A Long Layover in Hong Kong
My 8-year-old chose Palawan, Philippines for his annual trip with me. As always, as soon as we had the primary destination, we got to work playing with other fun places to add on to the trip. Why fly all the way to the Asia and only visit one country?
Beijing was an easy layover option (the Great Wall!), and we wouldn’t require Chinese visas if we were there less than 72 hours. The downside was that we would have needed to pack cold-weather clothes. So we chose to pack light and start our trip in warmer Hong Kong. Hong Kong is my favorite city in Asia, and probably my favorite layover city in the world – it’s safe, easy to navigate and interesting, and the food is great. I’ll never complain about another couple of days there. Plus I had always wanted to stay at the Peninsula Hong Kong. This would be my chance.
A 5-Year-Old Girl vs. an 8-Year-Old Boy
I took my daughter to Hong Kong when she was five and we had a fun trip. My blog post is here, and lists a bunch of great things to do with kids. While I did some of the same activities with my son, the trips were very different – my daughter wanted to go to amusement parks and shop, while my son had no interest in either. So this time I got to do all of my favorite things, with virtually no kid modifications, and we both had a great time. This list is therefore appropriate for anyone with 48 hours to spend in the city.
What We Did
A Rolls Royce Hotel Transfer
One of the fun things about being a travel writer is that every once in a while hotels throw in perks. In this case, the Peninsula offered us complimentary Rolls Royce airport transfers. How could we decline? Every previous trip to Hong Kong I had taken bus A21 from the airport to Tsim Sha Tsui for a few dollars. It worked well, even if there was a small wait for the bus to depart and several stops on the way to my drop-off location. This time we were met at the plane by a Peninsula employee and escorted to immigration and then to the luggage carousels. Once we had our bag, we were handed off to another Peninsula employee who walked us to a waiting Rolls Royce. Without traffic we arrived at the hotel quickly. Total time from walking off the airplane to walking into our hotel room: one hour. That’s pretty kid-friendly! The cost of the transfer is normally US$200 each way or $375 round-trip. Is it worth it? That’s up to you based on your budget. But it was definitely a cool thing to experience twice in a lifetime.
The View at Night
Hong Kong at night is all about the view of the harbor, either standing on Hong Kong Island and looking towards Kowloon or, in our case, looking at Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. The Peninsula has the best location in Hong Kong, next to the metro and across the street from the harbor and the Star Ferry. After getting settled in our room, we walked across the street and enjoyed the nighttime view and informal street concerts for over an hour. By the time my son was in bed at 11pm, he had had a perfect introduction to Asia and to China, his 27th country.
At US$0.31 ($0.19 for kids), crossing Hong Kong Harbor on the Star Ferry is the best value in the world. I love taking the ferry – it’s slower than the metro, but it’s an iconic journey with an amazing view. We took the ferry four times. No complaints from my son – I think he liked it as much as I do.
Man Mo Temple
My favorite temple in Hong Kong is Man Mo on Hollywood Road. It’s a small temple but colorful, and I love all the coils of incense overhead. I typically stand near the entrance, alternately watching people coming to pray and photographing the people coming to pray, while breathing in the scent of Chinese incense. When I visited with my daughter several years ago, she didn’t love the smell and we weren’t there more than five minutes. My son though was in no hurry to leave. He took out his camera and played with angles and color for a good half hour.
From Hollywood Road we walked back to the Star Ferry though several street markets, which my foodie son loved. So much fun stuff to see – exotic fruits, different vegetables, meats, seafood and street food.
If you go to Hong Kong, it’s practically mandatory to view the city from the top of Victoria Peak. Every previous trip to the city I’ve taken the Peak Tram (funicular) up and down the peak. The ride is fun and iconic, but it’s not worth waiting in line more than half an hour for. When we arrived and were told the wait to go up was two hours, we immediately walked over to the nearby taxi queue. Twenty minutes later (a 10-minute wait for a taxi and a 10-minute drive) we were at the top. We walked around to the primary vantage points and had dinner at one of the peak restaurants. Heading down, the wait for the Peak Tram was again roughly two hours, so we went straight to the taxi queue (no wait at all) and rode all the way to the Star Ferry. The taxis cost us HK$120 total (US$15.50). The Peak Tram would have cost HK$58 (US$7.50) round-trip. For US$8 we saved over three and a half hours waiting in line, plus a walk from the tram to the ferry. Well worth it!
