48 hours in Hong Kong

From Victoria Peak to the edge of the sparkling harbour, David Orkin explores the former British colony that has become China's shop window
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO?

WHY GO?

The former British colony, now the shop window for the People's Republic of China, is still a glorious mix of East and West, of ancient and gleamingly modern. It breathes exuberance and energy.

A steady - and heady - mix of festivals and events takes place throughout the year. The colourful Dragon Boat festival, Tuen Ng, is next Saturday, 22 June; a summer shopping festival will be held between 26 June and 31 August; the Hungry Ghost festival, Yue Lan, is on 29 August; and the moon festival is on 28 September. The Hong Kong Tourism Board (020-7533 7100, www.discoverhongkong.com) has full details.

BEAM DOWN

Hong Kong's own airline Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888, www.cathaypacific.com) flies non-stop to Hong Kong three times a day from Heathrow. British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com) also fly daily from Heathrow. Discount agents are likely to have the lowest fares, especially if you fly via a European city or the Gulf.

Hong Kong's international airport at Chek Lap Kok is about 34km from the city centre. The Airport Express rail link to central Hong Kong leaves every 10 minutes and takes less than half an hour. The fare is HK$90 (£7) to the Airport Express station in Kowloon and HK$100 (£8) to the terminus on Hong Kong Island. Buses (00 852 2873 0818, www.citybus.com.hk/eng) are cheaper (from HK$33/£2.65) but take much longer.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, to give the territory its full name, consists of a mainland peninsula on China's south-eastern tip and about 260 islands - of which Hong Kong Island is by far the most important. It is home to the business district known as Central as well as a surprising amount of open space - especially around Victoria Peak, the 396m-high mountain at the centre of the island.

On the mainland, Kowloon has many of the major museums and a dizzying choice of shops. North from here towards the border with the rest of China, the so-called New Territories offer some lush countryside.

The highly efficient Hong Kong Tourism Board has an office at the airport (open 7am-11pm daily). The two downtown offices (open 8am-6pm daily), are in The Center on Des Voeux Road in Central on Hong Kong Island and - probably the most convenient - in Kowloon's Star Ferry Concourse.

Hong Kong has one of the world's most efficient public transport systems: the underground, known as the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) (00 852 2881 8888, www.mtr.com.hk) runs along the north side of Hong Kong Island and also serves Kowloon and Lantau Island. Fares are very low by UK standards. Hong Kong Island has double-decker trams, in operation since 1904 (HK$2/15p flat rate). There are plenty of buses and regular ferry and hovercraft services to the islands.

The easiest way to pay for public transport is with an Octopus card, which you can buy at the airport, or at MTR stations. You pay a refundable deposit of HK$50 (£4), and a minimum of HK$100 (£8) of credit. You can reclaim unspent credit at the end of your trip. The system works on the MTR, the Airport Express, ferries, buses, trams and the Peak Tram funicular railway.

TAKE A VIEW

The Peak Tram runs from its base station on Garden Road to Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island (HK$20/£1.60 one way; HK$30/£2.40 return, open 7am-midnight daily), and takes seven minutes. From the observation deck, there are magnificent city panoramas and views over the bustling harbour below.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The traditional Chinese lunch (or breakfast) is dim sum (which translates as "touch your heart") - steamed or braised dumplings containing meat, seafood or vegetables, usually served in small baskets that are wheeled around on trolleys. Intercept them as they pass. The waiters keep a score of what you have eaten, and calculate the bill at the end. An excellent bet is Maxim's Palace at Low Block, City Hall (00 852 2521 1303) east of the Star Ferry Terminal on Hong Kong Island, open 11am-3pm. Expect to pay around HK$100 (£8) for a feast.

TAKE A RIDE

From the Star Ferry Terminal on Hong Kong Island, pay HK$2.20 (20p) for first-class, upper-deck travel to Kowloon. Ferries leave at least every 10 minutes, from 6.30am to 11.30pm daily. You are guaranteed superb views of the harbour, which is often busy with junks, and the towering buildings.

TAKE A HIKE

For an atmospheric introduction to the mainland, wander along the Kowloon waterfront from the Star Ferry Concourse past the Clock Tower to the Cultural Centre. This houses the Hong Kong Space Museum (00 852 2721 0226, www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/Space), which opens 1pm-9pm daily except Tuesday (and from 10am at weekends); admission HK$10 (80p) (free on Wednesday). The Cultural Centre is also home to the Hong Kong Museum of Art (00 852 2721 0116, www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/Arts; open 10am-6pm daily except Thursday; same admission as the Space Museum). Continue east to the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong's tribute to its film industry, where such greats as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are commemorated. Turn back on to Salisbury Road and turn right along Nathan Road, the "golden mile" of shops. Take a rest at Kowloon Park.

