Well, you’ve done all the main stuff, ridden the Star Ferry, snapped views from the Peak and orientated yourself across an outlying island. Enough at any rate to realize that Hong Kong is quite a place; so what now? Well, if you’re spending a while here, have visited before or simply fancy doing something a little different to the guidebook musts, I’d like to introduce ten lesser known extras (in no particular order) which I hope will provide added perspective to this, the Pearl of the Orient. Even better, some of these items can be combined into one trip and are conveniently located for bus or train access.
1. Tsang Tai Uk (Tsang’s big house)
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At the foot of Lion Rock in Shatin this fortified village structure was built by mason and quarry master Tsang Koon Man in 1870; fashioned in the Chinese vernacular style with enclosing gray brickwork, guard towers and ‘wok-handle’ gables. A listed structure, it still houses some 100 families who, oblivious to curious observers, casually go about their daily business; modern-day concessions including air-conditioners and parking lots do not detract. Atop each gable note the metal tridents intended to repel evil spirits. Afterward, turn westward and take the underpass to emerge upon Sha Tin Tau, a typical Hong Kong village with cultivated plots and pathways.
2. Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery (Man Fat Tze)
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Popular amongst locals, this site is nestled in the hills slightly north of Shatin. Passing the Po Fook Ancestral Hall and up some 250 statue-lined steps delivers one to the main terrace where the sanctum, 9-storey pagoda and a colorful array of Buddhist deities welcome. The monastery was founded in 1949 and completed in 1957 by Yuet Kai, a devout Buddhist layman. Needless to say, gracing the walls of the main hall, 12800 Buddha statuettes provide the establishment with its name and reputation. It’s a delightfully brash and eccentric place to explore, the requisite aura of tranquillity and spiritualism provided by its pleasant, hillside location.
3. Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Shatin
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With a photogenic riverside location, the 3-story museum, in the style of an ancient ancestral hall, opened in 2000. It’s a great place to visit, spacious enough to feel unoppressive, an enticing café and a series of both permanent and visiting exhibitions. Admission to the permanent exhibitions is free and currently includes Cantonese Opera and New Territories heritage halls, TT Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art and a Bruce Lee: Kung Fu-Art-Life display. Check the museum website for visiting exhibitions (nominal charges apply) schedule, these are pleasingly diverse and by example this summer saw a superb display of Claude Monet masterpieces – so get ready.
4. Sai Kung
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Sai Kung is a fishy, waterside town on the far east of the New Territories, surrounded by lush countryside it is rightly referred to as Hong Kong’s garden. The waterfront makes a pleasant promenade with seafood restaurants, piers, and myriad marine activities: fisher folk hawking a day’s catch, pleasure cruise departures, and the odd dragon boat flurry. At weekends locals descend in droves to enjoy island hopping around the scenic archipelago, trips can be organized via one of several grittily strident ladies who effortlessly hook their catch (you!) should interest arise; there’s no English but a signboard shows the route and some price bargaining may be required. The old part of the town with its tiny, labyrinthine alleys, shops and temples is certainly evocative of an ancient fishing village and with it comes a pleasantly pervasive seaside odor.
5. Shatin to Tai Po cycle route
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A very popular weekend activity is to haul the family out to cycle along a purpose-built path which hugs the coastline from Shatin to Tai Mei Tuk via Tai Po. It’s a fabulous social activity and you’re sure to have a ball, weekdays, however, you’ll more than likely have the place to yourself. It’s an easy cycle on the level, made ground of about 19km with a few kiosks and cafes along the way, however, these may not always be open weekdays so stock up before you go, just in case. Bikes for men, women, and kids can be hired (rates vary wildly) from the riverside shop adjacent to Shatin’s Lek Yuen Bridge. The path starts by following the Shing Mun River through residential Shatin before skirting the spectacularly scenic Tolo Harbour, look out for the 76m tall Goddess of Mercy Statue across the bay and Island House, a colonial outpost and now WWF center, near Tai Po. You don’t have to return either as drop off facilities exist and of course, you can walk if you prefer – so enjoy the fresh air!
6. Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden
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A green oasis established in 1956 as a conservation and teaching center. The organic farm and imaginatively landscaped garden extend over 148 hectares of lush countryside with a fine collection of plants, birds, insects and animals at which to marvel. The energetic can also follow a winding path up the distinctive peak of Kwun Yum Shan (548m) to obtain great views across the surrounding area. The center’s buildings include educational displays and workshops on nature and conservation, a vegetarian cafe and a wildlife rescue facility. Throughout the visit, the center’s wise and principled ethos of ‘Nature conservation, holistic education and sustainable living’ are importantly and pleasingly reinforced. Modest admission charges apply (HK$30 adults, HK$15 kids, seniors free!); all for a good cause – more fresh air – let’s go!
7. The Green Hub
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Opened in 2015 this is a relative newcomer to the tourist scene: a green center housed around the old Tai Po Police Station (1899). The building, a fine example of colonial architecture with a classic mix of a Chinese-style roof, Dutch gable, and breeze-enticing verandah, is where the Union Jack was allegedly raised to mark the official takeover of the New Territories in 1899. Reaffirming the center’s strapline of ‘Reconnecting with soil, soul and society’ various green workshops and residential courses are aimed at sustainable, ecological, low-carbon living. The center includes a co-operative shop and a tasty vegetarian café, menu ingredients grown on the grounds or sourced locally. It’s a very pleasant site to stroll and the surrounding camphor and banyan trees are substantial, to say the least; there’s also a fascinating museum dedicated to the old police station. This is certainly an attraction designed to inspire ones greening – so visit and go green, it’s free!
8. Country walks
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What!! Don’t you believe me? Well, it’s true; 40% of Hong Kong is designated country park, not only teeming with an array of flora and fauna but some amazing scenery too! And there’s something for everyone: family day-trippers, hill runners, and hikers alike. With 24 country parks, there’s a huge variety of established trail, all expertly mapped (from Government Publications Office), difficulty rated (easy, moderate, difficult, very difficult), signposted and easily accessible. The main trails are Maclehose (100km) with Tai Mo Shan (957m) highest; Wilson (78km) with Wong Leng (639m) highest; Lantau (70km) with Lantau Peak (934m) highest; Hong Kong (50km) with The Peak (552m) highest. Now, I can see your color draining from here but don’t fret; only a rabid mountain goat or nutty local (like me!) would attempt the whole thing. No, trails are split into more survivable 2-4 hour stints. So, what are you waiting for? Pick a section; dub those hiking boots and put your best foot forward! Note: whereas refreshment kiosks exist at the start and finish off of some trails, please ensure you carry sufficient food and water to complete the route safely!
9. Hong Kong Science and Technology Park (HKSTP), Tai Po
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Now for something completely different as they say: a modern innovation and technology facility occupying 22 landscaped hectares by the Tolo Harbour (near the Chinese University). This multi-green award-laden marvel will be of interest to those with a save the environment through technology, engineering, and architecture bent; it’s highly educational and popular with schools. There’s also an inviting food court with low-cost Asian and Western eateries so you won’t go hungry. Although in the background the world’s most advanced labs and research centers are busy developing, public areas allow for exploration, appreciation, and enjoyment of today’s sustainable technology via a series of displays and exhibitions. Of particular interest is the Green Trail which leads one through 17 green building design features such as water curtains, solar thermal cooling and solar tubes – fascinating! See if you can find the fearsome-looking robot that’s holding, in the palm of his hand, something vitally significant to the planet’s survival. What can it be? A smartphone? An electronic component? Find him and let me know!
10. Tea n’ tarts
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No, not that sort of tart, you’ll find those in the Wanchai bars. I’m talking about the baked variety which is very much at home around here: China, Hong Kong, and Macau. The egg tart forms an important part of the Hongkongers culinary armory, sometimes taken with dim sum, sometimes in a restaurant with milk tea, but usually purchased from a supermarket or bakery to be scoffed at home. Chris Patten, the last colonial governor, was (and probably still is!) a huge fan. The tarts arrived in this part of the world, under Portuguese influence, via Macau but spread to neighboring Hong Kong where they soon received a British makeover – think custard tarts. So, there’s actually two types, Portuguese and Chinese, both available here and both dangerously delicious! The main difference is their pastry, shortcrust (Chinese) or puff (Portuguese). So, when in Hong Kong, ask for a daan taat and enjoy! I prefer the puff variety, how about you? PS. Should be about HK$4 each.