The complete guide to China's Golden Triangle

Hong Kong boasts a spectacular harbour, wonderful shopping and is surrounded by enough countryside to ensure you are not overtaken by urban malaise. And it is just a short hop to Macau, another former colony, and Guangzhou, on the Chinese mainland


How do I get there? The direct route to the region involves flying to Hong Kong and travelling on from there. Fares on this route vary enormously and flights are heavily booked at peak times; there is now little available in December. From January to 4 April, Virgin Atlantic is selling, through discount agents, a Heathrow-Hong Kong fare of around £435. To qualify for this, you must book at least three nights' hotel accommodation through the same agent. Similar prices are available on Cathay Pacific flights from Heathrow and Manchester, but dates may be restricted and a five-night minimum for the hotel may apply. British Airways will cost around £480 from Heathrow, if you book accommodation for at least one third of your stay.

How do I get there? The direct route to the region involves flying to Hong Kong and travelling on from there. Fares on this route vary enormously and flights are heavily booked at peak times; there is now little available in December. From January to 4 April, Virgin Atlantic is selling, through discount agents, a Heathrow-Hong Kong fare of around £435. To qualify for this, you must book at least three nights' hotel accommodation through the same agent. Similar prices are available on Cathay Pacific flights from Heathrow and Manchester, but dates may be restricted and a five-night minimum for the hotel may apply. British Airways will cost around £480 from Heathrow, if you book accommodation for at least one third of your stay.

Cheaper and less restrictive fares are obtainable from airlines whose flights involve a change of planes. The best choice of UK departure points is with Air France, Emirates and Lufthansa. If you don't mind a long flight on a quality airline, there is even a competitive Qantas fare from Heathrow that involves a change of plane in Singapore.

Do I need a visa? Visas are not needed for Hong Kong or Macau, but are necessary for anyone visiting the rest of China. Application forms can be obtained at the Chinese Embassy Visa Section, 31 Portland Place, London W1B 1QD (or at the website www.chinese-embassy.org.uk). A single-entry visa costs £30, a double entry is £45. Apply at least a month before you plan to leave. For further information, call 0900 188 0808.

It is easier to wait until you are in Hong Kong or Macau and get a visa at one of the China Travel Service offices. A next-day service is available, while the three-day service is cheaper than buying the visa in the UK. If you just want to make a short trip, it is worth considering a package with a company such as Grayline, available through the concierge at many of the medium-sized and large hotels in Hong Kong. If you book before midday for a trip beginning the next day, they will be able to sort out a visa for you in a few hours, as long as you can provide them with a passport photograph.

Where shall I stay? There is a huge variety of accommodation in the region, from deluxe hotels to hostels. The White Swan in Guangzhou (00 86 20 8188 6968; www.whiteswanhotel.com) is considered the best hotel in mainland China, and the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong (00 852 2522 0111; www.mandarinoriental.com) has often been voted the best hotel in the world. Most of the more upmarket accommodation in Hong Kong is in the Central District, with many of the budget rooms along Nathan Road in Tsim Tsa Tsui, on the mainland side of the harbour. Information about accommodation can be obtained through the HKTA (020- 7533 7100), and there is a booking service at the airport arrivals hall.

Macau is popular with Hong Kong residents as a place to get away to at weekends, and the island has some pleasant resort hotels. These include the Mandarin's sister hotel (00 853 567 888), and the Pousada de Sao Tiago (00 853 378 111), a converted 17th century fort overlooking the water. Within China, hotels can be booked on arrival, but it usually pays to do plan. Rooms will usually cost less than half price if you book through the China Travel Service; this can either be done in London (020-7836 9911) or at their Hong Kong branch in Connaught Road (00 852 2853 3590).

