Jason’s Trot: The Other Hong Kong
When one thinks of Hong Kong, one thinks of a densely populated island, with limited privacy, limited space and limited breathing room. While the former two are right, I question the latter. Head out a bit on the MTR or buses and you will be surprise to see what lies a short 15 minute ride away on Hong Kong Island.
A Hike Away
The most obvious candidate for this breathing space would be both The Peak and the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens, both beautiful sites in their own right. Quite a number of my mates in Hong Kong swear their (almost) unrivalled mountaineering skills are because of their morning hill runs up along the alleys leading up to and splitting from Victoria Peak. The view, I can say with certainty, is worth the thigh and calf burns.
The endless greenery and dense foliage in the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens only belie their urban locale due to the northern section facing the concrete jungle of Central. Come a nice spring, summer or autumn day, this becomes a fine spot for a light exercise, people watching, or people watching while doing a light exercise.
The Southern Shores
The South Island line, opened n 2016, opens up the quieter side of Hong Kong Island, long only accessible by bus (if you rely on public transport), and for possibilities for even more breathing space, if only for an expanse of concrete towers but devoid of people during office hours.
Aberdeen, on the southern side of the island, like her Scottish namesake, is often eclipsed by her louder and more hip sisters Victoria (or Glasgow and Edinburgh, if we’re still talking about the ‘original’ Aberdeen). Taking the Island South Line at Admiralty MTR station and passing Ocean Park, a large amusement park and the first before Hong Kong Disneyland, towards Lei Tung Station, you will be transported from a concrete jungle with all its noise and bustle and jostling crowds to a quiet(er) concrete jungle with boats lazing in the harbour and a quiet belying its urban setting.
Rugged Coastline Drive
The coastal road hugging the coast along the southern side of Hong Kong provides for a stunning drive or ride. Regular buses ply the route from Aberdeen to Stanley, making a for a scenic tour of the south of Hong Kong Island, if a convertible or sportsbike isn’t handy.
The rocky cliffs and steep falls provide for a mesmerizing view, if the narrow single-lane carriageway does not get to you. Precariously perched houses and condominium buildings seemingly defy gravity, and you start to wonder if you really are in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.
Urban Beaches, Green Hills
One of the biggest draws of the south of Hong Kong Island are the numerous beaches that dot the coastline. Deepwater Bay and Repulse Bay are two of the more well-known and easily accessible beaches in Hong Kong, both being urban beaches with good facilities.
Repulse Bay is the poster boy for urban beaches in Hong Kong: popular with locals and tourists and having some of the most expensive real estate on the island, if not the region, this beach is a destination unto itself. Think Bondi Beach, but without Icebergs. The area is well provisioned with a promenade, terraces and an array of food, dining and entertainment options. Even on a weekday, expect bus-loads of tourists.
However, on the coastal drive between Aberdeen and Stanley, and before Repulse Bay, Deepwater Bay and Deepwater Bay Beach is, arguably, a nicer beach. While it does not have as many facilities, food, dining and entertainment options as Repulse Bay, this beach is quieter, more intimate and has a good view of the surrounding islands. Plus, it is easy to catch the bus here.
Hong Kong has many facets to it behind the glitz and glamour, the gleaming towers and glowing cocktail bars. A visit to Hong Kong may be filled to the brim with the usual tourist haunts, but the joy of this destination is her array of urban entertainment options, from the usual steel and glass to the not so common sand and tree.
Even though I have been to Hong Kong quite a few times, I always find something new to plan on my next visit. There are prettier walks to the east of Hong Kong Island, and I have yet to even mentioned the New Territories or Outlying Islands. The possibilities for urban escapes are endless, somewhat. Dense, yes. No breathing space? Nah. Unless the smog rolls in from Southern China.
Get an Octopus Card. The 3-day pass with Airport Express ticket is well worth it, and you can always add value to your card for fare on the bus, Star Ferry or trams.
The Island South Line starts at Admiralty MTR Station and ends at South Horizons. I got off at Lei Tung Station, which is in the heart of Abderdeen Island ‘village.’
Frequent buses ply the route between Aberdeen and Stanley, and stops at Deepwater Bay and Repulse Bay. The bus has an info screen and announcements in English, at least the double-decker ones.
If I were to name one of my favourite cities, Hong Kong would definitely be somewhere close to the top. She has the energy of New York, the ruggedness of Sydney and a variety of vistas as London. The duality of this city: dense yet spacious, glamorous yet rugged, gives Hong Kong a certain je ne sais quoi.
