It had been 6 years since my last (and first) trip to Hong Kong – on RTW #1 – so this year I decided it was finally time to go back! My first visit had fallen over the Chinese New Year holiday and while that was an incredible time to be in the city, it also meant almost everything was closed all three days I was there. I was limited to eating mostly at my hotel and don’t even get me started on the fact that I didn’t get to shop in one of the world’s best shopping cities. So, yes, it was definitely time for a re-visit to the bright lights and skyscrapers of Hong Kong.
After a blisteringly-early flight from Bangkok, we arrived in Hong Kong around 10am and took the supremely-efficient Airport Train to Kowloon Station where there was a free bus right to the door of our hotel. I just love how easy it is to get around most Asian cities. The rest of the world could learn a lot from the average Asian city about how to make airport transportation simple, efficient and affordable.
Within an hour of stepping off our flight, we arrived at our hotel. It was Susan’s turn to book the room (like me, she has tons of points) and she booked us at the Sheraton Hong Kong on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor. Last time I’d stayed on Hong Kong island so I was looking forward to seeing more of the Kowloon side this time. When we arrived at the hotel around 11am, our room wasn’t quite ready yet so we stored our bags and headed out to explore.
First, I wanted to take a walk to the only place I really knew on the Kowloon side, the Avenue of the Stars. Similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hong Kong version immortalizes Chinese film stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (those were the only two I knew but Susan recognized four names). Normally, it’s a lovely walk along the water with picture-perfect views of Victoria Harbor but today it was overcast, chilly and windy enough to sweep an unattended child right into the harbor.
We quickly tired of battling the bitter wind and decided to duck into a restaurant for authentic local cuisine for lunch. Since I was limited in my dining options last time, I had nothing to offer on the dining subject so we just walked until we saw a menu that looked good at a restaurant packed with locals (always a good sign).
We kicked off our two days in Hong Kong with a relatively safe but delicious meal and then headed back to the hotel to see if our room was ready. It was and we were upgraded to a lovely room with a knock-your-socks-off harbor view (and in Hong Kong, it’s all about the harbor view). We unpacked a bit and I realized I was going to need a little nap if I was going to make it through dinner since I’d been up all night the night before in Bangkok working again.
(Sidebar: I know you all think I’m always on some kind of permanent vacation but I really do work through the night during U.S. business hours more often than not – Susan can now vouch for this. I have clients at home who expect me to answer their emails and, after all, I do need some income to support my ridiculously-absurd travel habit. Not to mention, uploading and editing vast amounts of photos is time-consuming and blog posts like this one certainly aren’t going to write themselves!).
So, Susan bundled up and headed back out into the elements to explore, shop and scope out options for dinner later. I climbed into bed thinking I would just close my eyes for a few minutes, maybe an hour or two …and woke up 5 hours later! I guess I needed the sleep. Honestly, it was a miracle I even woke up then. Susan had left me a note that she was in the Club Lounge if I woke up so I shook off the grogginess, pulled myself together and went up to meet her.
We had a glass of wine or two and then I told her about the nightly Symphony of Lights show over Hong Kong harbor that started every night at 8:00pm. Many of the skyscrapers along the water are outfitted with multicolored laser/strobe lights and the whole show is set to music. It was what I remembered most about my last visit to Hong Kong and I wanted to be sure we didn’t miss it.
Since it was freezing outside by the water (where most people watch the show) and our room had a panoramic view of the harbor, we decided to watch from there. It was a great call because I never realized that the show involved so many lights on top of the buildings on the Kowloon side of the harbor. You can’t really appreciate that from the water’s edge but you sure can from the 23rd floor of the Sheraton! It was an awesome 18-minute show and when it was over it was time to venture out to find a good spot for dinner.
Susan, foodie that she is, had grilled the concierge while I was asleep for the best local spots in the area and she was ready to go with a short-list. We walked just a few blocks from the hotel to a street that was lined with restaurants flashing neon signs and picture-filled menus and within a few minutes had decided on one. It turned out to be a good decision, Susan tried a seafood congee and I chose a Portuguese-inspired Macau dish that was delicious. After dinner it was time to call it a night since we had a full day ahead tomorrow.
Day 2 – Macau (The un-Vegas)
One of the main reasons I wanted to come back to Hong Kong this year was that I also wanted to visit the nearby SAR (Special Administrative Region) of Macau. Known as the “Las Vegas of Asia,” Macau is an up-and-comer on the world gambling stage and there is currently a ton of development happening there by the likes of Steve Wynn and other Vegas moguls. They had recently opened both a Venetian and a Wynn in Macau and I thought it would be fun to check out how Asia does Vegas.
