Go back in time by staying in an authentic fishing village, before checking into a boutique B&B and chilling out in its rooftop jacuzzi under the stars
If you want a peaceful, back-to-basics holiday, then Hong Kong – one of the world's most densely populated cities - might not be the first place you'd think of.
But less than an hour from the frenetic downtown area, with its shopping malls and skyscrapers, is the fishing village of Tai O at Hong Kong's westernmost extremity on Lantau Island. Known as the Venice of the Orient for its waterways, pedestrianised Tai O has more in common with an unspoilt Greek island resort than South East Asia's most exciting city.
Taxis and buses will drop you off at the end of the road, from where it is a five minute walk to the village's heart over a footbridge crossing one of the waterways (known as chungs) which separates Tai O from the rest of Lantau Island. Crossing the bridge is like stepping out of a time machine. The narrow streets are lined with stores selling dried fish and shrimp paste, while local men will offer to take you on short boat trips to see endangered pink dolphins.
We had been told to treat our boat trip as a simple pleasure ride, as the bubblegum pink dolphins are so rare, so we were elated to see four of them – a hefty proportion of their remaining population. 25-minute boat rides cost $20, and there are rival companies offering identical trips for the same price at either end of the footbridge leading into Tai O from the bus-stop. As the boats tend to leave only when they are full, choose wisely to avoid waiting.
What else is there to do?
Lantau Island's mountainous Country Park offers some great hikes and makes England’s Peak District look paltry by comparison, while the south of the island boasts some of Hong Kong’s best beaches.
One of the former British colony's premier tourist attractions – the Big Buddha – can be reached by cable-car from the nearby town of Tung Chung. To get to Tung Chung, take bus no. 11 from Tai O which is a bargain at $11.90 for the 40-minute journey (remember to pay the driver with the exact change). Once at Tung Chung bus station, it is impossible to miss the start of the cable-car, known as Ngong Ping 360 (www.np360.com.hk) – just follow the hordes and be prepared to queue for at least half an hour. It takes 25 minutes for cable-cars to reach Ngong Ping village – a one way ticket in a standard cabin costs $74, but it’s worth splashing out for a glass-bottomed “crystal cabin” at $109 one way.
However you decide to do it, it will be the highlight of your trip to Hong Kong with breathtaking views of the international airport and the Country Park on the way. Ngong Ping village is a pretty tacky collection of souvenir shops and fast food joints, so after disembarking from the cable-car it’s best to proceed directly to Tian Tan Buddha – better known as the Big Buddha, the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue in the world. There is no charge to approach the Big Buddha, which is a 15-minute walk from the cable-car terminus along the Wisdom Path and then up 268 steps. Trust me, you won’t miss it.
If hunger calls while you’re up here, give the likes of Subway a miss and try the vegetarian restaurant at Po Lin Monastery (open 11am – 4.30pm; www.plm.org.hk/eng; standard meals $60 / deluxe meals $120). We settled for the standard, and were given a generous selection of veggie dishes, soup, rice and tea making us wonder how big a deluxe meal might be. From Ngong Ping village, bus no. 21 takes you back to Tai O in around 15 minutes.
Lifestyle and tradition
There are some picturesque walks in Tai O itself; along the pier to see fishermen in action, to a pink dolphin lookout point high above the village and past mangrove swamps popular with local birdlife. But the real attraction is wandering through the village's lanes and over its bridges observing the lifestyles of locals which have changed little for centuries.
People live along the chungs in stilted houses with tin roofs. If they're not involved in the fishing industry, they while away their days playing mahjong, the game thought to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's. The clatter of mahjong tiles was the soundtrack to our stay in Tai O.
Once the day-trippers have left, you can have Tai O to yourself and if you choose to stay the night you will almost certainly be the only gweilo in town. The sunset over Tai O is to die for – amateur photographers gather by the port to capture the moment.
When darkness falls, there is not a lot to do other than stroll along the promenade before finding a table at one of the handful of seafood restaurants for a meal a la carte or a catch of the day from the buckets left outside. We loved Fook Moon Lam (29 Market Street) where a plate of shrimps, cashew nuts and noodles will set you back $80. Don’t expect anything too posh at any of the restaurants here – just good quality food at good prices in basic surroundings. And as things close early, make sure you order no later than 8pm.
Where to stay
The Balcony (86 Kat Hing Street) overlooking the chung on Kat Hing Street is your best bet for a nightcap before returning to the only choice of accommodation in Tai O – the excellent Espace Elastique (57 Kat Hing Street). It currently consists of just two rooms – standard (from $520) and deluxe (from $720) – although the ambitious and friendly owner, Veronica, has plans to add more rooms as well as an art gallery. Both rooms have TV, air-conditioning and huge bathrooms but it’s worth paying the extra for the larger deluxe room’s balcony.
Espace Elastique is the closest you’ll find to a traditional B&B in these parts – be sure to tell Veronica how you like your eggs in the morning, and she’ll cook you up a full English breakfast. Before calling it a day, make sure you have a session at the rooftop sauna and jacuzzi (an additional $200) underneath the stars. You'll have the best night's sleep available anywhere in Hong Kong and feel energised for your long flight home.