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Trip Report Six days in Hong Kong

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Overview: I, along with my husband Chris and my friend Gail, traveled to Hong Kong March 6-14. We stayed in the main tourist district in Kowloon. We explored other parts of Hong Kong and took an overnight trip to Macau. While guided day tours were available to Macau and to the outer islands and even to various neighborhoods in HK, we found it quite easy to use public transportation and do it ourselves. If you want to take advantage of a specialty tour, tho, book ahead. We tried to book a "foodie" tour a few days ahead (through Bigfoot Tours, whose private walking tours focus on different themes) and it was sold out for the entire time we were there. Losing my phone on the third day only added to the excitement. The three of us met up in Hong Kong before going on to Manila (Gail) and New Zealand (me and Chris).

SUNDAY: Exploring Kowloon

We arrive at the Hong Kong airport early, at about 6:30 am. It's a bit puzzling to figure out the Airport Express train, which we know we're supposed to take to the Kowloon station in the city center as the airport is on an outlying island. We think we are supposed to buy an Octopus card, which is a reloadable card used on ferries subways and buses. But the customer service person doesn't want us to buy that for this trip, and it turns out (we find out later) it's cheaper to buy AE tickets separately. It's only about $24 US for the three of us. We find an ATM to have some local currency for the cab from the Kowloon station to our hotels.

We go to Gail's first, the Sheraton, on the main waterfront street. Her room won't be ready until 9:30 so we wheel our luggage across the street to the Intercontinental. We had been working on piling up IHG hotel points for the past year specifically so we could stay at this world-renowned hotel with its fantastic views of maybe the most interesting harbor in the world. Here, thanks to Tripadvisor, I know that we will be offered a waterfront room for an extra charge. Two days ago we received an email offering to upgrade our free upgrade (which was from a superior to a deluxe superior, can't imagine the difference except for the titles) as IHG platinum members to a harbor view room for $800 HK. A tripadvisor review recommended waiting for a better price at check-in and sure enough, the price at reception was now $600 HK or about $75 a night. Considering we were there on IHG points, this was a reasonable deal for a great hotel experience. Depending on the time of year and the busyness of the week a harborfront room here can cost anywhere from $325 to $750 U.S. a night. We were there in a moderately busy week, because even non-view rooms had been going for at least $350.

Our room would not be ready until 9:30 either, so the hotel took our luggage and we settled in for a free coffee/tea in the lobby bar on the first floor, which has the best harbor view you can possibly imagine. I would recommend everyone coming here for a drink anytime just to enjoy the amazing view. (You can see the nightly light show from here but you can't hear the music.) A cafe one floor below also looks out on this view.

We settled into our 11th floor room at about 10, and were pleased to find that the 11th floor offers a similar view to the bar. It's a working harbor and boats from sampans and ferries to giant cruise ships and barges pass right under your nose. If I ever end up paralyzed, I'm going to take all my money and move into this room and watch the world go by til my money runs out. The room is not huge but it's luxurious. The bathroom appears to have a deep jacuzzi tub. Robes and slippers are provided. There's a coffee and tea maker, though the guest services manager, who escorts us to our room, says we can ring for free tea at any time and it will be brought to us. It is the Chinese welcoming way, he says. Maybe we never will leave this room, we start to think! But we all trundle over to the Sheraton so Gail can settle in. She has also upgraded to a water view, which looks across the Main Street to the harbor. It's a narrower view, but still a wide chunk. We look at the building going on across the street and realize that in a year the Sheraton's water view will be gone. Still, it has a good view of the interesting architecture on the waterfront, including the art museum and cultural center. She has paid about $300-plus for this water view room.

We decide that this afternoon we will explore our neighborhood, Tsim Sha Tsui or TST, which is tourist-oriented with famous hotels. The downtown financial district, or Central, is across the harbor in Hong Kong Island. We can see the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch sign across a tall building in a moving light strip over there. We start out at Avenue of the Stars, right in front of the hotel on the waterfront. It's a tribute to the local film industry, including a statue of Bruce Lee and lots of stars on the sidewalk bearing HK Stars' names. Lots of Chinese tourists and locals are loving it there on this nice weekend afternoon. We move across the street into the heart of the district. We did not expect quite this much relentless retail. Rolex and other expensive watch stores are on every block. Jewelry stores abound, with windows filled with diamond and emerald and sapphire necklaces. Prada. Chanel. Designers I've barely heard of. And people are everywhere, toting multiple bags, buying stuff.

