This week we're flying to the Far East with writer and Hong Kong expert Lee Cobaj. As an ex-resident Lee knows every nook and cranny of these absorbing islands, and helps us discover how to make our dollars go further...
A vertical playground
Despite the fact that Hong Kong is considered to be one of the world’s most expensive places to live, it actually has a rather surprising amount of things to do for free. Sitting in the South China Sea, Asia’s most dynamic city is a vertical playground full of fascinating neighbourhoods, pretty urban parks, superb museums and art galleries as well as miles and miles of lush mountainous land.
And not only is it possible to pack your trip with free activities but you can also eat for pennies – literally - Hong Kong is home to the world’s cheapest Michelin-star restaurant, Tim Ho Wan in Mong Kok, where the most expensive dish on the menu comes in at less than £3.
Take a Tai Chi class
Tai Chi may look slow and undemanding but this ancient form of exercise is actually a martial art, like Kung Fu, and is undoubtedly Hong Kong’s favourite form of keep fit. Every morning before breakfast, young and old – it’s particularly popular with island’s older residents - take to the parks, promenades and viewpoints to balance their Yin and Yang through a series of precise ballet-like movements.
Wake up early and take a stroll through Victoria Park, Hong Kong Park, the Botanical Gardens or Kowloon Park to watch some sessions in the early morning sun. Curious tourists are welcome to drop in on these informal gatherings but if you want to learn more, the Hong Kong Tourist Board runs free classes for novices. Tai Chi Master, Dr. Ng, takes over one of Hong Kong’s most spectacular locations, The Avenue of the Stars, on the Kowloon waterfront, for an hour every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning between 8-9AM.
The Hong Kong Tourist Board also offers free Feng Shui and Chinese Medicine classes as part of its Cultural Kaleidoscope programme.
Most people come to Hong Kong for the shopping; some come for the nightlife and some for the food, but few would suggest that the island’s arts and museums are a big draw. This is a real shame as the city has a bundle of excellent, though often overlooked artistic and scientific institutions. The Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Sha Tin is well worth a half-day of your time with its time tunnels, interactive suites and dramatic Cantonese Opera Hall.
Over in Tsim Sha Tsui, sinophiles can swoon over one of the best collections of Chinese art in the world at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. And a sure fire winner if you’ve got kids in tow is the Science Museum boasting hundreds of whirling, buzzing, flashing, bouncing interactive exhibits designed to inspire (and hopefully exhaust) young visitors.
Seven museums in total open their doors to the public on Wednesdays for free but if you’re reading this post on a Thursday, fear not, during the rest of the week entrance fees are minimal – around HK$10-25 or a bargain HK$30 for a weekly pass.
Check out Cheung Chau
Taking the ferry from Central to the little nearby island of Cheung Chau is a fantastic way to admire the striking Hong Kong skyline for free (well, it’s around £1 for a ticket).
Once you disembark you’ll find a gentler, more traditional version of Hong Kong dotted with scenic stopping-off points, beachside bars and delicious, reasonably-priced seafood restaurants. Start by turning left out of the Cheung Chau Ferry Pier for a photo-stop at the pretty Pak Tai Temple.
From here toddle round to Tung Wan beach to watch the windsurfers, then follow the narrow pathway past ancient stone carvings, mystical looking rock formations, quaint temples and blonde-sandy beaches to end up in Sai Wan, where – for a small fare - you can chug back to the Cheung Chau ferry in a fisherman’s Sampan. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the fourth moon of the lunar calendar (April/May) make sure to join the crowds a the crazily colourful week-long Bun Festival.
The Cheung Chau Ferry runs round-the-clock from Hong Kong’s Central Pier 5.
Take a hike
...or a leisurely stroll. Whichever you prefer, there’s a wealth of walking to be had in Hong Kong – and not just around the shopping malls. More than 70% of Hong Kong remains rural with large lush areas of rolling mountains, wildlife-packed wetlands and enchanting outlying islands and coastline.
Hong Kong’s walks can be as relaxing or as taxing as you like. The Peak Circle Walks, at the top of the famous Victoria Peak, are some of the easiest. It only takes around twenty minutes to circumnavigate the island’s highest summit and you’ll be richly rewarded with stunning city views. Further up the scale, the “Dragon’s Back” is an urban hiking trail stretching across the length of Hong Kong through the huge Shek O Country Park. The 4.5km mountain trail is perfect for casual hikers and the last stage has fantastic views over Hong Kong’s best beaches. End your day feasting at one of the cheap Chinese and Thai restaurants back at Shek O beach.
For challenge-seekers, the Maclehose Trail is Hong Kong’s longest hike and should satisfy even the hardest of hard-cores. Competitive types take note; November is time for the Oxfam Trail Walker Race which is held over the entire 100K and run in teams of four. Many groups tend to take about 24 hours to complete the race – whereas the Chinese army and Ghurkha teams sprint the entire trek!
Maps for all the walks can be downloaded from the Discover Hong Kong Great Outdoors website.
Scale new heights
If you can’t stretch to the HK$36 for a trip on the vintage tram to the top of The Peak, it is actually possible to walk it via a walkway from Cotton Tree Drive.
Alternatively, the less energetic can take a trip to the 43rd floor observatory deck of the China Bank Building for dazzling views of the city – and virtually no tourists. It’s completely free and open to the public Monday – Friday from 9am-6pm.
But for the ultimate harbour view, OZONE on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton claims to be the highest bar in Asia and as long as the clouds don’t roll, the heart-stopping panorama will have you picking your jaw up off the floor.
If you’ve any energy left after hitting Hong Kong’s free sights, there are still a couple of evening entertainments you can take advantage of. A Symphony of Lights is undoubtedly Hong Kong’s most famous free attraction; every night at 8pm the island’s iconic skyline is illuminated by the world’s largest permanent light and sound show. Where’s the best place to see this colourful spectacular? Either the Avenue of the Stars on the Kowloon promenade or Golden Bauhinia Square on the Wan Chai waterfront.
And: Attention Ladies! Wednesday night is Ladies Night and an evening of free vodka, cocktails and alcopops awaits you at a host of hot Hong Kong clubs and bars. Despite the title there’s actually a fairly even male to female ratio and there’s no set hours so it’s literally possible to drink and dance till dawn for free. Wan Chai and Lang Kwai Fong are the places to be. Check out Hong Kong’s clubbing websites and local magazines for details. Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to China from London Heathrow - log on to virginatlantic.com for the latest fares. Choose from a fantastic selection of Hong Kong hotels and visit Virgin Holidays for a tailor-made Hong Kong holiday or stopover.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.