How to experience Asia’s Grand Central Station on an Eight Hour Layover

by Peter Delevett, an award-winning travel writer and editor at the San Jose Mercury News. His 14-month, 14-country backpacking trek through Asia and Europe formed the basis of the forthcoming travel memoir, Walking on the Moon.
He and his family live in one of America’s three remaining Japantowns.

Hong Kong is one of Asia’s Four Tigers, an economic and cultural dynamo on par with London or New York. But it’s also something of Asia’s Grand Central Station – the onward point between the U.S. and the Chinese mainland or Southeast Asia. And even if your first visit there is limited to a few hours’ layover, there’s a lot you can experience in a surprisingly short time.

Like New York, the territory is divided into sub-sections; Hong Kong’s sprawl across more than 400 miles.But most of what you want to see clusters into a relatively compact area, making it ideal for an afternoon of spot-hopping. After stowing your gear at the left-luggage counter at gleaming Chek Lap Kok, hop on the MTR railway for a half-hour journey to Hong Kong Island. The city’s old airport, Kai Tak, was right in the heart of town, its runway angling into Victoria Harbor; but the trade-off for the easy access was a kamikaze descent among the skyscrapers that left travelers scrabbling at their arm-rests. So ease back in your comfy MTR carriage and enjoy the views of Lantau Island (well worth visiting when you have more time).

Emerging from Hong Kong Station, you find yourself in the heart of the city. There’s enough imperialist in me that I always imagine muttonchopped Britons huffing about in tailcoats and fleets of rickshaws toting memsahibs; but modern Hong Kong is a richer, far more entrepreneurial place than it was in colonial days. For proof, just look up and goggle at the skyscrapers, fantastic cut-glass rocketships fighting to outdo each other in bold design and sheer height.

Since you’ve just flown across the Pacific, you’re probably hungry; and fortunately, one of the island’s best dim sum joints is right near the MTR station. You wouldn’t think a restaurant in any city hall would be worth seeking out, but Maxim’s Palace is always packed to the brim, and deservedly so: grab a table, gaze out at the Kowloon peninsula across the Harbor and take your pick among the little carts laden with shrimp and pork and endless other kinds of dumplings.

Your belly fully and the clock ticking, it’s time to hit the Peak Tram. There’s simply no better way to view the full scope of Hong Kong than from atop Victoria Peak. The funicular railway climbs almost vertically along the hill, like the world’s tallest escalator. And from its terminus a quarter-mile above, the city spreads out like a mosaic, tugs and tankers plying the harborway.

boat 2

Back on terra firma, amble over to the Star Ferry. Sure, you could take the sterile subway to Kowloon, but for my money, the beak-prowed little ferries are the most elegant mode of transportation this side of a New Orleans streetcar. After the 10-minute sally across the “fragrant harbor” that gives Hong Kong its name, you find yourself on Nathan Road, the main drag; it bustles with camera shops, luggage shops, noodle shops, girlie bars, hucksters whispering “Rolex, $5.”

The seediness is fun, and a little overwhelming, but you’re in search of some peace and relaxation before boarding that onward flight. So hunt along for Tai Pan Reflexology, an easy walk from the ferry terminal. It’s nothing much from the street – just a narrow doorway leading down a stairwell – but trust me, seasoned travelers know this place as a secret oasis. Foot massage, chair massage, full-body table massage, even hot-rock and aromatherapy, and it’s clean, professional and reasonably priced.

However long you linger, when you groggily depart, there’s one more can’t-miss Hong Kong attraction on your list. Indulge those imperialist tendencies with high tea at the Peninsula, one of the crown jewels of the former British Empire, along with Raffles in Singapore and the Oriental in Bangkok. Though younger than those two, the Pen has been in operation since the Roaring 20s, which gives it bragging rights to being Hong Kong’s oldest hotel. And certainly, one of its plushest.

Afternoon tea here is a serious deal; the first time I visited the columned lobby, I bent to tie my shoe and was told by a horrified bellhop in full livery, “Sir, you must rise!” But when you ease into an overstuffed chair amid the strains of a live string quartet, you can forgive the place a touch of preciousness. And with an embarrassment of finger sandwiches and other dainties to choose from, well, let’s just say this: when the hotel brochure claims high tea “takes you back to a more gracious world,” it’s not just advertising hype.