Foreign, Yet Oddly Familiar
Hong Kong is a place that veers so far away from expectation that it’s quite a shock to the system. To start, it’s a 16-hour flight and more than 8,000 miles from here to there. And though this fourth-most densely populated region on the planet is home to a thriving city of more than 7.4 million people, the tropically alluring surrounding land still manages to be lush, verdant and wild.
For our travels, we were fortunate enough to fly in over Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, Russia and Mongolia, which made the approach into the mountainous green islands of Asia even more breathtakingly beautiful. The dramatic topography dotting the South China Sea of azure blue was so viscerally stunning, my heart skipped a beat as I caught my first glimpse of what looked to be paradise on Earth.
Overwhelming as the land is, the mystery of the Far East practically ceased to exist once on terra firma itself. Since Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire from 1841 to 1997, the 426-square-mile island is weirdly western.
Now technically under the rule of the People’s Republic of China, it nonetheless operates with an independent judiciary, free press and a distinctly capitalist economy with its own financial system and currency. Hong Kong currently has the largest number of skyscrapers in the world as well as the biggest number of über-wealthy individuals.
Simultaneously China and not-China, Hong Kong, which was once home to small fishing villages, has been forever changed under more than a century of British rule. Separated by the mainland, it has become a bastion of Western culture and ideology.
Everything everywhere is written in English and Chinese. And there are plentiful opportunities to eat, drink and shop in the same types of establishments, as one would expect in New York, London or Chicago.
The city is most definitely a luxury shopper’s wonderland, as evidenced by the proliferation of high-end shops and brands, such as Gucci, Fendi and Hermes. Aside from unlimited retail therapy—which notably includes Harbour City at Tsim Sha Tsui, The Landmark, Pacific Place, Ladies Market, the Night Market, among others—there’s also a Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, and innumerable luxury hotels and restaurants.
After hours, don’t miss the dazzling “Symphony of Lights.” Set against the backdrop of Victoria Harbour and the skyline of skyscrapers, this spectacular show features lasers, lights, LED screens and a soundtrack by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Even better, it happens every single night.
Beyond the commerce, there are some truly astounding sites here too. Places that really don’t exist anywhere else in the world. For those things alone, Hong Kong is well worth the visit.
Topping the list of must-see places is The Peak. Getting to the top of this highest hill in Hong Kong is part of the fun. Take the tram or the bus for a wild ride up to dizzying heights and past spectacular scenery, including the homes of the city’s most affluent.
It takes a little more than an hour to travel to the summit of Victoria’s Peak, which is at an elevation of 1,811 feet, but you’ll be glad you did. Perhaps even more astonishing than the gorgeous views of the city, Victoria Harbour, Lamma Island and acres of public parkland is the fact that atop the mountain, there’s a mall, a bus station, and, yes, one of Hong Kong’s 235 McDonald’s Restaurants.
Two other bucket-list destinations are The Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery on nearby Lantau Island. Built in 1993, symbolizing the harmonious relationship between man and nature, people and faith, the 112-foot-tall statue is a model of the Altar of Heaven. Ideally located next door is the Buddhist monastery, featuring a number of significant structures; three bronze Buddha statues representing his past, present and future lives’ and several Buddhist scriptures.
In the end, Hong Kong might not be what one would expect of a visit to China. But it’s still quite the adventure, and a journey that is worth taking.