Hong Kong, April 2012: Part 2
All images © Greig Houghton 2012
We woke on a second day day in Hong Kong to slightly clearer skies and decided it would be a good day to get the train to Lantau Island, but were saddened on arrival to find the same hazy conditions and poor visibility as yesterday in Kowloon.
After a short 20 minute queue our journey commenced on the Ngong Ping 360 degree cable car. The journey provides spectacular views of Tung Chung Bay, the South China Sea, the lush vegetation and waterfalls in the Lantau North Country Park and of course the Tain Tan Buddha. I can only imagine what the view must be like on a clear day. The journey takes around 30 minutes but there are alternative local bus services.
The cable car drops you into Ngong Ping Village (exit through the gift shop!), a touristy themed village, which we quickly bypassed and headed straight to the Tian Tan or Big Buddha as it is commonly known. 240 steps later we had reached the base of the Buddha featuring six smaller bronze statues depicting as The Offering of the Six Devas. On a clear day, the base provides more panoramic views down to the South China Sea on one side and down to the Po Lin Monastery on the other.
The base of the Buddha features an exhibition hall, but on the day of our visit, preparations were underway for Buddha's Birthday restricting access to the exhibition and therefore we headed straight back down the steps and along the to Monastery.
The main temple hall of the Monastery houses three bronze statues of Buddha representing past, present and future. However, just as impressive as the buildings and religious artifacts are the carefully manicured gardens to the temple where a variety of plants can be seen including banyan trees, orchids and a locus pond.
Soon our bellies were rumbling and we knew it was time to leave for the whole day we had three small words on the tip of tongue all day - Tim Ho Wan.
The worlds cheapest Michelin starred restaurant had been on our Hong Kong hit list from day one of planning and we aimed to hit the restaurant around 4pm to avoid the worst of the queues. Our luck was in as we arrived to find only a small queue, grabbed our number and within 30 mins were seated. We ordered a decent selection of food to share consisting of steamed fresh shrimp dumplings, steamed spare ribs with black bean sauce, glue rice dumping wrapped in lotus leaf, baked bun with barbecue pork, vermicelli roll stuffed with barbecue pork, steamed pork dumpling with shrimp and tonic medlar and petal cake. An absolute feast for under 30 euros even if we stopped short of ordering the speciality chicken feet. Unbelievable.
All the food was tasty but the star of the show, as has been well documented by many other bloggers and restaurant reviewers is the baked bun with barbecue pork. The most joyful balanced combination of sweet, savoury, crispy, flaky, crumbly, melting parcel of heaven that leaves you craving more. We figuratively rolled out the restaurant with only one question on our minds - how and when are we going to get more of those buns on our trip?
The following morning we skipped breakfast and headed for any early lunch at a dim sum chain located in Tsim Sha Tsui. However, this was no ordinary chain restuarant but in fact Din Tai Fung which boasts 2 restuarants in Hong Kong with Michellin Stars including the restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui.
We first discovered Din Tai Fung in a shopping centre in Singapore on our Honeymoon in 2010 and similar to Tim Ho Wan, all the food here is great, but there is one dim sum dish that stands above them all - Xiao Long Bao.
I love dim sum, but Din Tai Fung have lifted the humble steamed dumplings to a new level with the Xiao Long Bao. A delicate skin folded with 18 pleats to enclose the perfectly plump juicy steamed filling. At this point at sounds like a normal dumpling, but when you bite into the dumpling, your mouth is awash with a clean delicious broth flowing from the middle of the dumpling. I was unaware of the broth aspect to these dumplings on our first trip to Dim Tia Fung, leaving me with hot broth dribbling down my chin from the fresh steamed dumplings. This must be a regular occurrence for customers as the Hong Kong branch issue instruction cards on how to eat these delightful mouthfuls!
The rest of the day was spent exploring Kowloon and in particular the Goldfish Market (Tung Choi Street), Flower Market Road and Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. The Bird Garden is a public open space favoured by the local songbird owners who bring their birds to the garden in cages to allow them to enjoy the fresh air. The garden also features a range of stalls selling various species of birds and accessories from intricately carved cages to bird food including lives crickets and other insects!
All the exploring in Kowloon built up an appetite and that evening we had reservations for Japanese restaurant by Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa or Nobu as he is known to the world and the name by which his restaurants are known. The restaurant is located on the first floor of the Intercontinental Hotel featuring a modern bar lounge and dinning room and providing stunning uninterrupted views of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island.
My wife and I will never order the same dishes in a restaurant allowing us to taste as much as the menu as possible. Normally this works out fine but occasionally some food jealously creeps in when one person's dish is superior to the other and in this case the deserts. Our menu for the evening consisted of appetizers of Nobu Sashimi Taco's (tuna, salmon, lobster & crab) and yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno followed by black cod siakyo yaki and king crab tempura with amazu ponzu with a selection of sushi & sashimi to finish. The best of the sushi was the soft shell crab sushi roll - we had been dying to try soft shell crab for years. All courses were delicious.
I am not a major desert person but my desert at Nobu was a stand out dish for me. I order the Sip or Eat while my wife opted for the chocolate bento box with green tea ice cream. My sip or eat consisted of whiskey mouse, plum wine jelly, anise pear sorbet (the absolute start of the dish) with fruit puree. A perfectly balanced light finish to a fantastic meal. The chocolate bento box turned out to be a chocolate fondant which was perfectly cooked with a rich chocolaty oozy centre but in the end of the day was just a chocolate fondant.