We are hungry, so we track down a restaurant that Gail has a recommendation for: Din Tai Fung at 30 Canton Rd., a few blocks away. It turns out to be in one of the many big buildings that are really small malls. The mall is bustling, and so is the restaurant, which is across from a Ruby Tuesday's. It's a very popular chain specializing in dim sum, noodles and dumplings. Later, we find out it started in Taipei and has gone round the world; CNN named it the second best chain the world. We wait a few minutes for a table (even at 1 pm on a Sunday) and order a variety of dumplings and noodles and other small dishes to share. The dumplings and buns arrive in wicker baskets. Everything is delicious and reasonably priced. Even the greens, such as sautéed bok choy, are super tasty. When we have questions, our server goes to find someone who speaks better English. When they bring things with sauces and realize we are clueless Westerners, they help us. Shoppers, families, couples come and go. It's a fun place to people watch. We observe how people manage this with chopsticks, and we copy them. More or less!! I would definitely recommend this place.

Afterwards we walk the streets some more, ending up in Kowloon Park where an amazing sight greets us. The park is filled with hundreds of young Muslim girls in colorful outfits and headgear, sitting together and eating picnics and takeout in groups everywhere. Turns out Sunday is the domestics' day off and this is where they go. Many are from the Philippines. They are having a great time. But truly, everybody seems to be happy here on this somewhat sunny day. The park is big, with various places like a bird lake with flamingos. In one section a series of martial arts demonstrations is taking place; young men in elaborate yellow feathered dragon costumes do a dance for the new year (we think). I believe this goes on every Sunday.

We see a giant mosque at one end of the park, so we go to admire the architecture. Several men at the entrance invite us to come in, and we say we have nothing to cover our heads. They say that's ok, we just have to take off our shoes. They say they will take us on a tour, and we think it's some sort of scam. But it turns out that it's just outreach. We get the sense that they're doing some Muslim public relations damage, as in not every Muslim is a terrorist. When they realize we're Americans they seem to try even harder. They have many Islam brochures available, all featuring a dove with an olive branch. They take us all over the mosque, which is elaborate and wonderful. Outside, a group of young domestics in especially colorful garb are gathered on the steps laughing and talking. I ask if I can take their picture, and they say yes but they want me in it too. So Chris takes our picture together, and then they take some of us all.

We walk back to our hotels for a little rest, then rendezvous near the waterfront for the Sound and Light Show over the harbor at 8 pm. While waiting for Gail, we are harassed by a fake monk trying to get donations from us; we had been warned about this happening in popular tourist spots, but it would be the only time we would run into it. He kept trying to hug us. We had to be really firm and move a distance away to get him to leave us alone. Meanwhile, the buildings around the harbor are already lit up quite colorfully, but the show involves lasers beaming out everywhere, plus music. It lasts for about 15 minutes and there are lots of people gathered to watch it. Cruise boats are out in the water with passengers enjoying the view from their decks. Afterwards, we take a walk down the waterfront to watch a beautiful junk with red sails, the Aqualuna, disgorge her passengers. If you want to take a cruise, this one looked like the most fun. Shortly beyond that in back of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre is a double-decker pedestrian bridge that we noted would also make a good light show viewpoint. Big colorful cartoonish blow-up type figures, all lit up, are arranged in a large walk-through display. Later we found out these were actually a type of lantern and were there for several weeks for the Chinese New Year. There are other displays other times of year, all free. After a long walk, we head back to our hotels.


MONDAY: Big Bus Red Line to The Peak

We decide the most efficient way to see the city is by the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus Tour, which everyone from the Intercontinental concierge to Fodors heartily recommended. You buy a 24-hour or 48-hour pass, and take any or all of three bus tours around three different areas of Hong Kong. It includes some extras, like a gondola ticket and a Star Ferry harbor tour. Today we are taking the red line tour of Hong Kong Island because the weather sounds pretty good and the city gondola (which everybody seems to call it even tho it's a funicular railway) to the top of Victoria Peak and its dramatic views is on the red line tour route. We take the Star Ferry over to Central, a 10-minute trip on this historic line, and the Big Bus is waiting for passengers when we get there. We sit on the open top deck of the bus, and the voice in our headphones gives us plenty of interesting info as we wind through the downtown city streets picking up and letting off passengers. We get off at the funicular and spend about a half an hour waiting in line to get on. It's a short but extremely steep and dramatic ride to the top, passing several sections of homes perched along the way. The funicular was originally built for the wealthy people who live up there, but now it is for tourists mostly.

