With long-haul flights so cheap, there has never been a better time to take the opportunity to stop over in Britain's erstwhile colony. But what do you pick if you only have a few days to spare?
Why go there?

The fact that this is now the jewel in someone else's crown should not deter you from visiting. Come for vistas of futuristic cityscape, green sea and luxuriant forested hillsides; elemental whiffs of sea and humidity scented with deep-fried duck; and the ringing cash tills of the most lavishly endowed shops on earth.

Terminology

Hong Kong comprises three parts, namely Hong Kong Island, Kowloon (on the mainland) and the New Territories (the adjacent chunk of countryside and neighbouring islands). Tsimshatsui is the area where most tourists stay, in Kowloon overlooking Hong Kong Island. Aberdeen is a town on the south shore of the island.

When to go

Hong Kong has a nasty old climate. From January to the end of March it is unremittingly foggy and drizzly. April can be a reasonable month but then the summer rains begin with a vengeance, and a colossal damp heat descends over the city until the end of September. The best months to visit the city by far are October, November and December when cool temperatures combine with dry air and sunny skies.

How to get there

Prices rarely drop below about pounds 400 return, and at peak season (Christmas, Chinese New Year and the whole summer) lowest prices often top pounds 700. A deal currently available is pounds 418 plus taxes on Alitalia, through Trailfinders (0171-938 3939). If you want to travel to Hong Kong by train, via Russia, reckon on a minimum of about ten days. Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711) can book you tickets from Europe.

Festivals

The ancient Chinese festivals which were exterminated by zealous communists on the mainland have continued to thrive here in all their incense-wafted glory. These include the Dragon Boat Festival (next year on 28 June) which is marked by boat races and the consumption of rice dumplings; the Tin Hau Festival, a celebration of the local goddess of fishermen (next year falling on 19 April); and the very odd and boisterous Cheung Chau Bun Festival, held on the small island of Cheung Chau in May. Giant towers of bamboo scaffolding are erected and festooned with buns. Amid the festivities, children are "floated" above the crowd on high poles. Chinese New Year, incidentally, is not a great time to visit as it's largely a family occasion.

What to see

Hong Kong is bigger than you think. Covering more than 1,000 square kilometres, it contains more than you will ever see in a weekend. Here are a few personal favourites that you might try to pack in:

The wide-angled view of the skyscraper panorama of Hong Kong Island, visible from the Star Ferry and from the northern tip of Tsimshatsui.

The eagle-eye view of Hong Kong Island, from the "Peak", the 600-metre hill where colonial toffs once built their homes.

Smelly food markets, with vigorous old ladies flogging everything from cabbage to crabs on wet, ladder-like streets.

Streets in Hong Kong's Western District, where you can buy snakes, sea slugs, star fish, bird's nests and deer antlers.

Green, rural corners on outlying islands where you can walk to fish restaurants along paths full of butterflies.

Norman Foster's Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, rumoured to be the most expensive building in the world.

Food and Drink

Arriving in Hong Kong even for a weekend after a punishing voyage of menu-non-recognition in mainland China is one of the great gustatory experiences of the world. As well as the Cantonese speciality of Dim Sum, the whole gamut of Chinese regions is represented, from Peking to Sichuan to Shanghai. This is not to mention all world cuisines, with Indian and Japanese weighing in heavily.

From smokey noodle stands to revolving restaurants, it is hard to think of any budget not catered for. But once again here are a few old favourites:

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant is a tourist trap not renowned for its food, but this twinkling edifice in Aberdeen Harbour is one of Hong Kong's great landmarks.

Yungkee, on Wellington Street in Central District, is another enormous, brightly lit place with seating for a thousand. Superb roast meats.

The Luk Yu Tea House, also in Central, is a living museum complete with spitoons and inscrutable, geriatric waiters.

Chungking Mansion curry houses. Secreted away in the dingy recesses of this giant tower block in Tsimshatsui are restaurants with names like Gujurati Mess and Taj Mahal Mess.

Man Wah, 25th floor, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Connaught Road, Central. For views, class and Cantonese cuisine, this place takes some beating.

Where to stay

Name your budget. For the last word in class, try the Peninsula Hotel (00 852 23692211). Hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental (00 852 25220111) or the Grand Hyatt (00 852 2588 1234) are equally likely to feature in best-hotels-in-the-world lists.

