The yin and yang of Hong Kong

By Kerri Jackson

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Think Hong Kong, think bright lights, big - huge - bustling city with jostling crowds, the world's best shopping and sky-high tower blocks packed together like sardines.

But as built up and jammed in as Hong Kong is - with 7 million people in an area not much bigger than Auckland - it is also skirted by a thick fringe of bush and offshore islands that are perfect exploring spots when you're looking for a change of pace.

Here's a guide to the two faces of this fascinating, thriving city.

Bright lights, big city

The lights of Hong Kong Island are dancing. One by one, the lights of the skyscrapers across Hong Kong Harbour shimmy and flicker on and off in a choreographed dance that plays for anyone watching, every night. It's quite a spectacle - and one it's hard to imagine happening anywhere other than Hong Kong, where there is a total commitment to the concept of city as a 24-hour "fun park."

The perfect place to view the lights is from the sun terrace of Hong Kong's legendary Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. The view out across the harbour from there is stunning, whether the lights are putting on their nightly display or not. The Peninsula has been part of the ever-expanding Hong Kong sky line for 80 years and a visit here is a quintessential part of the Hong Kong experience, even if it's just for a cocktail in the fabulous, sleek Philippe Starck-designed Felix restaurant and bar, or high tea in the famous palm-lined lobby.

Of course, the other way to experience the best of the Peninsula is the spa. And what a spa. Floor-to-ceiling windows make the most of those awe-inspiring views as you're being primped, pampered and gently pummelled by Hong Kong's best therapists.

If the Peninsula is one quintessential Hong Kong experience, the others are eating and shopping.

Not far from the Peninsula in Kowloon is the Harbour City shopping centre - a monument to the world's leading luxury brands. Press your nose to the windows of Manolo Blahnik, furtively fondle the Gaultier, then pack yourself and your credit card off to the new Citygate Outlets mall at Tung Chung near the airport where you can pick up designer items at discounted prices.

Of course, the other thing shoppers come to Hong Kong for is the markets where - whether it's the famous Ladies Market or Temple Street night markets - you can lay your hands on pretty much anything and everything.

For something different though, it's worth a visit to the open-air food market in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island where, down a narrow lane, assorted fish, seafood, fresh produce and baked goods are all sold fresh - and in some cases still breathing.

If that makes you hungry, nearby in Johnston Rd is the stylish Ovologue gallery/restaurant. It's a little more upmarket than the back street makers of fabulous dim sum that Hong Kong is renowned for, with a stylish, spacious, cool interior. And the food is outrageously good; a blend of cuisines from across China.

Another different dining experience worth a try on Hong Kong Island is the quirky Yellow Door Kitchen. Eating here is kind of like inviting yourself around to a stranger's place for dinner.

Once you've found the place down a narrow corridor in SoHo, and travelled up the world's oldest, smallest elevator, you find yourself in what could easily be someone's home dining room. Here, for about $70 a person, you'll be served a set menu, which changes daily, of eight starters, six main courses, dim sum and dessert all cooked in the Sichuan style.

If you're looking to stretch your tastebuds further but are feeling a little dim sum-ed out, and possibly a few kilos heavier, try a tea appreciation class at the Lock Cha Tea Shop in Kowloon. Here, inside the quaint Admiralty Tea House in Hong Kong Park, an expert tea-maker will guide you through a startling number of different teas, from the mundane, everyday green to spectacular flower teas that bloom in your cup.

Another excellent place to escape the city throngs in Hong Kong is the Museum of History. Possibly not many tourists to the city make it into the museum in the clamouring rush to nab another fake Prada handbag or pork dumpling, but that is a shame.

Hong Kong has a fascinating history and 400 years of it are presented here in vivid three-dimensional form, with life-sized dwellings to wander around and detailed explanations and demonstrations of everything from early, traditional ways of life, through to British colonisation, Japanese occupation and eventual reunification with China in 1997. It's a comprehensive, fascinating exhibition.

For another taste of traditional China, board the junk Aqua Luna, which regularly cruises Hong Kong Harbour. The three spectacular red sails are now more for show as the boat is powered by motors below decks, but it is a fantastic way to see the city from a different angle.

Recline on the cushioned deck sipping a cooling drink or two, draw a breath and watch one of the world's most hectic, fascinating cities roll slowly by.

Into the hills

We're walking the Dragon's Back, a ridge-line path through Shek O country park, on the southeast edge of Hong Kong Island.

Behind us, the skyscraping towers of Hong Kong peek from behind the bush-covered hills in clusters and below us, through the haze, lies the South China Sea and an endless convoy of huge container ships lining up to enter one of the world's busiest ports.

Though reminders of Hong Kong's frenetic city pace are never far away, it is remarkably easy to escape it in places like this.

The Dragon's Back can be accessed at several points along Shek O Rd, depending on how much of it you wish to walk. It's a moderate walk, with a few hills here and there but nothing too merciless, and you'll be distracted from any over-exertion by the stunning views.

The other attraction in this part of Hong Kong is the small but perfectly formed Big Wave Beach - a half-moon-shaped nook of white sands and clear blue water; it can get busy come hot, sunny days but it's a nice spot to cool off after all that walking.

The former English enclave of Stanley is a short drive from the park, and is home to an excellent market and the quaint Shu Zhai restaurant for delicious dim sum.

Another place to lose yourself in the less commercial side of Hong Kong - although there will still be crowds - is Lantau Island, home to the Giant Buddha, the adjacent Po Lin monastery and the majestic Lantau Peak, the forest-covered slopes of which are often dubbed the "lungs of Hong Kong."

Most visitors make the most of the 25-minute Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride. It's a stunning trip, gliding over the forests, although the odd gust of wind has a few passengers hanging on to the railings in a white-knuckled panic. Below you, past the forests, is the compelling spectacle of Hong Kong airport. Like the shipping convoy past Shek O, planes are circling continuously and coming into land in a relentless parade. It's another reminder that just over the hills lies the city that never sleeps.

The buddha is, as advertised, giant. He's an impressive sight, as are the views across the hills from up here.

The real treat of this area, though, is Po Lin Monastery, with its beautiful buildings and gardens - not to mention possibly one of Hong Kong's best restaurants, all vegetarian, with food prepared by the monks from produce grown within the monastery. It serves quite possibly the best food I ate in the whole of my Hong Kong stay.

Coming a close second, though, was the fresh fish (as in pick-it-from-the-tank-still-swimming-fresh) eaten at one of the waterside restaurants on Lamma Island, a half-hour ferry ride from downtown.

This is another spot for fans of bush walks and beautiful beaches. It's also home to a large fish farm, where large tanks are filled with the day's catch of weird and wonderful seafood. Wander through a traditional fishing junk and be a little amazed at the basic facilities and tiny amounts of space on board and try your hand at traditional fishing methods - sure to keep the kids entertained - before heading to shore to sample some of that perfectly fresh fish for yourself. The city suddenly seems a long way away.

* Kerri Jackson travelled to Hong Kong courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Tourism Board.

- Herald on Sunday

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