As I hop off the tram at Win Lok Street, I come face to face with Chinese opera star and actress Liza Wang, who at 66, looks sensational. There she is telling the world that bird’s nest soup is her fountain of youth. For Ms Wang is smiling, wrinkle-free, on a poster, with a spoon of her chosen elixir poised delicately in front of her mouth. And just in case you’re in any doubt about what’s on the spoon, three tiny nests orbit her beautifully coiffed head.
Still a legend of stage and screen, Ms Wang, it appears, is now the face of bird’s nest soup. In a shop window next door, seven nests (each made from the saliva of cave swifts) are priced at HKD$5000 ($720). Youthful looks, it seems, come at a price wherever you are.
Wing Lok Street (also known as Ginseng and Bird’s Nest Street) is a treasure trove of elixirs and remedies. A short walk takes you to several shops selling deer horn. Ground down, it makes “an excellent tonic for period pains”.
Certain seaweeds, it seems, reduce high blood pressure and if you suffer from motion sickness, chewing on a sweet and sour dried plum helps. But it’s the bowls of dried caterpillar cadavers (cordyceps sinensis, at around $75 a gram) that stop me in my tracks. In traditional Chinese medicine, they are used to prevent the recurrence of cancer; in the West for asthma and bronchitis.
Sheung Wan was once a fishing village and though land reclamation has swallowed up the old harbour and boats, the dried seafood shops remain.
A short walk away from Sheung Wan towards SoHo is Upper Lascar Row, where the Cat Street Bazaar has stalls selling bric-a-brac and antiques.
Around the corner is Hollywood Road, where dozens of high-end antique shops line the street on both sides, and tucked behind is the Man Mo Temple, circa 1842, where huge incense spirals hanging from the ceiling create swirling eddies of haze around the gods of Literature and War.
After Man Mo, head back to Wing Lok Street and rejoin the tram at Western Market, a 1906 Edwardian building built to serve local traders.
TRAMS & TRANSPORT TIPS:Hong Kong Tramways runs trams from Kennedy Town in the west of Hong Kong Island to Shau Kei Wan in the east. Our journey starts at Sheung Wan in the west and ends at North Point. All single journeys, no matter how far you travel, are HK2.30 = AUD35 cents. A return journey on the Airport Express Link (train) is HK$100 = AUD$14.28. A single taxi fare from the airport to Central is around HK295 = AUD$26.
GUIDE TIP Ding Ding: Hong Kong Tram Guide by Craig Au Yeung (HK$88/AUD$12.60, Hong Kong Tourism Board) takes in all the traditional restaurants and food stores along the tram route.
MONEY TIP: The exchange rate fluctuates, but hovers around HKD7 = AUD$1.
EATS TIP: Sheung Hing Chiu Chow Restaurant, 29 Queen’s Road West (+852 2854 4570). This famous restaurant serves the delicate cuisine from the Chaoshan region that specialises in seafood and vegetables dishes and is a good healthy option. It’s a magnet for the Hong Kong in-crowd. Great food tasting and people watching.
TRAM STOP: DES VOEUX ROAD CENTRAL, SOHO
The stop at Queen Victoria Street leads to Cochrane Street and the Mid-Levels Escalator that takes you up the hill past numerous cafes, stalls and shops.
Between 6am-10am, the escalator descends; from 10am-midnight it ascends. The Escalator is in the centre of SoHo (stands for South of Hollywood Road) – the multicultural wine and dine centre of Central. Upmarket bars and bijou restaurants fill SoHo’s narrow streets. A little walk to the east is Lan Kwai Fong, and glitzy nightlife corner of SoHo.
EATS TIP: Sing Heung Yuen, Stall No.2, Mei Lun Street (+852 2544 8368) is more than a food stall, it’s a piece of Hong Kong history. Try the Macau-style pork chop crispy bun.
TRAM STOP: CENTRAL
Central is Hong Kong’s Wall Street – a cityscape of glittering skyscrapers built by some of the world’s most inspired architects. It is also home to some of the city’s swishest shopping malls – temples of high fashion and luxury goods. At the Landmark, you’ll find a honeycomb of malls, interconnected with underground, air-conditioned walkways. You can walk for miles without seeing the sun.
