How to experience a different kind of Hong Kong this year

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If you're visiting Hong Kong this holiday season, stay off the beaten path and discover some of its hidden gems. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — As one of Asia’s most beloved cities, Hong Kong receives millions of tourists each year. But what is it about the place continues to enchant travelers?

As a former British colony with Chinese roots, Hong Kong has a dazzling East-meets-West culture. As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Hong Kong’s buildings shoot high up into its signature skyline, lighting up the waters of Victoria Harbor come nighttime. But most of all, Hong Kong’s charm lies in its variety — of shopping haunts, cultural venues and moments, and, surprisingly, natural wonders.

December is a particularly fascinating time to visit — the weather is perfect and the city goes all out with its wintertime celebrations, maintaining a flurry of events with art, music, theater, food, and drinks the whole month long. But if the city expects to see just as many or even more tourists as it did last year, expect to experience Hong Kong favorites alongside 5.5 million other visitors. That is, not unless you stay off the beaten path.

Hong Kong may be small, but it’s got more than a few hidden gems. Though the city is synonymous with mega-buildings and a busy transport system, there’s another side of Hong Kong that is characterized by sleepy fishing villages, sprawling nature reserves, waterfalls, and hiking trails. Then there are the shopping haunts sprinkled across each district, from the old town to the more modern districts. And finally, there are the spots that are steeped in history, that take you back in time to relive Hong Kong’s past and understand its peoples’ way of life.

Here are just a few of Hong Kong’s hidden gems.

The Great Outdoors

Along with the bustling Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, the New Territories make up the three regions of Hong Kong. But compared to the two, some parts of the New Territories are noticeably greener. Hong Kong is known as a frenetic city of lights and sounds, jam-packed with steel skyscrapers and luxurious high-rises. But venture out of the city center and you’ll find that it too has a lowkey, laidback side.

Cheung Chau.JPG On Cheung Chau, you’ll find serene landscapes and slow-paced living. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Cheung Chau and Peng Chau

The islands of Cheung Chau and Peng Chau are two of Hong Kong’s 236 islands. Here, you’ll find serene landscapes and slow-paced living.

Though Cheung Chau might be most popular among locals for its annual Bun Festival in May, it’s also got a few offbeat sights to discover, such as the Cheung Po Tsai Cave — said to be a stash house for the formidable pirate Cheung Po Tsai — which is a great place for kids to let their imaginations run wild.

Nearby, another sight for curious explorers is the Reclining Rock, a formation of five massive rocks on the edge of the sea, with the biggest one appearing to fall into the blue waters below. End your trip to Cheung Chau by climbing the North Lookout Pavilion around sunset where you can enjoy a view of Hong Kong’s surrounding waters as they turn golden at the end of the day.

Peng Chau.JPG On Peng Chau, visitors can enjoy a view of a golden ocean sunset. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

In the 70s and 80s, Peng Chau used to be an island of factories and industrial activity. Nowadays it’s quieter, with most of these sites shut down and abandoned. Explorers can visit the Former Lime Kiln and Match Factory and Former Peng Chau Theatre for a dose of what life was like back when the island was a busy one, while those looking for more traditional cultural sites can visit any one of the islands temples — Lung Mo Temple, Seven Sisters Temple, and the Golden Flower Shrine. Take the Peng Yu Path to catch views of the ocean that surrounds the island and the greenery that takes over most of its land. End the day with a hike up Finger Hill where you can also enjoy a golden ocean sunset.

Mai Po 1.JPG Come winter, the Mai Po Nature Reserve becomes home to thousands of migratory birds — a dream for nature lovers and photographers. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Mai Po Nature Reserve

Further up north, near Yuen Long, lies the Mai Po Nature Reserve — a perfect destination for winter travellers who have an interest in animals and the natural world. Around this time, about 90,000 migratory birds settle in the reserve’s marshes and mudflats. Birdwatchers and animal lovers can observe around 380 species of birds here, as well as other interesting animals like otters, crabs, and mudskippers.

1.5.3.28-Tai-Mo-Shan_03.jpg The hike up to Tai Mo Shan lets you experience living among the clouds, as it is the highest peak in Hong Kong. Photo from DISCOVER HONG KONG/WEBSITE

Tai Mo Shan

Tai Mo Shan is the highest peak in Hong Kong, and a worthwhile adventure to embark on for hikers and outdoorsy types. Of course, the view at the top is the best part about it, but you’ll also love the clouds floating just atop the land, and a bit of winter frost on trees and leaves. The park at the foot of the trail is also a good place to see Hong Kong’s cherry blossoms, which are in bloom from February to March.

