Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 10

Dhaka (Bangladesh) - Hong Kong SAR (China)

Beach on Lamma Island, Hong Kong

The attraction of Hong Kong is the excitement, the nonstop action, the density of people, traffic, and skyscrapers, the sensory overload. Teams on “The Amazing Race” couldn’t even pick out neon signs from the visual commotion on a main street.

But not all of Hong Kong is like that. If beaches and green hills like those in my snapshot above aren’t part of your picture of Hong Kong, think again.

This week’s episode of The Amazing Race 17 gave an important hint that there are more choices of location in Hong Kong than whether to stay on the Hong Kong Island or Kowloon side of the central business districts fronting the harbor.

If you do want to stay on Hong Kong Island, there are much cheaper accommodations options east (North Point) or west (Western) of the Central downtown area, at either end of the double-decker tram line that featured in the racers’ sign-spotting task. And most of the land area of Hong Kong is in the New Territories extending up to the SAR border with Shenzhen on the mainland. In fact, the best lodging values in the Pearl River Delta are in Guangzhou, not in Hong Kong at all. But that’s a separate destination. Guangzhou is the the most rewarding of overnight excursions from Hong Kong, but too far away to use as a base for exploring Hong Kong itself.

But the racers also got a brief taste of a very different but still integral part of Hong Kong when they had to pick up one of their clues on Cheung Chau Island.

Along with nearby Lamma Island, Cheung Chau is one of the two largest of the many islands of Hong Kong that isn’t yet reachable by a road or rail bridge or tunnel.

Cheung Chau and Lamma islands are car-free except for a small number of golf cart sized cargo vehicles. Most of both islands remains undeveloped, with hills and beaches — and a few small villages and clusters of low-rise houses — reachable only by walking trails. Both are accessible by ferry in 30 to 45 minutes from downtown, and in fact many of these islands’ residents commute to jobs in downtown high-rises. But because the ferries to Lamma and Cheung Chau stop running or become very infrequent after midnight, nobody lives on either island who regularly goes out on the town later than that.

On weekends, both of these islands are inundated by day-trippers. During the week, though, they are a peaceful escape from the downtown frenzy, with a small-town “everybody knows everybody else” feel. That environment is especially attractive to people who didn’t grow up in Hong Kong and aren’t used to its intensity. As a result, Lamma in particular has a large (but not dominant) population of ex-pats. At the same time, it remains very much a part of Hong Kong, neither a ghetto nor an isolated and self-contained enclave like the walled ex-pat housing “compounds” in places like the Gulf. Because ex-pats far outnumber non-Chinese tourists, “gweilo” on Lamma are generally assumed to be ex-pats (or visiting friends of ex-pats) rather than tourists. Anywhere in the world, I generally find that results in a better experience. I spent a week here on Lamma in 2008, walking around the island but also taking the ferry into the city almost every day. Coming “home” to the island each night brought a pleasant hiatus from downtown Hong Kong’s sensory overload.

Cheung Chau has one luxury hotel, Lamma none. Both islands, however, have some small guesthouses. Mostly, these function as weekend or day-trip “love hotels” for couples getting away from tiny apartments and lack of privacy in the more crowded parts of Hong Kong. Rack rates typically start at about HKD400 / USD50 midweek, double that on Saturday nights. But prices are highly negotiable by the week or if your stay includes more than one or two midweek nights. These aren’t large or fancy hotels, but they offer vastly better value — more space, more light, more quiet — than what you’d find for the same price downtown.

Many island residents also rent out rooms on an informal basis. Lamma is a popuar — because relatively inexpensive, ex-pat friendly, and low-stress — place for newly arrived foreigners to stay while they are looking for work, until they find a job that pays well enough to move someplace else. Lamma has a historic reputation as the center of “hippie” and counter-cultural Hong Kong. It does seem to be genuinely, and fairly comfortably, multicultural and multiracial. These days, though, anywhere in Hong Kong is too expensive for true slackers, and because of its high prices most hippies stick to the cheapest hostels (or make it the semi-involuntary occasion for a splurge on fancier places) downtown, and don’t hang around Hong Kong much longer than necessary, if they can’t avoid it entirely.

Don’t show up on a Saturday or local holiday without reservations. At any other time you should be able to find a room within a reasonable walk of the ferry landing just by checking advertisements on notice-boards and in shop windows for rooms or apartments for rent.

If you’re staying longer than a week or so, ask around about sublets (for example, from ex-pats going on vacation or “home leave”) or rooms for rent in private houses or apartments. As I said, everybody on the island knows everybody else, so if some good or service is available on-island, it won’t be too hard to find if you ask politely.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 28 November 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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