Travel Guide: From Hong Kong to Shanghai
How to explore and find zen in two of China’s busiest cities.
by : Sarah Laing- Apr 2nd, 2014
I was utterly charmed by Hong Kong from the moment my flight landed. Arriving just as the sun rose, I hopped into my hotel’s signature-green Rolls-Royce, which transported me noiselessly through the hushed streets of the brightly lit jewel of a city, its thousands of high-rises hemmed in by tropical mountains, to my home base along the Kowloon waterfront.
The next morning I was up early again, this time to master the “crimp and twist”—the art of dim sum—with the very patient chefs at the hotel’s Spring Moon restaurant. But after paying particular attention to the taste-testing portion of the lesson (my fave: the shrimp-filled har gow), I needed to get in a little activity. I found myself in the Central district, at the bottom of Hollywood Road, a bit off the beaten path and away from the noise and bustle of the nearby business district. I’d planned to have a poke around the tiny stores in the area, which is known for antiques, but an intriguing-looking alleyway caught my eye.
I headed uphill, picking my way through the narrow lanes that ran between the densely packed apartment buildings, until I found myself on an old stone staircase— one of several in this neighbourhood built into the side of a mountain. Midway up the third flight of steps, I paused, ostensibly to take in the view but mostly to make the burning in my calves stop and to catch my breath in the humid 35˚C heat.
This shady spot just off Ladder Street, in the artsy Po Hing Fong neighbourhood, felt gloriously sleepy mid-afternoon. Below me was Cat Street, packed with hard bargaining stall holders selling jade, old maps and other antiquities. But here, the air smelled like incense, perhaps wafting from the red-roofed temple I passed on my way up, and I started feeling rather Zen among the hanging vines. Much of the welcome greenery came from a sunken garden to my right, willow-like trees visible through its iron gates. A little farther on, where the stairs intersected with another narrow lane, it got even better: There was a tiny café with metal tables—and air conditioning. Within minutes, I was seated inside, sipping an iced coffee and idly wondering how long I had until dinner back at Gaddi’s, the hotel’s legendary French bistro….
Find out where to stay, eat and shop in Hong Kong on the next page…
Stay Across the harbour from the Central district, you’ll find the grande dame of the Kowloon waterfront: the recently renovated 85-year-old Peninsula Hong Kong. As a bellhop in a green pillbox hat ushered me inside, I knew I was in for luxury—yet somehow I felt like I was visiting a really doting great-aunt for the weekend. Later, as guests took afternoon tea in the vaulted lobby, a string quartet played on a balcony above. But the real indulgence here (not counting the house-made bonbons waiting in my room) was the swimming pool: Light filled and modelled after a Roman bath, it was the perfect place to kick back after a long day of exploring. Post-swim, I recommend heading to The Bar, where long-time barman Johnny might make you a drink and tell you stories about a few of the famous faces he has served, including Rex Harrison and William Holden.
Eat On the other side of the island from the buzzing Central district is Spices restaurant at the Repulse Bay hotel, a colonial-style hideaway tucked into a tropical-feeling cove. I sipped Spices’ signature fruity cocktail on the patio and followed with an appetizer of chicken satay, a perfectly balanced vegetable curry and mango with sticky rice for dessert.
Explore Victoria Peak is Hong Kong’s iconic lookout, but for a different view of the green mountains that ring Victoria Harbour, I hopped on the public ferry from Kowloon to Central: For around a dollar, you can take in the sparkling blue waters and bustling activity of the harbour close up, all with a cooling breeze in your hair.
Shop Hong Kong is renowned for its shopping. (Something to do with the lack of sales tax, perhaps?) If you’re looking for major fashion houses, head to Canton Road and be sure to pop into Vivienne Tam for a taste of local couture. For something less mainstream, I explored hipster-y Sheung Wan, just off Hollywood Road, an area that’s popular with the many expats staking their claim on Hong Kong’s emerging design scene. Tucked down one street is a tiny piece of Scandinavia: Squarestreet belongs to two Swedish designers who fill the bijou storefront with their own label’s leather goods, watches and shoes.
