Hong Kong is an enormous city. Skyscrapers everywhere; people everywhere. It is amazingly crowded here (over 7 million people) everywhere you go. And, for all of the crowds you run into above ground, when you go below ground to take the subway, there is another city’s worth of people walking around there as well! The island of Hong Kong is a short ferry (or subway) ride away from Kowloon. We decided that in order to get the lay of the land (so to speak), we would take the Hop On Hop Off Bus (https://www.bigbustours.com/en/hong-kong/hong-kong-bus-tours). We opted for the 48-hour pass; it only cost $50 HK more than the 24-hour pass (less than $7 US) and included tickets for the tram to Victoria Peak, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, a sampan ride and a one-hour harbor cruise. There are two routes on Hong Kong island and one on the Kowloon side.
The hotel shuttle dropped us off between the Peninsula Hotel and the YMCA. If you are unfamiliar with Hong Kong, you may not know that the Y is one of the best places to stay in town. It has an excellent location overlooking Hong Kong Island and has great rooms. We were completely disoriented but immediately located on of the HOHO’s helpful employees that was happy to sell us our tickets and point us in the right direction.
It was a beautiful, picture-perfect day weather-wise so we decided to go to the Peak Tram first. The port lecturer on the ship had recommended this because it is rare to have a clear day in Hong Kong; the views from the peak are often times occluded due to clouds, fog or smog. And, the lines get really long, really fast.
In order to reach the tram, we needed to cross the harbor. As part of the HOHO package, we received two round-trip tickets for the Star Ferry. The ferry is famous; it is a passenger ferry that crosses between Kowloon and the island of Hong Kong. It is only takes 10-minutes tops to cross and costs 2.5 HKD (about 32 cents) each way (if you hadn’t purchased a HOHO ticket). The ferry dock is only about a 5-minute walk from where we were dropped off. We quickly walked to the pier and immediately boarded the ferry.
If you ride the ferry, it is worth knowing that the seat backs switch direction so you never have to ride “backwards”.
After crossing we found the Big Bus stand and debated whether to go on the red line or the green line route first. The Peak Tram was the first stop on the green line, so we queued up for the bus. Apparently, we missed the bus by about a minute so ended up waiting a half-hour for the next one. That gave us a chance to stare at all of the tall buildings in every single direction. We noticed that Hong Kong has a ferris wheel like London, Seattle, Singapore and Las Vegas (and probably many more). The bus pulled up and we hopped on. We went upstairs and I immediately realized that I should have brought my sunglasses with me; it was a really bright day. Oh, well!
As we drove past skyscrapers, the commentary talked about a few of the buildings. One that stuck with me was the army building. The unlucky soldiers that are stationed there are never allowed to leave, even when they are off-duty. Sucks to be a communist! There was a unique building designed by I.M. Pei (Bank of China building) that was pretty cool. We hopped off the bus at the Peak Tram entrance.
There was a huge line for tickets. Fortunately a HOHO employee noticed us with our brochure and directed us to the place where we could cut in line (they are skip the line tickets, sort of). We were pretty happy to not have to wait in the long line! Have you been to Disneyland? You wait outside forever and finally get inside only to find another long line? Same thing here. There were some displays about the history of the tram to look at while you are crammed into a tunnel awaiting the next tram. When you get far enough up the tunnel you can see the tram arrive to pick up its next set of passengers.
The tram is a funicular that rises about 1300 feet above sea level. Victoria’s Peak was (and is) a popular place to live because it is so high above the city that it is cooler up there. The gradient varies from 4 degrees to 27 degrees. Prior to the tram being built (about 1880), people were carried up in a bamboo sedan chair by two coolies. Not much fun to be a coolie, I am sure.
I would say that the tram ride is one of the not to be missed experiences in Hong Kong. The view is spectacular, but the thrill is the ride up and down. That is one steep railway! A couple we met on the cruise hiked both ways rather than taking the tram; I can’t imagine! When you reach the top there is a multi-level shopping plaza. You have to pay extra in order to access the 360 degree view from the top level. We were happy to experience the view from the free levels. The peak is open on New Year’s Eve; I imagine it is quite the popular location to view the fireworks over the harbor.
We were hungry by now and found a Burger King. Unfortunately, it was closed, so we figured we would ride back down and find a place to eat. The line for the return trip was much shorter than the one for the ride up. We asked an employee if there were any restaurants around; she said no so we opted to hop on the next bus that showed up (the red line).
The tour took us around the west end of the island. An interesting feature of the Central District of Hong Kong is that there are covered pedestrian walkways that take you over 800 meters through town. They go through all of the buildings (2nd floor) and cross roads. Some of them have escalators. These escalators run one direction until 10 am (for those “commuting” to work) and then switch directions the remainder of the day. We passed through various shopping districts (antiques, etc.) and looped back to where we started.
We looked around for restaurants at the pier. There were a couple of expensive ones, and there was a Subway. We decided to cheap out and eat at Subway (cash only; glad we had some HKD!). Now that we had refueled, we opted to take the ferry back to the Kowloon side and take the blue line around Kowloon.