A City of Dreams
Hong Kong is a city of dreams: British traders dreamt of fortunes beyond their wildest imagination. Chinese refugees dreamt of a better life after the travails of mid-20th century China. Empires dreamt of a gateway to the riches of China. These dreams are relevant now as they were during this city’s foundations, and a walk along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade puts all this to perspective.
There, on that narrow bit of land that isn’t overly rugged on Hong Kong Island, the towers of dreams hug the shore and foothills, with skyscrapers adding as much to the jagged skyline as Victoria Peak.
The best place to experience Hong Kong is the same way other visitors to this city have done it over the centuries: on water. The Star Ferry has been a reliable mode of transportation for decades, linking the Mainland and Kowloon to Hong Kong Island via terminals at Central and Wan Chai. Fares are cheap, at HKD 2 per trip, and you get a fun cruise while you are at it.
Skyscraper City Snapshot
Getting off the Star Ferry at the Central Pier and walking towards the dense skyscraper-filled core, you cannot help but look up. As far as the vistas go, you see fine urban architecture everywhere, a testament to the dreams and vanities of those who built them.
Head over to Statue Square, which lacks a statue which named the square (the Japanese melted the statue down during WWII, it has not been replaced) and you will get a fantastic up-close view of the iconic landmarks that distinguish Hong Kong. From the portico in front of the Supreme Court, the zig-zag Bank of China building shares a spatial space as the honey-combed CKH Tower and the ever iconic despite being shorter HSBC Main Building.
Look behind you and the IFC 2 and ICC tower round up the lot, without imposing too much on scale. As if to disrupt your image of a forest of skyscrapers, the ever lush foliage around Statue Square will remind you that there are quiet, green oases in any hectic urban centre.
Peak Summit Walks
Just behind the HSBC Main Building, there are walkways that meander up against the foothills of Victoria Peak, passing through the lush rugged landscape compounds of St John’s Cathedral, and onwards towards the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. It is this end of Hong Kong that would disrupt your perception of an eternal, constant barrage of man-made canyons and perches.
Along these walkways, look out for the signs to the Peak Tram. There are many ways to get to the Peak, but the Tram is the most iconic, and also the most crowded with tourists. Use an Octopus Card. It helps to by-pass the long tourist queue. Once you are up there, the view is well worth it.
Once you negotiate the shopping mall that is the Peak Galleria, you will find the stunning Peak Lookout Terrace, where you will be rewarded with one of the most picture-postcard perfect view of Hong Kong’s skyline.
Yet if you take a different path, just next to the Peak Galleria, you will encounter a nice nature walk that brings you around Victoria Peak’s summit, passing smart homes, lush greenery and, just at the back, a wilderness you would not expect to find in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.
Forest of Towers, Towers of Forests
The beauty of Hong Kong is in both her man-made and natural wonders. If the greenery behind the Peak, just a 20 minute walk from the endless vistas of skyscrapers, was a treat, just imagine that there is a lot more of that further south.
Aberdeen, on the southern coast of Hong Kong Island, is little visited but has, personally, the most charm. Everything from quaint fishing boats and boat homes to the largest floating restaurant next to the fancy Hong Kong Yacht Club call this place home. Depending on the time of week, you might even catch Dragon Boat Rowers practicing in the harbour.
Exploring the southern coast is straight forward with an Octopus Card and the very frequent busses. Hong Kong’s weekend beach escapes are dotted along this area, and the patches of townships in soaring towers amidst lush green lungs really hammer home the bi-polarity of Hong Kong: super dense, yet super green.
Cruise and Booze
I mentioned the Star Ferry, but if you want a longer experience, with booze, might I suggest Aqualuna? While it may give the impression of a super touristy experience, it is still worth it, personally. It ‘functions’ as a hop-on-hop-off harbour transport, but I just treat it as a 1-hour cruise in Victoria Harbour.
Aqualuna is a harbour cruise on a traditional Chinese junk, complete with dragon pennants and red sails. A late afternoon cruise around 3pm, is perfect, as you meander from the Central Pier, towards Wan Chai, then in to the harbour westbound, before turning back towards Kowloon, at the TST pier and back to Central. Bring your fan and sunnies.
