Deserted beaches, silent pagodas and Trappist monasteries: when Simon Calder put on his hiking boots, he found a quieter side to the territory
Forget shopping; ignore the fact that the world's most populous country is 30 miles north and approaching fast. Hong Kong is a good place for a hike.

When you arrive at the airport, reject the temptation to check into a flashy hotel. Instead, get on the bus that burrows beneath the harbour to Hong Kong Island. It will drop you at the Outlying Islands quay, where you earn no points for predicting that the next stage of the journey is a trip to an outlying island. Within two hours of touchdown, you can be meandering along the seafront at Silvermine Bay on Lantau Island, confusing your jetlagged appetite mightily as you nibble your way through the waterside huddle of open-air restaurants, and planning your hike the next day.

Hong Kong is one of those places you know before you have gone there. The street-level energy of Kowloon, conducted frenetically in a language as alien as the local food, dissipates only where the harbour begins. This famous gouge of water frets with ferries around the clock and acts as a buffer to the architectural, financial and geological heights of Hong Kong Island.

None of this will concern anyone who takes the sensible course and strikes out towards one of the straggle of islands that have yet to acquire the critical masses. The tourist's Hong Kong is over-populated and overly popular; the secret Hong Kong is under-valued and misunderstood.

As the mists gave up their struggle to cling to the placid sea and rumpled hillsides, I walked along a beach deserted except for a scruffy dog and its well-kempt owner. I took a path that cut up past a clutter of tiny cottages on to a grandly convex slope that was naked except for coarse grass and a scattering of scrub. Ten minutes of scrambling and a few hundred feet higher, I found a silent pagoda, its scarlet frame twirling gracefully into the brutish, steely sky. Many of the half-submerged boulders that go to make up Hong Kong's archipelago of 235 islands had by now shrugged off their blanketing of haze and were parading through the South China Sea, the last pebbles of colonialism skimming through their final 20 months of British rule.

On the far side, past a Trappist monastery, I followed the pathway that twisted around the peninsula. A village of sorts appeared: low wooden buildings fastened to a rickety quay of jostling boats. A little further, the picture of Chinese tranquillity turned into a Western abrasion. I had found Discovery Bay, complete with its apartment complexes, fast-food joints and twice-hourly fast ferries to Hong Kong Island. I caught one.

The island's financial district features the ultimate in street furniture: an escalator nearly a mile long. On Lantau Island you climb; on Hong Kong Island you slouch as the ground moves beneath you. It was designed as a serious piece of infrastructure to whisk commuters between the Mid-Levels (halfway between the Peak and the sea) and their offices, but as a tourist wheeze it has few rivals. You rise from ground level, where the skyscrapers hold sway, past feverish markets and haughty government buildings - and relish the prospect of skipping down again.

To try to make sense of a city-state that somehow manages to sprawl vertically as well as horizontally, you need to take the Victoria Peak tram, which climbs sharply to the crown of the island, leaving the escalator way beneath.

All places that are blessed with a particularly splendid panorama tend to despoil them, and the Peak has made its bid for high-altitude infamy with a tawdry three-storey shopping centre. Luckily, you can take in the view from 1,800ft with your back to the concrete, and pay your respects to the powers of imagination (not to mention politics and commerce) that have brought so brashly dynamic a skyline to a place so serene.

Up to this point, you will have made little more than glancing contact with the 98 per cent of the population who helped create this ensemble - Hong Kong's Chinese population. So take another hike, this one downhill, to the opposite shore and the port of Aberdeen.

The walk begins amid the expatriate tranquillity of Peel Rise's villas, then dives down through hyperactive foliage to the South China Sea. Before you reach it, though, you must pick your way around a cemetery's teetering terraces. You may end up there if you lose the battle to cross one of the territory's superhighways. Given that there is hardly anywhere to drive to, and excellent public transport, Hong Kong has a preposterous number of vehicles.

If you arrive at lunchtime, the cultural certainties that have accompanied you since you got off the plane will slip away. At the New Best Restaurant the background music (Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep) is the only familiar thing. To give an indication of the challenge ahead, the dining hall of this huge restaurant intermingles with the food-preparation area: a fine concept until you see portions of eel slithering around on slabs. The only things I knew about my lunch were that it cost pounds 2, and that there wasn't any eel among the wonderful frenzy of alien flavours.

When you return to the rural retreat of Silvermine Bay on Lantau Island, two things may worry you - apart from the handover to China. One is the airport being built on the other side of Lantau Island: in two years' time it will be much easier to reach London, San Francisco or Sydney than to find solitude. The other is less profound: you haven't been shopping.

How to get there

British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic fly direct from Heathrow to Hong Kong; Cathay also flies from Manchester.

Simon Calder paid pounds 480 return on Virgin Atlantic, booked through Travelbag (0171-379 3990). Cheaper fares are available for indirect flights, such as on Emirates via Dubai or Swissair via Zurich.

Where to stay

Simon Calder paid pounds 40 a night at the Silvermine Beach Hotel, Lantau Island (00 852 2984 8295). Further information from the Hong Kong Tourist Association on0171-930 4775.