If you're after a taste of the high life, Hong Kong can deliver in spades, with ultra-luxe hotels, superb restaurants, top-class shopping and nightlife enough for any party animal
Sadly, landing at Hong Kong is no longer the fun it was when you could almost grab the smalls from the washing lines on the approach to Kai Tak. Chek Lap Kok airport opened in July 1998 and, at a cost of US$20bn, was the most expensive airport in the world. British architect Sir Norman Foster designed it, and its steel and glass structure, a development of his design for Stansted, does seem to have become the basis, if not the template, for all major airport terminals in recent years.
There’s only one way to enter Hong Kong, and that’s in a green Peninsula hotel Rolls Royce, just like Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. The 'Pen’ isn’t technically in Hong Kong; it’s in Kowloon, which is part of mainland China. Hong Kong is an island linked to Kowloon by three tunnels and the Star Ferry. The advantage of being in Kowloon is that you have an uninterrupted view of one of the most famous skyscapes on the planet.
Staying at The Peninsula will guarantee you a high-spec room but not necessarily a good view. Unless you are prepared to pay a substantial premium, your bedroom curtains will conceal a high-rise brick wall a few metres across the street, otherwise known as a ‘city view’.
If you’re on a package that includes complimentary afternoon tea, don’t expect the VIP treatment when you amble up for cucumber sarnies and clotted cream scones. You’ll probably have to join the queue for a table. Forget tiffin and cross the street to Aqua for an early evening cocktail.
Aqua is almost next door to The Peninsula, 30 floors above Kowloon, and has huge floor-to-sky windows. Enjoy Bladerunner-esque views of Hong Kong over a few margaritas in Aqua Spirit, but I suggest you head back to the Pen for dinner. Whilst the position and ambience of Aqua is special, the food is not. The restaurant is divided into two sections: Aqua Roma, serving Italian cuisine, and Aqua Tokyo, which offers Japanese.
Continue the spectacle by dining at Felix, the Philippe Starck-designed restaurant at the top of The Peninsula. After dinner, wander up to the Felix bar, which is packed with expat city types in the early evening and female Russian entrepreneurs much later. Men should visit the loo, where a wall of glass is all that separates male relief from the city below.
Kowloon has the Tottenham Court Road of Hong Kong, with endless rows of electrical discount stores, all seemingly offering rock-bottom bargains on cameras, camcorders, MP3 players and anything else that takes AA batteries. However, beware, because often the models are lines that the major manufacturers never put on general release or that are discontinued. Don’t assume prices are good, either. I’ve seen cameras in Kowloon at almost twice the UK price.
The endless parade of seedy bars and clubs remains but interestingly, the shopping in Kowloon has begun to move upmarket in recent years. As some of the major fashion labels move in, a number of the dodgy electronics stores are disappearing faster than a Taiwan warranty.
On the island
The quickest and cheapest way to cross the harbour to Hong Kong Island is via the Star Ferry, which takes a few minutes, costs a few cents and runs with shuttle frequency.
Should you decide to stay on the island, Hong Kong’s other world-famous hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, reopened in late 2006 after a £140m refurbishment. The rooms and suites are impressive and have the edge over the Pen. The hotel’s two bars are overrun with local businessmen who are locked in an ongoing show of 'mine is bigger than yours' – cigar, that is. I gave up trying to secure a table in the Captain’s Bar. At least the staff in the 25th-floor M Bar recognised that we were hotel residents and managed to find a perch for two at the end of the bar.
Whereas the Mandarin Oriental is a low-level sprawl, the old Ritz-Carlton was a sleek tower. Its lobby and bar were grand, but unless you booked an expensive luxury suite, you couldn't even think about swinging your cat in one of their bedrooms. Probably the most ludicrous room service offering I have ever come across was proposed by the Ritz-Carlton. An invitation was thoughtfully placed by the bath: ‘Your butler will bring the cigar and cognac of your choice to you in your bath, for your enjoyment whilst you bathe.’ My deluxe room bathroom was fully enclosed, windowless and marginally smaller than the size of a standard double bed. Had I accepted, within minutes I would either have choked on the smoke or showered as the room's sprinklers joined the party.
The Ritz-Carlton closed last year, when the landlord decided that the building would be more lucrative as office space. The hotel is being reinvented on the top 15 floors of the International Conference Centre in Kowloon. Hopefully that will mean a stunning view of Hong Kong island (and an open window) as guests lie back and savour a huge Havana.
Those of you who feel lonely without lots of company might wish to consider the 565-room Island Shangri-La. It’s as impersonal as a hotel can be but it does have a very good restaurant. Take the elevator to the 56th floor and look down over the atrium at the world’s largest Chinese silk painting, which drops 16 floors, before entering Petrus for lunch. Petrus has stunning views over Victoria Harbour and the clever structure of the restaurant ensures that all can enjoy an uninterrupted view. As is often the case, there's a good-value menu at lunchtime, when the dress requirements are also more informal.
The best restaurant in Hong Kong is Caprice, at the top of the Four Seasons Hotel. Thanks to chef Vincent Thierry, it's been acclaimed as ‘one of the 10 best French restaurants in the world’. Having enjoyed his nine-course ‘Taste of Caprice’, I wouldn’t disagree. If you’re looking for something special, this is it.
There are two vast shopping malls in Hong Kong Central and, of course, all the major fashion houses have stores. Try visiting one of the Joyce stores for a wide selection of labels. It may not, perhaps, be the coolest name to put over a haute couture boutique, but the range and prices are good.
If you feel inclined to put on shorts, long socks and sandals, you will be perfectly at ease with the throngs of tourists queuing for The Peak Tram. The view of Hong Kong from The Peak is worth seeing, but don’t plan a grand day out unless you’re missing Burger King and fancy a few Chinese knick-knacks for the mantelpiece back home.
Hong Kong never sleeps, so to party is easy. Head to Lan Kwai Fong in Central or Lockhart Road in Wanchai, and your eyes won’t know which way to turn. End the night with breakfast and go to bed as the sun rises.
Most of the flights back to the UK leave Chek Lap Kok late at night, which can mean hanging around the airport for hours, particularly if you have to vacate your room at midday. The airport shopping is excellent and the first and business class Cathay lounges are among the best in the world. Even the BA lounges are the airline’s best outside Heathrow.
Hong Kong is not a fine wine, to be savoured over a leisurely weekend. It is an endless slam of tequila shots. Sleep well.