If you still feel the need to be a bit posh, then head over to the Ritz-Carlton at the ICC in Kowloon. The Lounge at the 103rd floor is spectacular, especially as dusk approaches, and Hong Kong before you shifts to evening mode as the city lights turn on and the catamarans come in to harbour from Macau.
Local Eats with Local Beats
Dim sum is, well, a must in Hong Kong, and everyone has a spot. If I am pressed for time but need my dim sum fix, then the Tim Ho Wan outlet just underneath the City Air Terminal check-in area at Hong Kong Station is my go-to point. Their original outlet is in Mongkok, but beware of the queue.
For something more local, then walk around Sheun Wan and follow your nose and ears. You can easily spot many good, local dim sum eats here, amidst the wonton shops and dried herb sellers.
One of my current obsession is this little store called Litte Bao. Imagine soft, steamed buns with a pork filling. Simple, yes, but be prepared to wait an hour. You can always leave your name and number, and then go out for a drink. Thank god this is at the periphery of SoHo, where the options for drinks are endless.
Winding Streets = Booze Control
SoHo, at the city’s Mid-Levels, easily accessible from the financial district of central via the Mid-Levels Escalator, lives up to her name. Like Soho in London, this ‘South of Hollywood’ Road area is filled with fancy bars, nice pubs and an energy that sucks you in to an alcohol-lubricated singularity.
The area is not as popular as Lan Kwai Fok, which is a good thing! Quaint English pubs, Jamaican grub and the iconic Iron Fairies are within her environs. The winding steps, narrow streets and steep inclines will ensure you sober up just a bit before the next stop.
But for something more posh, then the M Bar at the Mandarin Oriental’s upper most floors should satisfy. The bar has a great energy, the mixologists make delectable cocktails and the sofas are super comfortable. Come in before 7pm and request a seat by the window: you do not want to miss the show.
The Glittering City
Every evening at 7pm, there is a light show, where the iconic skyline of Hong Kong ‘sings’ in a Symphony of Light. The perch at the M Bar puts you literally in the middle of the show, but for the best view, then head over to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where the split-level observation deck joins in as part of the display. Truly, a glittering city.
Hong Kong has always mesmerized me and keeps calling me back. Sure, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, with sights and sounds that remind you of how unequal the world can be, but it is also a city where you feel the urgency to better yourself. Hong Kong, like all the great cities of the world, reminds you to always get moving while showing you both the gritty and the glamorous.
Out and About: Get an Octopus Card. The 3-day MTR pass with return Airport Express is well worth it, and you can top-up the card for use on the city’s ferries, trams and buses.
The MTR connects major nodes in the city well, both Island and Kowloon Side. The trams are a fun way to explore the city, and the buses are regular and convenient to venture further afield.
The city is very walkable. A day exploring this beautiful city should give you a thorough leg workout.
Stay: I have a preference to stay on Island-side, but good value can be had around the Tsim Sha Tsui area.
Little Bao – 66 Staunton St, Hong Kong. There is usually a queue. Leave your name and number and go for a drink in one of the nearby bars before coming back for a nibble. Worth it.
Aqualuna, Central Pier 9 – Instead of the usual ferry piers towards Kowloon and the outer island, walk along the walkway to the right, past the Maritime Museum. There is an adjoining pier, Pier 9, where the Aqualuna calls.
Tim Ho Wan – 12A, Hong Kong Station, Podium Level 1 IFC Mall. This is right under the Hong Kong Station City Air Terminal check-in facility. Michelin stared affordable eats? Yes please!
Asia is one dynamic region to be in right now, with sights, sounds and sky-high bars to impress and experience. There are quite a number out there to choose from, and I am sure I barely scratched the surface with my experiences. However, the following is my take on fabulous Asian perches that will take your breath away.
Lobby Lounge, Park Hyatt Shanghai
No list of rooftop, or at least sky-high bars, would ever be complete without an entry from Shanghai. Now, personally, I am split by 2 fantastic viewpoints in this skyscraper city, but if based on my criteria, the Park Hyatt Shanghai gets my top billing for the city.
Located in (what is for now) the second tallest building in Shanghai, the Lobby Lounge is both intimate in scale and impressive in views, offering an unparalleled view of this megacity. While the observation deck and bar of the Shanghai World Financial Centre (a.k.a. Bottle Opener as I like to call it) is higher, this one feels more luxe.
The drinks are good, the cocktail selection expansive and the tea, oh the tea! You cannot go to China and not have that nectar of the gods that caused so much intrigue in the 19th century. The Bar is more intimate, but The Living Room makes this residential-style retreat that more elegant.
