Hong Kong – made up of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories (new for the past 100 years), and the Outlying Islands, and covering roughly 1,000 square kilometres - is one of the most easily navigable destinations in the world.
If the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) doesn’t run to where you want to get to, most likely there’s a bus (single- or double-decker or mini) going there. Taxis (nearly always plentiful) fill in the gaps. The Airport Express train whistles from arrivals to downtown and back, and for fun Hong Kong also sports a cable car and – drum roll please – the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator. Sadly, outside a museum or amusement park, rickshaws are a thing of the past.
Finally, the online Yellow Pages map (www.hkcitymap.com) covers the whole of Hong Kong, and you can search by street number or building.
First things first
The stored-value Octopus card (www.octopus.com.hk) acts like a second passport. Pick one up from the MTR sales desk in arrivals at Chek Lap Kok airport: HK$150 includes a returnable HK$50 deposit. You can use Octopus on almost all public transport, in shops, supermarkets and cafés, at photo booths and vending machines, and recharge it at any MTR station or (almost) wherever it is accepted for payment. Apart from no longer having to juggle with small change, Octopus also grants cheaper fares on the MTR.
Mass Transit Railway (MTR)
The MTR’s (www.mtr.com.hk) tracks lead from the airport to Central, up to the Mainland border, and cover almost all points in between. Frequent and rapid trains, bilingual signage, air-conditioning, and inexpensive fares make this the prime method of transport in Hong Kong.
Adult single tickets cost from HK$4 - there's also a variety of day and other passes. The MTR operates roughly from 6am to midnight. Avoid rush hours unless you hanker after that children’s party favourite “Sardines”. East Rail trains, running between Hung Hom and the border, include first class carriages - pricier but less crowded. All station exits to street level are marked by a letter (plus a numeral in case of multiple exits), and wall-mounted maps cover the immediate area. Pickpockets are not unknown and many visitors only lack a tee-shirt reading “Sore Thumb”. So have your wits about you and use common sense.
MTR services also include inter-city trains to Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.
Hong Kong taxis are colour-coded – red for urban areas, green for the New Territories, and blue for south Lantau Island. Red cabs (flagfall HK$18) can travel anywhere except onto blue cab territory. Green (HK$14.50) and blue (HK$13) taxis may only drive in their designated areas, but all three can go to and from the airport. Meters tick over at HK$1-1.50 per subsequent 200 metres.
All taxis invoke surcharges for luggage and bridge and tunnel tolls.
The majority of drivers speak some English but exchanges can be challenging – everyone carries a mobile so you can “phone a friend” in dire need. Better to ask your hotel concierge to note your destination down in Chinese.
Call 1872 920 for lost property.
Few areas of Hong Kong lack a bus service – 24 hours a day in the more populous areas – covered by one of the city’s five bus companies. Bus stops are clearly marked and usually display a route map, and destinations are written in English and Chinese on the front of the bus. The number six route from Central to Stanley Market is especially scenic.
Minibuses, with 16 seats and either a red or green roof, are the wild cards of the Hong Kong bus pack. They can stop to pick up or discard passengers pretty much anywhere; most drivers are happiest when their right foot is parallel with the road surface. Proceed with caution. Bus fares range from a few dollars to HK$30 or more for longer routes.
Rattling along the island since 1904, when the line traversed the island’s northern shore, Hong Kong’s iconic double-decked trams (www.hktramways.com) make frequent stops between Kennedy Town and Shau Kei Wan, with a spur that takes in Happy Valley racecourse, from 6am to midnight. An eyes-on-stalks show-reel of local life in microcosm is included in the HK$2 fare.
Another oldie, the shriekingly steep funicular (www.thepeak.com.hk) has been in operation since 1888 and really is part of the whole “Peak experience” (the slower and cheaper route is by bus). Trams leave from the Garden Road terminus in Central (7am-midnight), which can be reached by open-topped double-decker bus from Star Ferry.
