Glitzy high rises and designer shops rub shoulders with old warehouse galleries and street markets, writes Dawn Picken

The toddler gnaws a long raisin bun while staring at me. I smile and make faces, admiring her eyes and tiny fists. She sits on the lap of a woman bearing the same eyes, same porcelain skin. I watch them through two stops on Hong Kong's metro, the MTR, somewhere between Central and Wong Chuk Hang.

Two trains ago, I squeezed into a crowded car of commuters. They were a microcosm of Hong Kong - students in uniform, business people in suits, Westerners in work and leisure garb, a woman wearing a purple hijab adorned with satin flowers and large earphones over her headscarf, older people carrying shopping bags - a sea of locals whose eyes were mostly locked on phones. A woman standing on the other side of my pole broke ranks to stare at me, much like the toddler.

For a city of seven million, Hong Kong is orderly. Most people wait for the light to change to cross the street, even if no cars approach (police enforce a "no jaywalking" rule, which carries a $355 fine).

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Commuters are hurried but polite. Signs are in English and Cantonese. And though people-watching was one of my favourite activities, I felt fortunate to explore, during four days, my own personal yin-yang of Hong Kong: Coddled Celebrity meets Sweaty Tourist.

My guide, Joe Lee, and I leave the MTR's new South Island line at Wong Chuk Hang. It's an area in Aberdeen lined with a mix of grimy old factory buildings and gleaming new office towers.

We step inside one of the older warehouses, board a freight elevator, then navigate a hallway maze before arriving at the Art Statements gallery. We ring the bell, though a secret handshake wouldn't seem amiss in this secluded, quiet space.

Dominique Perregaux, gallery founder and chairman of the South Island Cultural District, greets us. Five years ago, he says, the area had five galleries. Today, there are 23. He predicts the number will double within two years.

Longmen Art Projects.
Longmen Art Projects.

Perregaux says artists in the Central city are limited by small spaces and small lifts unable to accommodate big works of art. And rents are 10 to 20 times cheaper in Aberdeen than in Central. "It's really changing the way we do art in Hong Kong. We don't really have museums in Hong Kong, especially contemporary art museums. So, we have a role to play."

He's hoping the new MTR line will bring more people to the south side, just seven minutes' ride from Admiralty, near Central. We wander the Art Statements exhibition, which features Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano's Deva Loka Genesis.

The exhibit mixes Amano's futuristic paintings on aluminium (including works reminiscent of his anime adaptation of Speed Racer) with centuries-old Chinese stone sculptures. "It's a way to show that quality antiques don't age, in a way - they're cartoonish and fun and playful," says Perregaux.

We tour several other galleries mixing Western and Asian art. One of the newer buildings houses Longmen Art Projects, where modern and contemporary art competes with mountain views outside floor-to-ceiling windows.

I forget the scenery after the gallery manager leads us into a back room where an image of a woman swimming comes to life via video. Water cascades over her flowing hair as she braces herself against the pool's walls.

A couple of hours of art appreciation has left us ravenous. We duck down a narrow passageway and take the lift to the 16th floor of the Kwai Bo Industrial Building. An open kitchen provides a stage for Dine Art, which serves Italian cuisine. We watch chef Cosimo Taddei and staff create edible beauty.

We order the seafood set meal, starting with fresh-baked focaccia dipped in olive oil, before moving on to soup and salmon salad. The main course, whole Italian sea bream with artichokes, olives, lemon and garlic, consists of moist, flaky white fish with a full set of teeth and two gelatinous-looking eyeballs (I don't eat the head).

Ozone Bar, Hong Kong. The worlds highest bar.
Ozone Bar, Hong Kong. The worlds highest bar.

We top up already-full bellies by sharing a molten chocolate cake and espresso icecream.

I also feel like a rock star while strutting into the world's highest bar, Ozone. A one-minute ride to the top of the ICC tower brings you 118 floors above ground. I pair dazzling city lights with a mojito (around $36).

Ozone Bar, Hong Kong. The worlds highest bar.
Ozone Bar, Hong Kong. The worlds highest bar.

Less glamorous, the seven-minute Peak Tram journey brings us to Hong Kong Island's highest point. The extreme angle during the ascent is slightly freaky, as skyscrapers appear to lean towards the hill.

From the top, about 400m above sea level, you can enjoy the Victoria Harbour view, or stretch your legs with the easy Peak Circle Walk. The 3.5km circuit reminds me of Mt Maunganui's base track: unlike the Mount, dogs are permitted, and a dog walker hands me the leads to five jack russell terriers when I ask whether I can take his photo. Tour guide Joe says, "People in Hong Kong love their dogs. They like to dress them up, too."

Man Mo Temple. Photo / Getty Images
Man Mo Temple. Photo / Getty Images

Lunchtime features another HK heritage site - Yung Kee. The classic Cantonese restaurant opened in 1942 in the Central District and is popular with tourists and locals. I sip cup after cup of steaming jasmine tea while feasting on goose with crispy skin, pillow-sized prawns with capsicum and spring onions, and a plate of bok choy. Can't forget the rice. All delicious. All gone.