At the top we are surprised to find -- more shopping! A multi-level modern shopping center no less. And a wax museum. We have to laugh. The observation deck (which has an admission charge) is at the top of a center, and you can walk all around for a 360-degree view. Hong Kong is really big, we realize. It is an amazing sight, and we spend quite a bit of time looking at the islands and the harbors from all angles. Of course the selfie crowd is also at work here, lol. We have a Big Bus coupon for Cafe Deco, which is in one of the centers and has a great view. It's quite upscale, but we love our lunch. The menu is international. After lunch, we take the loop walk around the top on Lugard and Harlech roads. It took about an hour and a half and was quite peaceful with birds singing and some great views. It was nice to be in greenery in HK, but it's not a must if you're tight for time.

Next we head back down via the funicular, which requires another wait of about 15 minutes. The Big Bus quickly picks us up and we fish out our headphones and finish the tour of the city. We take the reliable Star Ferry back to TST, and after a rest at our hotels, we meet in the lobby lounge at the Intercontinental at 7 for drinks. The whole lit-up harbor is spread in front of us. We watch the light show from our table. Then, finally feeling a little bit hungry, we take a walk and have flat noodles and congee at a little hole in the wall in the midst of TST's Prada madness.

TUESDAY: Bug Bus Green Line to Stanley Market

Today we are taking the Big Bus's green line to the Stanley Market and Repulse Bay, which are on the other side of Hong Kong Island from Central, where we went yesterday. Once again, we take the Star Ferry to Central, always a fun ride, and hop on the green line bus. It's overcast, but we can see a lot as we drive through various neighborhoods, including a popular horse racing track and the aquarium complex we read about in our guidebooks. Our headphones fill us in on everything. We go along the coastline with modern beach communities and get off at the Stanley Market. This is a rabbit warren of small shops selling scarves, bags, jewelry, souvenirs, everything you can imagine but mostly centered on what tourists would like. The quality seems good. I buy a day pack for a reasonable price. I don't bargain because I'm only buying one thing. Gail buys some scarves and the sales lady offers to cut the price to encourage her to buy more. Some teenagers from a school ask us to do a survey involving what tourists think of the area. One of the girls rewards us with a couple of pieces of dim sum. Very tasty. We leave the market to look for lunch, and we see on our waterfront stroll the 18th century Tin Hau Temple, home to a statue of the goddess of sea and possibly the oldest building in HK. We eat outdoors at Momentito, a little cafe on the waterfront that offers a variety of small dishes. We share dumplings and noodles; it was nothing especially memorable except that I liked the fruit tea, which had some unfamiliar fruit in it. The view is directly at the water.

After lunch, we go back to the bus stop and the Big Bus comes along shortly to pick us up. Our next stop is Aberdeen, a fishing harbor. The Big Bus has given us tickets for a sampan ride there. We climb aboard a colorfully decorated little flat-bottomed boat, and we get a tour of a kind of floating village, where some people live aboard their boats in various conditions; apparently many people now just fish off their boat during the day instead of living there like they used to. There's plenty of fishing boats and other boats too. At one end is the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, a restaurant on a floating platform. It's an HK institution -- everybody from Queen Elizabeth to Tom Cruise has eaten there -- and quite a gigantic, lit-up sight. As we swing around, we see the float that deals with all the restaurant's garbage too. Kind of icky. We take lots of pictures, and the boat brings us back to the dock. By now it's about 3:30, and we wait a little bit for the Big Bus. It takes us on a fast ride through HK's rush hour and deposits us back at the port in Central. We see the Maritime Museum right there on the waterfront, whose admission is included in our Big Bus fare, so we go. It's a brand new museum, beautifully done with huge donations from sponsors. The first floor tells the history of HK from its involvement with the sea, and it's much more interesting than we expected. The second and third floors focus on more modern concerns, including the environment. It's easily worth a couple of hours if you're interested in this sort of thing.

