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Hong Kong is one of the world’s most famous tourist cities, but it is also a good place to go for recreation in East and Southeast Asia. It is has had a worldwide reputation as one of the world’s best places to shop. This makes sense since there are no sales taxes and almost no taxes at all, and it is one of China’s busiest ports, right next to the ShenZhen Special Economic Zone and the many factories in GuangDong Province. Products from around the world may be bought there at competitive prices. Business people from all over the world come to conduct business with people in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese. It is known as the “gateway to China,” and the Chinese made products that are sold are cheaper than comparable goods that you would find in your local malls back in your home countries. With all this hustle and bustle and money exchanging hands, is there another way to have fun other than by strolling in the malls and bargaining with shop owners? There are plenty of recreational opportunities in Hong Kong.There are plenty of fun places to go, interesting things to see, and fun things to do in Hong Kong and much of this fun is free or inexpensive. Hong Kong has some of the best natural recreation areas in the region, good museums, zoos and parks that are free or inexpensive, amusement parks, an inexpensive transportation system including a cheap ferry system, lots of English language churches, and there is the fun and adventure of seeing and mixing with people from all over the world. So though Hong Kong is known as a good place to shop, to me the recreational activities is what makes Hong Kong enjoyable.
Looking at the market situation from an economic standpoint, from the many luxurious malls and stores, from all the thousands of small shops and boutiques, and from all the people hawking merchandise at tourists on the streets, there is plenty of competition to keep prices down. Labor costs in Hong Kong are still much lower than in the most of the world’s developed economies. It sits on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and products from all over the world are sold by merchants who have come to live there from all over the world. People from around the world go there to shop, have holidays, and enjoy the clean environment, scenery, resorts, hotels and restaurants. But if you are tired of business and shopping, people in the region looking for a place to get away from people, enjoy natural activities like hiking and swimming in a clean ocean, enjoy real Western food and enjoy some English language films or English friendly cultural activities, Hong Kong is sort of unique. This is what I found about Hong Kong. It is also interesting to watch all the world cultures merge, and see the people from all over the world.
The Chinese SAR (Special Administrative Region) of Hong Kong is covered with hills and mountains. It is wonderful to take a train or bus from the border and see green tree covered hills that seem empty. These mountains and hills are fairly steep, and until recently people have left much of the region of Hong Kong undeveloped. Especially, the region of the New Territories is still largely undeveloped. About 40% of Hong Kong is protected in 23 parks, including three marine parks and one marine reserve. Hiking trails, waterfalls, clean swimming spots and places to fish, lakes, rivers and some of Asia’s best beaches are within walking distance from the modern rapid transit train stations, and are often empty or have few visitors each day. As one person reported, “We hardly met a soul on our hikes.” Some of Asia’s best beaches and natural ocean areas are empty, but easily accessible. The 10 tallest mountain peaks all have hiking trails. Books and trail guides are easy to find in book stores and information kiosks. So for those who want to stroll or to go swimming or hiking, these still empty places in Hong Kong may be among the best places to go in East Asia.
As an example of a quick natural excursion from a ritzy mall, when I am on Hong Kong Island I like to take a 20 or 30 minute walk through the new IFC Mall that is one of Hong Kong’s most deluxe and arrive at a narrow road that climbs through a wooded park up Victoria Peak, rise above the high rises, and once reaching the top, see the great views on both the city side and the seaward side of the peak. If you really want to shop, there are two more malls to shop in on the top of Victoria Peak! Along the way, near this road is one of the coolest zoos I have ever seen, partly because it is free. I accidently walked in, trying to find my way up the hill one day, and found myself facing strange animals in cages. I thought I was in a small park, such as Chinese like to build to sit in, but found myself in one of the coolest zoos I’ve ever seen because it was clean, quiet and contained mainly primates, some of which I have never seen.
If you want to take this walk to the zoo or up Victoria Peak, the IFC Mall can be reached from Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon aboard the Star Ferry. After a 12 minute walk on the covered walkway from the ferry terminal, you’ll be in the IFC Mall. But you may have to ask directions. One thing I’ve found strange about both China and Hong Kong is how there are few signs giving directions. The mall is large and spread out over several huge buildings. From the side of the IFC that faces the mountain, you can follow more covered walkways, escalators and stairs that lead up to the road that ascends up the hill. It is difficult to find the road because there are no clear signs, but people may give directions. Next to this park is the free small zoo called the Zoological and Botanical Gardens. It is worth seeing. I describe it more below.
