Hong Kong in a Day (and a bit!)

IMG_7312Who said it couldn’t be done? Well, we did it – with the help of a Tours-by-Locals guide named Jacky – “A Local’s Tour of Hong Kong” is how he billed it – and he delivered.

We arrive right on time at 1:35 pm at Hong Kong International Airport after a pleasant 15 hours traversing the North Pole on Air Canada. It was too soon for jet lag to set in. Thankfully!

Just as planned, we are met at the arrivals area by a driver sent by Jacky who we’d meet up with at our hotel at 9 am the next morning to “do Hong Kong.” Despite the lengthy flight and the 12-hour time change, we can’t just settle in to the beautiful Harbourview Renaissance Hotel on Hong Kong Island without spending an hour or two exploring the area around our hotel. So, we take a 25-minute walk to IFC (International Finance Centre) to see Lane Crawford – Asia’s premiere high-end department store whose former boss was nabbed by Hudson’s Bay in Canada to reinvigorate our department store scene a few years ago. What we find so startling about this mall on the other side of the globe is how much it resembles high-end malls at home. If we just squint, we could think we were back in Toronto. As daylight begins to wane, the lights in Hong Kong begin to come on and we make our way back to the hotel for a bite to eat and a good sleep. We will need it.

Jacky meets us in the lobby of the Renaissance the next morning and we jump into a cab to get quickly up to the top of Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island before any other tourists make their way up. Peruse any tourist brochure on Hong Kong and Victoria Peak will probably be the number one place to see. The reason is the views. It’s a great place to begin because as you take in the breathtaking view itself, you begin to get your bearings: you’re on Hong Kong Island and as you stare toward the harbour, you see Kowloon (the mainland, older part of Hong Kong) spreading out in front of you toward the hills that lead onward to the border with The People’s Republic of China. Then you’re aware that behind you is the side of Hong Kong Island that borders the East China Sea – although you can’t see it.

The requisite photos well in hand, it’s time to make our way down to carry on with our jam-packed day. Jacky leads us to the Peak Tram. A funicular railway, this iconic Hong Kong landmark is the traditional way to get up to the top of the Peak and has a long and fascinating history. And it’s not just for tourists. Residents who live at various levels of the Peak make their way to work and play using this tram that travels at sometimes impossible angles. The trip takes about 5 minutes.

peak tram
Inside the Peak Tram

Jacky leads us through the streets among the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island’s financial core stopping to consider the history of the area and stop for a coffee. These days the island itself has a population of about 1.3 million people – the entire Hong Kong area is 7.35 million and seemed every one of them was being disgorged from bus after bus and making their way into massive buildings that swallowed them up, wave after wave.

We hop aboard a city bus just as the skies open and are transported through a tunnel under Victoria Harbour to Kowloon where we find Sham Shui Po, a market area famous for its stall after stall packed with fabrics (among other things) – Patty is a bit of a fashion designer and couture sewer and wants to take a look. Jacky tells us he wants us to experience the markets like a local. The rain keeps us from spending too much time or money as we meander through the vegetable and dried fish markets as well as the fascinating street of fish – pet fish. Thousands for fish of every imaginable type in myriad aquariums as well as individual fish floating in plastic bags hanging on every stall. And hardly a tourist in site – the local experience, indeed.

After the markets, it’s time for lunch and Jacky thinks we need to discover the real home of dim sum. It’s hard to believe that neither of us has ever eaten dim sum before, but what better place to be introduced than to experience it in the place where it was first introduced to cuisine? Jacky selects a spot and we go inside what seems to be an office building then take the elevator up several floors. When we emerge, we are in an enormous room which looks exactly like a banquet room – because that’s what it is. It seems that these banquet facilities open at lunch time to serve dim sum to the locals. We are truly the only non-Hong Kong people in the place. But no one seems to mind.

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One other advantage of a personal, private guide is that he will usually take photos of us together – even when we don’t know he’s about to do it! Eating dim sum.

We leave it to Jacky to select the lunch menu and are only too happy to try out everything on offer. We find some of the textures unlike anything we have ever experienced in Canada and decide we probably should try North Americanized dim sum when we get home. After lunch it’s time to head to Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon’s busy shopping, restaurant and nightlife area. We opt to get there via the small public bus system which is fascinating and worth finding if you’re there – but we don’t think we could have found the stops without the help of our guide!

After the subway to a Buddhist temple garden (a fairly new addition to the Hong Kong experience we’re told), and a visit to a Daoist temple, we eventually make our way to the harbour front on the Kowloon side which provides a wonderful vantage point from where to see the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. A hop on the Star Ferry – not to be missed during a Hong Kong experience – and we’re back almost where we started, but we’re not finished our day yet.

Back on Hong Kong Island, Jacky takes us to Aberdeen on South Horizons Island, a fishing village area on the south side of the peak where we ride a small, local boat back to the main island. We hop on another city bus and we’re shortly back at the Renaissance.

hong kong island map

Although we say good-bye to our guide, we have at least a half a day ahead of us to tour a bit more on our own before we have to board the Silver Shadow, the small, luxury cruise ship that will be our transportation for the next couple of weeks. But before we leave Hong Kong, the magic of its night lights…

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IFC: http://ifc.com.hk/en/mall/

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(Almost) Live from Hong Kong

Among the vagaries of using cruise ships as transportation is the fact that satellite internet is notoriously fickle. We left Hong Kong several days ago and published a brief post about our wonderful private tour with a Tours-by-Locals guide. Unfortunately it never did get posted and the draft went missing. However, although we’ll tell a more in depth story when we regroup at home later in May, it needs to be said now that there is no better way to see a city than with a private guide.

