Hard to believe but this week at Virgin Atlantic we’re celebrating 18 years of flying to Hong Kong, one of our most popular destinations for both business and leisure. To mark the occasion we’ve got the very latest lowdown from travel writer David Whitley, with a whirlwind guide to why 2012 – the year of the Dragon – is the perfect time to visit…
As the hip hubs of Hong Kong Island move gradually west, Tung Street appears to have become the new centre of the action – in the daytime, at least. The street clambers up the hillside and is lined with independent art galleries either side. If you’re after a creative shopping alternative to Hong Kong’s brand-packed malls, this is the spot.
Outlying Islands unveiled
Hopping on a ferry to one of the Outlying Islands is a much underrated HK experience, but detail about the islands in most guide books is frustratingly scant. Luckily, the Hong Kong Tourism Board has brought out a new booklet packed with ideas and itineraries for Lantau, Lamma, Cheung Chau and Peng Chau. It’s excellent, and available as an e-book for advance planners.
The other new booklet covering Hong Kong’s walking does a similarly superb job of picking out the highlights of the many walking trails in the New Territories.
Toy Story Land
Hong Kong Disneyland has long been the runt of the Mickey Mouse empire, but a big expansion is under way. Of the new additions, the toddler-friendly Toy Story land opened late last year. The more rambunctious Grizzly Gulch is scheduled to open in summer 2012.
New, improved Ocean Park
The massive refurbishments at Hong Kong’s other theme park are due to finish this year. Formerly a little old-fashioned, Ocean Park is now a contender again. The Thrill Mountain section – with its adrenalin-inducing rides and rollercoasters – was finished in late 2011, and three major resort hotels should top the expansion project off.
The day trip on the ferry to Macau has just become a whole lot more pleasant. A ban on smoking in public places came in on January 1st. Restaurants, bars, hotels, parks and public transport terminals are amongst the spots that have become smoke-free, and many of the casinos have brought in non-smoking areas too.
The world’s highest pool…
The Ritz-Carlton, at the top of the International Commerce Centre, became the world’s highest hotel when it opened last year. And it turns lap-swimming into to an adrenalin sport. Almost 500 metres up, the pool on the 118thfloor goes right against the glass wall – with views that are worth demisting the goggles for.
… and the world’s highest bar
Those preferring to have a drink rather than be in it should head to Ozone. On the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, the dazzle factor is so high that you can see the roof reflected in the polished floor. But the views out over Hong Kong Island are what you really come for. The work on the West Kowloon Cultural District has finally started in front of the hotel, so get in now before those views change.
Opened late last year, partly to be a training hotel for Hong Kong’s next generation of hotel managers, the Icon is getting justifiable rave reviews for its service and willingness to do things that the big brands don’t. Free mini bars, free wifi, a huge vertical indoor garden and numerous impressive design touches make it one of the top spots on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour.
Mei Ho House YHA
Hong Kong’s lack of reliable budget accommodation should be at least partially addressed with the opening of the first YHA city hostel. Mei Ho House – a converted former public housing block – is slated to open in the Sham Shui Po area in the second half of 2012.
Tai O Heritage Hotel
The former police station in Tai O – the fishing village on Lantau Island where the pink dolphin watching crusies depart from – is being converted into a nine-room hotel. It’s due to open in early 2012, and will feature snazzed-up colonial architecture, a rooftop café and a heritage interpretation centre.
A proper man spa
The Landmark Mandarin Oriental‘s spa facilities were seriously impressive beforehand, but the additions of late 2011 have made it the top place in town for the boys. Facials and muscle-reviver massages specifically designed for male skin and bodies have been added to the vitality pools, Turkish hamam and tropical rain sauna.
Eating and drinking
No reservation dining hotspots
Relaxed-but-hip joints with no reservations policies are starting to take off in Hong Kong. Two hotspots that opened recently include Linguine Fini – which combines fresh handmade pasta with Asian influences and nose-to-tail meat – and Yardbird. The latter has a largely Japanese menu and is pulling in the beautiful people for cocktails as well as the food.
The Wine and Dine festival
Hong Kong doesn’t need much excuse to tuck in, but the month-long Wine and Dinefestivals sees the West Kowloon waterfront taken over by hundreds of food stalls – many run by some of the top restaurants in town – and representatives from Hong Kong’s booming wine industry. Exact dates aren’t confirmed for 2012 yet, but expect it to run from the end of October to the end of November.
One of the new kids on the wine block is this innovative shop/ bar inside the IFC mall. Amo Eno offers tastings via the Enomatic dispenser system, and has special video tables that allow you to track down ideal matches using electronic sliders for factors such as acidity and fruitiness. Once you find a likely candidate, you can bring up detailed tasting notes.
The Flying Winemaker
The winemaker from Hong Kong’s first winery – the 8th Estate – is going solo in the new Flying Winemaker shop and tasting room. Eddie McDougall is trying to take the snob factor out of wine, encouraging customers to try drinking Lebanese, Chinese and Swiss wines (amongst others) out of plastic cups. He’s also running a series of “˜Wineskool’ workshops for anyone wanting to know more.
The 8th Estate has competition, however. Hong Kong’s second winery opened last year – and groups can arrange visits to the Portrait Winery operation in Tsuen Wan. It’s also a distillery; tastings can be partaken in at the brand new Portrait bar and shop on Staunton Street. Try the pear brandy made on-site from the attention-grabbing copper still, or show up for one of the distilling demos on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Sake Bar Ginn
Wine not your thing? Then try sake. Certified wine sommelier Ayuchi Momose has moved to Hong Kong after 12 years in New York to set up this new specialist sake bar in Lan Kwai Fong. Tasting flights, designation charts and Saturday appreciation classes are all part of the enterprising mix.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to Hong Kong from London Heathrow.
Photos: Header shot by rmlowe on Flickr.com, other photos © Francesca Perticucci | Dreamstime.com, © Ang Wee Heng John | Dreamstime.com, © Mingchai Law | Dreamstime.com, © Pindiyath100 | Dreamstime.com.