Hong Kong: Here be dragons

5 May 2024 by BusinessTraveller
Dragon 's Back mountain trail – Credit Pawinp/iStock

For a city known for its densely packed streets and hectic pace of life, Hong Kong has a truly remarkable countryside.

How many cities in the world have a population of millions, yet have protected about 40 per cent of their land area? Where forests of concrete towers are backed by hillsides more tree-covered today than at any time since the Second World War? Which has a vibrant and culturally important paddling scene, and since a trawling ban was enacted at the end of 2012, boasts increasing areas of recovering coral reef?

For a place whose name conjures images of bustling streets flanked by jutting skyscrapers, Hong Kong offers surprising opportunities for a lover of the outdoors. That starts with the ease of access. Much of the countryside is cheek by jowl with city blocks and the public transport system is extensive and cheap. The MTR (the city’s underground and overground rail network) is clean and highly efficient, while ferries provide links to the outlying islands. On the roads, surprisingly cheap taxis transport you to most trailheads not already served by buses or minibuses.

All of these transport services, apart from taxis, accept the Octopus stored value card, which also works in many shops – so make this one of your first purchases on arrival in Hong Kong. Other essentials for outdoor adventures are a wide-brimmed hat to protect against the often-fierce sun and plenty of fluids. Armed with these, you are ready to explore the hills, forests and beaches of Hong Kong.

Scaling new heights

It’s not hard to see why the Dragon’s Back in the eastern part of Hong Kong Island is widely rated the city’s best day hike, being very manageable and only a few kilometres long, yet delivering spectacular views.

From the To Tei Wan bus stop on the Shek O Road, the trail starts with the relatively short climb up to a trail that winds atop the “dragon’s back”. Here the vegetation on the ridge is stunted by prevailing winds to form a living tunnel of greenery in places.

Elsewhere, viewpoints give wide vistas which draw the eye out west over the south coast of Hong Kong Island and to the east, over the hillside that drops away to the beach villages of Shek O and Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay).

Many finish by hiking down off the ridge to the latter, one of Hong Kong’s most famous surf spots, perhaps also riding a bus or minibus further on to Shek O to enjoy its sleepy vibe at one of a number of relaxed restaurants that make for a fitting end to the day.

Lion Rock Hill in Kowloon – Credit josephmok/iStock

The Buddha under the mountain

Lantau Island, in the west of Hong Kong, is a vital green lung for the entire region and home to a network of trails that are among the best in Hong Kong for their challenge and sense of remoteness. Just a few kilometres inland of the airport is Lantau Peak, the territory’s second-highest mountain at 934 metres.

With the Insta-friendly Sunset Peak next door and in the company of several other high summits, it is an enticing prospect for keen hikers. The most energetic can start their climb from the coast, but many choose to begin from the saddle at Pak Kung Au on the road that traverses the island from north to south. Getting off the bus there leaves around 600 metres to climb up rocky steps alternating with flatter sections, until a final scramble leads to a summit with all-round views.

On a fine day, Macau and the mainland city of Shenzhen are visible, while below, on the Ngong Ping plateau, sits a giant contemplative bronze statue – the 34 metre-tall Big Buddha. While often busy with tourists, the monastery and the Buddha are very much worth a look, while refreshments at Ngong Ping range from vegetarian Buddhist snacks to Starbucks.

Physically and spiritually nourished, you can then head home via bus or, queues permitting, the spectacular Ngong Ping 360 cable car (HK$195/US$25 one way or an additional HK$40/US$5 for a glass-bottomed Crystal cabin).

Crouching lion, hilly dragon

For many visitors, one must-do “hike” is a circuit of The Peak on Hong Kong Island but, while the views are undeniably great, it is touristy in the extreme. An arguably more interesting and meaningful alternative is Lion Rock (495 metres) – one of the hills that forms the “Nine Dragons”, the line of peaks that divide the Kowloon Peninsula from Hong Kong’s New Territories. Seen from the side, the peak resembles the shaggy head of a mighty lion. Locals like to speak of the city’s indomitable “Lion Rock spirit”.

There are numerous ways to approach the hike but the most direct, resulting in a moderately taxing climb, is via a trail starting a little uphill from the entrance to Lion Rock Park. This route takes from 60 minutes to 1.5 hours, with the last steep, rocky portion ending atop a small outcrop. The views from here are stunning, especially at night, with the sprawling residential blocks of Kowloon at your feet, the harbour and the skyline of Hong Kong Island beyond that and the New Territories towns of Sha Tin and Tai Po behind you. Be aware of macaque monkeys, eager to snatch unguarded items, and keep food out of their sight.

Dragon Boat Festival in Lamma island – Credit Derek Yung/iStock

Further adventures

For cyclists, a growing network of bike paths connects the major towns of the New Territories (Sha Tin, Tai Po, Sheung Shui, Yuen Long etc), with hire facilities in most. Mountain bikers can head for the Tai Mo Shan area in the central New Territories for down-hilling, or Lantau Island’s Mui Wo Mountain Bike Practice Ground, Hong Kong’s first bike park.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong’s steep hills offer plenty of opportunities for climbers. Numerous areas beckon, but the spectacular siting of Hong Kong Island’s Central Crags above the heart of the city, and the island of Tung Lung Chau, are particularly appealing. See hongkongclimbing.com for more.

Paddlers have plenty of options, too: government water sports centres rent out kayaks and SUP boards but there’s also a fiercely competitive paddling scene – in both outriggers and the native dragon boats – which culminates in colourful gala events.

Additionally, there’s also a strong interest in sailing, with government facilities offering dinghies for hire and private yacht clubs often seeking crew to make up the numbers on race days.Nature lovers should visit the WWF-protected wetlands at Mai Po in the New Territories, one of few such places along the whole of China’s coast. Book well ahead at wwf.org.hk.

Unfortunately, a constant tide of trash washes up on the territory’s coastline. Hong Kong Cleanup (hkcleanup.org) was the first organisation founded to tackle the problem, back in 2000. Since then, others have joined the effort, including Plastic Free Seas (plasticfreeseas.org). Both publish details of events on their websites.

Hong Kong, Sai Kung Village – Credit Roy Lee/iStock

Staying close to the action

Understandably, most of Hong Kong’s legion of hotels are clustered in the major commercial districts. Many are still viable choices for accessing the countryside of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, but there are a handful of options in further-flung locations too.

On the south side of Hong Kong Island, the Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel Hong Kong (pictured just below) is ideal for families bound for Ocean Park, a home-grown theme park with rides and an ecological focus, but it’s also handy for beaches and hikes including the 50km Hong Kong Trail, which traverses the island. fullertonhotels.com

WM Hotel (also pictured below) in Sai Kung, located in the eastern part of the New Territories, is a luxury stay with great views out over the islands off the coast. Nearby are a number of beachfront vendors offering kayaks, SUP and windsurf gear for hire. wmhotel.hk

For Lantau’s peaks and trails, there are a clutch of four- and five-star hotels in the Tung Chung and airport area, as well as simpler hotels such as the Silvermine Beach Resort in Mui Wo, plus guest houses in the quiet south coast villages of Shui Hau (Lantau Lodge) and Tong Fuk (The Cove Hostel).

More basic again are several youth hostels offering accommodation in dorms, rooms and bell tents across the territory, while government-run campsites have toilets and barbecue sites – though some of these get exceptionally busy during weekends and should be booked at camping.gov.hk

Words: Steve White

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The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
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