The enormity, organization, and appeal of Hong Kong is apparent the moment you exit your plane. Absolutely opposite of natural, physical New Zealand (where I had spent the last 3 months), Hong Kong is instead a powerful symbol of human achievement. Endless skyscrapers of every possible design with food and drink to please every whim or craving. It also boasts an impressive art and musical culture. The efficient movement of a huge population through an equally large space; Hong Kong is the physical manifestation of so many creative and confident souls. The week that I spent exploring doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of a city that evolves faster than anyone can experience it.
With 60 Michelin stars and many more on the recommended list, you're replete with chefs willing to help you part with your travel budget. While you can spend a fortune, Hong Kong is also home to the cheapest starred restaurants in the world: Tim Ho Wan and Yung Kee. The former is a dim sum destination with pineapple sugar topped baked pork buns that are in my all time top 5 foods and the latter a traditional siu mei, specializing in roast goose. Yung Kee has taken advantage of its fame by distributing their food on Cathay Pacific flights and selling goose and preserved eggs at the airport duty free stores. This may have contributed to losing their star in 2011, but they're still on the Bib Gourmand list.
Of course there are endless options for inexpensive and traditional foods across the city. For a party along with your meal, I highly recommend Tung Po in North Point, located on the top floor of a wet market. Wear your drinking shoes with your loose pants as the mohawk sporting, gumboot wearing chef will heavily influence your consumption, popping entirely too many bottles of Tsing Tao with a chopstick. Beer is enjoyed from ceramic bowls and remember, when one person drinks, everyone drinks. I got there at 11 and didn't escape until 3am. As for food, the squid ink pasta is fantastic with a generous amount of squid and the sweet and sour chicken is as good as it gets. Not ladled with overly sweet sauce as it almost always is, Tung Po's version is how I wish the dish would more often be served; lightly dressed with a thinner batter and high pineapple ratio. The wasabi cucumber salad is another must.
Whole birds and dim sum can keep you satiated, but if you can handle the heat, almost every menu seemed to feature one of my personal favorites – Szechuan chicken. The best I had was at Yun Yan in Times Square (another Michelin Bib Gourmand member). Times Square has an insane number of food options but the fancy food court upstairs has some of the best restaurants. Look for the elevator line to the right of the main mall entrance that will lift you to the multiple floors of table serviced, classier-than-street-food choices. Also recommended, Chung's Cuisine for dim sum. Thanks here to expat friend (also named Andrew) for being my dim sum spirit guide.
He was also adamant that my final meal be at Saboten in HK International, almost canceling his plans for the night to come with me to the airport to partake. Saboten is one of Japan's largest tonkatsu chains, but retains an extremely high standard of quality ingredients that make its simple, but mouth watering fried pork cutlets worth a visit wherever you can find it.
A burgeoning cocktail culture has gotten a pretty good grip on Hong Kong over the past few years and there are an amazing number of bars utilizing molecular mixology and all the toys you'll find in the best kitchens in the world. This doesn't mean they don't still love their scotch, of which a decent selection can be found pretty much anywhere. Coming off such a long time in New Zealand, possibly the worst cocktail culture I'm aware of, I was quite excited to finally have a properly made drink. I don't want to slam NZ too hard, but the reality is most bars in that nation adore cocktails that almost ubiquitously feature Blue Curacao or Midori. Seriously, its that bad.
Top shelf, classy nights should be spent at the preeminent Angel's Share in SOHO, the mostly ex-pat populated neighborhood that exists between the workplaces and helper staffed high end apartment complexes high up on the hill. They have an incredible number of whiskies from around the world, complete with a 60 gallon barrel of their own that is filled with whichever Scotch they're featuring for that year or so (there's a shockingly large amount of liquid in a whisky barrel, 266 US bottles or 4415 standard shots). Food was surprisingly delicious, so you'll have plenty of snacks to accompany you while you attempt to choose your next drink. They even had a whisky produced where I went to high school in Purcelleville, VA; Catoctin Creek. That's as obscure as Captain Beefheart's musical homage to the Abba Zabba candy bar.