Locals come to Yung Kee restaurant in for a dish of meat with rice, wonton soup, and tea. Photo / Getty Images
Locals come to Yung Kee restaurant in for a dish of meat with rice, wonton soup, and tea. Photo / Getty Images

I have the luxury of a knowledgeable local for an after-lunch walk. Hui Ling takes me through Old Town Central, starting at Possession St, the birthplace of colonial Hong Kong. It's where British soldiers landed in 1841 (the city reverted to Chinese control in 1997, and this year celebrates the handover's 20th anniversary).

The area is filled with modern and vintage shops, teahouses and restaurants. One eatery has a queue stretching down the block. "That place is famous for cow stomach," says Ling.

We head to Hollywood Rd and Kung Lee, a tiled store, which has been churning out fresh sugar cane juice, pudding and turtle jelly since 1948. The cane pudding is less sweet than the juice. The turtle jelly, known for medicinal properties, gets a pass.

At the corner of Hollywood and Ladder St sits one of the city's most visited historic sites, Man Mo Temple, dating from 1847. Its green-tiled roof and ornate carvings provide striking contrast to surrounding high rises. Step over the raised threshold and incense sears the nostrils.

Ling tells us people spend thousands of HK dollars to hang yellow coils whose sandalwood smoke is believed to carry worshippers' prayers to heaven. The main altar is dedicated to the god of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo).

While police officers and gang members revere Mo, students touch Man's golden pen before writing exams and essays.

After a visit to the old Police Married Quarters (now a design hub, studios and funky shops), we end the walking tour with a Hong Kong staple: a freshly-baked egg tart from Tai Cheong Bakery, the hot flaky pastry combined with just-right sweetness of egg custard.

There's more to Hong Kong than glitzy buildings, designer shopping and street markets selling everything from flapping fish to 1000-year-old eggs to stinking fruit (durian). Just 25 per cent of Hong Kong's land is developed, and 40 per cent consists of reserves and country parks. The Hong Kong area includes 262 outlying islands, providing stunning scenery from tall building tops and from the heights of hiking trails.

On my second day, I'm whisked from my hotel by expat Kiwi Lizzy Palmer-Smith to explore the region's natural beauty. We set out to run Dragon's Back trail, rated one of Hong Kong's best. Its S-shaped stretch forms part of the 50km Hong Kong trail. It is 9am when we arrive at the start, humidity is high and the temperature 26C.

Dragon's Back is well-marked but rocky and rooted, which lends itself to more plodding and talking than running. We pause frequently on the 8.5km trek to snap photos of forests, mountains and islands set against the South China Sea. The sightseeing platform at 284m provides another excuse to rest and enjoy the view.

We pass a few other trampers and a mountain biker, but the trail feels deserted compared with the city. We run the narrow road to Lizzy's car at Shek O Beach, a small village with colourful old cement homes, picket fences and public beach. We drive to Stanley Bay to stroll the market shops (filled with silk clothing, sportswear, electronics, jewellery and a dizzying selection of fidget spinners), then refuel with lunch at a cafe.
The next day, we explore Hong Kong's third largest island, Lamma. My guide, Gigi Yeung, and I hop on a ferry for the 30-minute crossing to the port of Sok Kwu Wan.

The plan is to kayak, but the organiser says the sea is too rough. We will hike, instead.
Our guide Rob Lockyer (an Aussie who lives on Lamma) leads us into several of the island's 20 or so kamikaze caves. The Imperial Japanese Navy forced locals to dig the tunnels.

During World War II, the caves concealed munitions and speedboats to be deployed on suicide missions against the Allies. Now, the caves house swooping bats. If the bats don't get you, mosquitoes might. Gigi and I do a lot of leg slapping.

Also, Lamma (and other rural parts of Hong Kong) harbours poisonous snakes, giant spiders, feral pigs and venomous centipedes as long as my boat-sized feet. Thankfully, we see none of these. The scenery is mostly pretty with a few warts. White-sand beaches, tree-covered hills - plus a coal-burning power plant and lots of litter. Rob says Mainland tourists use Lamma as a rubbish dump. "They don't care, because they don't live here."

Rob organises beach clean-ups in the hope that sea turtles will resume laying their eggs at the green turtles' only regular nesting site in Hong Kong.

Back in the urban jungle, I wander flower and fish markets, marvelling at the array of blooms flown in from the Netherlands and quantities of fish swimming tiny circles in plastic bags. Neither will make it through New Zealand Customs. I buy cheap shorts and shirts from stalls inside the 1km stretch of Ladies' Market. Forget waving cat clocks, fake designer bags, branded jerseys ... the only other thing I want is an egg tart.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland to Hong Kong. For prices and schedules, go to .

Online
discoverhongkong.com