Four weeks hence, on the 19th of February, Hong Kong will celebrate Chinese New Year, welcoming in the Year of the Sheep with another eye-popping pyrotechnic display guaranteed to equal, if not surpass, their recent light show marking the arrival of 2015—an account of which recently appeared in these pages. Any excuse to visit Hong Kong is a good one, and few excuses are better than Chinese New Year. For any reader contemplating a visit there, be it this February or some other time of the year, here are a few suggestions you might find useful. In the previous article, air travel was discussed. Once you've chosen an airline and flight, you must decide where to stay. There are two obvious geographical choices needing mention: the Hong Kong Island side and the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor and a third, less-traditional choice also worth noting—Sha Tin in the New Territories. All three serve up a worthy plate of travel-related morsels. In general, Hong Kong Island in its central areas is more business-oriented and offers a greater range of choices specifically tailored to appeal to the resident ex-pat community and to overseas visitors from the West preferring a more familiar ambiance to their surroundings and offerings. There are pockets of night life on the Island side where significant numbers of the people enjoying the food and beverages and bonhomie nightly are ex-pats or visitors from afar. You may find the comfort of that scenario appealing. Kowloon, in contrast, is more focused on good old-fashioned shopping, shopping and more shopping with a far-stronger, far-more-visible Chinese presence. At nights its narrow streets are ablaze in the neon splendor for which Hong Kong is famous. Significantly, Nathan Road on the Kowloon side is home to the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center. Sha Tin in the New Territories, in contrast, is far greener and noticeably less crowded overall, offering easy access to outdoor activities such as tennis, golf, boating and horse racing. Admittedly, there is much shopping to be done on Hong Kong Island, and much business to be done in Kowloon, and both sides are Chinese to the core. They just have nuanced differences in emphasis and character. No visit to Hong Kong is truly complete without quality time spent on both sides of the harbor. Sha Tin, on the other hand, demands a metro or cab ride to get you back and forth between your lodgings and the principal shopping and business action. You have a plethora of options for accommodations in Hong Kong. At the top of my list of recommendations are the Peninsula and the Hong Kong Intercontinental (both in Kowloon) and the Hyatt Regency Sha Tin (in the New Territories).
Why the Hyatt Sha Tin, you wonder? To begin with, it's a tasteful, modern hotel located in a lovely, serene setting sharply contrasting with Hong Kong and Kowloon's crowds and noise and bustle. The rooms there are large and clean, the service impeccable, the food grand and room prices less than half of what you would pay for anything comparable in the heart of Kowloon or Hong Kong Island. For still less than you would pay elsewhere, you can upgrade to a Club-level room with many attendant perks. It’s a recommended Sha Tin extra if you’re determined to spoil yourself. You have two view choices—water or mountain view. A water view is another upgrade well worth the investment—again if you’re out to spoil yourself. At Sha Tin, you can save a significant number of dollars on your room most times of the year while still enjoying 5-star luxury and comfort. (On New Years and Chinese New Year, however, the hotel's room rates rise markedly, as do those of virtually all other hotels, be they 1-star or 5-star.) A 15-minute metro ride, or a 10-minute cab ride from Sha Tin is all it will take to reach the shops of Kowloon, where you can spend all of that money you just saved on your room on material things you can take home with you.
Or, you can invest it during a visit to the nearby Sha Tin Racecourse, managed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and home to the Hong Kong Derby, the Champions Mile and a host of other world-class horse races. Room rates at the Peninsula and Intercontinental are not for the fiscally weak-of-heart, but both deliver world-class 5-star luxury. It you're going to do Hong Kong, and you want to do it right, both icons deliver rich rewards. If your travel budget is bottomless, you might even think about slumming it at the Riz-Carlton, where the hotel occupies the upper-most floors of a 1,000+ foot skyscraper on the southern edge of Kowloon.
If your travel budget is that of a mere mortal, however, there are countless other hotels to choose from, including properties carrying all of the major brand names—Hilton, Sheraton, Shangri-La, Holiday Inn and all the rest. The Regal hotel group offers a number of attractive choices at moderate prices, including the Regal Airport Hotel, connected by an enclosed walkway to the International Arrival Lobby of Terminal 1 of Hong Kong International.
Regardless of where and how long you choose to sleep at night, you’ll doubtlessly want to see as much of the town as you can manage during your waking time there. An elaborate, clean, efficient metro system serves the region well and is an economical way to reach the major tourist and shopping destinations from either Hong Kong Island, Kowloon or Sha Tin. An all-day visitor's pass costs 50 HKD (roughly 6 USD) and will give you full, unlimited access to the system for 24 hours. Signage everywhere is in both Chinese and English. And, of course, taxis are everywhere, just waiting to be waved down. Remember, red taxis are for Kowloon and Hong Kong Island while green ones are for the New Territories. Everyone has their own favorite places to visit in Hong Kong. Here are six of mine:
1. Avenue of the Stars/Victoria Harbor (on the Kowloon side) - The promenade along the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor offers the best view of the harbor itself and of the skyline of Hong Kong Island. It is Hong Kong's equivalent to Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Here you will find bronze stars and hand prints set in concrete recognizing Hong Kong cinema's most famous actors. The most popular stop on the way is a life-size bronze statue of iconic martial arts superstar Bruce Lee. The Avenue of the Stars is the perfect place to watch the fireworks/light show, but be sure to arrive early if you want to assure yourself of a spot. Authorities will close down access by 8:00 p.m. at the latest. After that, a mere trickle of souls is allowed in, matching in number that of the people leaving.