As we were getting ready to leave, I couldn't find my phone. We searched through the museum but no luck. I'd had it on the bus, so we go back to the workers there, and they say the bus has gone back to the depot because it's the end of the day. They call the depot, and the person there said the driver checks the bus at the end for left items, and he didn't report having found anything. The crisis is exacerbated because my phone was in a wallet case and I'd had two credit cards in the case. I figure that I put the phone down on top of my backpack on the floor and it slid off on our crazy rush-hour drive back. I tell the bus folks it's in a dark case and the bus floor is dark and so it could easily have been overlooked. They ask me for me contact info and say they'll look again in the morning. They give me an email address to send an explanation of the situation so the manager will know what's going on tomorrow.

We take the ferry back to TST and decide that since the time is running out on use of our 48-hour Big Bus tickets, we need to take the Star Ferry's special Harbor Tour that goes with our tickets right now. The last tour of the day leaves in five minutes which would be a nice sunset cruise if there were sun. We travel around the huge harbor in the ferry, seeing buildings such as the International Commerce Center, the eighth tallest building in the world, which we couldn't see from our hotel area. A group of young women are so busy taking elaborate selfies of themselves with each other that we wonder why they're here at all. For a good background? After an hour we're done and we head up to our hotel room to figure out what to do about the credit cards.

After HK, Chris and I are spending four weeks in New Zealand. We need cards. We call the Bank of America Travel Rewards customer service number, and say we need to cancel our cards and get new ones sent to us quickly. The rep doesn't seem to get it. She says she has no idea when the cards would arrive, so she needs an address where we'll be for a couple of weeks. We repeat that we are leaving HK Saturday and will then be traveling around NZ for four weeks. We won't be anywhere in NZ for more than a few days. This seems to flummox her, which is remarkable considering she's the rep for a card targeted at travelers. She also doesn't seem to see this as a crisis. We ask to talk to a supervisor and she says she's the top ranking person there. She says she guesses we'll just have to wait til we get home in 5 weeks. Is she nuts? We give up and hang up. Next we call the customer service folks at Chase who issued our IHG Visa card. They get it. They say they can block the card everywhere in the world except New Zealand, where we can only use it in places where we can actually swipe it. That's fine, we say. But they say this expires after 21 days, which is shorter than our trip. We have to go to a higher authority, who says they'll make an exception for us. This has taken a while on the phone at $1.99 a minute, but at least we have a card to use on our trip.

By this time we are emotionally exhausted but kind of hungry for something light. We eat at a local noodle shop recommended by the concierge. I expected the kind of noodle dishes you see in Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but this was different, more soup stuff. The food was a bit strange to us, and we liked a couple of dishes and were only so so with the others. We were definitely the only Westerners here. We watched how other people ate some of the dishes, especially with chopsticks. It wasn't always pretty, so we felt better about our own chopstick techniques. The worst part: No beer served when we really needed a beer!

We go back to the hotel and call our banker at Merrill Lynch investments, which is partners with Bank of America, and tell him our credit card woes. He says he'll deal with it. Is there any place we'll be in about a week where he could have the cards sent? He figures that's a safe time to have the cards printed and shipped as far as NZ. He doesn't want us to miss them. We tell him to send them to the Intercontinental in Wellington, where we'll be in 10 days for one night (love those hotel points!). We give him the address and that's that. He calls back a bit later to say it's all arranged (he's getting me a new ATM card too since that was with the phone case as well) and he will send us tracking numbers on both cards as soon as he gets them. Thank goodness for him!


WEDNESDAY: Macau

Today we check out of our Kowloon TST hotels with our backpacks, leaving the rest of our luggage with the intercontinental where Chris and I will return the next day while Gail will switch to a new hotel. Before departing we explain the missing phone situation to the concierge, who calls in the manager. They decide they will check again with the maritime museum today and then they will file a police report for us. In our email is a message from the Big Bus Company confirming nothing was found this morning. Love that the manager volunteers to make calls for us. Then we take a quick taxi to the Kowloon pier for ferries to the outlying islands and travel to Macau by comfortable turbojet. It takes an hour. We are staying at the Holiday Inn in the historic city center on our IHG points, but it's about $100 US. The website told us a free hotel shuttle was available from the ferry terminal, so we waited for that (every half hour on the quarter hour). There turns out to be a shuttle to a Holiday Inn on the Cotai gambling strip which we had to make sure we didn't take. The strip is built between two just offshore islands, and with all the buses and the hotel and gambling hawkers when you get off the ferry, it's clear the objective it to get you to the strip!