For lower prices, and much more fun, head for the Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road. This giant slum in the middle of Tsimshatsui is the most characterful place in town, a shabby, exotic warren of tiny shops and Indian restaurants, plus about fifty guesthouses. One of my favourites is the Park Guesthouse, on the 15th floor of "A" block. Reckon on about pounds 25 for a double. Hold your nose in the lifts.

One still cheaper option is the Mount Davis Youth Hostel (00 852 28175715), on top of a mountain with fantastic views. Dorm beds cost about pounds 6. The catch is that it takes an hour to get there from town.

pastimes

Forget football, the big sport in Hong Kong is horse-racing. Gambling fever grips the city for the duration of the season which lasts from September to June, with two meetings weekly at the 150-year-old Happy Valley racecourse. If you want a sample taste of the madness, entrance is just HK$10, though better fun is to join the Hong Kong Tourist Association's "Come Horse- Racing Tour" (HK$490) which includes transport, entry to the Members' enclosure, dinner and tips on picking a winner.

Nightlife

Nightlife in Hong Kong ranges from British Bulldog pubs to dodgy encounters outside topless bars - with drunken expats at every stage. In 48 hours, I suggest you stick to eating. Take the Peak Tram to the summit and dine in the Peak Cafe overlooking the city lights; otherwise walk amid milling crowds in Causeway Bay or ride a ferry out Lamma Island and have an outdoor seafood dinner on the waterfront.

Out of Town

Hong Kong has islands, beaches and plentiful countryside - and don't assume that you won't have time to see any of this in your 48 hours. You could make things easy for yourself by joining a HKTA tour, but otherwise try one of the following:

l Take a boat to Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island and walk to Sok Kwu Wan, where you can get another boat back.

l Ride a bus across the New Territories to Kat Hing Wai, Hong Kong's last inhabited walled village. You'll find six-metre-high walls, watchtowers and ladies in wide hats.

l Visit Shek O, the only "undiscovered" village on Hong Kong Island itself, which has trees, a wide sandy beach, strong surf and a handful of cheap restaurants.

l If you are with children, spend a day at Ocean Park, a gigantic adventure park on a peninsula to the east of Aberdeen.

Shopping

Despite the fact that Hong Kong now has one of the highest standards of living in the world, people still come here to shop because of non- existent sales taxes. Beware the electrical goods stores along Nathan Road though - these stores may be packed with the latest in Japanese miniatures but your chances of not getting ripped off are almost nil. Buy your camera at home.

Clothes are cheap, especially at the local equivalents to Benetton, Giordano and Bossini (neither of which have anything to do with Italy). Designer clothes are about 25 per cent cheaper than in their country of origin. Another good deal is pirated software (the risk is yours). Try the Mongkok Computer Centre at the corner of Nelson and Fa Yuen streets. For high-quality China kitsch, visit Shanghai Tang in Pedder Street, Central - buy silk Mao Zedong suits and Deng Xiaoping watches here. For art and antiques, browse at the stands and shops on Hollywood Road, Central.

Books

For an up-to-date view on shenanigans surrounding the handover, go no further than Jonathan Dimbleby's fascinating The Last Governor (Little Brown, pounds 22.50). Jan Morris's Hong Kong: Epilogue to Empire (Penguin, pounds 8.99) brings to life a whole range of characters from the past 150 years.

Language

Cantonese comprises a range of hawking, swooping, roaring noises which few foreigners ever master. More's the pity. English is widely used in public signs and menus, but don't expect taxi drivers to speak it.

Deals/packages

Prices for short breaks can get quite low outside peak season. Kuoni (01306 742000), for example, are offering five nights at the Metropole Hotel, Kowloon, based on two adults sharing, for pounds 599 per person, plus taxes, for October/November. China Travel Service (0171-836 9911) sometimes has good deals, as do mainstream operators such as Hayes and Jarvis (0181- 748 5050). Otherwise a good option is to stop over in Hong Kong while flying somewhere else.

Currency

The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar at about HK$8 to US$1, or HK$12-13 to pounds 1. All currencies can be freely exchanged at all hours, though be wary along Nathan Road in Tsimshatsui.

Visas

Visas are not required for British citizens, or indeed for citizens of most countries. If in doubt, contact the Chinese Embassy at 49-51 Portland Place, London W1N 3AH.

information

The HKTA offers friendly service and tons of free information. They have one office in the airport (open 8am-10pm) and a couple more downtown, including one in the Star Ferry Terminal in Tsimshatsui, Kowloon. In Britain, they can be contacted on 0171-930 4775, or http://www.hkta.org

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