The city may be a popular holiday destination for Singaporeans, but there are plenty of hidden gems – from lesser-known nature trails on the outskirts of the bustling metropolis to traditional eateries in nondescript buildings selling handmade egg rolls and noodles. Kenneth Goh and Eunice Quek report
SOLITUDE IN THE CITY
Hundreds of chiselled hexagonal columns soar gloriously towards the sky, glistening with a red-brown tinge under the scorching sun.
This is not another sleek skyscraper hemmed in by Victoria Harbour in densely populated Hong Kong. Instead, I am kilometres away in a volcanic geopark in Sai Kung, a secluded coastal zone in the north-east of the territory.
The 100m-tall rock columns, stacked symmetrically like gargantuan matchsticks, are a geological marvel in Hong Kong Unesco Global Geopark (www.geopark.gov.hk).
Overlooking the sea and the East Dam, the columns were formed in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that occurred 140 million years ago, says my guide Cindy Choi, a volunteer with R2G Tours (www.hkr2g. net). The eruption spewed so much ash and lava that the magma chamber in the volcano collapsed, creating a depression or caldera, she explains. Over time, volcanic tuff, a rock formed from the ash, consolidated and cooled down to form the alien hexagonal columns.
On the other side of the East Dam are views of rolling emerald hills and more hexagonal columns. A basin of placid midnight-blue water in the middle of these hills belies Sai Kung's fiery volcanic past.
These hexagonal columns pepper the craggy volcanic coastline, which I see during my morning hike in Sai Kung. It is amazing that they would have remained out of sight if not for the construction of the High Island Reservoir - Hong Kong's largest reservoir - that was built in the 1970s to alleviate water shortage. It was only then that the columns were discovered.
In some ways, Sai Kung sums up Hong Kong's bounty of natural attractions, which have remained inconspicuous amid its massive urbanisation.
The metropolis is certainly known more as a shopping and dining haven than a nature hot spot. When I think about it, this is surprising, given that about three-quarters of its land is countryside. Hong Kong is rich in country parks and hiking trails, including the renowned 100km MacLehose Trail that spans much of the New Territories.
This is my third trip to Hong Kong and it is vastly different from my first two. This time, I trade shopping bags for hiking shoes to explore geological sites, waterfalls and lengthy wilderness trails over five days. I also sojourn to Cheung Chau Island, where I sleep beneath the stars in a geodesic "glamping" tent.
In recent years, hiking has become more popular among Hong Kongers. Ms Choi, who goes on monthly hikes, says with a chuckle: "Our homes in the city are so crammed, that's why we find peace and tranquillity during our hikes."
In November last year, the Hong Kong Tourism Board released a nifty free e-guidebook, Great Outdoors Hong Kong, which maps out 15 hiking and cycling trails, complete with transport guides and hiking tips.
To ease myself into hiking action, shortly after I arrive, I begin with an easy green urban trail from The Peak to Lung Fu Shan Country Park. I take two hours, starting at Lugard Road, a stone's throw from The Peak Tower mall on Victoria Peak and ending near hip dining enclave Kennedy Town.
Just five minutes in and I enter a leafy retreat lined with vantage points to see the glitzy skyline. It is exciting to see the city's skyscrapers peek beneath my feet at the lookout points.
This warm-up prepares my legs for stages one and two of the 10-stage MacLehose Trail. My two stages, which comprise one-fifth of the 100km trail, start at the East Dam, which is flanked by sprawling slopes of gigantic dolosse - concrete blocks used to protect harbour walls - and volcanic boulders. It is an enigmatic scene that evokes a sense of being stranded in a barren desert.
The hike is blessed with panoramic views of coves, ridges and uplands that are carpeted in dense grassy vegetation and open out to the silent seas.
I detour for a few moments to Long Ke Wan - an idyllic inlet of pearl-white sand beach near a drug rehabilitation centre. I am delighted at the silky softness of the fine sand and harbour thoughts of lolling around and taking a dip in the clear blue waters, but I have to move on.
The hike takes a challenging turn on the ascent to the trail's highest point, Sai Wan Shan, which is 314m tall. Instead of concrete slabs, the path is now riddled with rocks and steep steps, some of them knee-high.
It can be easy to lose one's footing when taking in the sights of undulating hills that fade out to the horizon. Along the way, Ms Choi rubs her palms against the dwarf mountain pine shrubs and inhales the invigorating balsamic-nutty scent of the pine needles. I follow her example - the fragrance of the pine is a refreshing remedy for fatigue.