We were not sure where to catch the blue line but figured it would be near the Peninsula. We checked with one of the doormen and the bus was around the back of the hotel. We hoofed it quickly back there and saw the bus loading. We were still a block away. This time, luck was with us because the traffic light turned red which gave us just enough time to run for the bus. We pounded on the door and the driver let us in. Whew! It would’ve been another half-hour wait if we had missed the bus.
The blue route took us west to the “The Elements” which is a huge development that includes a 100 floor skyscraper (The ICC – International Commerce Centre) before heading all the way down Nathan Road. We located the Shamrock Hotel, where our friends Patrick and Cecilia were staying. We were going to try to meet up with them while in town, so it was helpful to know where the hotel was. The bus took us all the way to the Mong Kok area (north of Tsim Sha Tsui; near where we were staying) before turning around and heading back to the Peninsula. Large banyan trees line many of the streets. They are protected by the government. There was more to the route (it headed east towards Causeway Bay and then returned to the Pen), but we were tired of riding in traffic by then so left the bus.
We located the place to meet the shuttle easily enough but ended up waiting nearly an hour for it to show up (it runs every half-hour in the morning, but every hour in the afternoon). We chatted with another couple that we had met on the morning shuttle while we waited. Traffic in the afternoon was definitely much worse than the morning so it took quite a while to get back. It took anywhere from 10-minutes to 30-plus minutes by car to get to the hotel depending on traffic.
We dropped by the desk to pick up our key cards. We had opted for a “Club” room, mainly because the cost included a breakfast buffet as well as afternoon snacks/drinks. It was cheaper to get the club room than pay for the breakfast separately. The Club Rooms were also all non-smoking which is a big deal for us. After January 1st the entire hotel will be non-smoking but that doesn’t help us on this trip! The room is on the 17th floor (19th is the top level) and there is a club lounge that we have access to. We have found that the afternoon snacks are substantial enough for us to call “dinner”! One other great feature that our hotel provided was a free smartphone. It ran on 3G rather than 4G, but who cares? We could use it to make international phone calls (free!) which I unfortunately needed to do because I found a charge on my credit card that I had not made. I was able to call customer service using the phone. The great part of having that phone, though, wasn’t the ability to call the US; it was the ability to use Google Maps while out and about to find our way around town. We just plugged in where we wanted to go and it would give us turn by turn walking directions. The MTR app was also on the phone so we were able to use it to plan our trips on the subway as well. Having that phone was a tremendous help during our 4-day stay.
After our luggage was delivered we walked down the block to the nearest 7-11 (they are everywhere in Hong Kong) to purchase our Octopus cards. An octopus card is used to pay for transit but can also be used as a debit card. It costs $39 HK to buy the card (around $5) and then you add money to it which we used to ride the MTR (subway) around town. The money you put on the card is refundable at the airport when you leave. We put $50 HK on each card initially. Later, we added another $100 HK so we would not run short of funds. The subway system here is amazing and the octopus card makes it awfully convenient – you never need to worry about having exact change. If you need to add value to the card you can do that at any MTR station, 7-11 or Circle K. The only caveat is that you need to use cash to add value to the card (not a credit or debit card). Ninety percent of people here use public transportation. It is fast and efficient; I highly recommend it. We also stopped at an ATM to get more local money because we had used all of the money Clayton had picked up at the pier. We had assumed we would be able to use credit cards virtually everywhere but that turned out to be wrong.
We headed back to the hotel to freshen up and check out the free afternoon snacks (served from 5:30 to 7:30 pm). There were a few hot snacks (egg rolls, and a couple of Chinese fishy treats), finger sandwiches and some pastries. There was also an espresso machine, hot tea, and water. But, the attendant also would serve soft drinks or alcoholic beverages. Not bad!
By now it was dark and we decided to explore the neighborhood. The people we had chatted with on the shuttle bus had told us that there was a store that had kittens for sale just around the corner. Of course, we had to see the kitties! It turns out that the whole block was full of pet stores and vets. Kitties and puppies!
We kept walking and found that we were not too far from a subway station. The free shuttle would drop us off at the subway but it was only a few blocks away, so why take the shuttle? We just kept walking and wandered into the Ladies Market which is one of the places I wanted to visit. This particular market has lots of clothing items for dirt-cheap prices. None of the things for sale was anything appealing to me, so I was not tempted to buy. We still needed to pick up a couple of gifts for our kids since we had missed all of the stops on the last leg of our cruise. We were pretty tired by now.
We wanted to find a place for dinner. We passed by numerous restaurants but the menus were, shall we say, interesting. Lots of seafood, lots of use of pigs knuckles, lots of uses of animal parts that just were not appealing. I love Chinese food, but I guess I need to amend that to saying that I love Americanized Chinese food. My husband is a pickier eater than I am and we simply could not find a place that served food that both of us would like. Call me chicken, but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around eating the food! We ended up at McDonalds, wimps that we are.
After walking around aimlessly for a couple of hours looking at the market and at local shops, we were able to find our way back to the hotel without any issues. I completely forgot that we had that marvelous smartphone that would’ve given us directions, or we might have ventured further. We have four days here total, so will definitely try out the phone later.