Holiday Inn has an historic exterior, very beautiful, and s nice little bar in the lobby. As IHG platinum members we are upgraded to a deluxe room that seems like no big deal; no view of anything and they indicated a view would be yet another upgrade; it was on the 18th floor. Gail had paid for her room and gets moved to the 26th floor because they have no more of her type so she was upgraded; it has a view, such as it is. We ask if there is a breakfast room and the clerk says the first floor restaurant was being renovated so we would eat on the 28th floor lounge. She said our breakfast is included, info she had not offered even tho she had said we would get two free drinks (house wine and a small draft carlsberg) because of ihg membership. Gail called the next morning to see if breakfast was included in hers and they said no. When she went up to meet us she asked how much the breakfast buffet would be and they basically said there's no price and told her to just go ahead and eat. Congee, hard boiled eggs, fatty bacon, watermelon, tomatoes, little wontons, two kinds of sausages, a variety of breads including small croissants. Really good rich coffee, several juices. We loved it.

We take a long walk all around the city, following the walking tour in our Insight guidebook. It seems much more Chinese than Hong Kong did, even tho it also seems European. Best example yet of colonial effect on a country. Beautiful well preserved old buildings abound, especially in the main historic square where Portuguese black and white tile work covers the ground. Signs are in Chinese and Portuguese and only sometimes English. Many fewer people here speak English. In the area surrounding the square, there are so many people, almost all Chinese, that we think it must be a holiday. But no, everyone insists it's always this busy. Near the ruins of St. Paul -- the facade of a church high up many steps on a hill -- are a huge number of bakeries which also seem to sell jerky, and they all have employees out in the pedestrian streets giving out free samples. Just a huge number of people around here, almost shoulder to shoulder. Later we read in the paper that Hong Kong and Macau are near tourism capacity since mainland Chinese have been allowed to come there on their own. 70 percent of tourists are mainland Chinese.

We continue our walk through various neighborhoods and come upon a gorgeous temple near the sea across from the maritime museum. It is spread up four stories of hillside, and we climb them all. We walk thru neighborhoods where regular people not tourists are living. We see rows of small mechanics shops with tiled shiny floors. We drop in at a fish market with shellfish we'd never seen before including live turtles with pointy snouts and giant clams or slugs or some combination. Fascinating. We check out some restaurants on a Main Street near the waterfront, but by the time we make the long hike back to the hotel it is almost seven. We rest our feet while enjoying our free drinks at the bar. The concierge earlier had suggested a Macanese restaurant just a couple of blocks from the hotel so we gratefully ask him to quickly make reservations there. It is called Porto Exterior. We have seafood rice with a lobster claw, prawns, fish and much other seafood; duck baked rice (unusual and delicious); and pork chops with egg on top. Macanese is cooking that blends Portuguese cooking with Chinese, Indian and other influences from this part of the world. It is about $100 for the 3 of us including a bottle of white Portuguese wine. Relaxing, lively place.

Tho we did not go to the Coati Strip, the historic district is surrounded by casinos: the Wynn and the MGM and especially the Grand Lisboa, whose gaudy architecture looks like a shiny golden flower rising from a round building kind of like Chicago's bean. You can see it from everywhere. Wild and fun. We walk thru it after dinner, ogling the loads of table games with lots of people playing. We see hardly any other Western tourists besides us. In fact, we realized, in Hong Kong and here we rarely have seen any Americans so far. Europeans or Australians, yes. After our walk-through we head back to the hotel and are in bed by about 11.