2. The Peak (on the Hong Kong Island side) - They say if you visit only one place during your stay in Hong Kong, that place must be The Peak. The view from the top is breathtaking and the ride up on the funicular railroad unforgettable. There are restaurants and shops galore layered across its heights and along “the world’s longest escalator” on the lower slopes leading up to the bottom entrance to the funicular. You could easily spend the better part of a day exploring them all and still not finish the job. 3. The Ladies Market (on the Kowloon side) - Here you will find a closely-packed street market overflowing with vendors offering clothing, crafts, giftware, souvenirs, accessories and more. Be sure to bargain. Whatever price they ask, offer them half and see what happens. Remember always, competition between vendors is fierce. Take advantage of it. 4. Temple Street Night Market (on the Kowloon side) - In the words of Hong Kong tourism promoters, here you will find "trinkets, tea ware, electronics, watches, menswear, jade and antiques” aplenty to empty your pocketbook and "claypot rice, seafood, noodles and other treats" to fill your stomach.
5. The Peninsula (on the Kowloon side) - Arguably Hong Kong's most famous hotel and still its grandest in the eyes of many, the Peninsula ranks along with the Raffles in Singapore and the Savoy and Ritz in London as one of the grand dames of traditional English-style hostelry. Try the afternoon high tea for a trip into nostalgia. At night, for a laugh, try visiting a powder room atop the Peninsula’s modern tower annex. (You’ll understand why when you get there. Hint: Your positioning while attending to your bodily functions affords a stunning view.) For a stout shock to the pocketbook, take time to browse through the offerings of a veritable Who's Who of jewelry stores located in the hotel's Arcades, including branches of Harry Winston, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany & Co.
6. Hong Kong Tailors (everywhere) - You can't walk 50 feet down a major street like Nathan or Canton roads in Kowloon without encountering somebody imploring you to visit the shop of some tailor. If you come to Hong Kong, YOU MUST leave with at least one custom-tailored article of clothing, if for no other reason than to impress your friends back home with your savoir-faire. The question is, How do you find a good tailor, one worthy of clothing a past or present Aramcon? The good news is, there are many good ones. The bad news is, there are some bad ones and a number of not-so-good ones. I have a personal story to share about how i found a tailor in Kowloon to whom I have eternally plighted my sartorial troth. On my first trip to Hong Kong, I was hounded by street hustlers trying to sell me tailored clothes, or copy handbags or, my personal favorite, "genuine fake Rolexes." For guidance through so much dissonance, I decided to seek the advice of someone knowledgable and trustworthy. Striding up to the concierge desk of the Hong Kong Intercontinental, I confronted the gentleman manning the desk that morning with my problem, asking for his best recommendations for a tailor. He gave me a list of three names. First on the list was Baron Kay's Tailors at 43, Mody Street, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, a 10 minute walk from the hotel. "You won't go wrong there," he assured me. Heeding his words, I sauntered over to Baron Kay's no-frills, unassuming shop located on the second floor of a non-descript building not far from the Shangli-La. No glitz or glitter here and, even better from my viewpoint, nobody outside on the street passing out business cards and handbills and twisting my arm. Entering the shop, the first thing I noticed was a framed photograph hanging on the wall of Charlie Royer, former mayor of Seattle and at one time a casual acquaintance. Hanging on the wall next to Charlie were three photos of actor Nicholas Cage, another of the cast of The Love Boat, and another of Johnny Carson's one-time sidekick, Ed McMahon. Within minutes I was sold. In the years since I've made a pilgrimage back to Baron Kay's every time I've visited Hong Kong. Sometimes I've picked up a shirt or two, or a pair of slacks or custom-made shoes, or another sports coat. Often I've just stopped by to chat with Jimmy Gai, the shop's major domo, Mike Li, his sales manager, and other members of their staff. They have become old friends. I know I can have clothes tailor made for me in Hong Kong for less than at Baron Kay's; I am certain I cannot have clothes tailor made for me better, not anywhere else in Hong Kong nor anywhere else in the world I've tried (including London, Bangkok and Taipei). If you ever make it to Hong Kong, I hope you find a tailor that suits your needs as well as Baron Kay's suits mine. Under the glass top of a table in their showroom are displayed scores of business cards from previous customers. On my most recent visit I spotted one belonging to a senior manager at Saudi Aramco Entrepreneurial Services in Dhahran. Apparently there's at least one Aramcon that shares my feelings about Baron Kay’s. For more information, visit the following websites: http://hongkong.peninsula.com/en/default http://www.hongkong.shatin.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html http://www.ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/gb/en/hong-kong/hkghc/hoteldetail http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/HongKong/Default.htm http://www.regalhotel.com/regal-hotels-international/en/home/home.html http://entertainment.hkjc.com/entertainment/english/go-racing/shatin-racecourse.aspx http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294217-d593182-Reviews-Kowloon_Mosque_Islamic_Centre-Hong_Kong.html http://gohongkong.about.com/od/travelplanner/ss/weatherbyseason.htm