After our less-than-stellar experience in Hanoi (though the rest of our visit to Vietnam was very enjoyable), and a couple months in the developing world craziness of Southeast Asia, we were looking forward to the First World comforts provided by a major world city.  Hong Kong did not disappoint.

We arrived very late, but the city’s extremely modern Airport Express train got us to Hong Kong island in about an hour for HK$100 (US$13).  From there, we took a HK$30 cab ride to our hotel, the Bishop Lei International House.  I lost my travel wedding band (US$19 from in the cab, but that was the only disappointment we had in this spectacular city.

We had booked a standard room at the Bishop Lei through for US$72 a night and were so grateful when a hotel employee inexplicably upgraded us to a harbor view suite on the 14th floor for free. The room was enormous, the bedroom featuring a sweeping view of the city and Victoria Harbor.  I was so tired I could have slept in a phone booth, but this was much, much nicer.  And the prospect of spending two more nights there was very pleasing.

On our first full day in Hong Kong, we took in the sights around the water and walked through Kowloon.  Following the path of the city’s Central-Mid-Levels escalator, the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system, we hiked down to the waterfront and hopped on the Star Ferry (HK$2.50 weekdays/HK$3.40 weekends) to cross the harbor.  Sitting on the ferry’s open-air top deck during the five-minute ride is a great way to see the extremely photogenic city in full panoramic splendor.

The Star Ferry deposited us beside the Avenue of Stars on the Kowloon side of the harbor.  This beautiful pedestrian promenade is Hong Kong’s answer to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.  Dozens of famous Hong Kong actors, writers and directors have been memorialized with handprints in concrete and statues dotting the path.  Handprints belonging to the most famous celebrities are easily recognizable by discolored and smoothed concrete. The indentions of Jackie Chan’s handprints, for instance, are exceptionally smooth.

Our walk along the Avenue of Stars ended at the excellent Hong Kong Museum of Art.  We happened to be in town during a traveling Andy Warhol exhibit and spent our entire museum visit fixated by that section.  The exhibit showed Warhol’s work from all stages of his career with a major section focusing on his visit to Hong Kong in the early 1980s.  It was very interesting to see the mementos he saved from his trip including a city map from the tourist bureau with a design and format extremely similar to the maps in our own pockets.

From there, we walked north through Kowloon, away from the water, and encountered Kowloon Park — a refreshingly peaceful patch of green in the heart of a bustling, noisy city.  Here you can temporarily escape the barrage of noise and lights and relax with the birds and fish that call this park’s ponds home.  We continued north and found an open air night market containing everything from knockoff handbags to designer watches to pirated DVDs.  We decided on a plastic, battery-powered waving cat as a gift for a friend.  (At the market be prepared to bargain hard.  Walking away will typically elicit a better — though often final — price and this tactic got us the waving cat for HK$10 after an initial asking price of HK$40.)

As the sun started to set, we headed back down south toward the water and made it to the promenade in time for the Hong Kong sound and light show, A Symphony of Lights.  This free nightly show choreographs laser lights installed on several dozen buildings on the Hong Kong Island side with a musical score and narration in English and Chinese.  Had we planned a little bit better we would have stopped at a 7-11 to pick up a six pack of beer beforehand.  Be sure to get there early as all available seating — and anything that remotely resembles seating — fills up with tourists and locals.

Our second day in the city we stayed on Hong Kong Island exploring the parks, restaurants and antique shops that dot the cityscape.  The free Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens park on the island boasts a primate exhibit where they have cages containing dozens of species of primates from tiny monkeys no more than 8 inches in length to a cage containing a hulking orangutan who was swinging above us in the rafters of his cage.  He stared at us as we approached his enclosure and, after spending a few minutes trying to determine what we were and seeming to decide that we had no food, he swung around and turned his back to us.

A typical Kowloon street

A typical Kowloon street

In the evening, we took the very crowded funicular peak tram up the mountain to Victoria Peak (HK$63 one way/HK$75 return).  At the top was a shopping mall complete with overpriced chain restaurants and a Madame Toussaud’s branch with a Bruce Lee wax sculpture on display for photographs.  We walked outside the complex hoping to see the skyline of the city from above, but instead were greeted with a very cold and very wet fog.  Visibility was about 50 feet and, although we didn’t get photographs of the city, we did get some very eerie photographs of the buildings on top of the mountain.  We walked down the long, steep path toward the city and crashed at our extremely comfortable hotel to prepare for our flight the next day to Japan.