If there’s a cheaper thrill in the world than a cross-harbour trip on the Star Ferry, I’ve yet to find it. Hugely entertaining and a few pence a pop, it’s tempting to go back and forth all day. Synchronise your journey and you’ll get the 8pm Symphony of Lights show thrown in for free. Use it to cross Victoria Harbour between Central (Hong Kong Island) and Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon). Other sailings link Wan Chai and Hung Hom. HK$2.50: a steal! From 6.30am till midnight, but not on all routes.
Star Ferry (www.starferry.com.hk) also operates a special sightseeing cruise, which poddles around the harbour.
Thousands of commuters live on Hong Kong’s outlying islands, and day or half-day visits to Lantau and Cheung Chau aboard First Ferry (www.nwff.com.hk), and Lamma and Peng Chau with Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry (www.hkkf.com.hk ) are well worth the time. Roughly two sailings per hour per destination depart the Central Ferry Piers, near the Star Ferry pier, on Hong Kong Island. Some ferries operate a tiered fare system depending on their speed, and prices are hiked at weekends and public holidays. From HK$11.30 one-way.
Ferry services also ply the harbour to Park Island and Discovery Bay, however these are residential enclaves with little to attract casual visitors.
One of the ferries’ least touristed routes runs between Cheung Chau and Peng Chau, calling at Mui Wo and Chi Ma Wan, from 6am till midnight. A separate service connects Peng Chau and Discovery Bay. The double-decker Man River is a fairly basic craft, but there’s a real pioneering feel aboard. Most of the other passengers are islanders, on shopping expeditions or going to or from their workplace. A timetable is at www.nwff.com.hk.
Central Mid Levels Escalator
So far, officialdom has stubbornly refused to come up with a more inspiring name for the Central Mid Levels Escalator – a pity, as it’s an innovative piece of urban architecture. CeMiLE, my own appellation, will have to do in the meantime.
Essentially, CeMiLE is 800 metres long and runs from Conduit Road to Central Market on Des Voeux Road, a descent of 135 metres. It goes downhill from 6am and then switches direction at 10am, shutting off at midnight. Daily traffic is estimated at 55,000 pax.
There’s a mild irony that thanks to CeMiLE some of Hong Kong’s wealthier residents don’t have to pay to get to and from work. From a visitor’s point of view, CeMiLE is a transport of delight: apart from being free, it leads through some of the more interesting areas of Hong Kong Island, including the dining and entertainment zone of SoHo.
The Cable Car (www.np360.com.hk) runs from Tung Chung near the airport up to Ngong Ping, site of the Big Buddha statue, Po Lin Monastery, and a stretch of mildly kitschy souvenir shops and places of entertainment. The cable car breaks down occasionally, granting the local press some easy headlines for the following day. The Crystal Cabins are more expensive but grant better views.
Apart from being a staple of Hong Kong's delivery network, the bicycle has little role in the built-up areas of the city. It's a different story in the New Territories (notably Tai Po) and the Outlying Islands, where Hong Kongers journey in droves to try out this novel method of transport. Rates from about HK$10 per hour.
Other non-walking options include:
Helicopter hire (www.heliservices.com.hk) – worth every penny, whatever the weather; Double Decker Bus Tours (with commentary) - www.bigbustours.com or www.nwstbus.com.hk; Sailing Junk trips - www.aqua.com.hk; Star Cruises’ (www.starcruises.com) “South China Sea Escapade” is essentially an excuse to open the casino in international waters: but there are worse ways to spend 24 hours.
Hong Kong to Macau
Access to the former Portuguese colony of Macau is an added bonus if you’ve got time to spare. Fast ferries to Macau (visa on arrival) and destinations along the coast of Mainland China leave from the Hong Kong Macau Ferry Terminal in Sheung Wan (Hong Kong Island) and the China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. One-way tickets from approximately HK$140.