Fall head over heels for Shanghai and what it has to offer on the next page…
Even though it’s a centre for Chinese culture and commerce, Shanghai feels strangely European. But after a morning spent on a historical tour of the waterfront (“the Bund”), it suddenly made sense: The city first came to life as an outpost during the opium trade, when the British, French and others ran their questionable operations on the banks of the Huangpu River. Their ornate mercantile buildings still stand splendid on the right bank. Across the river is “new Shanghai,” with its freshly constructed skyscrapers —which are already settling into the same sandy soil (a result of the groundwater being drained for usage by the ever-growing population) that has made it so you must step down into all the colonial-era buildings.
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After a high-energy morning of touring, a slow and leisurely afternoon walk was a welcome respite. As part of the Peninsula hotel’s “Timeless Shanghai” experience, our guide, Marc, a local historian, directed our wandering through the serene tree-lined streets of the French Concession, an old colonial neighbourhood, while sharing stories about the original owners of the art-deco mansions and the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1920s, where Europeans and Chinese lived glamorously.
Standing outside a walled house on Wukang Road, Marc was midway through the scandalous story of the house’s original owner when suddenly it started to pour. Our group huddled under our umbrellas, watching the progress of an old woman in the sheeting rain, her ancient bicycle laden down with potted plants hanging in a way that defies the rules of equilibrium. Following a crack of thunder, and then a “swish,” our posh hotel car pulled up and we were rescued, carried from the romance of old Shanghai back into the tasteful excess of the new. And, luckily for me, the weather cleared up just in time for the next day’s cruise on the Huangpu River—all the better for eating a gourmet picnic and toasting the skyline from the open deck of a yacht.
Find out where to stay, eat and shop in Shanghai on the next page…
Stay The Peninsula Shanghai is a deco lover’s dream: Every geometric marble-and-gilt surface in the hotel screams Roaring Twenties, and the whole place has a kind of revelling-in-it luxe that jives with the city’s own ambitious vibe. My suite had a walk-in closet that was bigger than some bedrooms, a long-soak-prompting tub and seamlessly integrated technology that made life effortless. (I could do everything from turn off the lights to browse room service, all from a tablet while lying in bed.) It was a struggle to leave my (mint-green and gold) room, but it was worth it to indulge in a reflexology treatment at the spa (where you can have your physical condition carefully assessed just based on your feet—apparently, I have “healthy but tense shoulders”). I continued on a health kick with a poolside yoga lesson followed by the “Naturally Peninsula” breakfast. (If they’re green-tea-infused croissants, you can have two, right?)
Eat Although Shanghai is known for its sweet, fall-off-the-bone ribs and fried dumplings, hot spot Lost Heaven actually offers the ethnic cuisine of another area: southwest China’s Yunnan province. Dishes with an ineffable blend of barbecue, Thai and Tibetan flavours are served in a dim, romantic interior with a vaguely Buddhist-temple vibe. I’m still craving the hot-and-sour prawns.
Explore I’d seen the iconic tripod-esque Oriental Pearl Tower both up close and from afar; now it was time to peel back another layer of the city’s history at the Propaganda Poster Art Center. Housed in an office- building basement, this is a fascinating collection of the “art” of official Chinese communication, from Mao to the present day. I got the collector himself to tell me all about the “Shanghai Ladies,” the more wholesome Chinese version of pin-ups.
TRAVEL GUIDE: Top museums
Find out how to get to China’s two buzzing cities on the next page…
Shop Once I’d haggled my way to a full wardrobe of silk pyjamas and matching pearls on Nanjing Road, I took a trip to one of the famous Shanghai tailors. Crowded into a multi-storey building on Dongmen Road are umpteen tailors, poised with measuring tape to craft your own custom-made clothing. I picked a style, fabric and buttons, and 24 hours later I walked out with a short red jacket with black trim that fit me just right.
TRAVEL KIT: 9 luxury travel accessories
How to get there If anything’s going to make a 15-hour flight enjoyable, it’s spending it in the comfort of Cathay Pacific’s new business class. Your cozy pod converts from living room to bedroom: The seat slides into a stretch-out-all-the-way bed, with a proper duvet and everything. A good night’s sleep, gourmet food (I had grilled beef tenderloin for supper, Häagen-Dazs for a midnight snack and traditional Chinese noodles for brekkie) and prodigious use of the Murad travel kit will have you deplaning in better shape than you were in when you got on board.
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