My five-hour hike ends at Sai Wan Pavilion, the nearest pick-up point for taxis and buses - a good 10km away from where we began. Once on the trail, there is no turning back. I begin to feel a sense of achievement for soldiering on.
A less strenuous hike, another day, is at Hong Kong's tallest mountain, Tai Mo Shan, which means "big hat mountain" in Cantonese. Standing at 957m, the volcanic rock is almost twice as tall as Hong Kong's tallest building, the 108-storey International Commerce Centre, which I will glimpse a couple of times along the way.
I join the Tai Mo Shan Sunrise Hike Tour by travel company Tour 3.0 (www.tour3g.com), which ferries hikers three-quarters up the mountain to catch the sunrise at its peak. Walking past party revellers in my hotel lobby at 3.30am, I zip up my windbreaker in anticipation.
At the park, chilly winds buffet my face and I am shrouded in darkness save for a mini torchlight, a dazzling constellation of stars and two twinkling red lights from the Hong Kong Observatory that sits on the peak. Looking up, my guide Ming Ko says: "This is the closest spot you can get to the stars in Hong Kong."
Just before day breaks, the hue of the sky changes dramatically from black-navy darkness to orange-pink within 15 minutes. I am mesmerised by the wisps of clouds drifting past the dreamy mountains.
A popular post-hike refuel stop is Duen Kee Chinese Restaurant in Chuen Lung Village, a 10-minute drive away. The 70-year-old restaurant is abuzz with the chatter of the breakfast crowd and the chirping of birds as many older customers show off their caged pets while digging into dim sum.
I help myself to baskets of siew mai, glutinous rice and bao that are piled on steamers. The wait staff speedily compute the bill based on the colour of the plates at the end of my yum cha breakfast.
After breakfast, I head to the Ng Tung Chai Waterfall, also part of Tai Mo Shan Country Park, where I viewed the sunrise. The waterfall, at about 70m, is one of the tallest in Hong Kong. The cascade, which is nestled in a thick jungle, is divided into four sections that present progressively dramatic falls.
The uphill hike gets rockier and steeper, so sure-footedness and a hiking stick are required. At one point, I have to bend and cling onto larger rocks to hoist myself up.
Much of the first level at the bottom, literally named the Bottom fall, is obscured by lush foliage, so spend more time at the second or Middle fall. This 20m waterfall gushes down ferociously and sprays a cool shower over me when I step closer.
The upper two sections - named the Main and Scattered falls - can be dangerous as some of the rocks are unstable and the paths are obstructed by thick vegetation. After consulting my guide, I turn back after trekking one-third of the way to the Main fall.
After days of solitude in nature, it is surreal to return to the city centre. I bump into frenzied people in Causeway Bay every five steps.
A shopping mall launches one of Asia Pacific's largest outdoor screens - the size of five tennis courts - on my last day. Above the screen's luminous glow, I spot a full moon in the sky and imagine how beautiful it would look in the wild.
•Kenneth Goh, a freelance food and lifestyle writer, was hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
SLEEP IN A TEPEE AND WINDSURF ON CHEUNG CHAU
Lying inside a transparent geodesic dome-shaped tent, I am intently counting the 30-odd stars that hang above. Giddy from gazing, I close my eyes while listening to the crashing waves and chirping of cicadas and drift to sleep.
I am on Cheung Chau, a dumbbellshaped island south-west of Hong Kong Island and one of the quietest inhabited places in the territory.
Time and tradition have stood still in Cheung Chau. Every April or May, during the fourth lunar month, thousands throng the island for the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, which features "bun snatching" - climbers scale towers clad with 6,000 imitation buns and grab as many ping an (peace) buns as possible as symbols of blessing.
A dose of vibrancy has been injected into this sleepy island. Last July, Sai Yuen Farm (www.saiyuen farm.com), a 400,000 sq ft recreational facility, was converted from an abandoned garden of a shipping magnate's family.
The farm houses an eclectic range of lodgings such as tepees, African safari tents, Mongolian yurts and the geodesic domes.
The farm also stages more than 20 activities, including a thrilling six-station treetop canopy walk obstacle course that involves balancing on wooden blocks and ropes suspended in the air, Segway rides, archery and a waffle-making workshop.
A 10-minute stroll from the farm is the Cheung Po Tsai cave, named after a notorious pirate who commandeered a flotilla of 600 junks in the South China Sea during the 18th century.