THURSDAY: Kowloon markets

It is raining, so we eat breakfast leisurely around 10 then relax a bit in our rooms; late checkout is a perk of IHG membership. We head back to HK by taxi to the ferry, and the whole process takes rather longer than we thought. By the time we get back to Hong Kong we have little time left for the Kowloon markets so we pick the jade market and head up there with our Octopus cards via the MTR, or rapid transit. We always seemed to find it difficult to figure out where the train we needed was, so our technique was simply to go to the customer service center and ask what track to take. The folks at the service center always spoke enough English for this to work fine. We are completely clueless about the quality of jade at this big indoor market off Nathan, but we figure if what we bought was pretty and cheap enough, who cares if it's real? Each entrepreneur has a small table heavily loaded with jewelry and figurines. Very cool stuff. A young woman -- Sydney Wong -- takes us over at her booth and Gail negotiates away, adding more articles and pale green earrings for me. The price keeps dropping pleasantly. I really hate bargaining but Gail thinks it's sport. After we conclude I decide I could use earrings for my daughter and they drop in price from about 800 to finally 350. Then I ask if I can have the large dangly ones for the same price as the small ones. Gail is proud of me for that one! Sydney is 25 and wants to go to Orlando to see the real Disney World, not the small one in HK.

After Chris takes a few photos of us all, we head over to the temple next door. In spite of a sign that says it's open til 6, it closes at 5, right in our noses. We kind of wonder whether they are making this up! We visit a couple of side temples which are still open and are very colorful. We go over to the Temple Street Night Market to check out Wang Hing, an al fresco restaurant one of our books recommends. The restaurant turns out to consist of a few different storefronts, not even all together, with tables on the crowded sidewalks. Every eatery like this insists they have beer, one of our requirements. But we really want to sit down and relax for a while, not gobble and go, so we pass. The Night Market is definitely a colorful scene, with lots of people eating in these open-air storefronts on either side of all the selling stalls. But the stalls are not selling much of interest to us. Socks, underwear, lame HK tshirts, sex toys, walking sticks, tchotchkes. Even what could be called souvenirs are not of much quality. The produce market nearby is actually much more interesting because we've never seen such a large array of big beautiful vegetables before; it's like a magazine shoot. We head out to Nathan Road to look for an ATM that will dispense more than $60, which we took out this morning in Macau. For some reason, we can't seem to get more money out of an ATM than that. Of course the Bank of China fails us, because we made the Macau withdrawal there today. We finally stumble upon a Citibank a few blocks away still staffed at 7 pm on Friday. The bankers say their ATM will give us whatever we need and indeed it does. A miracle! They say each bank decides how much to hand out.

We check out a few modern restaurants along a couple of blocks of Nathan and choose a big busy lit-up one called Green Land Court with a flashing sign (466-472 Nathan Rd.). We are the only Westerners in a sea of tables. Chris orders some rice dish he's never heard of, which turns out to be mild seafood such as prawns. It's ok. I order the roast duck and pork combo and out comes beautifully roasted slices of duck and pork. Fabulous. Fabulous crisp skin! Because I ordered so much meat, Gail ordered rice with vegetables, which looked like it had more veggies in the menu photo than arrived at our table. Good flavor, but after seeing all the beautiful veggies in the produce market just now, we are a little disappointed. Whole meal is quite reasonable, including a couple of big San Miguel beers. Refreshed, we return to the Night Market and Gail buys some socks. Really, we wonder what the big deal is about this market. Other than all the bare-bones al fresco dining, it's a flea market. We eventually head to the MRT to go back to our hotels after a bit of wandering around the waterfront. We use our Big Bus coupon books to buy double scoop cones at the waterfront gelato place near the Star Ferry.


FRIDAY: Lantau Island

We meet for breakfast at Gail's new hotel, the Salisbury YMCA (41 Salisbury Rd) next door to the swanky Peninsula Hotel and just down the street from the IC. The breakfast buffet there is 130 HK or about $17 U.S. compared to $41 at the Intercontinental. That's the problem with us staying at the IC; we're too cheap to spend money on anything except the room! Gail's room at the Y is perfectly pleasant with no water view at less than $200 (partial water view rooms are not much more, depending on demand, but it seems the full water view rooms sell out quickly). The hotel offers a magnificent spread for breakfast: a chef making omelettes and eggs to order, a fruit array including perfectly ripe papaya, a cheese board, cereal, congee, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, fish. No one could complain about this! This hotel is truly the bargain of HK. I would certainly stay there next time if I were paying.