By this time in the trip we were well and truly in the food zone so the next day it was back to Tim Ho Wan for an early lunch of baked barbecue pork buns. We arrived just after 11am to find a much bigger queue than the our first visit and after a quick glance at the numbering system figured out we were in for a long wait and opted for take-out. We still had to wait 20 minutes for them to take the order but we were out of there another 15 minutes after that complete with our bag full of our prized possessions.
After breakfast we headed down to the Star Ferry Pier on Kowloon to get the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong Island. The Star Ferry run by the histotical Star Ferry Company is cheapest way to cross the harbour at the tiny cost of $2.50 HKD or 25 cent in euros, and like all public transport, can be paid using an Octopus Card. We picked two Octopus Cards at a travel desk in arrivals at Hong Kong airport and are a must for any traveller who is there for a few days or more. As well as public transport, many shops accept Octopus which is great for buying small items such as water or snacks.
The bottle green and white liveried Star Ferry takes around 10 minutes to cross the harbour which provides 10 minutes of fantastic views of Hong Kong Island, the occasional traditional Junk boat and other watercraft negotiating their way through the busy Victoria Harbour. You disembark at the Star Ferry Pier in Central which is connected all the way up to Pedder St via the network of overhead walkways and pedestrian bridges.
We walked up the hill to the Garden Road Peak Tram Lower Terminus to catch the funicular tram to the climb the steep 1.4km climb of over 350ft to the terminus at the top of The Peak. We had to wait over 20 minutes before eventually boarding the tram and were fortunate to get a seat in the mad scramble when the tram doors open. The tram has unusual stepped floor which allows passengers to stand through out the trip.
You disembark from the tram into the The Peak Tower which is a shopping centre which also contains a Madame Tussuads. However, you quickly make your way through the centre to the main reason for the 350ft climb - the view. We bought a combined skypass which gives you access to the sky terrace on top of the Peak Tower in addition to your tram ticket.
The sky terrace provides 360 degree panoramic views down from Victoria Harbour right the way around to Aberdeen Harbour and the South China Sea. Timing your visit to the peak is critical with Hong Kong suffering from bad haze and some smog from the Chinese mainland so head up on your first clear day. The day we visited The Peak was not perfect for visibility, but we were treated to an incoming rain shower approaching from the east of the harbour which quick dramatic as shown in the feature image at the top of this post.
We decided to skip the queue for the return tram journey and instead opted for the bus. This turned out to be a fantastic decision as the bus snaked its way down from the Peak back to Central through Causeway Bay. The bus journey is not for faint hearted at it works it way down a series of switchback and hairpin bends on the narrow road with only a small stone boundary wall separating the road from the near vertical drop on the other side. What you are rewarded with is stunning views from the top deck of the bus of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and views of Happy Valley Racecourse and Hong Kong Cemetery. The cemetery is carved into the steep hillside and sits along side the Jewish, Hindu, Parsee, Catholic Cemetery and Muslim Cemeteries.
That evening we headed to Tim's Kitchen in Sheung Wan for some cantonese food. For the first time ever and probably the last, we ate at two Michelin star restaurants in the one day, with Tim's Kitchen holding two stars. Unlike some one and two star establishments, Tim's Kitchen leaves a lot of the pomp and ceremony out of the dining experience focusing instead on the delivery of quality food using classic Cantonese cooking techniques. Some dishes take that long to prepare they must be pre-ordered in advance of your visit to the restaurant. The menu includes some of the more unusual dishes, at least to oversees visitors, of bird's nest , turtle, shark fin and sea abalone with some dishes only available for two, four and up to 10 people.
We ended playing it quite safe with a range of barbecue meats including the roasted crispy baby pork belly and my favourite ever pork ribs. You know it is your kinda place when you sit eating ribs with your fingers in a 2 star Michelin joint. Sadly the speciality crispy chicken was sold out, but we did have Tim's recommended crystal prawn. As tasty and as relatively cheap that the meal was, I do regret not going more adventurous with our order.
For our last day in Hong Kong, we rode the bus from Central across the island to Stanley Bay. Only 50 mins from Central, the bus climbs up Stubbs Road through the Wong Nai Chung Gap revealing views across Deep Water and Repulse Bays. Stanley, despite its location on the south side of Hong Kong Island, has a completely different feel to the rest of Hong Kong. The Number 6 bus drops you at Stanley Market, an mixture of a warren of indoor and outdoor stalls which leads you down to the waterfront. The waterfront has been extensively redeveloped and almost has a Mediterranean feel to it.
A wide wooden boardwalk guides you around the bay past numerous bars and restaurants to the grand colonial building of Murray House, Blake Pier and the modern complex of Stanley Plaza. Mixed in with all of this are the occasional colourful temple. Stanley was the perfect place for our final day to relax and get away from the hectic city streets of Kowloon and Central District. If you bring your trunks, there are two beaches in Stanley complete with shark nets for your protection with additional beaches in Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay. For bus trip back, we jumped on the express bustrain which travels through the Aberdeen Tunnel and knocks 5 to 10 mins off the journey time.
And with that our trip to Hong Kong was complete.
As our parting present from Hong Kong, we were treated to a stunning sunset, the one and only proper sunset so far on this trip, as we sat waiting in the departure lounge for our flight to Sabah.