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Note to self: 6am international flights are NOT the cure for jetlag. By the time I got back to the hotel in Singapore and settled into bed, it was almost 1am and of course I could not fall asleep for fear that I was too tired to wake up in time for my flight to Hong Kong in the morning. I worried about this despite the fact that I had set a wake-up call, set the alarm clock I bought at the airport before leaving Atlanta and set the hotel alarm clock next to the bed – what I normally refer to as a “3-alarm morning.”
Normally, a 3-alarm morning for me would involve setting a wake-up call, my cell phone alarm and my Blackberry alarm. But since I did not bring my cell phone on this trip and I haven’t seen my Blackberry since Germany (don’t ask – I don’t have an answer) I made do with what I had. There comes a point when you know you are tired and the possibility exists (however small) that you will sleep right through a wake-up call – or more likely hang it up and go right back to sleep. Thus the 3-alarm theory, anyone can sleep through one alarm or even two, but three? Not a chance. Let me stress here that I can’t recall ever over-sleeping in my entire adult life but I am of the firm belief that just because something has never happened, does not mean you shouldn’t worry about it.
I gave up around 3am and got out of bed to pack. My 3-hour flight to Hong Kong was booked on United (in coach) and was a flight that continued on to Chicago. It was a real deal at only $250 and there were no business fares available that were even close (and ya know I looked!). I had a good seat on the aisle in the bulkhead row right behind business class and the seat next to me was just about the only seat on the whole plane that was empty. I leaned my seat back as far as it would go and propped my pillow on the upright empty seat next to me and actually slept for a little more than an hour.
Arrival in Hong Kong
Once again, I am thoroughly impressed with the Hong Kong Airport. The airports of Southeast Asia are really a wonder. After another reasonably-priced direct hi-speed train into the city, followed by a free shuttle bus from the station to my hotel, I checked into the Conrad Hong Kong (another brilliant use of my Hilton points as this hotel is really expensive).
I am disappointed because the weather when I arrive is not good. It’s foggy and overcast and you can’t even see the tops of the buildings. Even worse, the forecast is not expected to improve in the next couple of days – looks like that tram ride up to Victoria Peak is probably out. I think my room on the 53rd floor has a fantastic view of the harbor but who can tell? The only silver lining is that the temperature is very mild – in the low 60’s. This is especially good news since you all know that I am not traveling with the warmest of clothes. Though I do have plans to buy warmer clothes while I’m here since the rest of my trip (Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul) will be in cold climates.
Attached to my hotel is a very high-end shopping mall called Pacific Place. Fortunately, in addition to Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc. there are a few moderately-priced clothing shops. I managed to find a sweater or two at Zara which is a very good thing since I notice on the signs of all the shops that they are closed for the next two days for Chinese New Year. I expected that might be a problem for tomorrow but TWO days??? I’m glad I was able to buy a few things before the stores closed for New Year’s Eve tonight.
I thought spending Chinese New Year in Hong Kong might be a pretty cool thing to experience while on a round the world trip. And I was mostly right. There is a big parade tomorrow that will go on rain or shine so I’m looking forward to that. But the huge bummer is that the massive fireworks display that Hong Kong is world-renowned for is not tomorrow night as I had hoped, it’s Monday night…when I will be in-flight to Beijing. Oh well, if the weather stays as it is, it may not happen at all. Since I can’t see much of the view anyway, I decide to call it a night around 9pm and pray for clearer weather tomorrow.
Chinese New Year in Hong Kong – Day 2
I woke up around 6:30am just as the sun was rising and was delighted to see that it looked like I might actually see the sun today. That was all the encouragement I needed to get out of bed and get going. I expected another dreary day so the slight hint of sunshine was a welcome surprise. Unfortunately, by the time I got out the door of the hotel about an hour later, the clouds had returned and it looked about the same as yesterday outside.
Undeterred, I headed out of the lobby and asked the doorman the best way to get down to the Star Ferry terminal. He looked at me a little strangely when I said I wanted to walk and suggested that I might want to take a cab, but I had checked it out on my map and it didn’t look far at all. He gave me rough directions and I headed off. It turns out it wasn’t that far – maybe a little under 2 miles – the problem is Hong Kong isn’t the best city for pedestrians. Many of the roads through town (at least in the harbor area) are highways with no pedestrian access. The key (which I quickly learned) is figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B by going through the myriad of office buildings and shopping centers and utilizing the skywalks between buildings. This is actually a pretty effective system and I got to the Star Ferry terminal in only about 30 minutes.
The Star Ferry is actually a system of ferry boats that take you across the harbor from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon on the mainland of China with the most spectacular views of Victoria Harbor between the two. The boats run with efficient regularity and it seems there is always one ready and waiting at the ferry terminal when you arrive. The cost for this 7 minute ride is a mere HK $1.70 (or about 20 cents US). Once the boat pulls away from the ferry terminal and get your first view of Hong Kong Island from afar, you don’t want to be anywhere else. I could have ridden it all day (in actuality I did ride it 6 times – 3 round trips – the deal of the century in my opinion).