I Want to see Hong Kong harbour The harbour is the central feature of the city and its greatest asset. The views from both sides of the waterfront are stunning, whether you are looking south from the Kowloon peninsula side, or northwards from Hong Kong island. Though pretty impressive in daylight, the view at night as you look across the harbour from Kowloon is one of the most spectacular panoramas in the world. The harbour is always busy, with boats of all kinds, from freighters to ferries, zipping across the water.

Best known, and essential to the functioning of the city, is the Star Ferry, a fleet of green-and-white boats connecting the two sides of the city in seven dramatic minutes. To get a sense of the scale of the harbour, it is worth taking a boat to one of the outer islands. Boats depart from the Outlying Islands Ferry Piers, just along the waterfront from the Star Ferry terminal in Central. Watertours (00 852 2926 3868) runs cruises of various kinds around the harbour, departing from both Kowloon Public Pier and Queen's Pier on Hong Kong Island.

What else is there to do in Hong Kong? With the exception of the harbour, Hong Kong is remarkably light on must-see sights, although there is plenty to keep visitors occupied for a few days. There are some interesting museums, including the Museum of Art, which has a wonderful collection of Chinese ceramics and calligraphy, behind the Cultural Centre on the Kowloon waterfront, and the Museum of Racing, at Happy Valley Race Course. The Man Mo is the oldest of several Buddhist temples in the city, and in the bays on the south side of the island there are some villages, such as Stanley, that are worth exploring. But after the harbour, the most striking feature of the city is its urban architecture: the huge and increasing number of skyscrapers, sticking up on every part of the horizon.

One of the most impressive is the HSBC headquarters, designed by Sir Norman Foster, but the most distinctive silhouette on the skyline is the Bank of China building, that looks like a sword pointing to the sky.

It all sounds too urban! The height of the buildings and the levels of noise and pollution can make the city seem rather oppressive, but Hong Kong is saved by the magnificence of its natural setting and the beautiful countryside around the city. Take the funicular railway to the island's highest point, and you will already feel you are getting away from it all. From the top there are some lovely trails through the woods back into Central.

Many of the islands are also worth visiting. Lantau is the largest, and although it is suffering noticeably from the effects of urbanisation, there is some lovely countryside to explore. This is good territory for serious walkers, with a circular trail of more than 40 miles through the island's country parks. Information and maps are available from the Country Parks Authority (00 852 2733 2132). The main tourist attraction on the island is the Big Buddha, the huge bronze figure outside Po Lin monastery, and accessible on a bus that leaves from the ferry terminal at Mui Wo. More atmospheric is the smaller island of Cheung Chau, whose main village is a delightful spot with plenty of waterside restaurants where you can sit eating fresh fish, and watch the boats unload on the quayside.

North of the city-boundary is the New Territories, a chunk of land between Hong Kong city and the Chinese border that was leased to Britain in 1898. New cities are popping up all over the place, but take the suburban KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) line out as far as Tai Po Market and the area starts to become more rural. A bus from the station goes to Plover Cove, with its reservoir and some lovely unspoilt countryside. None of this is anything like as complicated as it might sound; all the directions are written in English as well as Chinese, and announcements at the stations and on the trains are also made in both languages.

How different is Macau? Macau, less than an hour away by jetfoil, was a Portuguese enclave until it was handed back to the Chinese a year ago. It still retains a distinctive character, part-Portuguese but with a definite Asian tinge - the back streets are pure Chinese. The colonial past is most noticeable in the main Senado Square, with its lovely arcaded façades. To one side is the island's most attractive church, Santo Domingo, and slightly north of the main square is the façade of the church of Sao Paulo, all that remains of an important Jesuit church that burned down in 1835. The shops nearby, one of the main reasons why people come to Macau, sell beautiful wooden furniture. The second reason to visit is the opportunity to eat Macanese - or in some cases, pure Portuguese - food, and to drink Portuguese wine, a large selection of which is available at extremely reasonable prices. A third motive is to visit a casino, a vice more accessible here than elsewhere in China (see box).

