Hong Kong is full of busy worker bees by day - but it really comes alive after dusk
First the lights come out to play, dancing across the water from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and turning the whole area into a very classy disco. Residents and visitors head to one of the bars or restaurants that overlook the laser show or ‘Symphony of Lights’, or simply grab a spot outside by the water’s edge. And that’s when the party really begins.
By day Hong Kong is a city at work. Armies of suited and booted types march to the financial district in the morning, pour into the parks at lunchtime and march back again in the evening. But boy, do they know how to have a good time.
You can watch the light show from the water itself, on board Aqua Luna, a traditional Chinese junk boat serving drinks and snacks on Victoria Harbour. Or, for a real treat, head to Hutong (28/F One Peking Road). This restaurant sits at the top of a skyscraper on Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, and perfectly showcases two things Hong Kong does best – views and food.
Dinner here is an absolute treat, and is served the traditional way with huge sharing plates in the middle of the table, and bottomless cups of lychee cocktail and green tea. Starters include scallops with grapefruit and crab and white radish rolls, while the main crispy de-boned lamb ribs are meltingly soft. You may need a beer, though, to extinguish the heat from the delicious Szechun-spiced soft shell crabs. It’s not cheap at HK$400 (£36) per person, excluding drinks. But for world-class fare, it’s pretty good value.
Hong Kong oozes wealth and glamour, but somehow you never feel you are being ripped off. Maybe it’s because, while you might pay HK$120, or £11, for a glass of wine in a fancy bar, you can hop between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the Star Ferry for around 26 pence. You get what you pay for, which makes it surprisingly easy to visit the city on a budget.
Hanging out near the money, even if you don’t have any, is possible if you spend your time people-watching rather than running up a huge bar tab. Across the water on Hong Kong Island, sleek power-dressers mingle in equally sleek bars in the Central district, many located at the top of high-rise hotels or department stores. The M Bar, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, has lush leather sofas, an impressive cocktail list and twinkling views over the metropolis.
Lan Kwai Fong, also in Central, is a street lined with bars and cafes, making it a good place for that first-night drink. A quieter, more chilled-out (but still very glam) bar is The Fringe Club on Lower Albert Road, which has a roof terrace with fairy lights. Its ‘private party’ feel offers a welcome respite from Hong Kong’s ‘see and be seen’ culture. And, in the nearby SoHo area, Club Feather Boa is a plush pink paradise.
Wellington Street is just around the corner, but has a trendier, more underground vibe. Senses 99, opposite the Eden Hotel, is a place you can imagine revolutions beginning from whispers over glasses of warm sake. You can’t see it from the street – it’s hidden at the top of a corrugated-iron staircase.
Many of Hong Kong’s real gems are tucked away. The city’s iconic skyrises can be intimidating at first, but these aren’t just offices and apartment blocks. Inside are the layers of life that make Hong Kong unique. At street level you might find a dim sum restaurant or, in the posh areas around Central, a Chanel store. Venture inside and you enter another world of supermarkets, dental surgeries, teashops and boutiques. Wind your way further upwards and you will often find yourself in a cool new club or bar with a roof terrace.
There is often no need to venture outside because of the series of covered walkways that link buildings across the city. Digging around inside buildings and ultimately heading upwards is the way to uncover the best of what Hong Kong has to offer. And, of course, the higher up you climb, the better the views.
This is true in the daytime too, of course. On Lantau Island, easily reached on the MTR rail system, you can catch the Ngong Ping cable car. It costs HK$96 (£8.50) and takes you up to the giant Tian Tan Buddha statue. But it’s the journey itself that is special, as you travel 5.7km over Tung Chung Bay, past the airport and up through the lush greenery of Lantau North Country Park.
The classic high-altitude activity, though, is a ride on the Peak Tram. This takes you steeply up the mountain that looms in the centre of Hong Kong Island. A ticket costs HK$33 (£3) – another absolute bargain. At the top, looking down over trees, across the tops of sculptural buildings and over the water to Kowloon, you get a sense of how small Hong Kong really is. They just pack a lot in. It also shows how natural beauties – the mountains, the parks, the water – exist alongside awesome man-made creations in perfect harmony. It’s like the city itself is a master of t'ai chi – the martial art practised every morning by residents in suits and tracksuits, in parks and squares.
You can see another side to the island from the charming terrace of the Peak Lookout teahouse, to your right as you exit the shops. This overlooks the sea and reveals the beach-lover’s paradise, a place that could be this city’s Malibu. The Sai Kung peninsula is the city’s playground, refreshingly under-developed and lined with clean sandy beaches.
A little further is Stanley, with a peaceful, misty harbour and famous market to explore. Seek out silky pyjamas and one-off fashion finds worthy of Portobello. Stanley is also home to the oldest surviving building in Hong Kong, Murray House, built in 1844. Upstairs is Saigon, a restaurant with a charming balcony from which you can enjoy the breeze of the South China Sea and gorgeous Vietnamese treats like spicy coconut soup and fried spring rolls. The set lunch is HK$120 (£11).
Back in the centre before flying home, I headed to Sevva bar (Prince’s Building 25th Floor, 10 Chater Road) to have a swift one for the skies. This is the hottest bar at the moment – although some new chic drinking hole is bound to take its place soon. Located on the 25th floor of the Prince’s Building on Chater Road, in the Central district, the terrace here is the perfect place to say goodbye to Hong Kong. Some of its most iconic buildings, including the red and grey HSBC tower, loom above you, while the mountains loom even higher behind. At the same time you can survey the city below, sprawling outwards like a beautiful circuit board. Across the water, to your left, is Kowloon, and at dusk those lights begin their nightly dance, ready for another party.
Virgin Atlantic flies from London Heathrow to Hong Kong twice daily. Fares in economy start from £376, premium economy from £837 and Upper Class from £2,000, all including taxes.
Where to stay
The Mandarin Oriental is the place to stay if you want to immerse yourself in the decadence of Hong Kong Island. It isn’t cheap, but most likely it will be the best hotel you’ve ever stayed in. Rooms start from HK$3099 (£274) per night, including breakfast, and suites from HK$6400 (£565).
Alisan Guest House, on Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, has been open for 22 years and is one of the best budget options on Hong Kong Island. English-speaking owner Tommy Hou is full of information about the city. The rooms are small and no-frills, but they are clean and offer everything you need for a good night’s sleep, plus private showers. Double rooms start at HK$400 (£35) per night.