.
Lamma is only one of 263 such outlying islands in Hong Kong, each with their own unique, relaxed way of life. Lantau Island, the largest among them, is where the airport is located. However, it’s also full of hidden gems — from serene Shui Hau Wan in the south, where the beach is teeming with clams ready for the picking, to Tai O Fishing Village in the west, where houses are built on wooden stilts over the water and where locals create delicious street snacks such as barbecued oysters and ‘husband cake’, a savoury pastry filled with red bean, peanuts and sesame.
Mainstream attractions such as the Big Buddha can also be experienced differently. While many visitors will take the Ngong Ping 360 cable car to the top, it is possible to hike up to it following the Lantau Trail, which starts at Mui Wo Ferry Pier and offers terrific sea and mountain views along the way.
Lantau Island diversity is one reason why Hong Kong resident Annora Ng decided to vacation there with a visiting friend, giving rave reviews of the hiking and cultural curiosities. “There’s just so much to see on Lantau,” she recalls. “Monasteries, heritage preservation, local food. You could spend one day at a monastery, and another at a village. The people are much more laid back, too. I thought it was a very good introduction to Hong Kong.”
While Lamma and Lantau are relatively easy to travel to via ferry or train, there are plenty of other islands further afield that might take more planning to get to — but the journey is well worth it. Connie “Maoshan” Yuen, an illustrator and former architecture conservationist, first discovered the charms of Peng Chau, a sparsely populated island about 40 minutes from Central, cat-sitting at her aunt’s seaside flat. “It’s a little island frozen in time,” she comments. “Serene and peaceful, but lively in its own way. My favourite thing to do is to sit and watch the boats go by,” Yuen says.
Locals sell freshly caught fish, eat dim sum together every morning, and gather at the village square along the single main street, or head to Lung Mo Temple, where it’s believed that touching the sculpture of the dragon mother and her bed brings good luck.
There’s also Po Toi Island, a remote beach paradise with an excellent seafood restaurant, Ming Kee, and Cheung Chau, site of the annual bun-snatching competition, where participants clamber up towers to grab the luckiest buns at the top. Cheung Chau is also a popular haven for water sports.
The islands are reminders of Hong Kong’s past, when fishing villages dominated rather than skyscrapers, and which today remain tranquil getaways with beautiful natural landscapes and insights into local living that should not be missed.
For adventure, family
It’s surprising the range of water sports one can enjoy at one of Hong Kong’s many islands. Like kiteboarding. Pick a day and a beach with good winds, swim out to sea, and slip your feet into the straps of your kiteboard. To stand, dive your kite while pushing your weight into your lower body, then dive your kite again to get moving. The basic skills of the sport can take a few days to master, but the euphoria of launching yourself into the air on the crest of a wave has been attracting locals and visitors to Hong Kong’s beaches to tackle the sport for decades.
“It really gives you a thrill,” says Ken Choi, founder of X Game, a board sport retailer that also offers lessons. He adds: “You’re not using an engine, just technique and the power of nature. It not only requires a lot of physical energy, but using your brain to figure out how to use the wind.” Choi, who opened his first store in 1985, mostly sells and gives advice on water sports gear, and has regulars who have been coming to him for more than 30 years.
Choi also offers windsurfing courses, which gained prominence in Hong Kong after 1996, when Lee Lai-shan, a Cheung Chau native, took home Hong Kong’s first — and only — Olympic gold medal, for women’s boardsailing. But windsurfing and other water sports have been a part of island life for much longer. Lee’s uncle and aunt, Lai Gun and his wife Irene, were water sports pioneers in Hong Kong, founding the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre in 1975.
“The centre is one of the first spots that brought in windsurfers in the 1970s,” explains the manager, Stephanie Chow, who goes on to reveal that the it was previously a humble beer and noodle shop. “It’s definitely a part of Cheung Chau lifestyle.”
The best time to pick up a board and kite is in the autumn when the monsoon season starts, but Cheung Chau beaches are suitable year-round, with the winds shifting from season to season. Other sports are less seasonal and wind-dependent, like “kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, which started to become popular five years ago,” says Chow.
Of course, water sports can be enjoyed at many other island beaches besides Cheung Chau. Adrienne Ng, another longtime business owner, launched Treasure Island Hong Kong in 1996, choosing Pui O on Lantau Island as a base. “My love is encouraging people to appreciate the outdoors and the sea through activities,” she says.
In addition to rentals, Treasure Island Hong Kong offers lessons for surfing, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding, allowing even the most novice visitor to get out on the water. “Pui O is a gem that I fell in love with,” Ng enthuses. “Hong Kong is such a tight, condensed city, but nearby there’s this desolate beach with water buffaloes. There’s no place in the world that has a beach so close to such a metropolitan city.” On the weekends, ferries are packed with people looking to get out of the city and spend some time learning a new activity.
Hong Kong’s collection of islands in a warm, sub-tropical climate makes it an ideal place to pursue an interest in aquatic sports, or even try one for the first time — it's a great way to develop a different perspective on the city. “Don’t take it for granted that Hong Kong is just about shopping,” says Ng. “There are tons of little treasures to be found just 40 minutes away [from Central].”
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