EATS TIP: Luk Yu Tea House, 24 Stanley Street (+852 2523 5464) opened in 1933 and serves exquisite dim sum dishes in gilded Art-Deco-style surrounds.
TRAM STOP: QUEENSWAY
Just past the Bank of China tower, hop off the tram at Cotton Tree Drive and walk towards the Peak mountian with Hong Kong Park on your left. You can’t miss the Peak Tram station. For HK$40/AUD$6, you can buy a return ticket to the top of Hong Kong’s highest mountain, Victoria Peak, on a funicular tram that climbs steeply to 552 metres.
The views of mainland China, the South China Sea, Victoria Harbour the chain of islands that make up Hong Kong are sensational. The earlier you go the better, before the haze has built up and the queues have grown.
On your return, slip into Hong Kong Park, opposite that station, and explore the Edward Youde Aviary (free entry), a monumental metal netting structure suspended 300 metres above a valley of waterfalls, babbling brooks and forest. Here, aerial walkways allow visitors to see exotic bird species in a natural habitat.
EATS TIP: Tai Cheong Bakery, 35 Lyndhurst Terrace, close to Cotton Tree Drive (+852 2544 3475) serves the “best egg tarts in world”, according to Hong Kong’s ex-governor Chris Patten. This 50-year-old bakery also serves great sugar puffs.
TRAM STOP: PACIFIC PLACE, ADMIRALTY
Pacific Place is Hong Kong's most impressive mall: a honeycomb of stores, interconnected with underground, air-conditioned walkways that are polished to perfection. It's more reminiscent of a palatial hotel. Set over three levels, the top floors feature every designer clothes brand imaginable in outlet stores at reduced prices.
HOTEL TIP: If you stay at the Shangri La hotel on Pacific Place, you can visit several malls without ever going outside – useful on a sweltering summer’s day, wet afternoon or during a typhoon! The Hong Kong Island Shangri La Hotel is one of Hong Kong’s finest five-star hotels with rooms that offer spectacular Harbour and Peak views. Its atrium is home to a spectacularly beautiful work of art, Great Motherland of China, a landscape silk painting that rises 16 storeys. The lobby was built around a 130-year-old banyan tree at a cost of $3.4 million and its eight restaurants have won the prestigious Condé Nast Traveler accolade as one of the best hotels in the world for dining. With rooms from $400, it’s a hotel for a special occasion.
TRAM STOP: JOHNSTON ROAD, WAN CHAI
Sandwiched between Central and Causeway Bay, the village of Wan Chai was once the haunt of service men seeking R&R, a red-light district with sleazy bars and raunchy nightclubs. How times change. Now the heritage buildings are home to bespoke outlets selling everything from fine wines form Australia’s Margaret River to vintage clothing. There are thrift stores, funky fusion restaurants, piazza-style cafés, a ceramic workshop, art galleries and food shops selling traditional delicacies.
Explore the network of lanes on the other side of Queens’ Road East and the triangle of buildings around Cross St. Back on Johnston Road, catch the tram outside the Pawn, a heritage 1888 building for pawnbrokers, but recently restored with a restaurant and bar.
EATS TIP: Prawn Noodle Shop, Shop 4, Rialto Building, 2 Lansdale St (+852 2520 0268). Prawn noodles every which way, plus curry and coconut milk laksa are recommended. You’ll never forget the aroma and the taste.
HOTEL TIP: Novotel Century is a 4-star hotel on 238 Jaffe Road with rooms from AUD$195 a night five minutes from the tram and the MTR subway and 10 minutes from the Wan Chai ferry pier. It has a swimming pool, spa, gym and two restaurants.
