Over the next few days I will trod, actually, bicycle in part, the unfamiliar during a several-day itinerary of scenic hiking and biking trails, natural wonders, and a nearby island.
I’ve been to Hong Kong over a dozen times in as many years, and a delightfully warm early-March evening finds me here yet again, kicking off a food and drink crawl with Oscar Chan Yik Long, a young, gay Hong Kong artist with a penchant for short shorts and, recently, lipstick.
We meet at Le Garcon Saigon (12-18 Wing Fung St. Tel: +852-2455-2499. www.legarconsaigon.com) in Wanchai’s trendy Star Street precinct, where this cozy, cheerful spot opened in 2015. Evoking a French colonial-era Vietnam bistro, albeit with a contemporary mural backdrop, I savor a refreshing gin, elderflower, mint, and grapefruit-based La Vie Boheme cocktail and tasty bánh xeo (Vietnamese crêpés) packing chorizo, prawn, and crisp, perfumed herbs. Long’s art may represent an exorcism of inner demons, but right now he’s all smiles and cuteness.
While most of my Hong Kong visits seem made up of these days and nights in buzzing urban districts, eating, drinking, and socializing with creative queer friends, that ends tomorrow.
Currently, I’m staying at the Ovolo Central (2 Arbuthnot Rd., Central. Tel: +852-3755-3000. www.volohotels.com.hk/ovolocentral) in lively, expat-friendly Lan Kwai Fong. I’m impressed by the boutique hotel’s bevy of freebies that include minibar, snacks, and a tote bag, and prime location, plus its contemporary design and tech.
Over the next few days I will trod, actually, bicycle in part, the unfamiliar during a several-day itinerary of scenic hiking and biking trails, natural wonders, and a nearby island with a cool, boutique-y local scene. Yes, it’s time to try local comforts outside my comfort zone.
Come morning, I head north on the MTR (subway) for a bicycle ride from the New Territories’ Shatin district to Tai Po. I’ve actually wanted to do this for several years, since a fantastic network of bike trails has been developed, but weather and timing never allowed (October through March are ideal).
Hong Kong Tourism’s website lists a wealth of fantastic hiking and biking routes (www.discoverhongkong.com), which I consult frequently. Those seeking a shorter ride can opt for Shatin to Wu Kai Sha, while those with children may enjoy the especially family-friendly Tseung Kwon O.
Disembarking the MTR, I savor a quick yuan yang (half coffee, half tea) at a café, and pick up my rental bike. From there, I navigate along a series of modern bike trails: helpful bilingual signage directs cyclists toward Tai Po. Zipping down dedicated lanes along the Shing Mun River, residential towers lined the opposite waterfront, lush green mountains serving as backdrop. I realized this is the stuff of GoPro dreams.
One section, the Pak Shek Kok Promenade, is almost exactly like Vancouver’s seawall, with its cocktail of glassy apartments, nature, and locals of all ages taking runs, speed walking, picnicking, sunning, and exercising (yes, quite a few handsome men go shirtless). Other sections along the way to Tai Po, including Tolo Harbour Garden, feature stopping areas for fabulous Harbour views and other Instagram-worthy highlights.
Once in Tai Po, I weave through residential sections and villages, taking in eclectic low-rise residential architecture and, eventually, the striking vision of a towering, 249-foot-tall, white Bronze statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, overlooking the foliage-nestled Tsz Shan Monastery (www.tszshan.org). Funded by Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, the two-year-old, 500,000-square-foot Tang Dynasty–styled compound is posited at the foot of a mountainside and only open to visitors via online bookings. It’s definitely on my activity list for the next visit.
By ride’s end I’m famished, so I return to Hong Kong Island for a nouveau-Cantonese lunch at Social Place (L. Place, 139 Queen’s Rd., Central. Tel: +852-3568-9666. www.socialplace.hk). Admittedly, I find traditional dim sum dull, but Social Place gives small-plate staples a fresh, playful spin with items like steamed truffle, shitake buns that look exactly like forest-picked mushrooms, turtle-shaped pork pastries, and spicy sticky rice sui mai (they also offer a one-hour dim sum workshop for $58). Meanwhile, a fusion-inspired take on dan dan noodles with wontons is soupy, creamy, and spicy, almost like a ramen. Yum!
The following morning, I again head north to the New Territories’ Sai Kung district for a hike. Nicknamed “Hong Kong’s back garden” thanks to its lack of high rises, protected natural wonders, waterfront (with adorable namesake village and amazing fresh seafood restaurants!), and trails/beaches, this is where one accesses a taxi or minibus to the famed, winding MacLehose Trail. Cited by National Geographic Society as one of the best hikes in the world, measuring over 124 miles long with spectacularly diverse topography, MacLehose is named after a colonial-era (and hiking-prone) Hong Kong governor, Murray MacLehose, who served from 1971-1982 and established HK’s protected Country Parks.