The cave is accessed by a hole wide enough for only one person to squeeze through at a time. With the light from my cellphone, I hunch and crawl my way out of the snug hideout.
Near the historic Warwick Hotel is the starting point for the Mini Great Wall, a marble-like stone footpath that looks nothing like the real deal. The 15-minute trail ends at a pavilion that looks out to Lamma Island, Hong Kong Island and Zhuhai, China.
Besides exploring the island on foot, water is also a vital part of Cheung Chau's identity. It produced Hong Kong's first and only Olympic Gold medallist, Lee Lai-Shan, who won the windsurfing medal in 1996. The achievement is proudly marked in a mural at the entrance of the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre (www.ccwindc.com. hk) in Kwun Yam Beach, where she had trained.
Water babies can windsurf, kayak and paddleboard. I kayak around the western part of the island, which is sprinkled with strangely shaped granite boulders that resemble bread loaves, a goat and an elephant.
Cheung Chau is a 40-minute ferry ride from Pier 5 at Central Ferry Piers on Hong Kong Island.
FORGET THE USUAL FOODIE HANGOUTS IN HONG KONG.
HERE ARE FIVE MORE UNUSUAL SPOTS TO CHECK OUT
What: Strolling along the picturesque Lee Tung Avenue - home to the famous Omotesando Koffee from Tokyo and ice cream parlour Givres, known for its Instagram-worthy rose-shaped gelato cones - one would never expect to enter the fantasy world of Ophelia. Behind heavy green velvet curtains is a dimly lit sultry cocktail lounge with peacock-inspired interiors (above). Tapas are available, along with signature cocktails including Cheongasm (left), which includes tequila reposado, housemade pomegranate cordial and La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Rouge; and The Jade Cat, which includes Iwai Japanese whisky, Baika Ranman umeshu and housemade bitter green tea liqueur. Perfect for a hen's party.
Where: Shop F39A & F41A, 1/F, Lee Tung Avenue, 200 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai
Open: 6pm to 2am (Mondays to Thursdays), 6pm to 3am (Fridays and Saturdays), closed on Sundays Info: Call +852-2520-1117 or go to www.ophelia.com.hk
What: Although it opened in 2014, this modern European restaurant has remained under the foodie radar as it is tucked away in a non-descript building in On Lan Street. It is best to make a trip before the crowds flock there as it has earned its first Michelin star in this year's Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau.
Run by Australian chef Shane Osborn - formerly of Pied a Terre in London - its concise menu features plenty of seasonal ingredients along with ones from his terrace kitchen garden. Highlights include Japanese fruit tomato with imam bayildi (stuffed eggplant), rocket pesto, sour cream and marfuga olive oil (HK$248 or S$42.10); hamachi carpaccio with avocado puree, shaved baby daikon, citrus dressing and ice plant (HK$258); sauteed potato gnocchi with caramelised leek, cep vinaigrette and shiitake duxelle (above, HK$348); and roast pigeon breast and confit leg with lentils, morteau sausage, parsley root puree and port wine sauce (HK$508).
Where: Level 3, 18 On Lan Street, Central
Open: Noon to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10pm (weekdays), 6.30 to 10pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays
Info: Call +852-2728-0178 or go to www.arcane.hk
3) COBO HOUSE BY 2AM: DESSERTBAR
What: While one might expect Singapore pastry queen Janice Wong of 2am: dessertbar to open in a swanky location in central Hong Kong, she picked the western district of Sai Wan, a peaceful oasis amid tall buildings and residences, for Cobo House (left) and its neighbouring Artisan Room cafe.
She offers a lunch menu which changes weekly, alongside desserts and teatime options. And there are plenty of savoury dishes to pick from, including scallop somen with sakura ebi, ikura, lobster oil and egg yolk (HK$338); lobster with uni orzo and mushrooms (HK$488); and wagyu with brown black pepper crab ravioli, bamboo shoot cream and puffed quinoa (HK$498). Of course, there are plenty of sweet options, including her signature cassis plum dessert (HK$168) and "Purple" (HK$108), which includes purple potato puree, blackberry parfait and lavender marshmallows.