LTU-NPG-GEN-0045_MR.JPG The Ngong Ping Village has tons of interesting activities in store for visitors, and the cable car ride going there already makes for a fun little adventure. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Ngong Ping

On Lantau Island, one particular trail will tickle the fancy of both trekkers and culture geeks. Traverse the Nei Lak Shan Country Trail, a relatively easy 5 km trail, towards the Ngong Ping cable cars (which in itself is a fun little adventure) and keep hiking along the photogenic Ngong Ping Trail and you’ll come across Ngong Ping Village. Here you can soak up on traditional culture at nearby sights like the Big Buddha (the second largest outdoor bronze seated Buddha), the Po Lin Buddhist monastery, and the serene Wisdom Path. Interestingly, there are several cultural VR experiences to be had at the Ngong Ping village if you’re toting kids (and kids at heart).

Shopping at Hong Kong’s old and new towns

If you’re done recharging at the nature spots of the New Territories, dive back into the city for an activity that every Hong Kong visitor must not miss — shopping. Shopping in December might be daunting, as visitors can expect large crowds at the main shopping centers getting last minute Christmas gifts. There are many other places around the city that offer just as many interesting and gift-worthy wares, and that includes Sham Shui Po in Kowloon and Wan Chai.

Sham Shui Po.JPG Sham Shui Po used to be the heart of Hong Kong’s textile manufacturing industry back in the 50s, and today many designers still choose this area for its abundance of materials. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Sham Shui Po

Kowloon is either Hong Kong’s grittier side or Hong Kong’s “more authentic, more Chinese” area, depending on who you ask, and Sham Shui Po is one of its most eclectic districts. Full of alleyways lined with vendors of all kinds, Sham Shui Po seems to have something for everyone.

Sham Shui Po used to be the heart of Hong Kong’s textile manufacturing industry back in the 50s, and today many designers still choose this area for its abundance of materials. For those looking to DIY their Christmas presents, there are whole streets on Sham Shui Po dedicated to the materials you’ll need, as well as artisans who specialize in making products using these — Yu Chau Street or Bead Street, Ki Lung Street or Button Street, Tai Nan Street or Leather Street, and Nam Cheong Street or Ribbon Street.

Shoppers can head to Cheung Sha Wan Fashion Road to score wholesale retail goods, and Apliu Street for second-hand electronics, antique watches, and various knicknacks.

“Millennial” businesses have also flocked to the old town, as rent prices are much cheaper here compared to Hong Kong Island. Backpack brand Doughnut and handcrafted soap shop Savon are good places to start for high-quality, locally made gifts, while Sunfafa appeals to shoppers who enjoy scoring vintage finds and other curious items.

Wan Chai

Home to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibit Center, the Hong Kong Arts Center, and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Wan Chai is a major cultural hub. Known to many as a party district, as it’s where you’ll find Lockhart Road — a road lined with bars upon bars, akin to the Central party district Lan Kwai Fung. But venture into the Starstreet precinct, where you’ll find the Star, Moon, and Sun streets, and you’ll discover an array of design-driven lifestyle shops.

There’s Maison Huit, a luxury brand that sells everything from tableware to furniture; Vein, where one can find Scandinavian fashion and home items; Bookazine, a family-owned bookstore with over 20,000 titles in stock; Japanese label 45R, quirky home decor brand Lala Curio, and the handsomely put together Monocle shop.

Spots to soak up the culture

Beneath Hong Kong’s looming glass and steel giants is a heart that beats with its mesh of Chinese culture and British colonial roots. There are tons of places in Hong Kong that offer a dose of its storied history. Here are a few places that might not be top of mind when one thinks of exploring the city’s culture and history, but they still leave you with enough takeaways to understand what Hong Kong is all about.

Chi Lin Nunnery.JPG On Diamond Hill, with a view of Hong Kong’s high-rises, you’ll find balance amid a mind boggled with itineraries, schedules, and all the stressfulness of travel. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden

If you’re touring Kowloon and find yourself wanting a break from its busy streets, head to the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden for some respite. Atop Diamond Hill, with a distanced view of Hong Kong’s high-rises, is a massive complex of temples and gardens.

The Chi Lin Nunnery was built in the 30s and houses thousands of buddhas made of gold, copper, clay, wood, and stone. The Nunnery was built in such a way that it does not contain any nails to hold the structure up, and is instead held together by a Chinese architectural technique that involves an interlocking system within the wood. The complex also contains a number of halls, a school, a library, a bell tower, a drum tower, and a pagoda.