We taxied up to Victoria Peak, traveled down by funicular, rode the subway to Kowloon, explored traditional markets on foot, enjoyed the local bus system in the pouring rain, rode the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong Island, and ate dim sum for lunch with the local population. All of this was because we had Jacky to lead the way.

The city of Hong Kong was so much more than we could even have imagined…and all in a good way! So much more to tell…

Private tours: A discerning travel choice

Art enjoying a tour of the ruins at Ephesus with our private guide.
Art enjoying a tour of the ruins at Ephesus with our private guide.

We’re just back from another wonderful travel adventure that took us from London to Istanbul with many fabulous experiences in between.

We began with three exceptional days in London to visit our son, then flew from Gatwick to Rome where we spent three days on self-guided walking tours.  After Rome, we boarded an Oceania ship and set sail for various islands – Crete, Sicily, Santorini – then Athens and Turkey, ending in Istanbul.  Along the way we did some touring on our own, a few of the dreaded “shore excursions” (we’ll tell you about the good and bad of those in the upcoming posts) and several private tours.  There is little doubt in our minds that when you need to be guided around a new-to-you city where there is a significant language barrier (and sometimes even when there isn’t) you cannot beat a private guided tour.

We’ve had private tour experiences in places like Costa Rica, Tahiti, England, France and Ireland among others, but our recent sojourn in Turkey reiterated for us the myriad reasons why for us it’s one of the very best ways to experience a culture.

Arriving in Istanbul by ship.
Arriving in Istanbul by ship.

The tour really began months before as we searched online for the ideal tour.  We had used several tour companies previously – with great results – but this time those ones didn’t really have what we were looking for.  During the research we discovered a company called Tours By Locals.  Based in Vancouver, this Canadian-owned company has local guides seemingly all over the world.  We zeroed in on Istanbul and found that their presentation of the guides was fascinating. Each guide was showcased by personally-written biographies, a listing of credentials and the all-important feedback and ratings from previous customers.  We zoned in on a young man named Emre Ozkara and contacted him to see if he could accommodate our needs in Istanbul.

This company permits you to make the arrangements directly with the guide thereby eliminating communication barriers and allowing you to get to know your guide through email.  Then, when you have come to a decision about the tour, the guide prices it for you, uploads it to the company, and the itinerary is sent to you via the company’s web site.  You pay the company who then pays the guide after the tour is over.  For a discerning traveler, knowing that you have third-party recourse is comforting should anything go wrong.  We were happy with this layer of security, so we booked the tour.

Emre did his homework and emailed us to let us know that he had noted that our ship would actually be docking in Kusadasi down the coast from Istanbul several days before our final disembarkation and private tour days in Istanbul.  A home-town boy from Kusadasi, Emre indicated that he would be visiting his family at the precise time we were there and did we want to add a day tour to the ruins at Ephesus to the Istanbul days?  We had already booked a small-group tour of the ruins through the cruise line, but the price was almost identical (!) and we thought that we would, indeed, prefer a private tour.  Since it was early enough to cancel the group tour and get a refund, we went ahead. We were very glad we did.

Seven Sages Winery & boutique hotel near Ephesus is worth a visit.
Seven Sages Winery & boutique hotel near Ephesus is worth a visit.

Just as promised, Emre was waiting for us at the cruise terminal in Kusadasi where he whisked us off in a BMW 4X4 to Ephesus (more about that in a later post).  While we were driving to Ephesus, he got to know us a bit better discovering that in addition to history and culture, we are also interested in food and wine.  After finding that we would be happy with lunch at a boutique winery (we were not aware that Turkey had such places), he made a call and the arrangements were complete.

To say that our day with our private guide was fabulous would be an understatement, but we didn’t’ know at that point how fabulous our time with this guide would be.

Three days later, as arranged, we were picked up at the cruise port and had a general orientation to Istanbul before checking into our hotel.  The next morning, Emre and his brother who was to be the driver arrived at the hotel to begin our in-depth two days touring the magnificent city of Istanbul.

What can we say?  He is among the best private tour guides we have ever had.  What makes a great tour guide? Here’s what we think.  A guide should demonstrate…

  • A commitment to determining our personal interests;
  • Deep knowledge of the history and culture;
  • Passion about sharing the culture; and
  • An extraordinary ability to tell a story – not relay facts.
Deraliye Restaurant in the old city in Istanbul.
Deraliye Restaurant in the old city in Istanbul.

This is what we got.  Imagine sitting on the carpet at the back of a quiet mosque in the heart of Istanbul (after visiting the bigger tourist magnets like the Blue Mosque) and listening to a story about the Muslim way of life and how this religion is a part of but doesn’t define the Turkish culture.  Our understanding of Islam now goes far beyond the front-page stories we see on a daily basis in the media.  Emre knew that we were interested in this story: not everyone would be, but he had gotten to know us and we asked the questions. He also arranged two wonderful lunches including one at Deraliye, a new Ottoman food restaurant that had searched out and presented twelfth and thirteenth century dishes.  What a great experience!

After our days in Istanbul, we were dropped at the airport as we requested in the tour package.  We were truly sorry to say good-bye to our guide who had made us feel that we had shared a bit of his culture and his home.  What a way to go!

You can visit Tours by Locals at http://www.toursbylocals.com/

You can visit Emre’s own tour company Delightful Istanbul Tours web site at http://www.delightist.com/

You can visit Deraliye Ottoman Palace Cuisine at http://deraliyerestaurant.com/

You can read about other places we’ve taken private tours and the companies we’ve used in the past:

Stonehenge: Mystical or just mysterious?

Costa Rica: It really is as terrific as they say!

Five tips for finding your perfect, private, personalized, dream tour

A bespoke tour of Ireland: Custom-made for a discerning traveler (or two!)

Finding our way in exotic Tahiti