AN APERITIF

The best show in town takes place when dusk falls and the buildings of Hong Kong Island turn on their lights. The cool way to take in this spectacle is sipping a gold leaf-flecked Aquatini cocktail 30 storeys up in the bar at Aqua Spirit, at One Peking Road (00 852 3427 2288, www.aqua.com.hk) in Kowloon.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Kowloon's up-and-coming wining and dining area is Knutsford Terrace. The most popular bar and eatery is Heaven on Earth at number 6 (00 852 2367 8438) - a good choice for those looking for a gentle introduction to Sichuan, Hunan and Shanghai cuisine.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Start at an Anglican Sunday service at Hong Kong Island's main Christian place of worship, St John's Cathedral (00 852 2523 4157, www.stjohnscathedral.org.hk), close to the Peak Tram terminus on Garden Road. Follow this with a visit to the Taoist Temple of Man Mo at the junction of Ladder Street and Hollywood Road - the oldest temple in Hong Kong.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Take a bus to Hong Kong Island's south-coast village of Stanley. Combine brunch with a visit to an excellent market, a beach and Tin Hau temple. Dine in - or outside - the 160-year-old Murray House building, which was moved brick by brick in 2001 from the other side of the island to make way for the Bank of China building.

A WALK IN THE PARK

To escape the tower blocks and shopping malls which appear to have been built on every available square metre of Hong Kong Island, Hong Kong Park offers a superb green space. It features expansive gardens and an aviary above the business area.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Shots of Hong Kong's skyline by day or night are popular choices. Nab a shady bench in the park to put pen to paper, or go to the Star Ferry Terminal and let the world's most beautiful harbour inspire you.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Cross back to Kowloon and learn about the complex history of the territory at the fascinating Hong Kong Museum of History at 100 Chatham Road South (00 852 2724 9042, www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/History); it opens10am-6pm daily except Tuesday, admission HK$10 (80p).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Take a ride along the world's longest outdoor moving walkway, the 800m-long Mid-Level escalator on Hong Kong Island. Its main purpose is to shift commuters down from the residences on the hillside into Central in the morning, and back in the evening.

CHECK IN

Hong Kong's first boutique apartment property opened in March: the Philippe Starck-designed JIA at 1-5 Irving Street (00 852 3196 9000, www.jiahongkong.com) in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island. As you might expect, even the standard studio breathes style. Rates start at HK$1,350 (£108) for a night including continental breakfast and wine in the early evening.

A much more traditional experience can be had in Kowloon. The 300-room Peninsula on Salisbury Road (00 852 2920 2888, hongkong.peninsula.com) is one of the world's best hotels with a great location and legendary service - which includes airport transfers in the hotel's fleet of Rolls-Royces or use of the rooftop helipad. Rates are flexible, but the hotel's package offer is good value at HK$2,698 (£215) for a double including breakfast.

A good mid-range choice is the 468-room Eaton at 380 Nathan Road (00 852 2782 1818, www.eaton-hotel.com) which has a rooftop pool and gym and is near the Jade Market and Temple Street Night Market. The basic rate is HK$1,850 (£150) for a double, excluding breakfast, but the hotel's website offers reductions of at least 50 per cent, often with room upgrades and breakfast thrown in.

The best budget option is the YMCA, superbly located at 41 Salisbury Road in Kowloon (00 852 2268 7000, www.ymcahk.org.hk). A double room costs HK$770 (£65), including fresh fruit upon arrival.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Customs officials on the dawn shift at Heathrow airport pay particular attention to arrivals from Hong Kong; many visitors to the city easily break the £145 duty-free limit with purchases of electronics, designer clothes (or fakes) and other high-value goods.

To stay below the customs limit, concentrate on the markets, which in any event provide plenty of entertainment (and eating possibilities). The Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon is unashamedly touristy but great fun and a good source of low-value electronics and cheap and cheerful clothing. On Hong Kong Island try The Lanes. On the far side of the island, Stanley has a lower-key but popular market. Be sure to bargain hard at all markets.

For anything expensive, go to a more upmarket location, such as the immense Ocean Terminal-Harbour City-Gateway complex in Kowloon. Be warned that electrical goods may have limited guarantees that apply only in Hong Kong - and video/DVD products may have compatibility problems.

TASTE OF THE CITY

The dominant cuisine in Hong Kong is Cantonese; many dishes are stir-fried using woks, while others - including the ubiquitous dim sum - are steamed.

For an unmitigated tourist experience, but one which is likely to be fun and eye-opening because of its sheer scale, go to Aberdeen and the newly re-opened Jumbo (00 852 2873 7111, www.jumbo.com.hk), which claims to be the world's largest floating restaurant. It opens 11am-11pm during the week, but on Sundays starts extra-early at 7am.

Hong Kong also provides the chance to sample a wide range of other Chinese and Asian cuisines. Sichuan cuisine (also known as Szechuan) is spicier than Cantonese, and uses beef, duck and chicken rather than seafood. The standard expatriate location for Sichuan food is the Red Pepper at 7 Lan Fong Road in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island (00 852 2577 3811).

For a meal with a view, book a window table at Café Deco, (00 852 2849 5111) at the top of Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island. Prices are surprisingly reasonable considering the prime location and the quality of food. Try the Tandoori New Zealand Cod Fillet at HK$168 (£13.50).

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