Travelogue Hong Kong 1: Lantau

LANTAU
19-21 March 2014

It really is a long haul from Joburg to Hong Kong… but thanks to virtually empty flights, Emirates’ superlative entertainment options and delicious food and a mercifully short (2 hour)  stopover in Dubai, it wasn’t so bad. 

What was a bummer was finding out on landing at Hong Kong International Airport that we’d just missed the bus to Discovery Bay and had an hour to wait until the next one. Although not so bad, since it gave us chance to get local currency and – since the busses only take exact change and we were now only packing HK$500s – *have to* spend some.

I suggested a bottle of water, but Christian returned with 2 beers, seemingly “a sign” since they amounted to HK$30 and we needed HK$70 for the bus. Amazing how much brighter the small things seem after 5 hours sprawled across 3 seats on the first flight plus 2 hours and some change over 2 (well, 2.5 if you consider that my head was on Christian’s lap) seats on the second. With a hearty “cheers”, we celebrated our arrival. 

We had had no choice but to wait for the bus to take us to Discovery Bay because they don’t allow cars or taxis on that part of the island. We tried googling (using the airport’s free wifi – very civilised) but came up dry. What we did find out, is that the utility of cars has been replaced with golf carts. There are only 500 licenses though, so sometimes golf carts can cost up to HK$2 million!

There wasn’t much – besides blocks and blocks of apartments, mostly 30 stories high! – on the drive from the airport and we were disappointed that it was foggy as we drove into Discovery Bay (by now around 11pm), so we couldn’t see anything nor get our bearings. By the time we’d wound downhill to our destination, the Auberge, at the water’s edge, the mist was palpable! The air was the kind of wet that makes your hair curl as you step off the bus. Literally. :/

The hotel is gorgeous! Enormous cavernous reception with elaborate strings of fist-sized blue/azure/grey crystals hanging like chandeliers, grandiose escalier up to the left, 2 decadent curves of couches parenthesising a central  lounge area, concierge to greet us, porters to serve us, reception ma’am and sirring up a storm to us… certainly above our usual modest level of holiday accommodation! 

We completed check-in (a lot longer than we’re used to since there were so many more features and facilities for us to be briefed on), freshened up in our (beautiful) suite and were out the door to go exploring.

Fail.

While it’s super convenient that the Auberge annexes the Grand Plaza, everything was closed – judging by the signs, at 10. Fortunately we’d eaten our fill on the flights (yes, 2 unchoosebetweenable options had again led to a “chicken [nasai goreng] AND fish [in cream parsley sauce with oregano potatoes]” answer to the stewardess’s predictable question), so didn’t need fuelling and it was nice to take a walk around anyway and stretch legs and whatnot. 

Discovery Bay is situated on the NNW coast of Lantau Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The Auberge is situated at the top end of a curved bay, with a beach to the North and Disneyland to the North West. We walked south to see what all we could see along our bay’s shoreline.

It was a crisp evening, so a lovely walk. Discovery Bay is clearly the fancypants part of Lantau and everything is Stepfordly perfect. There is still a large concentration of apartment blocks, but with a smattering of townhouse strips, that must cost a pretty penny! It’s very lush and green with precise, manicured gardens – even in the apartment complexes, where buildings are raised off the ground to start on what should be the first floor so that the space on the ground accommodates more greenery. And bicycles. Lots of bicycles. Not chained or locked, just neatly slotted in bike racks.

We walked through an area called Sienna, which seems to be creme de la creme. Townhouses replaced apartments and golf carts replaced bicycles. Very weird to see parking lots of golf carts and not a car in sight. The roads are eerily quiet, although lit up like a Christmas tree because it seems to be standard practice for buildings to leave (neon) lights on in their entrance hall and up the stairwells. Would make a killing introducing the concept of motion-sensor lights here, to be sure!

The area seems very self-contained and completely accessible (not a high wall or locked gate in sight!) and we walked through a school, playground, sports centre, “Central Park”, a very lovely pond area with paths and bridges, and back onto the dockside walkway back to the hotel, for the most excellent night’s sleep under the fluffy white duvet and between the silky soft sheets.

Breakfast was amazing, starting off with full Eastern and moving onto full Western. Very exotic to be eating beef su mei, pork and prawn dumplings, noodles and egg custard balls to start. Equally extravagant to follow with protein-intensive eggs, bacon, sausage, beef hash, salmon and beans!

A good start to what was planned to be a long day.

As all research had hinted it would be, public transport is cheap and easy. Also helpful that on Lantau there are only really four routes of interest. We caught the bus down to the Pier, which is the main junction on the Discovery Bay side. There we caught the bus to Tung Chung, which is the main junction to travel to anywhere on Lantau, or get to the airport or the mainland. We were headed to Ngong Ping to see the Big Buddha Unfortunately, the (widely and highly recommended) cable car was closed for the day for maintenance so we had to take the bus. 
 
The bus rides gave us chance to see most of the island. Despite the impression that all the condensed apartments might give, there is still much undeveloped land on Lantau. There are stretches that resemble Mauritius with a smattering of small houses (tiled on the outside) on narrow hilly roads, with very tropical trees and shrubbery everywhere. Were it not for the cowboy busdrivers and their deathwish rollercoaster driving style, the transport might’ve felt less logistical and more recreational! 

We were deposited at the Pai Lao gate where we could walk up Bodhi Path, admiring the 12 Divine Generals stone statues (showing which animal of the Chinese zodiac each represented) up to the Di Tan circle at the base of the steep staircase that would take us up to Big Buddha. Hard to tell whether the people bowing in the Di Tan were praising Buddha or just asking him to give them the strength to survive the hundreds of steps!