These are divided into ten sections that include, easy and beginner-friendly and downright challenging with endless viewing spots, diversions, and pit stops along the way (including fishing villages, beaches, B&Bs and camping sites). I opt for Section One. It takes about three hours from start to finish and includes a dam, reservoir, and cliffside views of turquoise waters and creamy-sand beaches rivaling anything you’d see in Bali or Thailand, seats for a pit stop, and helpful bilingual signs and markers indicating distances. In the side of a storage structure, I note a surely-not-officially sanctioned graffiti slogan, “Art is Long, Life is Short.” Alas, I regret not checking out the Tung A fishing village, but the steep path required to get there would add on a half hour each way.
If I had continued to Section Two, which takes most hikers a full day to trek and climb, I could have spent time at Long Ke Beach.
During my hike, I encounter a number of young Hong Kongers, some European backpackers, a group of schoolchildren, and a gay Chinese couple and their third wheel. In fact, and perhaps unsurprisingly, quite a few local gays love to take advantage of the hiking, biking, and beaches all over Hong Kong, including the famed 5.3-mile Dragon’s Back, considered an essential urban nature walk, and the LGBT social organization Out in HK (www.facebook.com/outinhk) leads many
such outings and sporty events.
Ashort ferry ride from Hong Kong Island or Kowloon, Lamma Island is probably best known for its seafood restaurants, especially the award-winning Rainbow (23-25 First St., Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island. Tel: +852-2982-8100. www.lammarainbow.com), and weekend hike and beach jaunts. Lamma Island’s Dragon Boat team is possibly the best in Hong Kong and each May sees a popular, fun, all-aged International Dragon Boat Festival (www.lamma500.com).
Lamma is also a favorite home base for about 8,000 expats and Hong Kongers who enjoy the relaxed surroundings, nature, popular white-sand Hung Shing Yeh beach, and comparatively secluded Tung O, and boutique-y businesses. One of these residents, my friend Gary Mak of the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (www.hklgff.hk), has long urged me to spend time exploring Lamma Island, so this time I do.
There are two sides to the island and their respective ferry ports: Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan. You can land at one and go back from the other (Rainbow Seafood has a free, dedicated ferry as well, so if making reservations there inquire about it). Those who want to bike part of the town, you can find a small rental stall, Hoi Nam Bicycle (39 Sha Po Old Village).
Much of Lamma Island’s social scene and commerce is situated along and around Yung Shue Wan Street, including plenty of organic groceries and cafés like vegan-friendly Bookworm Café (79 Main St., Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island. Tel: +852-2982-4838. facebook.com/bookwormcafehk), and eclectic shops for vinyl records, tchotchkes, and, at quirky Something About Cats (62 Main St., Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island. Tel: +852-2982-1616. www.facebook.com/somethingaboutcats), feline-themed home decorations and gifts of all stripe. You can also taste and buy local condiments and snacks like Lamma Island XO Sauce, dried fish maw, and puffy seaweed discs that resemble home furnishing items.
Come late afternoon, I’m back on Hong Kong Island. December 2016 saw the long-awaited opening of a new MTR stop to the island’s south, Wong Chuk Hang. Once an exclusively industrial district, its buildings and warehouses started to see contemporary art galleries, collections, workshops, and design showrooms fill its buildings, while the chic new Ovolo Southside (64 Wong Chuk Hang Rd. Tel: +852-3460-8100. www.ovolohotels.com.hk/ovolosouthside) hotel boasts rooms with incredible floor-to-ceiling views and Apple TVs.
That night, it’s on to one last hidden spot for dinner, but one hiding in plain sight in trendy Sheung Wan. From the outside, Mrs. Pound (6 Pound Ln., Sheung Wan. Tel: +852-3426-3949. www.mrspound.com) appears to be a shop for traditional engraved Chinese stamps. Pull the wooden stamp behind the exposed section of glass window, however, and a secret door will open. Inside is a fun, almost Tokyo-esque speakeasy space featuring absolutely delicious culinary Asian-fusion creations and cocktails.
Our waiter, a North American expat, affected a strange lounge-lizard persona that would easily be at home in old-school Las Vegas or Hollywood, while recommending dishes (most designed for sharing) like the bizarrely yummy Québec-meets-Indonesia beef rendang poutine; Sichuan-spiced double-fried “Ma La” wings, a Singapore-meets-Korea laksa bibimbap, and a Thai milk tea cake. I washed it all down with a Bohemian Sour, a foamy-topped green tea-infused whiskey, yellow chartreuse, lemon juice, and honey concoction.
For my final night’s sleep, it was off to Mongkok’s Cordis (555 Shanghai St., Mongkok. Tel: +852 3552 3388. www.cordishotels.com). Formerly the Langham Place hotel, one of my favorite prop- erties in Asia, it was rebranded in late 2015 as the more casual-minded Cordis, adding a new bar, Alibi, where bespoke cocktails can be based on a color if the guest desires. Now, if I could only remember the name of Oscar’s lipstick shade…