Hidden Hong Kong: where to take friends and family

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

What do you do when friends or family come to visit you in Hong Kong? You could take them to visit the Big Buddha. Or get them to ride the funicular railway to the top of The Peak. Ocean Park and Disney Land are options too.


Or you could let them discover something a little bit off-the-beaten track, something perhaps they won’t have heard of before visiting Hong Kong.


The other day a friend asked me where I usually take friends and family when they visit in Hong Kong. I thought for a moment and this was the list that I came up with.


Sai Kung

This is possibly my number one option for where to take visitors in Hong Kong – not only because it is just down the road from where we live, but also because there is so much to enjoy there.


Sai Kung, located in the north-east of Hong Kong, is a geologically-fascinating area to explore. The area is characterised by striking hexagonal rock formations that are a reminder of the powerful volcanic activity that took place in the region more than 140 million years ago.


A visit to the Volcano Discovery Centre in Sai Kung Town will tell you more about Hong Kong’s geological history, including the history of the super volcano that, scientists now know, led to the formation of the Hong Kong peninsula millions of years ago.


A visit to Sai Kung Town, a former fishing village, is itself a fascinating diversion. Wander along the seaside promenade and you will see local fishermen selling live fish from their small wooden boats. Many of the small backstreets of Sai Kung Town also hold an otherworldly charm that is worth exploring: peaceful and relaxing compared to the endless hustle of Kowloon and Hong Kong.


There is no shortage of decent restaurants in Sai Kung Town. If you’re looking for international – rather than local – cuisine make sure you check out Momentai. This family-friendly restaurant has good food and plenty of space, and is a great spot to come and set over the South China Sea. There are a couple of pool tables and board games to play as well.


Once you have had enough of Sai Kung Town itself then there are plenty of other options.


You can take a boat out to sea, either to one of the nearby islands or just to cruise around a bit and appreciate the area’s fascinating rock formations.


Or you can head into Sai Kung’s national park. Here you will find plenty of great hikes and some terrific beaches. My all time favourite hike in Hong Kong, for its sheer diversity, remains the one between Sai Wan Village to Pak Tam Au. The beach at Sai Wan Village – Tai Long Wan – is also one of the most pleasant in the area.


Hong Kong’s wetland area

On the other side of Hong Kong – the north-west of the New Territories – are Hong Kong’s wonderful wetlands. Great for bird-watching, or simply a pleasant stroll away from the dust and the grime of city life. Other animals, including mongooses and otters, can also be spotted here.


There are two main areas where you can choose to go.


By far the most accessible is Hong Kong’s Wetland Park, which is a well-maintained reserve that is open to everyone. Here you get to enjoy the birds and other wildlife by following clearly-signposted paths and listening to free audio commentary (if you want to). Bird-watching hides are located throughout the park. There is also a small crocodile house, a few turtles and a café in the park. A children’s play area completes the offering.


The Mai Po Nature Reserve, located just to the north of the Wetland Park, requires slightly more of an effort to get to – but at the same time it is more rewarding once you get there.

For one thing you need a permit before you can visit the reserve. The easiest way to get one is to sign up to one of the regular tours that are organised by the World Wildlife Fund; these take place mainly on Saturdays and Sundays. The guides that run these tours are highly-knowledgeable and this is a great way to appreciate the area.


The best time for bird-watching in both the Hong Kong Wetland Park and the Mai Po Nature Reserve is between October and March, when many birds from northern climes migrate south for the winter. But you can of course visit the area at any time of the year.


Ping Shan Heritage Trail

Fancy a bit of history? Then I would highly recommend visiting the area around Ping Shan in the New Territories.


Here you will find the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, a 1.6 kilometre route that links together some of Hong Kong’s most interesting temples and traditional Chinese buildings.


This is where you will find the oldest pagoda in the whole of Hong Kong, built more than 600 years ago and in a very different architectural style to those buildings that came afterwards. There are no others like it anywhere else in Hong Kong.


You will also be able to see one of the oldest police stations in the country, built in 1899. The police station now serves as the Ping Shan Heritage Trail visitor centre.


Study and ancestral halls also pepper the historical walk, along with a few other interesting temples and spiritual places of worship.


This part of the New Territories is all too often overlooked by visitors to Hong Kong, but the richness of its history makes it deserving of more attention.


Tai O

Few places in Hong Kong are as quaint or picturesque as the old fishing village of Tai O, which has become famous for the traditional stilted houses that still line coastal waterways.


Such buildings aren’t simply a venerable salutation to days gone by, but they still serve a practical purpose: an insurance against the tidal vagaries of this part of Lantau Island.


These stilt houses are best seen from the water. Boat trips can be arranged from the quayside at one end of the village’s market. If you’re really lucky you may also be able to get a glimpse of the pink dolphins that are native to these particular waters – though sightings of these delightful creatures are becoming increasingly rare as urban development and pollution chases them out of the area.


Exploring Tai O by foot is also very pleasant, allowing you to visit the busy local market and stroll through the town's numerous backstreets. Dry fish and other seafood products give the air a pungent whiff. Local delicacies — like fried taro, aubergine and sweet potato — are sold in many market stalls. And let’s not forget the intriguingly-named husband cake, a pastry filled with red bean curd, sesame paste and peanuts.


One word of warning. Whilst Tai O is a great place to explore, getting here can sometimes be a bit of an ordeal. The queue for the bus from Tung Chung can be so long that you may have to wait an hour or two (or even longer) before you can catch one. And don’t count on taxis, either. There is a huge shortage of them; many locals will often have the direct number of taxi drivers, which means that not so many turn up at the official taxi ranks. All we can suggest is to avoid Sundays and bank holidays.


Monkeys!

Always a surprising one, this.


“Monkeys? In Hong Kong? Really?” is an often-mouthed utterance by family and friends who come to visit.


There are actually monkeys in many of the country parks in the New Territories, but the two best places to see them are Shing Mun and Kam Shan.


The type of monkey that you will find in Hong Kong is the rhesus macaque – or, as my four-year old son fondly refers to them as, the naughty monkey species. And they do indeed live up to this moniker; any unguarded morsel of food, or anything that looks as though it contains food, is likely to be gone in a snaffle.


Shing Mun is the more family-friendly part of the park to explore, and there is a lovely hour-long wooded trail that follows the banks of Upper Shing Mun Reservoir. This is known as The Pineapple Trail, so-called for the pineapples that used to grow here but sadly are no more. A visitor centre here gives more information about the area and some other walks that you can try.


Kam Shan is also a nice area to explore, although the monkeys tend to be slightly more aggressive.


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Where would you suggest taking friends and family in Hong Kong? Answer in the comments below.


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