Tian Tan Buddha / Wisdom Path / Lantau Trail
The best way to get to the Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha) on Lantau Island is to ride the Tung Chung MTR line to the last stop and then take the Ngong Ping cable car to the Buddha. On the way to the MTR I stopped by the concierge desk at the Peninsula to ask how we could avoid long lines for the cable car. The concierge called a nearby travel agency and 20 minutes later we had a voucher for the cable car. This was HUGE. When we arrived at the cable car, even before it started operating in the morning, the line for tickets was at least two hours. We walked by everyone, handed in our voucher and got into the much smaller line to board a cable car. I understand that the wait isn’t nearly as bad during off-peak times, but I still highly recommend getting tickets before you arrive – either online at least a day in advance, or through your hotel.
While it’s always fun to run up the stairs to see the Big Buddha up close (and of course we got ice cream at the top), the sites past the Buddha are just as worthwhile. The Wisdom Path is serene and very cool, and there’s hardly anyone there. And the Lantau Trail has excellent views of the island. My son and I hiked the trail farther than my daughter and I did, but still not more than an hour since we hadn’t brought water with us. We want to go back and hike for a full day next time.
From the Big Buddha, instead of taking the cable car back to the MTR, we took a taxi to Tai O fishing village. It was decidedly underwhelming – not nearly as interesting or picturesque as I thought it would be given that it’s part of the standard Hong Kong tourist circuit. We walked around for an hour, seeing the stilt houses and market stalls, and eating some egg waffles from a cart, but this was the only part of the trip that we wouldn’t recommend. We took a taxi from Tai O back to the MTR – roughly a 45-minute ride.
What We Didn’t Do
Like I said in the beginning, this is a great itinerary for anyone and not just for kids. But if I was going to tailor it to general travel, I’d add back in a little shopping. I’ve always enjoyed walking through the Jade Market, and I like Stanley, a small town across Hong Kong Island, a lot – both for the seaside cafes and for Stanley Market. The Temple Street Night Market is also worth walking through once. We easily could have fit all three places into our itinerary.
Where We Stayed
I had always wanted to stay at the Peninsula Hong Kong. First, the location is perfect – on the Kowloon side near the MTR, the harbor and the Star Ferry. I prefer Kowloon to Hong Kong Island – it feels less business-like and more Chinese to me. Second, I’ve loved my stays at the Peninsula Bangkok. Third, the hotel is iconic (I know I keep using that word) and I’d rather stay at a famous, historical hotel than a newer, less-interesting one. I hadn’t wanted to spend the money before, but this time I splurged and was glad I did.
I mentioned before that the airport transfers were a cool perk of being a travel writer. Another perk: hotel tours. Sometimes these aren’t interesting, but in the case of the Peninsula we loved it. We got to walk through the kitchens, see the room where all chocolate is crafted, and meet the chefs. We toured the restaurants, including those that don’t allow kids under 12 so we wouldn’t have otherwise seen them, and even got to the Helipad waiting room on the top floor. My son wasn’t looking forward to the hotel tour and instead it turned out to be a trip highlight.
We enjoyed breakfast every morning at the hotel, ate a great 12-course (I think) lunch at Spring Moon our first day, and dined in the lobby our last night. We also went for a swim in the gorgeous 8th floor pool (no pictures allowed, so check out the photo on the hotel’s website) and took advantage of free in-room movies. The service was excellent, and the concierge saved us by getting cable car tickets for us in advance. The only negative: the hotel’s restaurants are so popular with locals that it’s hard for guests to get reservations. We had made a reservation at Spring Moon in advance and we were the only westerners in there – always a good sign when it comes to the food! We tried to eat at Chesa, the hotel’s Swiss restaurant, but they were booked solid for two weeks. That’s how we ended up in the lobby for our final dinner.
Kid Friendly: Very. The Peninsula isn’t a kid-oriented hotel, but we were completely comfortable there and staff interaction with my son was excellent. Kids six and above can appreciate Hong Kong’s unique culture a little more than younger kids.
Level of Difficulty: Very easy. Hong Kong is one of the easiest cities in Asia to navigate, especially for English speakers.
Airline/Routing: United from San Francisco to Hong Kong. We departed on Air Asia direct to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Hotel: The Peninsula Hong Kong
Trip Length: 2 days, 3 nights. We arrived late from the US and departed in the morning to Thailand.
Days of School Missed: Zero (Christmas break)
Cost Factors: We splurged on the Peninsula Hong Kong for roughly $500/night, but there are a lot of good, less-expensive hotels in the city so you can definitely see Hong Kong without breaking the bank. We booked through Lauren Maggard at Jet Set World Travel, which got us a check-in gift (chocolates!), daily breakfast for two and a $100 meal credit, which covered most of our Lobby dinner.