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Extraordinary, Stylish Hong Kong, Where Shopping is an Art Form

By: Amy Gibson

Date Posted: 2000-12-01

Just a 2-hour plane ride from Naha, Hong Kong is an excellent long-weekend getaway, a city where eastern and western culture come together to form a fascinating, cosmopolitan destination.

Hong Kong is actually divided into three areas: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. Usually, "Hong Kong" refers to all three areas taken together. Hong Kong Island, whose gleaming skyscrapers form a most distinctive skyline, is the most business-oriented area. Kowloon, heavily populated with stores and hotels, tends to be more touristy. The New Territories are far less developed and the best bet for hiking and a glimpse of unspoiled nature.

All three areas were under British authority until 1997. Before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule that year, there was much speculation and worry about how much China would change the city and whether Hong Kong would still be a viable option for tourists. Fortunately, under the system of "One County, Two Systems," not much has changed in Hong Kong. It is still a bustling city of enthusiastic capitalism and enormous wealth -- there are more Rolls Royces per capita in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world. All of the former attractions are still here, and for a short visit you still don't need a visa.

That said, you should definitely bring a Visa (or MasterCard, or American Express). Shopping is one of Hong Kong's premier activities, one that has been elevated to an art form. A staggering number of shops line the streets, and there are stores to meet any budget, from Tiffany's and Cartier in the Peninsula Hotel to small establishments selling silk pajamas for about US$6 (¥635).

Pearls are one of the most popular purchases for those traveling to Hong Kong, and there is certainly no shortage of jewelry stores from which to choose. If you're thinking about buying jewelry, do not be intimidated by the colossal pearls and gems featured in store displays. Hong Kong vendors tend to display their flashiest, most extravagant wares in their front windows, but inside you will find a full range of size, quality and prices in both gemstones and pearls. Also, it is worth doing a little research before your trip so you know what to look for and what truly constitutes a bargain.

Hong Kong's reputation as a shopping mecca may also have something to do with the relative lack of "sights" -- there really isn't much to see compared with a city like Kyoto or even Tokyo. Before the British gained control of Hong Kong Island in the 1840s, a sleepy village named Aberdeen was the only settlement on the island, and fishing was the only industry. In 160 years, Hong Kong has become a dynamic city and a center of international finance, but its relative youth means there are no ancient temples or carefully preserved ruins to visit. Instead of viewing sights, you spend your visit absorbing the energy, vitality and atmosphere of this fantastic city.

There are, of course, a few things you shouldn't miss. A Star Ferry ride between Hong Kong and Kowloon is a cheap and entertaining way to get a terrific view of both areas from the harbor that separates them. The best view of the harbor itself is from Hong Kong Island's Victoria's Peak, home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world. From the Peak you can see how quickly Hong Kong's terrain rises from harbor to mountain, and you can appreciate the incredible engineering required to cram so much development into such an inhospitable space. While at the Peak, grab a bite to eat or slurp down a delicious milkshake at the Peak Café, which has been feeding Peak visitors for decades. If you haven't shopped enough, there's even a Peak Mall.

Hong Kong's Hollywood Road is lined with fascinating antique stores -- some spare and sophisticated, others dark, dusty and crammed with all sorts of interesting pieces. Again, doing some research before you go will help you locate quality items and avoid overpaying for something of little value. You should also explore the tiny side streets, many paved with steps due to the steepness of the hill.

Over in Kowloon, the pleasures are perhaps a bit more genteel. Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula Hotel may sound awfully stuffy, but it really is a fun (and delicious) experience. The Peninsula is the grand dame of Hong Kong hotels and the perfect place to experience the British ritual of Afternoon Tea. Because the crowd is mostly tourists, the atmosphere is rather laid-back; you can relax and enjoy yourself. Besides teas and coffee, the menu offers a variety of salads and tempting snacks, including the "Traditional Tea," a collection of tea sandwiches, scones and petits four, which are beautiful bite-size cakes. Don't let the fussy name intimidate you: Afternoon Tea is a quintessential Hong Kong experience that you should not miss.

If tea doesn't fill you up, head to the Regent Hotel's Lobby Bar. The Regent sits right on the harbor and features a long wall of three-story windows facing Hong Kong Island. The bar is filled with welcoming sofas and armchairs, and the menu offers everything from snacks and light dinners to beer, frozen drinks and non-alcoholic fruit concoctions. This is the ultimate spot for relaxing and taking in perhaps the most stunning view of the city. Besides allowing the view, the wall of windows serves an important function. Legend says that the Hong Kong Dragon crosses the harbor every night and returns to Mainland China; the windows let him pass through, whereas a solid wall would impede his nightly journey.

No visit to Hong Kong would be complete without several delicious meals. Hong Kong is famous for not just the quality of its cuisine, but the incredible variety as well. You can eat food from nearly any country in the world here, and even the small, anonymous restaurants usually serve up delectable fare. Most famous of all is a lunch of dim sum, which means "savory snacks." Typical dim sum is a bit of meat or vegetable contained in a dough-like wrapper, though you will likely find a large array of ingredients and presentation. Many dim sum restaurants serve customers from a roaming steam cart -- you make your selections by pointing at whatever looks good. At some restaurants you will receive a menu; a good method is to start by ordering just a few things, and order more later if you're still hungry. You will probably be served a variety of dipping sauces, many of them chili-based and hot! Be adventurous, in moderation.

Hong Kong has a reputation of being very expensive, especially when it comes to hotel accomodations. There are bargains to be had, and once again research can save you a good deal of money. Look into guesthouses and the YMCA/YWCA-run hotels, or consult a tour book that focuses on bargain travel. If you are fortunate enough to have a generous budget, you will find that Hong Kong's luxury hotels will pamper you and attend your every need with an extraordinary amount of style and service. Then again, wherever you stay, eat or sip tea in Hong Kong, you are sure to find "extraordinary" and "style" all around.

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