Then we are off to Lantau island. Our Octopus cards take us on the Star Ferry across the harbor to the Central district, where we board a ferry to Lantau on pier 6. It's the usual grey HK day. Does the sun ever shine here? But at least it's not raining. We just always feel like we have cataracts when we're doing something with a view. The ferry has assigned, comfy seats and takes about a half hour to get to Lantau. There we board a bus to Ngong Ping and the Pi Lin monastery, home to the Big Buddha. The bus driver takes us on the usual high-speed white-knuckle 45-minute ride along hairpin curves -- we really dont see much of HK's longest beach, but we can see the Buddha in the distance. We aren't quite sure what to make of this large island. Disneyland is at one end, and the Buddha complex, including a village of nice shops and films, was built in the '90s. Nothing wrong with a new Buddha of course and it is truly gigantic, towering over everything. We are astounded at the beauty of the nearby temples/monastery, where locals are lighting incense like mad in giant pots with signs that warn HOT! Statues of gods are everywhere. A huge double row of green and yellow orchids leads up to the main monastery. The Chinese are alternating between lighting and waving around bundles of incense and taking selfies, complete with long selfie sticks. It's something to see.

We tackle the 258 steps up to the big Buddha, in spite of bad backs and bursitis. Lots of people accompany us, and it's a selfie extravaganza. But the Buddha is truly serene and impressive, as is the temple in the base at the top. A half dozen other extremely picturesque gods surround the Buddha, and the clouds are misting in and out of the mountains. It feels very spiritual somehow in spite of all the tourists. Everyone takes each other's pictures; I offer to take 3 generations of a female family and they are so grateful and polite. Love these folks! On the other hand, I don't think I have a single picture that this one hot young mother and child are not in! How many pix can one family take? LOL.

Our ticket up to the Buddha ($38) includes either a lunch or a snack, and after our big breakfast, we have opted for the snack, which is served in the vegetarian restaurants in the shadow of the beautiful temples opposite the big Buddha. The snack is plenty: our choice of two pieces of dim sum plus noodles and a drink. Lunch must be huge! As we eat we see random monks wandering around. After we finish, we hear chanting, and sure enough, the monks are participating in a ceremony in a secluded (no photos) part of the monastery. We can hear clearly but cannot see well. Just lovely.

We walk the short way back to the village and ask the info desk what time the next bus to the Tai O fishing village is. A half hour, time for a little shopping. There are Buddhist films to see and a walk to 36 columns, but we feel like we've seen plenty. We buy a few good luck charms and board the bus for the 20-minute ride to Tai O. Tai O is a little fishing village on the other side of the mountains that has seen better days. It's on stilts, mostly. Apparently overfishing has killed the industry and now the villagers are eking out a living on tourism. They take visitors on boat rides out to see pink Dolphins. There's a market in the village with tons of dried fish and squid, which we heard was mostly from the Philippines. But there's also wet markets with odd and beautiful items and fish so fresh it jumps out of the containers. Numerous walks have signposts, and we take one past a waterfront full of metal squatters houses that eventually supposedly led to a heritage hotel but we never saw that. The pathway is all walkers and bikes, no cars. At one of the temples on the way, Chris drops money in the bucket and lights some incense because he feels bad there is no incense burning! Very unlike him! It's an odd little village, half depressing and half interesting but definitely a sign of the fishing times.

We have to wait in a long line for a bus back to the MTR station to Kowloon. Two buses fill up before we can get on around 430-5, but fortunately they leave every 10 minutes. We are the only westerners on the bus, tho there had been more at the village and many more at the Buddha. Perhaps they were returning by ferry? Or private tour bus? The island had seemed very remote and unpopulated so it was a shock to get into Tung Shung where there are huge high-rises -- a city!! I guess those people who work at Disney have to live somewhere. Turns out these high-rises are pretty recent and 25,000 people now live in what was once a small fishing town. A woman at the customer service desk at the station explains which train to take and how to switch stations to get back to Tsa Shim Tsui. Very crowded at rush hour but no pushing. So civilized. We get back just in time for our dinner reservations at 7, across the street from the Star Ferry's exit. We hope to quickly check out the Chinese Arts and Crafts House, a well-respected crafts store that was supposed to be in Star House where our restaurant is, but we find out it moved down Canton Road. A store in there called Brand Off appears to sell gently used designer goods such as jewelry and Coach and Chanel bags.