View: North-west towards The Bund and west bank of the Huang-Pu River. Unobstructed by any supporting structures, safety recesses or buildings, definitely one of the finer views of Shanghai.
Drinks: decent selection of drinks, reasonably priced.
Price Point: re above. Reasonable. USD 20++/drink
Feel: Posh yet not pretentious. Comfortable and cosy.
Address: 100 Century Avenue, Pudong, Shanghai, China
Tel: +86 21 6888 1234
Nearest Station: Lujiazui
The Lounge & Bar, Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong
This entry had a close contender as my pick for this list. Located in (for now) the highest hotel with the highest lobby in the world, all the way on the 103rd floor of the International Commerce Centre, this perch has a sweeping view over Victoria Harbour, Victoria Island and Island-side. Expect unobstructed views of Victoria Peak and the sheer concentration of skyscrapers that make Hong Kong the Manhattan of the East.
An extremely cosy spot, this perch is popular as a spot for business deals or a place to impress. For me, I just love the height and the view. While not as intimate as the Park Hyatt Shanghai, its large-ish dining area does make this feel like a generic hotel lounge at times in the evening when the view is not as clear due to indoor light reflection.
Drinks selection is pretty good, and the coffee is decent for a quick pick-me-up. The men’s room is truly interesting. Sorry, ladies, but I doubt you can come in to the men’s room for the urinal with a view.
View: 180* view of Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbour. Nothing can possibly block this view, except the occasional fog or smog.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, with pretty stiff drinks.
Price Point: For the view, they could charge a premium, but drinks are reasonably priced at the USD 15+ point.
Feel: This is a somewhat popular place, for both locals and visitors. The feeling is relaxed, and while not strictly enforced, you do feel the social pressure to wear business casual.
Address: International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Road, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2263 2270
Nearest Station: Kowloon MTR
Helipad at Heli Lounge, Kuala Lumpur
Located on the, well, helipad of Menara KH, on the 34, this spot is not for the faint of heart. While the Skybar at the Traders Hotel gets the best unobstructed view of the Petronas Twin Towers in KLCC, how often can you say ‘oh, yeah, I drank on a helipad, waiting for the helicopter that never came.’
It brands itself as KL’s Best Kept Secret, but I doubt that is the case now with all the adverts on it. However, it is still a nice place, with fantastic views of Kuala Lumpur, with perfect views of the Twin Towers, KL Tower and suburbs beyond. When the other towers of KL start sprouting up, this spot will definitely be the spot.
View: 360 views of Kuala Lumpur, since, well, this is literally a rooftop.
Drinks: decent selection of drinks, reasonably priced, and not a ridiculous premium involved.
Price Point: re above. Reasonable. MYR 30++/drink
Feel: come by before 9pm and you can enjoy the view in shorts. However, the live band can be distracting after 10pm.
Address: 34th Foor, Menara KH, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +603 2110 5034
Nearest Station: Raja Chulan Monorail Station
Spago at Marina Bay Skypark, Singapore
This particular spot is in the middle of the Skypark on top of Marina Bay Sands. With reasonably priced food and carefully hidden behind bushes to shield guests at the Marina Bay Sand skypool from patrons (or maybe the other way around?), this spot is a perfect place to chill while looking out towards the Singapore Skyline.
While a bit of a chore to get to (Use the lifts at Tower 2, and change lifts at the spa), it feels like a suspended beach bar in the middle of a city. In fact, the design and foliage makes it a nice urban oasis, with hints of the Singapore CBD towers reflected against the pool. Surreal.
View: Depending where you are seated, you can get fantastic views of Singapore or the Harbour.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and a few interesting options to choose from.
Price Point: This is Singapore, so expect to pay a premium. However, prices here are comparable to bars closer to ground. SGD 30++/drink.
Feel: As it isn’t as popular (or hyped) as the other 2 rooftop bars on the Skydeck (I am looking at you, former Ku De Ta), it has a very pleasant, relaxed vibe. Again, think beach.
Address: 10 Bayfront Avenue, Level 57, Sands Skypark Tower 2, Singapore
Tel: +65 6688 9955
Nearest Station: Bayfront MRT Station
The Bar at Altitude, Jakarta
Jakarta is moving up in the Asia Pacific as a hip destination. Every time I visit Jakarta, I see something that reminds me to ignore all the occasional bad press that appears. This rooftop bar, located adjacent to Plaza Indonesia, can be a bit of a maze to get to. Just ask for The Plaza tower at Plaza Indonesia.
