With more direct flights than ever to Hong Kong, here's how to experience the city’s glamour and hidden treasures in equal measure
It’s surely possible to define the image and energy of a city by its public transport. New York has its yellow taxis, ruthlessly racing city executives and shopaholics through wide avenues; Bangkok’s vivid fuchsia cabs stand out in cluttered tuk-tuk-strewn streets; and in London the black hackney carriage remains an enduring, familiar symbol of home, windows lashed by rain.
In Hong Kong, however, you will hear of the Star Ferry that traverses Victoria Harbour, typically taking workers to the financial district and luxury fashion hub from the surrounding islands, and providing views of both the metropolis and lush greenery that surrounds it.
Yet, for me, it is the tall, skinny trams that make this place feel like an exotic toy town, their stretched proportions and advert-clad sides juxtaposed against glass-fronted stores and huge skyscrapers. The city stretches up on a steep incline from the glossy Central district to mid-levels, where the wealthy live in modern apartment buildings on the hilltops. In between, narrow streets are cosmopolitan and frenetic, lined with bars, restaurants and galleries. The ex-pat crowd might be slowly contemplating their next move, but the city is still one of the most exciting for a break for business or leisure.
In either case, Cathay Pacific now flies directly to Hong Kong International Airport from London Gatwick four times per week, as well as from London Heathrow five times a day. Its pick of the slots and business class offering make a flight of just under 12 hours comfortable. Expect champagne upon boarding and a seat that turns into a flatbed of around two metres, as well as lighting and power points designed to facilitate a workstation in the air. Service is friendly, and traditional Cantonese dishes are a great pre-holiday touch.
Hong Kong is, of course, not short of haute hotels – the Peninsula, Four Seasons, Icon and Shangri-La all excel – but the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong has attracted well-heeled guests for more than 50 years. It is adjacent to both ferry piers and the city’s slick underground transport system, while a barber, a florist and watches in glass cases line its exits. Breakfast is a who’s who of international businesspeople enjoying eggs Benedict and delicious pastries just as much as plates of fried potatoes, omelettes and dim sum.
Luxury here is about the linen thread count and impeccable service. While the hotel’s approach is discreet, it has ten restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Man Wah, which exudes the same traditional elegance with its pink tablecloths, silkscreen paintings and Chinese lanterns. Roast suckling pig is one of its specialities.
A five-minute walk away, The Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong’s younger fashion-forward sister, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, is the epitome of contemporary decadence. Its suites have been styled by interior designer Joyce Wang and are intended to feel like glamorous apartments. Decked out in cream leather and fluted glass, they have cocoon-like beds, mood lighting, huge wardrobes and chocolate éclairs snuck into wall-mounted golden display cases.
A nod must be given here to the seven-foot round bath-tubs in the largely open-plan en-suites, fit to enjoy with music and television shows projected through the bathroom mirrors, which all helps to create the perfect retreat from the city’s relentless pace (especially when coupled with an evening appointment at the hotel’s 25,000sq ft spa).
Notably, the award-winning gastronomy of the hotel’s French restaurant, Amber, is widely said to be some of the best in the world, and the menu changes seasonally. Its dishes are intricate and beautifully presented: buttery pumpkin raviolis; artful flashes of lime and flowers; peppermint and white chocolate sorbets. Outside the realms of Mandarin Oriental glamour, the Michelin Guide commends Hong Kong’s street food – a whirl of spicy wanton soups, fresh seafood, egg noodles and dim sum, eaten elbow-to-elbow with locals in cafés that have stood for half a century.
Yet it’s hard to find an authentic outpost near the centre of town. The wet markets are where locals go for fish, flowers and vegetables from stalls that line the street, but it’s threatened with redevelopment as high-rises move in.
There’s a place in every high-end city for hearty mains, goblets of wine and a romantic, sociable atmosphere – and as night falls, Café Gray Deluxe certainly ticks the box, with views over Victoria Harbour and out to the rest of the city. Chef Gray Kunz presides over this glossy destination restaurant with a menu full of organic fresh ingredients. The foie gras terrine is rich and made interesting with pink peppercorns and sweet poached quince, as well as house-cured gravlax. Unsurprisingly, the steak is excellent too. The Kansas striploin cut is juicy and well-seasoned, served on the board with onion rings and creamed spinach.
Its sister restaurant is The Continental; book for lunch if you’re one to frequent The Ivy. Its terrace has a conservatory-style feel, and while Hong Kong may sometimes be overcast, it doesn’t mean the palm trees don’t add something to this homely, European-inspired brasserie. While afternoon tea is available, griddled scallops, roast chicken and flavour-packed Icelandic cod are all reasons to try a main course.
The best way to mitigate the many excesses of Hong Kong life is a hike up to Victoria Peak. Various trails – and a traditional Peak Tram – snake up to the island’s highest vantage point for a panoramic vista across the water, and the best time to arrive is just before dusk, when a nightly light show is performed by the city’s skyscrapers.
If you want to experience a more rural kind of beauty, a boat out to Lamma Island takes in both a pretty stretch of beach (Hung Shing Yeh) and views out across Lantau Island from its hilltop pavilion. Lush, green and family-friendly, it is largely open to the elements – and peaceful. On Lamma, there’s also a colourful main street selling local crafts and the opportunity to visit the traditional fishing village of Sok Kwu Wan, where a 150-year-old temple stands.
But on Hong Kong Island, shopping is a must. Beyond the multitude of the luxury brands that can also be found at home is PMQ, Hong Kong’s equivalent of Dover Street Market. The industrial warehouse-style development was opened to relieve local artists of rising rents, and offers cookery courses back-to-back with jewellery studios, artwork and avant-garde fashion. It is home to more than 100 young entrepreneurs who hold workshops as well as ply their trade – a great place to source slightly more refined alternatives to market-forged souvenirs.
While there is still a heavy Western influence in Hong Kong – shaping its vibrant nightlife and glamorous eateries – the hospitality of the locals, neon-lit highways and glimpses of tropical vegetation (as well as the heat), give this city a unique character. And it is definitely one you should experience, more than once in a lifetime.