Gateway to Asia: The Journey Begins in Hong Kong

It was after midnight when my Asia Adventure began. Arriving at Washington Dulles Airport at 10 pm for my international flight, I watched as the normally frenetic airport quieted. Shops and food stalls began to close. My dream of one day visiting Southeast Asia was about to come true.

How to Get There

When Cathay Pacific debuted their nonstop flights from Dulles to Hong Kong, I began watching the fares. As many travelers know, the least expensive time to travel is during the shoulder season, for example between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or between Christmas and Spring break. During this lull in the action, you’re likely to find destinations less crowded and discounted pricing at hotels. For my trip to Hong Kong and Shanghai, I departed one week after Thanksgiving.

When Cathay Pacific first announced their longest flight would be from Washington DC to Hong Kong—a nonstop 15-hours in the air—it opened a new and convenient gateway to Asia for our region. Hong Kong is centrally located, so flights to mainland China, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are infinitely more accessible now.

After boarding the plane, I settled into my seat, then kicked off my shoes. Cathay Pacific offered free WiFi, live television, an array of international films and a late dinner. I was so excited, it was hard to sleep. But with ample leg room, I was able to nap for six hours. During the night, the flight attendants offered dinner, snacks and a full breakfast until it we touched down in Hong Kong International Airport in Kowloon.

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What’s Hong Kong Like?

As much as I relish traveling, it sometimes feels intimidating to explore a new culture. What was striking was how Hong Kong felt so familiar. Modern Hong Kong is easy to navigate, and because the country was under British rule between 1842 to 1997, many residents speak English. Street and subway signs include English and Cantonese. Many restaurants serve Western style meals alongside traditional Chinese dishes. If you want a hamburger, they have Shake Shack.

Since most residents of Hong Kong live in high-rise buildings, they love stretching their legs on the pedestrian-friendly walkways built above the city’s boulevards. The natural topography is hilly with nearly constant views of Victoria Harbor. A concentration of businesses, shops and people make Hong Kong a high energy city, yet more than 40% of Hong Kong’s territory consists of parks and nature preserves. This makes for a quick escape to seaside villages and mountains for hiking.

Where to Stay

I chose to stay at the flagship Mandarin Oriental, located in Old Town Central, the beating heart of Hong Kong. This luxury hotel and spa exemplifies Hong Kong’s international history and flavor. From my room, I had a stunning view of the waterfront and Kowloon, Hong Kong’s district on the other side of Victoria Harbor. The hotel is steps from the near constant activity around Hong Kong Pier. A soaring Ferris Wheel perched beside the busy waterfront park, infuses charm to the scene. It always looked like there was a festival going on, as both residents and visitors spend substantial time outdoors enjoying the balmy weather.

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What to Eat and Drink

Hong Kong residents speak a Cantonese dialect, and their most notable cuisine is dim sum, puffy pillows of meats, vegetables and custards, as well as Congee, an oatmeal-like broth with your choice of vegetables and meats added to it. “China is enormous,” Jenny Johnson, marketing manager for the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong tells me. “It’s bigger than the United States. And as each state has their own flair, that applies to China as well. In Hong Kong, the food culture is predominantly Cantonese, and Cantonese is all about dim sum.”

Yet because Hong Kong has always been a multicultural city, you will also find restaurants serving a variety of cuisines including Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian and Indian; as well as Middle Eastern, Italian, British and French.

The Mandarin Oriental M Bar is a sophisticated perch to observe the skyline stretching for miles in either direction. Order their award-winning cocktail called the Black Forest, while snacking on the hotel’s signature crispy okra. M Bar’s bartender, Slamet Haryadi, won first place in the 2018 finals of Herno Gin Cocktail Awards for his unusual but divine concoction of charcoal, blueberries, juniper and spruce, plus Herno Gin of course.

If you want to explore beyond the city lights, consider a day trip to the pristine Sai Kung GeoPark Volcano Discovery Centre. One of UNESCO’s Global Parks, the unique topography and collection of uninhabited islands is the perfect place to commune with nature. People come here to snorkel, fish and hike. It’s easy to catch a boat ride from the town of Sai Kung, a seaside village with a lively dining scene. You will be amazed by the unusual seafood on display here. In fact, they call Sai Kung’s main drag “Seafood Street.” Do not leave without trying a Pineapple Pastry from the Sai Kung Cafe & Bakery. These flakey, airy, buttery pastries are unforgettable.

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Shopping, Shopping and More Shopping

Many tourists come for one reason—to shop. Hong Kong is famous for its legendary markets, where visitors haggle with the local vendors selling electronics, handbags, silk and cashmere scarves, watches and souvenirs. If you know brand names, you’re likely to find

them here. I visited the Ladies Market on Tung Choi Street with its more than 100 stalls of bargains. Open at 6 pm, it’s best to get there early, as crowds pick up around 8 pm. Miniature drones fly through the crowded aisles, and the more you buy from one vendor, the more likely you can demand rock-bottom prices.

In the Old Town Central neighborhood, you’ll find a wide array of chic boutiques like Prada, Chanel and Gucci—you’ll have your pick of every major fashion line. Also sprinkled around Central are stylish malls filled with shimmering window displays. The Landmark on Queens Road is a fashionista’s dream, featuring high-end retailers like Dolce&Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, Hermes, Miu Miu and Dior among the luxury boutiques clustered under this enormous atrium.

Nearby Wellington Street has a quirky mix of posh shops like Christian Louboutin and OMM Beauty, fruit markets, gift shops filled with paper lanterns and several casual noodle shops. Known as the Michelin-Starred-Mile—because Michelin has awarded some noodle shops and street stalls on Wellington with this coveted designation. Check out award winners Tsim Chai Kee for their beloved fish balls and Wang Fu for Beijing-style dumplings, but do expect to wait in line.

What to Do

No visit to Hong Kong would be complete without rooftop dining or a sunset boat ride, when the sky turns pink and the lights switch on. Every building begins to sparkle as dusk descends on the city.

Hong Kong offers year-round boat cruises where you can enjoy sultry breezes off Victoria Harbor and take in the city’s eclectic architecture. Most of the sightseeing boats depart from Central Pier 8 beside the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. I boarded a Dukling there—its red lanterns swinging, its purple-dragon sail fluttering—while this historic vessel sails by the glittering lights of downtown Hong Kong. 

Also located in Central, next to Cotton Tree Drive, is the metropolitan retreat, Hong Kong Park. In colonial days, the area was a British military zone. After both British and Japanese occupation, the park was constructed in 1991 to blend into the surrounding natural landscape. Some historic buildings remain, but new features like a greenhouse, aviary, interactive fountains and tropical bushes were installed. Don’t miss Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, a branch of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. This 19th century building displays tea-making ceramics and Chinese seals used throughout the ages. Along with a two-story waterfall and playground, entrance and all activities in the park are free.

So now it’s time to start checking those fares on Cathay Pacific. Bon Voyage! 

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