So that morning after breakfast we headed straight for the Kowloon ferry terminal. Macau is just a 1-hour ferry ride from either Hong Kong or Kowloon and since we had just missed a ferry when we arrived, the next one wouldn’t be for another hour. We decided to hop on the Star Ferry and cross the harbor to Hong Kong and explore the island a little until the next ferry.
I absolutely love the Star Ferry and next to the nightly Symphony of Lights, it’s one of Hong Kong’s best attractions. For just 25 cents, you can hop on a ferry every few minutes that will shuttle you between Hong Kong island and Kowloon in about 10 minutes. The ride across the harbor on a clear day will take your breath away (on my last visit, I may or may not have ridden it back and forth 6 times). Unfortunately, it was not a clear day – still overcast like the day before – but at least it had warmed up into the 60’s. Thank God for small favors.
Once we made it over to Hong Kong island, I thought it might be a good idea to check the ferry schedules to Macau from there instead of traipsing all the way back to Kowloon. By the time we found the Macau ferry terminal, there was one leaving in just a few minutes so we nixed our Hong Kong plan and bought tickets for Macau. It was a comfortable ride for a reasonable price and in just under an hour, we were docking in Macau.
Since Macau is a different administrative region from Hong Kong, you have to bring your passport and pass through customs and immigration again to enter. Like everything else in Hong Kong, the whole process is pretty efficient and in just a few minutes we were through and heading out of the ferry terminal to look for transportation into town. I made a guess that there would be free shuttles to the casinos (after all, they want you there to gamble!) and boy was I right. The parking lot at the ferry terminal was lined with free shuttle buses to every casino you could think of. We found the shuttle for the Venetian and jumped on. I was eager to see what this “Las Vegas of Asia” would be like.
Now, folks, I know Vegas. My real job brings me to Vegas several times a year, sometimes for as long as two weeks at a time. Combined, I spend at least a full month in Vegas every year (which is significant because I’m not even sure I spend a full month at home every year). It’s a unique city; one that’s not for everyone. But also one that everyone should see at least once. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of Vegas. Probably because I always seem to be there to work while everyone else is there to play…loudly…and well after I’ve tried to go to sleep. So – Vegas credentials established – I can say without hesitation, “Macau is no Las Vegas.”
It certainly looks like Vegas. There’s a Wynn, a Venetian, an MGM…all perfect Asian replicas of their Las Vegas originals. In fact, as I walked through the Canal Shops at the Venetian, it was eerily similar to its U.S. counterpart and I had to keep reminding myself I was thousands of miles away from Las Vegas Boulevard.
But, though physically they look the same, what you quickly begin to realize it that something’s missing. And what’s missing is the fun; the energy that Vegas has. Now, maybe that comes from all the drinking but when you walk through a Las Vegas casino, darn it, people are having fun. Loud, crazy – usually drunken – fun.
By comparison, the casino scene in Macau is more like walking into a wake. There is no noise. Everyone is quiet and very respectful. It’s all very refined, with mild-mannered Asians ordering coffee, tea or water from over-dressed (by Vegas standards) waitresses. I’m told that if you do sit down at a table and ask for a beer, they can usually scrounge one up for you. But probably not before everyone at the table looks at you like you’ve got 3 heads. It’s all so very, very un-Vegas-like.
There’s a reason they call Macau the billionaire’s Las Vegas, the people who come here apparently come for serious gambling. Gambling without distractions like booze or scantily-clad women (several of my male American friends have probably passed out from shock after that last sentence. I’ll pause for someone to revive them before I continue. Good? Ok, where was I…).
So, as Susan and I walked through casino after casino, they were all the same. Beautiful, but B-O-R-I-N-G. Now, I will say, we walked through one of the casinos that I’d not heard of before – the Galaxy – and the interior of it was all glitz and glamour and it had a spectacular Crystal Lobby that rivaled anything I’ve seen in Vegas. But, all in all, I was disappointed by Macau, it was not at all what I expected.
After visiting the Venetian and the Galaxy, we next headed over to the Wynn. We were starving by this point and figured surely we could at least get a beer in a restaurant if we ordered lunch. So we found a dim sum restaurant in the Wynn and had another terrific meal. We even got to try the local Macau beer and I was relieved to see that at least it was possible to get a drink somewhere in this town.
After lunch it was after 3pm so we hopped back on the ferry and headed back to Kowloon. We didn’t get to see much of Hong Kong island but the weather was so lousy it would have been impossible to go up to Victoria Peak anyway so instead we took our time walking back to the hotel and did a little shopping on the way.
