Hong Kong

Sunday Express, June 23, 2010

WILD ABOUT HONG KONG

Away from its dazzling skyline and teeming harbour, this former British territory offers a very different appeal. DUNCAN CRAIG ventures out in search of tranquility and tradition

I’M BEING propelled up the mountain in what looks like a giant ice cube – and seriously struggling to keep my cool. Cable cars have never exactly been my habitat of choice but this one, known as the Crystal Cabin, has raised the stakes considerably by adding an extra window where the floor should be. All that separates me from a fast-expanding drop of hundreds of feet is a sheet of reinforced glass.

As the ride plateaus and the chasm gives way to a closer, invitingly verdant hillside, I find myself relaxing and the blood flowing back to my knuckles. Nature has that effect. With the rolling, mist-swathed peaks of Lantau Island extending into the distance I settle back and begin to enjoy a side to Hong Kong that few appreciate.

With its neck-straining skyline and frenetic streets it is easy to think of this former British territory as exclusively urban. In fact, Hong Kong has as much in common with the Maldives as Manhattan, boasting 236 islands, many untouched. Few are inhabited, even fewer motorised. Think traditional fishing villages, pristine beaches and meandering nature trails. Little wonder Hong Kong’s flag is a flower.

My mission to discover its untamed side had begun a few days earlier with a visit to High Island. Neither high nor in fact now an island, it is the poster boy for the 20-square-mile Hong Kong National Geopark, opened in 2009. The drive to the park’s perimeter took 25 minutes from downtown Kowloon, the onward section in a 4×4 with a couple of fellow tourists approximately half that.

This latter stage included part of the MacLehose Trail, a 62-mile route named after a former governor which crosses no fewer than eight of Hong Kong’s country parks. High Island was joined to the mainland by two vast dams in the late Seventies. The purpose was to create a reservoir but there was a spectacular spin-off: the dredging process revealed a network of enormous hexagonal columns, 10ft in diameter and up to 150ft high. A giant Giant’s Causeway, if you will.

I lunch beneath a photograph of Jackie Chan brandishing a manifestly terrified lobster

"No dams, no geopark," our guide said succinctly as we perused the information boards. Out here, in Hong Kong’s extreme east, light pollution is practically zero, making star-gazing popular. It is a strange place, eerily quiet with just the odd wandering cow or rambler. Hundreds of ranked dolosse (geometric concrete blocks to dissipate the sea’s energy) serve as an intriguing counterpoint to the timeless hexagonal formations.

Boat tours of the geopark depart from the laid-back, low-rise coastal town of Sai Kung. Here, I lunched at Chuen Kee Seafood beneath a photograph of Jackie Chan brandishing a manifestly terrified lobster (in Hong Kong success is measured solely by the patronage of its exuberant cinematic export, it would seem). Salivatingly fresh sea mantis, steamed grouper and squid were served without fanfare, washed down with omnipresent jasmine tea.

A fleet of ferries departing from the multi-piered terminal at Hong Kong Island provides the best link to the outlying islands. The following morning saw me bound for Cheung Chau, one of the more populated. Eschew the "fast" service in favour of the "ordinary". The hour-long voyage will enable you to change down the requisite number of gears for this time-warp destination.

This diminutive isthmus has a big claim to fame as the birthplace of Hong Kong’s only Olympian, windsurfer Lee Lai-Shan. There’s a Lego-like sculpture to her on Tung Wan Beach, where tuition and board hire are available. I was content to saunter along the promenade and dawdle in dappled squares shaded by ancient banyan trees. With an irony not lost on me, I narrowly avoided being mown down by the island’s only vehicle, a wonderfully retro ambulance.

The epicentre of life on the island is the square overlooked by Pak Tai Temple. Inside, beneath a canopy of smouldering incense coils, I watched the devout attempt to divine their fates through scattered bamboo sticks and wooden crescents. The square outside is the setting for the annual bun festival, one of Hong Kong’s best-known celebrations.

Hong Kong Island is the beating heart of the metropolis, of course, but it’s not without its peaceful spots. I enjoyed an invigorating walk along the Dragon’s Back trail, tracing a four-mile route across the island’s mountainous spine. To one side, the distant glinting teeth of the city’s skyscape, to the other, serrated bays, flashes of white strand and tiny coastal settlements.

More than 110ft high and 200 tons, this bronze seated statue rises imperiously from Lantau’s wild buffalo-roamed expanse

Recuperating with a visit to nearby Stanley, the island’s southernmost town, urban Hong Kong seemed a million miles away (rather than just two) as I meandered through its partially covered street market, bartering over Chinese handicrafts and silk goods.

The base for my stay was the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel, occupying a prime harbour-front spot in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. High-end shopping and a wealth of must-sees such as the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Avenue of Stars are on your doorstep yet behind its sleek, multiple-manned doors is a homely placidity belying its size and setting. Special mention for the staff; even in a land renowned for courtesy, this eager, imperturbable group shone.

I’d left the best to last. Lantau is unique among the outlying islands in that it can be reached by metro. I took the MTR’s Tung Chung route to the end of the line, the departure point for my ride on the 3.5-mile Ngong Ping 360 cable car.

Early anxieties overcome, myself and my fellow passengers (a Hongkongese couple and their irksomely blasé toddler) slid smoothly towards the island’s foremost attraction, the Tian Tan Buddha.

More than 110ft high and weighing 200 tons, this bronze seated statue rises imperiously from Lantau’s ungroomed expanse through which wild water buffalo roam. A village has grown up around it, resolutely touristy but charming nonetheless. Up here among the clouds it is perceptibly cooler and I found myself reaching for a jacket as I stepped off the cable car.

A flight of 200 steps stretches up to the Buddha, sitting serenely with one hand raised, seemingly in a cautious wave, the other lying open at its lap. Even at this early hour it bustled with people.

In the other direction, an undisturbed trail signposted simply "monastery and wisdom path".

Befitting my time in Hong Kong, I opted for the path less travelled.

* GETTING THERE: Kuoni (01306 747 008/www.kuoni.co.uk) offers five nights at the Marco Polo Hongkong from £1,320pp (two sharing), B&B. Price includes return flights from Heathrow to Hong Kong with British Airways (0844 493 0787/www.ba.com). Hong Kong Tourism Board: 020 7432 7700/www.discoverhongkong.com