The hike though the park to the top of Victoria Peak takes about 35 or 40 minutes. It passes through woods, and there are places to sit along the way if you are tired. It is fairly quiet in the park, and usually only a few people, mainly foreigners, may be found walking along the road. At the top there is a mall called the Peak Tower. There are coffee shops including a Starbucks for refreshments, and there are many restaurants with views from the top of the peak. There actually are two peaks at the top of Victoria Peak with good views. The other peak is about a 15 minute walk away. From the first peak next to the malls, you can see the ocean and the shoreline from the ocean side of the island. From the second peak, there is a good view of the bay and city below. At night, the city lights are a spectacle (see my picture, taken during the day). The mall area is served by a tram, and there are buses and taxis available if you want a ride.
The city from Victoria Peak
It was really cool and fun visiting 3 museums and seeing an “Imax” movie called “The Alps” at the Space Museum this summer with some friends – all in one day. We went on the day the museums are free, so the Science Museum was crowded with kids. The museums in Hong Kong are inexpensive and interesting. Ticket prices range from 10 to 25 HKD which is only about 1.2 to about 3 US dollars. On Wednesdays, entry is free. If you are in Kowloon or Tsim Sha Tsui, the best museums are within walking distance. For busy shoppers, within easy travel distance of the busy shopping districts of Central on Hong Kong Island and of Tsim Sha Tsui are four of Hong Kong’s best museums and the Hong Kong Cultural Center.
The Museum of Art houses about 15,000 exhibits. Its focus is to preserve Chinese artistic heritage. The collection includes an impressive display of antiques, and it includes many works of art from ancient China. It also has an extensive calligraphy section.
The Hong Kong Space Museum is next door to the Museum of Art. It is a distinctive white dome shaped building. There are two collections and a large and sophisticated “Omnimax” or “Imax” style movie theater. The theater projects movies on the very large screen which is actually the roof of the building, and the audio is broadcast simultaneously via headphones in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese. The Hall of Space Science collection is on the first floor, and the Hall of Astronomy is on the second floor. The space science collection features mainly Chinese astronomical instruments and charts, early Chinese rockets that were used as weapons, and rockets that were invented in the West during the last two centuries. It also includes a mockup of the American Space Shuttle cockpit that is very interesting because it is realistic and huge. The Hall of Astronomy collection instructs visitors on the solar system, stars and universe. There is also a small collection of meteorites. Some of the exhibits in the museum are interactive. It is a place to go if you like science or want to learn about the history of astronomy or space flight, or if you simply want to see an exciting super screen movie.
Like I said, I visited this Space Museum this summer. The recreations of Chinese rocket weapons were interesting. And I was amazed at the size of the Space Shuttle cockpit. It is like a jetliner, but it doesn’t look very big on TV. The dome-screened “Imax” movie threatre was really a wonderful place to be. It was clean and quiet, and I was tired. But to view the movies, people have to lie down on the chairs that are more like beds. It was really cool. I was impressed by the scenery of the Alps, and the great music. The movie touched me. It was about a climber whose father had died climbing this same peak when he was a kid. It was really moving. He accomplished his life-long dream and burden to get to the top of it.
The Science Museum is about a 25 minute walk away. It is another place to go to learn about science. It is especially a fun place for kids and for adults who like to play because most of the exhibits are interactive. There is a hall of mirrors and a sports fitness test area for example. The hall of mirrors is fun to walk through. The fitness test area was the most fun part of the museum for me. But I suggest go when there aren’t so many kids. The lines were quite long on the “free day” when I visited.
The Hong Kong Museum of History is next to the Science Museum. It has interesting “real-life” displays of Hong Kong at various times, including the British Colonial era and the Japanese invasion. There is an interesting walk-through geology and natural history exhibit. The Museum has collected about 2,800 rock and mineral specimens from the around the territory, and there are over 750 specimens of shells from local beaches. The Museum has also acquired over 1,600 animal specimens, including mammals, birds and butterflies. I liked the historical displays about Hong Kong’s recent history, but I thought that the first part of the museum with the displays of Neolithic people on a beach and the recreations of prehistoric animals and etc. was kind of hokey.
The Hong Kong Cultural Center is a large building next to the Space Museum. When I walked inside, I was struck by the huge unused space. There is a concert hall that seats about 2000 people, a theatre that seats about 1700, and a small studio theatre than can seat almost 500 people. World famous orchestras and musicians perform there. At the entrance, is a model of the whole center.