The Nan Lian Garden, on the other hand, is a public park of 3.5 landscaped hectares that all seem perfectly assembled to ensure proper feng shui. Perhaps here you’ll find balance amid a mind boggled with itineraries, schedules, and all the stressfulness of travel. It’s a good place to take a break. Stop at the vegetarian restaurant and teahouse to load up on a healthy meal and calming tea before heading back into the city.

Tai Kwun.jpg The former Central Police Station compound is now being restored as a center for heritage and arts. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Tai Kwun

Tai Kwun is a remnant of Hong Kong’s colonial past. The former Central Police Station compound is now being restored as a center for heritage and arts, situated in three heritage buildings — the former Central Police Station, Central Magistracy, and Victoria Prison.

Architecture and design buffs will love the city’s approach to adaptive reuse of the compound’s old buildings, and marvel at the late-Victorian and Greek-revival style facades left nearly untouched.

One can take historical tours to learn about the buildings’ and Hong Kong’s penal history, or enjoy art installations and performances staged at the complex.

Old Town Centre_YMCA.JPG Beneath the hustle and bustle in Old Town Central is a neighborhood that neatly represents Hong Kong’s East-meets-West culture. Photo courtesy of the HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Old Town Central

Central is, as its name suggests, Hong Kong central business district, which means its streets are lined with skyscrapers, rushing businessmen, and the constant buzz of local and tourist activity. But beneath the hustle and bustle is a neighborhood that neatly represents Hong Kong’s East-meets-West culture.

Old Town Central is home to some of the first roads developed during Hong Kong’s colonization, namely Hollywood Road, Caine Road, Wyndham Street, Possession Street and Queen’s Road Central. Yet, amid these colonial passageways lies temples and restaurants boasting local flavors as well.

You can choose how to tour Old Town Central in five different ways, but here we’ll only highlight two: the time traveller’s route and the foodie’s route.

For those looking for a trip back in time, the time traveller route starts at Possession Point, the place where the British navy first landed in 1841. This is where Hong Kong’s colonial history all started. Nowadays, a stroll along Possession Street will show a street lined with boutiques and restaurants. From Possession Street, head up to Tai Ping Shan Street, where you’ll find many old temples along this short alleyway. Curious travelers will want to stop at Kwong Fook I Tsz, which was built in 1856 and became a refuge for sick and migrant families.

Architecture geeks and science nerds can both enjoy the next stop — the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences — an old colonial-style building that was the cornerstone of the advancement of medicine in the city. More architectural gems can be found in the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong and as mentioned above, Tai Kwun, which is also along this route, while Man Mo Temple and Pak Tsz Lane Park give travelers a taste of Hong Kong’s Chinese historical and cultural past.

1.1.4.2-Tasting-Hong-Kong_03.jpg The foodies' route eventually leads you to Lan Kwai Fong, a district lined with a diverse and exciting range of restaurants and bars. Photo from DISCOVER HONG KONG/WEBSITE

For foodies looking to sample Hong Kong’s most loved delicacies, the foodie route brings you to restaurants and stalls that serve up some of its most authentic dim sum, dai pai dong, and street food.

Lin Heung Tea House is a good place to start your tour, as you’ll score authentic dim sum and tea here. When we say authentic, we mean it’s a no frills rendering of the beloved staple, which has seen various interpretations here and all over the world.

Sing Heung Yuen is your next stop. A dai pa dong (open-air food stall), you’ll find tomato soup and crispy buns with honey and lemon here. And now something for milk tea addicts — Lan Fong Yuen, the place to go for authentic Hong Kong style milk tea.

Other local favorites include egg tarts from Tai Cheong Bakery, haw flakes and other traditional candies from Chan Yee Jai, and the leung cha (herbal tonics) of Kung Lee Herbal Tea, which are said to treat a variety of illnesses from colds to skin issues.

This tour eventually leads you to SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong, both of which are lined with a diverse and exciting range of restaurants and bars of all cuisines like Lebanese restaurant Maison Libanaise, Vietnamese resto Chom Chom, and basement bar Volar.

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Visiting Hong Kong just got a whole lot more rewarding with Cathay Pacific’s new promotion for anyone staying 3 nights or more in Hong Kong up until Dec. 31, 2018. Travelers will be eligible to redeem a tour from a selection of four offers, depending on how you would like to tailor your experience.

For those who want to take in as much as possible and see everything there is to see, there is the “Hop-on, Hop-off Open Top Bus Sightseeing Tour” and “Deluxe Hong Kong Island Combo” which will easily get you around Hong Kong.

On the other hand, for those who have an interest in culture and heritage, you may want to have a go at the “Old Hong Kong Experience” or “Kowloon Cultural & Life Tour” to be able to experience Hong Kong with a traditional twist. Booking period ends Nov. 30, 2018.