Flying from Los Angeles to southern China, Cathay Pacific’s late-night departure dropped me off in Hong Kong at 7:30 a.m. My flight to Guangzhou on the mainland was scheduled to depart that evening.
One thing was for sure, there was no way I would spend my layover curled up in the airport lounge, no matter how tempting a nap and free nibbles sounded. Nothing says faux-traveler than someone who claims to have “been” in a country when they never left the airport.
Armed with little more than a guidebook and Suzy Gershman’s “Postcard from Hong Kong,” my biggest concerns involved getting from point A to B to C in the shortest amount of time. With little sense of the territory’s layout and transportation options, even a day-long layover seemed too short for comfort.
More Hong Kong travel: Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Hong Kong
As it turns out, the amenities of a business-friendly destination also benefits leisure travelers. There’s good reason that Hong Kong International Airport consistently wins awards for efficiency and amenities. Sprawled over more than 74,000 square feet, the massive space might seem intimidating on the surface, but bright, bold signs in both Chinese and English (Hong Kong’s official languages are Cantonese and English) make it easy to navigate.
That’s right, at the pay-in lounge underneath the Airport Express platform, travelers can pay about US$18 for use of a private bathroom and shower—ideal for business travelers heading straight to a meeting or leisure passengers on long layovers.
Automatic kiosks make buying tickets for the Airport Express easy, and there are only three train stops—Tsing Yi, Kowloon and Hong Kong—making the whole “point A to point B” concern moot. Twenty-three minutes later, the doors opened to an indoor maze between International Finance Centre (IFC) building and the MTR Central Station.
One step outside into the humid air and dense traffic assured me that I was about to waste valuable time, so I turned right back around toward the taxi stand. Though I had prepared for language barriers by having a flight attendant translate some major sights into Chinese character translations for a few major destinations, the driver understood my English request to get to Victoria Peak.
Atop the steep slope, visitors are greeted by pleasant, though not mind-blowing views—often obscured by smog—and a busy galleria proudly featuring both Starbucks and McDonald’s. Victoria Peak also has some nature walks including a scenic loop and a road that heads all the way down to the university, but poor signage, construction and high humidity put an end to that quickly.
Learn more with the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Hong Kong
Hot and sticky (so much for my shower), I decided that the best way to do a cultural comparison between East and West was to test out a Starbucks iced latte. Turns out, they’re exactly the same, and when you’re discombobulated in a foreign city, sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
I noticed English signs pointing toward Central—Hong Kong’s commercial hub where the Airport Express had dropped me off. So that taxi ride really hadn’t been necessary. I skipped the return ride on the tram and took the more local option: the number 15 bus.
Bumping through the hills of Hong Kong, we picked up locals along the way, where even in the smaller communities outside the central business district, the population was an international and cosmopolitan mix of Asians and Westerners.
Learn more about Hong Kong’s culture with A “Belonger” Looks Back at Hong Kong as Its Capitalist Heart Beats On.
I got off the bus once I began seeing English signs for the Central Mid-Levels Escalator.
The world’s longest moving escalator is an easy way to travel into the hillside (although it runs downhill until about 10 a.m. for commuters).
At certain drop-off points, travelers can get off into sloping backroads that are packed with a mix of street markets filled junky trinkets, boutique-y shops and restaurants featuring every ethnic cuisine under the sun.
For some reason, a sushi bar called out to me. No, it wasn’t “authentic” Chinese, but I justified that sushi was perfectly fitting seeing that I was in Asia, and surrounded by water. To make up for the uninspired dining choice I picked the more exotic-looking items, which included chilled marinated sea cucumbers and sea urchins.
Learn more about Asian Culinary Vacations: Noodling Around in the East.
In the hills of Central, another kind of business thrives: massage and reflexology parlors.
An hour later, I emerged HK$198 (about $25) poorer, but with happy feet and shoulders, and the realization that this is exactly what hundreds of Hong Kong locals do on their lunch hour.
It was time get out of Central. A good option would have been the Star Ferry to Kowloon, but it was already afternoon. and leaving Hong Kong Island seemed like a risky move.
Instead, I discovered the double-decker tram, aka a “ding ding,” which travels along Des Voeux Road between Central and the Western districts.
Feeling more like a local than ever, I sat at the back of the upper level to watch the street activity behind us, packed with pedestrians and vehicles and storefronts with signs that no longer had English translations.
I consulted my map only to discover I had traveled much further into the Western district than I had intended. No matter.
When traveling in a straight line, it’s hard to get lost.
I paid my HK$2, hopped off and began following my nose back toward Central.
Along with pungent Chinese herbal medicine stores, Des Voeux Road’s claim to fame is store after store selling dried seafood—the sidewalk is literally lined with vats and vats of fish, shrimp, abalone, and mushrooms the size of my head, along with a variety of unrecognizable but powerful-smelling dried goods.
Now 3 p.m., it was time to make one final stop before getting back on the Airport Express. I wandered back a few blocks away from the waterfront toward the Landmark Mandarin Oriental where I shared my day with a friend who joined me at the posh bar.
“Did you have dim sum?”
“Did you visit a tea house?”
“No (cringe) Starbucks.”
“You North Americans. You didn’t experience the real Hong Kong.”
Sweaty, disheveled and entirely satisfied with my eight hours in this complicated, cosmopolitan and chaotic city, I had to disagree.
By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com. Stay tuned for Sarika’s excursion north onto mainland China in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
Learn more about the history and culture of the city with: A “Belonger” Looks Back at Hong Kong as Its Capitalist Heart Beats On