TRAM STOP: HENNESSY ROAD, CAUSEWAY BAY
Be warned mainland Chinese bargain hunters don’t take hostages. Their weapons of choice are elbows and shopping trolleys. Don’t wear thongs unless you’re fleet of foot, as there’s a good chance of getting your toes run over multiple times. And don’t expect an apology. At first sight, most visitors are put off by the overwhelming ocean of humanity circulating around seemingly bland shopping centres. That said: Causeway Bay is a bargain-hunter’s paradise and most seasoned shoppers will be in their element.
You'll need the stamina of a marathon runner, but if you begin at SOGO, the biggest and the most popular Japanese department store at 555 Hennessy Road, you’ll be off to a good start. Its 12 stories offer everything from high fashion to cosmetics to electronics to toys for kids. After SOGO, fan out with your eyes peeled for mega malls of Times Square, Causeway Plaza, Laforet, Retrostone, Beverly Island Center and newest of all, the massive Hysan Place with its 17-floor shopping area – a temple to conspicuous consumption if there ever was one.
EATS TIP: West Villa Restaurant, shop 101-102, I/F, Lee Gardens Two, 28 Yun Ping Road (+852 2882 2110). Recommended by Kylie Kwong, who loves the honey glazed BBQ pork and fried vermicelli, this Cantonese has excellent seafood dishes that attracts diners from all over the Island
EATS TIP: IR 1968, 28 Leighton Road (+852 2577 9981). Since its launch in 1968, this eatery has won over a loyal following with its authentic Indonesian cuisine.
TRAM STOP: CHUN YEUNG WET MARKET
Of all the wet markets in the city, the Chun Yeung Market is king. As the tram heads to the North Point tram terminus, you’ll swing off the broad King’s Road onto a narrow street lined on either side with buzzy stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood. Here, you’ll experience the sights and sounds of old-school market business in full swing. This is the eastern terminus of the tram line and now is the time to head back west.
EATS TIP: Fung Shing Restaurant, Goldfield Mansion, 62-68 Java Road (+852 2578 4898). Just around the corner from the wet markets, this 50-year-old eaterie serves many Shunde mountain hometown dishes that have simpler but stronger flavours than mainstream Cantonese food.
Hong Kong's night skyline and the traditonal junk Aqua Luna. Pic courtesy of Aqua Luna.
VICTORIA HARBOUR CRUISE
After a day (or two) exploring Hong Kong Island on the tram, it’s time to take to the water. Aqua Luna is a traditional red sail Chinese junk that offers 45-minute Symphony of Lights cruises on Victoria Harbour. It’s a great way to unwind, sipping a cocktail on a lounge bed as the world-famous laser show ricochets around Hong Kong’s spectacular night-time skyline. Departs daily from Central's Pier 9, at 7.45pm, HK$260pp/AUD$37pp.
HONG KONG’S BONDI BEACH: CHEUNG CHAU ISLAND
Fifty minutes away by ferry (Pier 5, Central) is the rural island of Cheung Chau. There’s not a skyscraper in sight; just a fishing harbour lined with seafood restaurants and a beautiful sandy beach patrolled by lifeguards. Not far from the ferry wharf is the Pak Tai Temple. You'll pass the temple if you on your way to start of the walk to North Pavilion look-out with its views over the South China Sea. If you eat a fresh seafood lunch on the harbour promenade, you’ll see fisherman on their boats selling their catch direct to locals. The beach on the other side of the village is a wide sandy crescent sheltered by green headlands either side.
Kong Hong Disneyland on Lantau Island. Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Tourism Board.
HONG KONG DISNEY LAND
Ten minutes from the airport, Uncle Walt’s whimsical playground has the usual fantasy castles, Disney characters and rides. As it’s on Lantau Island close to the airport, it’s convenient to drop in for a day when arriving in Hong Kong or on your departure. A day ticket at Hong Kong Disneyland is HK$450/AUD$65 (adult) and HK$320/AUD$42 (child). There are two Disney hotels at the site, but more convenient for the airport is the Novotel Hong Kong Citygate with rooms from $185. It has a glorious swimming pool area and garden, with waterfalls, overlooking Lantau mountain, and spacious, well-designed rooms.
The swimming pool garden at the Novotel Hong Kong Citygate.