Many of the nicer bar or restaurant options are often knock-off western concept copies, a rational conclusion based on the customer base which is primarily expat. I was immensely grateful to stumble upon a real gem of a cocktail bar on Staunton St; Little L.A.B. Perfectly capable of making you a well executed classic, their real strength is in their house drinks. The theme here is to infuse a good helping of actual local culture into the recipe. Ginger vinaigrette inspired by pork knuckle stew? Dai pai dong tea syrup and cacao beans paired with Scotch? Yup, they've got it. This is successful bartending outside of the box. It's delicious with a friendly and passionate staff as well as a crowd that won't bring back memories of your college bar.
So you've got a selection of whiskey and a great cocktail in you, but there's one thing the lean, sweet lagers of Asia may have left you yearning for: beer. Real beer with alcohol above 4.5% and made in batches smaller than the whale exhibit at the aquarium. Craft Brew & Co, a fantastic beer bar tucked away one block off the main drag and serving a thorough collection of beers not well distributed is where you'll find it. Decent prices and delicious sausages accompany good people watching. If you find yourself in the Kowloon area, Ned Kelly's Last Stand, an always busy Aussie bar that you should visit not for the drinks, but the fantastic nightly jazz band is an expat standby. Looking for a classy glass of wine instead of a bunch of Aussies? Next door to Ned Kelly's is Mes Amis, with a solid by-the-glass program and plenty of beautiful people.
Simply wandering the city's many neighborhoods between meals provides sufficient cultural experiences ranging from the colossal modern malls to the dozens of day and night markets. Not a terrible way to spend your time, but I'll proffer a few more options.
In my humble opinion, the only reason to spend the money to see a movie in a theater is if it's in the largest venue possible, namely IMAX. I took advantage of one of Hong Kong's FIVE(!!) screens. My choice was one of 2014's best films, Interstellar, at the iSquare mall in Kowloon. Be sure to budget time on the escalators as the theater is on the 8th floor and in classic mall fashion, its design is to keep you tantalized with shopping options as long as possible.
The city of Hong Kong doesn't show you much of the real day to day of its people in the same way that you don't get an image of upstate New York when you're in the big city. In an attempt to escape the sea of concrete and glass, a trip to Lamma Island is a great day trip. Grab a snack and a beer and hop on the cheap ferry to either of the two docks and then hike over the whole island and depart from the other, stopping at least once to snack on some crustaceans you've picked out of a tank. A great half day trip, though best undertaken when the air quality is at its best.
The visibility on my trip was only a few hundred meters and was supposedly a "medium" air day. If you're feeling like a longer hike, the Dragon's Back trail on the East side of Hong Kong Island is another short departure that gets you out of the city.
The Peak is the "must" do that I did not, mostly due to the fact that the pollution prevents much of the view that's the reward for summiting in the first place. The series of escalators that reaches the peak and also whisks the expats up the hill after work is surrounded by bars and restaurants all competing to appeal to the westerners.
With the air quality in the city being pretty oppressive, a trip over the hill to the massive 226 acre theme park/oceanarium/animal park/marine mammal park was decided. While not particularly an escape, Ocean Park was ultimately a good time and a better price point than Disneyland HK. An enormous place, be prepared for long lines for the animal attractions but almost none for the rides. While many rides weren't open on my visit, there were some decidedly quality roller coasters and all the classic rides that are that much more terrifying when one remembers you're still technically in China. The majority of visitors are mainland Chinese on vacations, most of whom are older and are content to stand in line for an hour to see the penguins. This leaves the coaster lines short, but I'd recommend a weekday trip and to start early. They've got everything; pandas, sharks, sturgeon, dolphin shows, a full aquarium, jellyfish exhibit, 4 roller coasters (including Hong Kong's largest), penguins, and a water park all combined with the ability to eat pork buns at a theme park.
After a week in Hong Kong, I will not only return, but jump at a chance to live for a while there if the opportunity ever presented itself. Not necessarily until retirement, but enough time to really dig deeper and find even more gems.