Archive for March 29, 2012

Many  travelers overlook the benefits of stop over options while enroute to their final destination. Quite often stop over privileges are either free or granted at very low cost by the carrier. I have no such hesitation and make it a point to take advantage of every opportunity to discover a new city or to revisit one I have already fallen in love with and wish to rekindle a quickie romance. Recently I had the opportunity to take a 24 hour stop over in Hong Kong and jumped at the chance. I have been visiting Hong Kong for thirty plus years. I have an endless love affair with this city.

Rapid change has always been the hallmark of Hong Kongs famous harbour skyline. It makes the city seem fresh every time I visit. New buildings stand where old haunts used to be forcing me to take new directions and discover entirely new markets and streets that had eluded me on previous trips. Hong Kong and I are on a constant voyage of discovery. It’s like a marriage, the more we change, the more we love one another.

From the purely selfish perspective of an ‘Old Asia Hand’ I would have preferred they kept Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong as the port of arrival, now that was an airport entrance like no other. The runway was pulled from the water and the flightpath ran straight through the high towers of Tsim Tsa Tsui. On approach the aircraft would literally fly so close to the buildings that you could see people at their kitchen tables reading a paper from out the window of the plane as you descended. Once clear of the buildings the pilot would bank the plane fiercely as if to roll the craft over onto it’s side. From that position of what seemed like a 30% angle all you could see was either sky or water depending on what side of the plane you were seated.

The Kai Tak runway was a skinny strip of asphalt out into the water and short. When the pilot touched down he jammed on the brakes to skid to a stop..welcome to Hong Kong, it was a thrilling way to arrive at this exotic destination. Leaving the airports front entrance was to step directly into downtown Kowloon, you could walk to your hotel in those days. Some did, to make peace after the fear of flying they had just experienced. For many newbie arrivals into HK at the time, Kai Tak was also their first ‘near death’ experience. I count myself as one of those. Old hands rarely spilled a drink knowing what was coming when the plane cleared the last two towers.

Modern Chep Lap Kok airport is boring by comparison. It is much more modern, much larger, but situated on Lantau Island removed from the city by fourty minutes of ultra modern freeway and bridge connection by taxi. The current fare, which is negotiable depending on the number of bags you carry at around $240 Hong Kong Dollars for any number of people. I stay downtown Kowloon at an old favorite, The Nathan Hotel, appropriately named as it is situated on Nathan Road, the main street of Kowloon running from Yau Mei Tai to Tsim Tsa Tsui.

This street is on the subway line, the closest station o the hotel being Jordan Station, a connection to every part of either Kowloon, New Territories and Hong Kong Island can be made from here. The Nathan Hotel and I are old friends. They have undergone a modern renovation and in my opinion is one of the most comfortable hotels in Kowloon. I was very fortunate this time to be granted an upgrade to the Nathans ‘Grand Room’ suite for being a loyal repeat customer. The Bali Room restaurant on the 15th floor was a welcome inclusion to my holiday. I was able to have bacon for breakfast along with many other western delights, included in the room price. If you wonder why I mention this it is because I hadn’t had a western style breakfast for exactly 6 months and this was a real treat.

My wife Patricia and I were on a mission to see as much of Hong Kong in the 24 hours we had allotted ourselves. A requested late check out privilege at the hotel was a big help in our quest. The evening of our arrival began at the airport where we were whisked through immigration by some travel miracle. In about 45 minutes we had taken a cab, driven into the city, checked in to the hotel with an amazing level of efficiency, dropped our bags, donned comfortable shoes and hit the street for our nights itinerary, all within an hour and a half. First stop, Mong Kok, the Ladies Market, so called for it’s traditional collection of women’s clothing stores. But, it is so much more today. Mong Kok is a microcosm of everything Hong Kong. Time Square has nothing on the neon lights of Mong Kok.

The streets are packed with people. There are street hawkers and buskers playing music. New Mong Kok is a great market for electronics and photo equipment. The famous lanes are still excitingly filled with a tremendous variety of clothing, accessories and tourist must haves. Young people by the thousands come to Mong Kok to revel at night, the atmosphere is very lively. I love the snack carts and kiosks that line the streets here in Asia, Hong Kong does this as well as anyone. The food is clean and delicious. This time we found the seafood on a stick to be most to our liking and ate while we ambled along the streets to enjoy the general ambiance.

The evening was greatly enhanced by the Hong Kong transit system. For less that $1 Canadian Dollar , $4 Hong Kong Dollars, we jumped on the train and headed to our next destination after we were sure that we’d had as good a time in Mong Kok as anyone could. Next stop, Yau Mei Tai, the Jade Market street which at night, becomes a open air market of an older Hong Kong style that represents the commerce of an era long past. People come out of their high rise homes and eat in the streets below when it’s too hot to cook.

The subway stop let us come up into the Temple Street North market aka The Jade Market ,and walk straight into this delightful neighborhood. This is an area where at night restaurants place tables out into the pedestrian only street. It’s very gay and bright. Several beer bars and entertainment complexes are pouring music out in the open air. People by the hundreds are dining Al fresco under the warm night sky. This is as romantic a destination as any I have found on my travels around the world. Patricia and I always come here whenever in Hong Kong.

However our destination was several blocks away, past the Taoist temple park where fortune tellers have tents all along the sidewalks for those who seek an insight to their destiny from the gods. We would walk through the gauntlet of hawker stands along the way. These vendors can be selling anything from hardware and appliances to sex toys and antique watches or communist party memorabilia. It’s quite pleasant to be able to walk at night through this uber urban setting and meet with such amicable surroundings. I have never felt anything but safe while walking in Hong Kong and do so without restraint. We were headed to the other Temple Street Market, the really big one, on Temple Street South in the Jordan District. This street is a unique market in Hong Kong in that it not only offers a walk through an amazing assortment of goods for sale, good and bad. But at every cross street corner there are restaurants set up for you to sit down and indulge yourself in a variety of favorites.

My tastes are fairly simple and I had a hankering for a really good bowl of ‘melt in your mouth’ beef brisket in noodle soup with a side dish of steamed vegetables in oyster sauce. The atmosphere is electric, there are people from around the world enjoying themselves. The locals are dominant by the way and this is an authentic Hong Kong experience like no other if are like me and collect such experiences like others collect stamps. You’ll likely find yourself in conversation with complete strangers interested in your travel story. Hong Kong people like visitors. Learn a few words of Cantonese and you’re going to find new friends are easily made.

A little after midnight Pat and I agreed to have an early evening so that we could get up for breakfast at 7AM and do the rest of the town as we saw fit. I had two things on my agenda, the first being the early morning bakery offerings. Hong Kong bakers make the best Dan Tat , Chinese egg custard, in the world. When it’s hot and fresh from the oven there are few food experiences  that can surpass the flavour of a Dan Tat  fresh and being eaten on the streets of the busy city that invented gourmet street food.

I’m also a creature of habit and like to revisit old memories when in Hong Kong. I have to take a ride across the harbour on the ancient Star Ferry. The ferry terminal on Kowloon’s water front hasn’t changed since built in  an earlier century when HK was still an outpost of the British Empire, it’s a veritable time capsule of old Hong Kong. There is no better way to get the full ‘Hong Kong experience’ than from the wooden deck of the Star Ferry. The views of the imposing cityscape is one of the best in the world. This time I rode ‘The Twinkling Star’, she’s a venerable original in the fleet.