Zoos and Parks and Amusement Areas
For a city of 7 million people, there are two small zoos and several large amusement parks, Ocean Park, Hong Kong Disneyland and Noah’s Ark. These are alternative places for recreation and fun for busy shoppers in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens is the larger of the two zoos and includes a large garden. This is the free zoo I accidently visited one day as I wrote about above. What I didn’t know is that it is one of the oldest zoos in the world. It was opened to the public in 1871. The most interesting part of the zoo is a collection of about 10 or 15 different kinds of primates from around the world, including an orangutan and lemurs from South America. The golden lion tamarins are especially beautiful and interesting because their long hair is orange-gold colored. There are other small mammals and several reptiles that children especially will find interesting. But there are no animals larger than the apes there. There are more than 1,000 species of plants in the gardens that are mostly indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical regions. There are some rare species of plants. This zoo is free for the public.
The other zoological display is in Ocean Park. There are aquariums housing fish, jellyfish and sturgeons, and also a giant panda exhibit. There is an underwater viewing tunnel for close up views of sharks.
Ocean Park is an amusement park that ranks about 15th in the world for annual attendance. It receives 5 million visitors annually, about a half million more than the rival Hong Kong Disneyland. It is Hong Kong’s favorite amusement park. There are thrilling rides, zoological displays, and animal shows. It is on Hong Kong Island.
Hong Kong Disneyland is similar in style to the other Disneylands around the world. It is a resort center that includes two Disney hotels. There are major expansion plans for this park. It opened in 2005.
Noah’s Ark is Hong Kong’s newest theme park. It was opened in May of 2009 and contains a huge replica of Noah’s ark that is 137 meters long. It contains an exhibit of Hong Kong’s biggest meteorite, a rope obstacle course, full scale mock-ups of large animals, large screen theaters, restaurants and a hotel.
Getting around Hong Kong is fairly easy and inexpensive. So these various recreation and amusement sites are fairly easy to get to. There is a system of fast trains and ferries that connect the various towns and islands to the main city. For ease of travel, an Octopus card may be bought that will allow people to ride the trains and buses, and it can be used to pay for many other things as well such as purchases at supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants. The card allows people to travel without buying tickets. Card holders simply swipe their cards and their fares are deducted electronically. The one I used cost 150 HKD to buy and had 100 HKD credit on it when I received it. But it definitely made travel much easier, because I didn’t have to buy tickets. The ferry ride that crosses the harbor from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central costs only about 1.7 HKD. It is fun and very inexpensive. 1.7 HKD is about 20 US cents. From the ferry, people can see a beautiful view of the ocean and of the city skyline. For people who have never been on a ship, the experience is something to remember.
If you want to visit a church on Sunday or during the week, look up Hong Kong churches on the web. There are probably more than 100 English language churches. I’ve found that Hong Kong churches are unusually international and savvy with technology, web pages, videos, and multimedia presentations. Really creative and technically savvy people come to Hong Kong from all over the world to work in Hong Kong, and they speak English. Churches like these are hard to find in Asia. The ones I went to had excellent musicians, and I could tell that they are “visitor friendly.” They expect that there will be a lot of one-time visitors. Few foreigners come to live in Hong Kong for more than a year or two.
International Flavors – Have Fun
Many people visiting Hong Kong will be surprised at the large numbers of foreigners who live there. There are large numbers of South Asians and Africans living and doing business in Kowloon. Of course, you’ll probably also see Japanese businessmen and tourists, and expats from Britain, America, Europe and Australia. Many expats live in Hong Kong because of the low taxes and business opportunities. There are also mainland Chinese tourists and tour groups. You’ll see crowds of tourists on holidays.
There are hundreds of South Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants in Hong Kong. Tsim Sha Tsui is the place to head to if you are looking for exotic restaurants in Hong Kong. Hillwood Road and the northern end of the Observatory Hill have a great selection of restaurants.
However, you may be taken aback by the aggressiveness of the street hawkers, especially those from South Asia. So be prepared. When I first visited Hong Kong, I was actually upset at how noisily and “in my face” they hocked cheap hotel rooms and watches that they had on their bodies. Recently, laws were passed disallowing street hawkers from doing this, but they still do to an extent. Hong Kong is a place to shop and do business, but remember it is also one of the best places in China for tourists to go for recreation, to have fun, to learn about science and the history of China, and to meet people from around the world.