Since it had warmed up quite a bit, we figured this was the night to head down to the waterfront to see the light show up close. We bundled up, poured the remainder of our Club Lounge wine into hotel water bottles (after all, anything called a symphony should be a catered affair, don’t you think?) and walked across the street to find a good spot along the railing for the show.
It was nice to be outside and be able to hear the music but I realized after watching from the waterfront that we had the best view of all from our room. When the show ended, it was time for dinner…Susan’s last meal of the trip. We experimented with another local restaurant and were not disappointed. If there’s one thing Hong Kong does well, it’s food. I was beginning to think it might be impossible to get a bad meal in this town.
Day 3 – The W Hong Kong
The next morning it was time for Susan to head to the airport and fly back to Atlanta. We’d had such a great time during our two weeks of globe-trotting that I was really sorry to see her go. I‘m so excited that she was able to join me for this part of the trip (I mean, without a witness, no one would have believed just how amazing the Maldives were) and if nothing else, she has taught me to be more adventurous with my food choices in the countries I visit. It’s a good lesson and one I will try hard to put into practice in my future travels.
After Susan left, I slept for another hour or two and then went out to do a little souvenir shopping. Since I bought nothing on my last visit to Hong Kong, I had my eye on a few things.
For my last night in the city, I’d booked a room at the W Hong Kong (in case you haven’t picked up on this by now, I’m on kind of a W kick this year). When I arrived at the hotel and surrendered my passport at reception, I got the same reaction I’d been getting at Starwood properties for the past few weeks. It goes a little something like this
Me: “Hi. Here’s my passport.”
Front desk clerk: Types in a few keys and suddenly looks nervous. Picks up desk phone, rattles off something in a language I don’t understand. “Welcome, Ms. McIver, can you please wait right here?”
Next thing I know managers are coming out of the woodwork and handing me their cards. It’s a little overwhelming but such a nice welcome. I didn’t request a media rate in Hong Kong, simply used my points to book the room like anyone else would, so I wasn’t expecting this kind of treatment. But the folks at Starwood who have been following my trip daily this year have been so good to me and they have full access to my Starwood account so they always know where I am.
No less than two managers escorted me up to my room. They’d upgraded me to what W calls a “Marvelous Suite” and that’s about the best way I can think of to describe it. It was a gorgeous suite and by far the best upgrade I’ve ever gotten at a W hotel. Since this was my last night at a Starwood hotel on Round the World #7, I guess they decided to send me off in style. What a lovely surprise!
In addition to my Marvelous room, there was a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries (my favorite) on the table and an elegantly-wrapped gift box on the bed. The manager explained that since they knew I loved to travel, they had put together a little travel-related gift box for me. When I opened it later, inside was a W-logoed beach bag (which I would need to get all this loot home), a W luggage tag with my information already thoughtfully filled in and a W-logoed travel umbrella…awesome! I absolutely loved it and it was such a creative idea.
Since the weather was still lousy outside, I figured this was as good a reason as any to stay in and enjoy the marvelous-ness of my suite. I spent the afternoon finishing the hotel review from Easter Island that I’d been neglecting for the past few weeks and then headed downstairs to the massive shopping center under the hotel to get some authentic Chinese take-out for dinner.
After dinner, I took a leisurely bubble bath with a glass of wine and a view of the harbor and then climbed into bed early. It was time to catch up on some sleep! Just as I was about to drift off, my phone rang and it was the hotel’s Whatever/Whenever Manager. She said they had something for me and asked if now was a good time to bring it up? Never one to turn down presents (not to mention she had piqued my curiosity) I said sure, come on up!
A few minutes later, both she and the restaurant manager were at my door pushing a cart with all the fixings for lychee martinis! Well now this was a surprise. I’d never mixed a martini before but the martini kit on the table came with all the ingredients in individual bottles and a tiny scroll with instructions. Even I couldn’t screw that up! We took a few pictures and a little video as I followed the instructions and mixed a delicious martini. It was a lot of fun and the logoed martini kit complete with 2 glasses and shaker were mine to keep (I was definitely going to need that beach bag). It was great fun and a terrific example of why W is such a unique hotel brand. What other hotel would roll a martini-making kit with all the trimmings right into your room? So very “W”, indeed.
Since it was the weekend, I was able to sleep all the way through the night without worrying about work and awoke the next morning finally feeling like I’d gotten enough sleep. I had some work to do the next day and since my flight wasn’t until the afternoon and it was still cloudy and grey outside, I decided to enjoy the suite a little more and stay in.
That afternoon, it was time to head back to the airport (which couldn’t have been easier since the W sits right on top of the airport train station) for my flight to Melbourne. Big thanks to the W Hong Kong for making my brief stay such fun! I love my martini set so much that I’ll be checking my bag the rest of the way just to get it home. Now that’s love.