Where: Ground and first floors, 8/12 South Lane Sai Wan
Open: Noon to 3pm , 6pm to midnight (daily), 2.30 to 6pm (weekend tea)
Info: Call +852-2656-3088, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.cobohouse.com
4) SAI KUNG CHUNG KEE CHE CHAI NOODLE
What: Cart noodles, or che chai noodles (left), are not to be missed when in Hong Kong. And whether you need to fuel up for a hike in Sai Kung or wind down from one, head to the 42-year-old Sai Kung Chung Kee for your noodle fix. It is not the easiest to find as it is off the main road, but it is worth navigating through the buildings to get here. Choose your noodles, then take your pick from a variety of ingredients (above) including pig blood jelly, braised mushrooms, beef tripe, curry fishballs and vegetables. Prices start at HK$25.
Where: Ground floor, Ko Shing Building, 19-21 Fuk Man Road, Sai Kung
Open: 7.30am to 7.30pm (weekdays), 7.30am to 8pm (weekends and public holidays)
Info: Call +852-2792-9172
5) KWAN KEE BAMBOO NOODLE
What: It is not often that you see eateries making noodles by hand, much less ones kneaded with a bamboo stick to get the perfect texture. Few do it like the Bib Gourmand-rated Kwan Kee Bamboo Noodle, which was started in the 1990s in Macau and has been in Hong Kong since 2010. Prices range from HK$30 to HK$70 for noodle dishes such as the signature wonton noodles; noodles with shrimp roe and oyster sauce (left); and beef brisket noodles. Kwan Kee Bamboo Noodle also retails its noodles and sauces.
Where: Ground floor, 1E Wing Lung Street, Cheung Sha Wan
Open: 10am to 11pm daily
Info: Call +852-3484-9126 or go to www.kknoodles.com
•Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ
•The writer's trip was sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
GO WEST FOR AN ECLECTIC MIX OF OLD-SCHOOL STORES AND HIPSTER JOINTS
The western side of Hong Kong - in particular Sai Ying Pun and Sai Wan - is quickly making its mark as a buzzing foodie enclave not to be missed.
It is an eclectic mix of old-school stores interlaced with hipster joints. Think traditional shops selling salted fish and baked goods to craft beer bistros and artisan cafes.
Plus, the streets in the quaint hill town are easy to navigate and there are multiple MTR exits linked to the Sai Ying Pun and HKU stations.
Some of the establishments in Sai Ying Pun include Chi Loi Heung Egg Rolls (66 Third Street), an institution for more than 40 years in the area which still makes its egg rolls by hand, along with other products such as peanut candy, wife biscuits and sesame biscuits.
Head next door to Yu Kwen Yick (66A Third Street, www.yukwenyick.com.hk) chilli sauce company. The brand was founded in 1922, followed by the shop opening in 1950. The chilli (HK$40 or S$6.80 for 250g) - a perfect balance of sweet, spicy and sour - is made with fermented sweet potatoes, which lend a thicker texture to the sauce. It also sells chilli bean sauce, black bean paste and chilli soya sauce.
These stalwarts are on the same street as The Hideout cafe (Shop B, 63 Third Street, www.facebook.com/ thehideoutcoffeehousehk) and Potato Head Hong Kong (100 Third Street, www.facebook.com/ potatoheadhk), which has an all-day dining space, bar and retail section.
Save space in your luggage to pick up more foodie souvenirs from Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company (12 Western Street), a 100-year-old shop which relocated from Guangzhou to Sai Ying Pun in the late 1950s so it could deliver its goods to Chinese teahouses in the area. The bamboo steamers are still made by hand and the business is now run by fifthgeneration owner Raymond Lam.
If you prefer a tour, sign up for a Sai Ying Pun walking foodie tour (e-mail email@example.com), which is priced at HK$2,600 for one to two people and HK$3,000 for three to four people.
Or the day is easily spent exploring Sai Ying Pun and beyond.
Kick back with craft beer at Craft Brew & Co (36 High Street, craft brew.com.hk) or head to Locofama (9-13 Fuk Sau Lane, locofama.com) to dine on organic produce sourced from local farms.
And if you need a break from the walking, head to Winston Cafe (Fu Kwok Building, 213 Queen's Road West, www.facebook.com/winstons coffeehk) for a cuppa.
If you venture further west towards HKU MTR station, unearth more gems to have brunch at, such as the Artisan Garden Cafe (23 Po Tuck Street) and Lifetastic Cafe (31 Hill Road, www.facebook.com/ lifetastic.official), which is known for its trendy watermelon cake.
So the next time you are in Hong Kong and feel like you have seen it all, put on your walking shoes and go west.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.