Once there, be greeted by an unobstructed view south of the giant metropolis, fondly known as the Big Durian. While not the highest bar, such as the one at Skyle Lounge, or with a fantastic terrace just 3 floors up in the same tower at Cloud Lounge, your view is at the very edge, facing the plate glass windows. Plus, it feels less like a fancy bar and more like a member’s only lounge.
View: Unobstructed views of downtown Jakarta, at this, the highest rooftop bar in the city. Even better if the weather and smog is cooperating.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and the usual beers.
Price Point: Reasonable by Urban Asia-Pacific standards. IDR 100k++/drink.
Feel: Very dressed down and casual in the daytime. Relaxed atmosphere with chilled music just makes you want to do absolutely nothing but relax.
Address: The Plaza, 46th Floor, Jl MH Thamrin Kav 28 – 30, Jakarta
Tel: +62 21 2992 2448
Red Sky, Bangkok
Bangkok is the city for rooftop bars in my opinion. The options are endless, but this is arguably my favourite. Why? The drinks are stiff and good, and you have the option for a 360 view of Bangkok on the highest rooftop bar, in one of the tallest buildings in the city.
The entire place is a 2-storey collection of restaurants and bars, and the terrace itself is 2 storeys high, with the lower terrace a dining terrace. The best time to come by is around 5pm, as the sun sets in the City of Angels. Did I also mention there is a champagne lounge? Definitely one of my favourite rooftop bars.
View: 360 view of Bangkok, as far as the eye can see. Everything from the MahaNakhon to the Baiyoke, the Banyan Tree onwards to the Okura Prestige. The Grand Palace may be obstructed, sadly.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and look out for the happy hour from 4pm to 9pm (best to double check the happy hour timing).
Price Point: Not as cheap as your usual Bangkok bar, but one of the more reasonable when compared to its rooftop bar peers. The Happy Hour will make you happy. THB 3,000++/drink.
Feel: Somewhat more relaxed than Sirocco at Lebua and does not induce a fear of heights as much as Vertigo. Will make you feel high.
Address: 56th Floor, Centara Grand at CentralWorld, Bangkok, Thailand
Tel: +66 2 100 6255
Nearest Station: Chidlom BTS Station
While these bars did not quite make my list, they are fantastic in their own right just for their settings:
The Penthouse, Park Hyatt Bangkok
Fantastic terrace both at the lobby terrace and the 34th floor ‘Penthouse’, overlooking the busy commercial district along Wireless Rd/Witthayu Road and Sukhumvit Road. Lovely bar, intimate and super friendly staff. With a rooftop terrace set to open in 4th Quarter 2017, this may jump up in future lists.
Address: 34th Floor, Park Hyatt Bangkok, 88 Wireless Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330 Thailand
Tel: +66 2 012 1234
Nearest Station: Ploen Chit BTS Station
More sky-high brewery than a bar, this spot has decent happy hours and great views overlooking Raffles Place, Marina Bay and the Marina Bay Sands.
Address: 8 Marina Boulevard 33-01, Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, Singapore
Tel: +65 6834 3133
Nearest Station: Marina Bay MRT Station
M Bar, Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong
The iconic Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong has a truly iconic bar at the top. It almost took my top billing, with its intimate setting, fantastic drinks and up-close yet not overbearing views of the skyscrapers of Central.
Address: 5 Connaught Rd, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2825 4002
Nearest Station: Central MTR Station
Rooftop Terrace, Fairmont Peace Hotel Shanghai
Located on The Bund, this storied hotel, a former property of the equally storied Sarkies Family, boasts one of the best views of Shanghai, overlooking skyscraper-central of Pudong. In the evening, sit back with your tipple and be amazed how crowded the riverfront promenade along The Bund can get.
Address: 20 Nanjing East Road, Wai Tan, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Si, China, 200000
Tel: +86 21 6321 6888
Nearest Station: Nanjing East Road
What is my criteria?
-View: do I get a unique insight to the city? And is the view majorly obstructed?
-Drinks Selection: Beer? Wine? Cocktails? Variety helps with the view.
-Price Point: Rooftop bars are known to charge a premium, but is it reasonable?
-Feel: Now this is hard to quantify, but a fantastic view can be spoiled by that intangible thing called ‘feelings’
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.