In the past couple of years, an emerging trend in stories about places to visit in Hong Kong has turned towards its nature parks and undeveloped seafronts. This is a remarkable development, as Hong Kong had always been identified as a highly urbanized place, with shopping, and not hiking, as its choice tourist activity.
Wilderness near a bustling metropolis
Hong Kong’s city area occupies only a small portion of its total land area. Much of the island is made up of tall peaks which were not suitable for development. As a result, most of the development activities were focused upon the seafront, and land was reclaimed for development purposes. The island of Lantau has remained relatively undeveloped, up until recently. With the construction of the new bridge and highway, this island has become more accessible. The mainland New Territories have long been regarded as a wilderness for good reason, and some of it is now popular with the outdoor crowd.
The island of Hong Kong was once rocky and barren, when it was taken by the British in 1842. A long policy of reforestation has restored its temperate-tropical woods image, which is something like how it was before heavy impact settlement by immigrants from other parts of China and even from abroad. Even though the island is home to about 1.3 million people, over 40 % of its land area is reserved as six country parks. These parks run across the spine of the island, from west to east. Several hiking trails criss-cross the hilly parks.
Lantau — wilderness and an airport on one island
The first trail starts conveniently at the Peak Tram station, which you can reach either via tram or bus. From here, you start the hike around the Victoria Peak area, with spectacular views of the city and harbour. Then you head on to Pok Fu Lam and see the reservoir and rugged seacoast.
The second hike starts close to the middle of Hong Kong Island. Take a bus headed for Stanley, but get off at Wong Nai chung Gap. Follow a series of stairs to Parkview Mansions. This hike takes you past the Tai Tam reservoirs and Tai Tam Bay in the south.
The third hike takes you along the “Dragon’s Back” ridge. Take a bus to Shek O, but get off just before the Windy Gap. A Country Parks information board marks the entrance to the trail. This trail wraps around Tai Tam Bay and offers views of the shores and outlying islands around the southeastern corner of Hong Kong Island.
Craggy hills dominate the view of Lantau Island (pictured above) or “Tai Yu Shan”. This island practically rises straight out of the sea and has long been a mariner’s landmark, marking the Eastern end of the Pearl River estuary. It boasts two of Hong Kong’s tallest peaks — Lantau Peak and Sunset Peak, both close to the center of the island. Again, there are three trails for hikers. The first trail starts from Nam Shan and goes through the Mui Wo valley. This hike takes you through old villages, some abandoned, and you get to see the agricultural activities carried out here. The trail ends at the village of Pak Ngan Heong, with views dominating the entire valley, a very old temple and a waterfall not far away.
The second hike starts not far from the famous Po Lin Monastery, with its giant statue of Buddha. This hike gives view of the northern shore of Lantau, including the new airport. The hike crosses several streams which are at risk from development. The view is dominated by Lantau Peak, also known as Fun Wong Shan — Phoenix Peak. Freshwater fish inhabit the waterways while birdwatchers may be able to catch the Hainan blue flycatcher and crested kingfisher. A third hike takes the intrepid trailwalker around the southwestern tip of Lantau Island, known as the Fan Lau Coast. Interesting landmarks along the hike are an obelisk marking the sea boundary between British Hong Kong and China, and an old fort guarding the channel to Macau built in 1729.
A boat race tradition now treasured the world over
If the hills are one of the timeless elements of Hong Kong, then the sea must surely be the other one. The Dragon Boat Race is one of the best known water traditions in Hong Kong. Throughout the middle of the year, races are held in the popular harbours and fishing villages such as Shek O, Cheung Chau and Stanley. The race at Stanley Harbour, on the southern end of Hong Kong Island, which is in many ways the mother race for all the editions around the world, is the main event, with international participants joining in the fun.
The origin of the race lies with a Chinese legend. A poet from the ancient kingdom of Chu by the name of Qu Yuan was said to have been falsely accused of corruption. Indignant, he threw himself into a river to drown, but the fishermen who respected him rowed out to try, in vain, to save him.
Today, it is said that virtually any city with a waterfront has the potential to become a dragon boat race venue. And it truly is a worldwide phenomenon. Even places as far away as Sweden and Calgary have active dragon boat communities. However, the race at Stanley is still considerably traditional, and some of the rites and customs associated with the origin of the dragon boat are still observed here.
When the first (and most recent) Hong Kong athlete to win an Olympic Gold Medal was Lee Lai Shan, in the sport of windsurfing, it sparked an interest in the sport around the territory. You can head out to the outlying island of Cheung Chau, at Kwun Yam beach, where Lai Shan set up her base and still trains for international events. While here, you can take in the rustic atmosphere of the island, which feels isolated from the mainland. With no cars around and many temples to see, this island offers a completely different face of Hong Kong. You can make it here on a ferry service running from Hong Kong harbour.
You may not actually be heading out to Hong Kong only for the outdoors. However, if you do make a trip for the shopping and the food, spare a little effort and you can discover a whole new side of Hong Kong right at the doorsteps of the cosmopolitan city.