Is Guangzhou an interesting city? Mainland China's third largest city, once known as Canton, is a sprawling metropolis. It may not appear immediately tourist-friendly, but it has a great deal to offer. Take the time to explore, and you will be rewarded with glimpses of a traditional Chinese existence. Most exotic, although not for the squeamish, is Qingping market, which begins on Liuersan Lu, on the river opposite Shamian Island. Lured in by the enticing smells of herbs and spices, you will soon get into the back streets where meat and fish is on sale. The Chinese like their food fresh - so fresh that it is still breathing. Instead of slabs of meat you will see cages of frogs, snakes, guinea pigs and cats, as well as the more mundane chickens, all patiently waiting to be bought and then slaughtered.

Also worth seeing are some of the city's magnificent temples. The oldest is Guangxiao Si, an attractive complex with various different buildings and shrines, one of which contains an unusual reclining Buddha. Near by is the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, Liurong Si, overlooked by the 11th-century Flower Pagoda (currently being restored).

I have thoughts of Chairman Mao You're in the right place. Guangzhou was one of the centres of revolution - commemorated in several monuments - in the early part of the 20th century. The Peasant Movement Training Institute, on Zhongshan Lu, where Mao and others gave lectures, has been turned into a small museum. Further along the road is the Martyrs Memorial Gardens, containing a burial mound for the remains of those who died in the 1927 Communist Uprising. Dr Sun Yatsen, regarded as the father of modern China, who lived in the city, is remembered in the magnificent Memorial Hall on Qingquan Lu.

How do I get around? Don't be tempted to hire a car in China unless you have kamikaze tendencies and a grasp of both spoken and written Chinese. There appear to be few rules of the road, and any that might exist tend to be ignored. On top of that, there is no discernible road-numbering system and few road signs are in English. To get out of Guangzhou, take a tourist excursion, a local bus, or ask your hotel to organise a taxi to take you around for a day. It should be possible to negotiate a rate for a taxi of no more than 400 yuan (£35). There are many interesting places around the city, including Foshan, with its beautiful Zu Miao temple, Lotus Mountain in Panyu, at the mouth of the Pearl River delta, and the lovely Qing-dynasty garden of Qinghui in Shunde.

There is a metro system in Guangzhou, but it has only one line, running east to west; two more are being built. Using the metro is remarkably simple, even for the non-Cantonese speaker. Direction signs and instructions for buying tickets are in English, as are the announcements made on the trains.

In Hong Kong, there is an underground (the MTR), a network of local buses as well as tram routes, in addition to the Star Ferry across the harbour.

I'm only going for the shopping Hong Kong's Central District is pretty much one continuous shopping mall, a series of indoor centres selling clothes by every European and American designer you can think of, as well as those of local designers such as Vivienne Tam. Nathan Road is the place to go if you are looking for either electronic goods or jewellery, and the shops stay open until late evening. There is a lot of competition among shopkeepers, making it possible, usually, to negotiate a good discount.

A newly-popular shopping destination is the Chinese border city of Shenzhen, easily reachable from Hong Kong and Macau by bus, train and boat. You will need a visa, even for a day trip. The city does a roaring trade in copies of watches and designer clothes, and it is also a good place to have fabric made into a garment of your choice, although this will mean a return trip to pick it up.

What about a nice cup of China tea? The Chinese tea ceremony is a serious ritual, involving a great deal more than pouring hot water on to tea leaves. The tea-making equipment is brought to the table on a lacquer tray by a waitress in traditional costume. The tea itself is made in a tiny, brown clay pot, which is first covered with hot water to warm it, and then two-thirds filled with leaves, on to which more hot water is slopped. The whole process is extremely wet. The tea is poured immediately, the pot refilled, and the new tea decanted into a warmed jug; leaving the liquid to stew and become bitter is not the Chinese style. A good place to try this is in the Cherishing Verandah at the Orchid Garden in Guangzhou, a traditional tea-house with wooden furniture and etched-glass windows.

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