For our Farewell to HK dinner, we had our concierge yesterday make us reservations at Peking Garden, a classic northern Chinese restaurant that seems to be popular with locals for celebrations. (Reservations at popular restaurants are advisable; the first one we had in mind was booked until 9.) A sprinkling of other westerners is there too. We see Peking ducks being carved at stations around the restaurant, so we tell our waiter that we'd like to have that but we're not sure how it's done. She immediately takes charge and tells us to order the duck (one for all 3 of us) first and see if we're still hungry after. Good move. Another waiter formally presents us with the whole browned duck then whisks it away to be sliced. She brings back two big plates of duck. Our waiter shows us how to take a thin pancake, put a slice or two of duck on it,along with some hoisin sauce and slices of scallion, then wrap it up like diapering a baby. Sumptuous. We have a New Zealand Syrah from Hawkes Bay as well, which is smooth and rich; we are surprised it is a 2004 because it's only about $38.

Meanwhile, entertainment is all around us. We enjoy watching two big family tables of ten filling their lazy susans with dishes. A young chef comes out and demonstrates how to actually make long, thin noodles, whipping them around his body and over his head, to everyone's delight. The table of westerners next to us orders a Beggars Chicken, which is a whole chicken cooked in leaves and a dough that turns into a hard, round crust. The tradition is to have one guest take a fancy hammer and whack the crusty ball open while her companions take pix. Next time! After the duck, we can eat no more. We have coffee, and the meal is a little over $100 US. We walk around the harborfront one last time then walk Gail back to her hotel. Her flight to Manila is at 9 am; ours is not until 3:25 pm.


SATURDAY: Leaving Hong Kong

We wake up to the news that Cyclone Pam, the worst Pacific storm in 20 to 30 years, is devastating the Vanuatu islands area and is heading for New Zealand. Just like we are later today. No wonder the weather forecast in NZ is so rainy. Our days in HK have been so jam packed that I give up on the idea of rising early to make it to the the Bird and Goldfish Markets that we didn't have time for yesterday. We rearrange and repack at leisure, enjoying our last views of the working harbor and drinking our coffee and tea and eating our oranges. I have worn the same pants and same four shirts for the past nine days; why did I bring so much stuff? It was hard to know the temperature and wind and rain for 5 weeks but my suitcase is jammed and I have added nothing in HK but a daypack. ( I throw out HK printed-out info I will no longer need including an article about family travel in HK. The author, a young mother of 2, says she bought so much stuff at the Stanley Market she had to buy two extra suitcases there too. We are astounded, but to each their own. I resist the urge to head anywhere to buy anything but I do call "the butler" via a button in our room. Housekeeping calls back and I ask to purchase a fiendishly stylish coffee mug in our room that boasts the name of this wonderful hotel. She says apologetically that it will be $630 HK dollars, or about $75 US. I laugh and say maybe not.)

As we check out, the assistant manager intercepts us and asks if we have any news of my phone. I say no, and she says she is not surprised as phones are rarely returned. I am hoping they can't break into mine as it is passcode protected. So far no sign of my identity having been stolen. We bid adieu to the young doorman in the sanitary white uniform that is a throwback to the '30s and take a cab to Kowloon Train Station. We are surprised to find that we can check in and send through our luggage right there in the station and hop on the airport express train unencumbered. We get a refund of the money left on our Octopus card, and the clerk says it's cheaper to buy an AE ticket WITHOUT the card. Makes no sense but we listen up. The AE is comfy and uncrowded.

We are deposited at the Hong Kong airport which is simply gigantic. Our gate is 46; there are 80 gates! My backpack is heavy (even tho security, where we did not have to take off shoes or belts, confiscated my nail scissors and metal nail file; the team was led by an extremely earnest inspector who looked about 14). We stop at a restaurant for our last Hong Kong meal because we are so early. I don't remember the name but it was out in the middle of the concourse. We are delighted: We order green beans with diced pork and sliced beef in satay sauce with kale and we are rewarded with dishes where the veggies are as exquisitely green and big as they appeared in the market near the night market. So scrumptious. I also order turnip cakes from the dim sum menu and they are wonderfully mild squares of some kind of turnip. After lunch, we hike the remaining 30 gates. We charge up my iPad so I can write this trip report before we land in the next whirlwind ( perhaps literally!) of NZ.

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