We managed the steps with a single stop on the way up – conveniently a couple of monks were making their way down on the other side of the stairwell, which made for a great excuse to stop and rest… i mean, take a photograph. 

The Big Buddha really is, well, big. An enormous statue perched atop a peak with breathtaking panorama of Lantau – not surprisingly, from our experience at ground level, very green and lush. He has worshipper statues all round, of slanty-eyed dancy people offering him lotus flowers and the like. Lots of fun watching tourists emulating the statues’ poses in their pics! 

It was a far easier journey on the way down.

We worked our way through the rest of the complex quite quickly (mostly since the leisure spots all seemed to centre around vegetarian food) and took in the Po Lin Monastery, Hall of the Great Hero and Hall of A Thousand Buddhas in minutes, stopping to snicker at the Fat Ho Memorial Hall, which sadly didn’t have a big sign we could photograph. 

The only other thing on Lantau I wanted to see was the Tai O ancient fishing village on the West coast, which turned out to be simple enough by catching the same 21 bus that had brought us to Ngong Ping. We’d learned at Tung Chung (from an Australian on the bus with us) that it was a advisable to buy an Octopus Card, which could be loaded with cash credit and swiped on all the public transport to avoid the exact change requirement, so hopping on and off busses was proving to be very simple and convenient. 

Twenty minutes on the bus and we were at Tai O, met at the door by a lady peddling tickets for boat ride tour of the fishing village, General Rock and (potential) White Dolphin sightings. For only HK$25 it seemed like a good deal.

The fishing village is quite something. An entire village of houses on stilts, some quite neat and tidy, others little more than aluminium shacks. It would appear as if most have primary access from the water and there were loads of people pulling up to cafés and neighbour’s porches in their boats, climbing ladders alongside the stilts to get to the buildings above.

The boat then u-turned and headed back out to sea. The skipper pointed out General Rock, which was very aptly named because a more general rock you never have seen. Allegedly an outcrop section resembles the profile of a General. Allegedly. 

Sadly, we didn’t see any dolphins on our trip. The Aussie who had given us the advice on the bus had warned that it was luck of the draw… but it was a cheap tour so worth the risk.

Thinking there might be more to the village, we crossed the river and walked the length of Shek Tsai Po Street. Not much to see, just the residential area. Although, quite a culture shock, again with no cars, and nothing locked up or tied down – including baskets full of shopping outside what seemed like a community meeting at the community hall. Noticeboards dotted at intervals along the walking path (there was no road to speak of) broadcast news and a small post office was the only official building. Heart-warmingly, even such a ‘simple’ society has split bins along the route for rrecycling.

Done with our day’s adventuring, the plan was to head back to DB Pier (where we’d caught the bus out) and have an early dinner. For this we needed to connect at Tung Chung. With a gap between buses, Christian suggested we visit the adjacent mall, which turned into a far longer than planned interlude when first I found the Adidas/Reebok shop and *had* to get 2 new pairs of sports shoes (Christian also got 2 pairs, just to be sporting), then Christian found Gieves & Hawkes (of Savil Row) gentlemen’s outfitters and treated himself to 3 new tailored suits for work.

An hour later, spent (in more ways than one)?, we got the bus to DB Pier. 

The Plaza at the Pier was a jovial affair, with an amphitheatre style arrangement in the centre that was filled with kids in the middle, playing, and moms on the low, wide steps around them, onlooking and socialising among themselves. Restaurants and shops surrounded the amphitheatre, providing another level of entertainment and adding to the buzz and movement within the area.  Walking through the plaza took us to the waterfront, with bars and restaurants opening onto a wide promenade, overlooking the pretty bay (the water in Lantau all seems to be a light translucent jade colour) and the stretch of beach at the inner side of the inlet.

We went with tradition and chose the Irish pub, McSorely’s, for a sundowner Guinness, but couldn’t bring ourselves to eat dinner there as their menu was all curry and burgers and this was, after all, our first meal in the Far East so it seemed only right to have something local and traditional. 

Easier said than done. The restaurants were all world fare – German, Italian, American etc – as was the clientele, which we confirmed more and more now that we’d noticed. It seems that Discovery Bay’s niche is ex-pats. Mostly Irish, some English and a few Aussies from our vantage points, not a Chinese patron in sight.

Sundowners behind us, we found a noodle and congee bar option for dinner and decided it was the right thing to do. Tucked away and barely branded on the outside, we found it to be more like a canteen than a restaurant; Super Super was neat, tidy and efficient. We ordered 4 meals to share, expecting to get tiny portions based on the prices (less than R200 for everything), but were proved mistaken when a few minutes later we were feasting on a tableful of food! Not a problem – everything was delicious! A prawn wanton soup (with noodles), spicy stripped pork and noodles, pork with rice (topped with pork mince, which was my best!) and chicken and prawn with rice. We ate all the good bits and our fair share of the starch, but there was still enough rice and noodles left for another person to eat their fill.

Congratulating ourselves on a dinner well done, we went to catch the tail end of the (3 hour) happy hour. It was a bit disappointing that there is no local brew, so we had to settle for the German, Brazilian and Japanese beers options we were presented. Beers are quite expensive – no doubt since they’re imported – at HK$50 each. There was not a local patron in sight; everyone again Irish, English and Aussie, with an American family for good measure. Not sure if it’s Discovery Bay thing or a DB Pier thing… 

The buses run all night so we had no trouble (and no more than 5 minutes wait) to hop on and head back to our hotel to drop off our shopping and have a nightcap on the big, manicured hotel verandah overlooking the sea and then another in the big, beautiful hotel bar.

All in all, a great first day, perfectly ended with a flop into the kingsize bed with thick and fluffy duvet and silky soft sheets – a far cry from the airline seats of the night before!