Once I got across to Kowloon, I got my first great views of Hong Kong. Though it was still very overcast and foggy, it was nonetheless a view to love. I walked along the Kowloon waterfront and down to the Avenue of the Stars where all of China’s greatest film stars including Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are immortalized with a star and their handprints along the walkway. And being along the waterfront looking back over to Hong Kong was a view I could wander around and appreciate all day long.
And then the most unbelievable thing happened. In a span of about 30 minutes, the clouds totally cleared and the sun finally shone through in all its glory. It was like a New Year’s Day miracle, I was so excited! I had already come to terms with the fact that I was not going to see Hong Kong on a clear day while I was here (the weather forecasts were very pessimistic), much less get to take the tram up to Victoria Peak.
The Views over Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
As soon as I realized the sun was here to stay (at least for a while), I practically ran to the ferry to get back to Hong Kong Island and find the Victoria Peak tram station. According to my map it was located in Hong Kong Park, which I also wanted to see, and was very close to my hotel. Once back on the Hong Kong side of the harbor, I made my way back the same way I had come through the office buildings and skywalks to Hong Kong Park. Due to the small size of the island, the park is fairly small but it is really beautiful in the center of all those skyscrapers. I quickly found the tram station and was disappointed to see there was a very long line. I wasn’t the only one who’d made the sprint to the peak.
Fortunately, the line moved quickly and I was on the tram and on my way up the side of the mountain in less than 40 minutes. I expected the Peak to be similar to the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town with a couple of great viewing points and a small restaurant and gift shop but it was much more. There was an entire shopping mall up there complete with a number of restaurant options and some stores that were actually open over the New Year (unlike everything in town). There was also a good-sized park and numerous walking trails (the longest of which was about a 3 mile loop) offering a number of great viewing points of all sides of the island. Of course, the most impressive side to view was the one overlooking central Hong Kong and Kowloon. I walked the longest of the walking trails and took in the views from all sides.
Sunset from the Intercontinental Hotel
By the time I got the tram back down to the city it was almost 4pm so I returned to the Star Ferry terminal to go to the Intercontinental Hotel on the Kowloon side for sunset. A friend who works for Disney and spent several weeks in Hong Kong opening HK Disney last year said that the views of the island from the Intercontinental Hotel at sunset are unsurpassed. Actually, what he said was that sitting in the bar at the Intercon with its 3-story window view of the HK skyline, sipping a martini and listening to the live band will make you want to move to Hong Kong tomorrow.
After the big buildup, I was slightly under-whelmed when I walked into the hotel and found the bar. The windows were huge but the view was partially obscured by lowered blinds that were shading the now very bright sunlight. But, taking my good friend at his word, I got a table around 5:00pm and settled in for the sundown show. About 30 minutes later I was a believer. Like clockwork, the instant the sun finally went behind the tallest of the skyscrapers, the blinds magically raised and the view was enough to make you drop your martini in awe. Not only was he right, if it’s possible, I think he understated just how great an experience it is.
Since there was no way I was leaving, I decided to have dinner there. Expensive, yes, but worth every penny for the view alone. During the holidays, all of the buildings along the waterfront add extensive holiday lights to the fronts of the buildings and there is a “Symphony of Lights” show every night at 8pm. The show is sort of a laser light “duel” between the buildings on the Hong Kong side of the harbor and the buildings on the Kowloon side, of course all choreographed to music and narrated in Cantonese.
I’d planned to go back to the island for the New Year Parade that started at 8pm but after talking to some British tourists at the Intercon bar who said they had tried to find a good spot to watch the parade and it was way too crowded, I decided to stay in Kowloon for the light show. I think it was a good call because I had a great time walking along the Avenue of the Stars and watching the light show, it really was fantastic.
Finally, around 10pm I went back to the Star Ferry and took my last ride of the night across Victoria Harbor. I tried to catch a little of the parade on my way back to the hotel as I had to walk right across its path, but from what I could tell there wasn’t much to see. I’d had a full day so I didn’t stick around long. I was beat when I got back to my room and crawled into bed around 11pm but again couldn’t sleep.
Chinese New Year in Hong Kong – Day 3
Okay, Chinese New Year was fun but it’s obviously the holiday that never ends. Enough already, open the stores. Can you imagine everything being shut down in the US for two whole days? Open something, anything. I’m in a city known worldwide for its fantastic shopping and I can’t buy a darn thing. It’s cruel, really.
I give up on sleep around 7am and decide to get up and go for a run. The clouds have returned and I am again thankful for the beautiful day yesterday turned out to be. Aside from the clouds, it was a great morning and lots of people were again out and about enjoying the holiday. There is something about going for a run in a strange city that makes you feel less like a tourist and more like a local. I think this is why I like running in foreign cities so much, it makes you look and feel like you live there which can give you a better feel for the city.
I took the ferry one last time over to Kowloon and ran for a while along the water there (a much easier running path and less crowded). It was a great morning despite the weather. After 6 or 7 miles I went back to the hotel to shower and head to the airport for my Cathay Pacific flight to Beijing. I really enjoyed my brief stay in Hong Kong and I will definitely be back some day!
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