Harbour ambition: How Hong Kong is bouncing back

It's been a hard sell for a number of years due to protests and the pandemic, but a revived hotel scene and dazzling dining are working wonders for the destination

East meets West in a deliciously unique way in Hong Kong, a destination that offers an easy but enticing taste of China. Between the high-rises with their Western-style shopping centres and the slick hotels, you’ll find traditional temples and lively street markets. Slip seamlessly between two worlds here, leaving behind cacophonous crowds on the streets to enjoy an elegant afternoon tea or cocktails at sunset before a Michelin-starred dinner.

It’s simple to move around the city using the efficient MTR rail network; signs and announcements are in English as well as Cantonese; and the streets feel safe, even at night. As a bonus, the locals are notably more polite than in London.

Hong Kong is trying hard to improve its image after the anti-government protests of 2019 and 2020, sparked by a China-led crackdown on freedoms and dissent. This compounded a reduction in tourist figures during the Covid years – visitors from the UK numbered about 500,000 a year pre-pandemic, but fell to less than half that, with 212,000 arrivals in 2023.

Why sell it?

This ever-evolving city didn’t sit still during its three-year border closure; many hotels got a makeover, adding new restaurants and bars. Even the tram up The Peak hillside received an overhaul, with a glass roof to better show off the views.

Once regarded as little more than a stopover en route to Australia, Hong Kong has become a fascinating city break in its own right for foodies and serious shoppers. It’s also very family-friendly (luxury hotel Island Shangri-La has just given over its 45th floor to families, with themed rooms that have children’s beds in trams and Chinese junk sailing boats).

With bullet trains now running to Beijing, it also makes a good starting point for a deeper dive into China.

What’s new

The most exciting among a smattering of new hotels is the 497-room Regent Hong Kong, which opened at the end of 2023 in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui after a three-year renovation of the building formerly occupied by InterContinental.

Its understated elegance means there’s nothing to detract from the harbour views, which are at their best seen through the wall of glass in the lobby lounge, and are also on show from its Cantonese and Nobu restaurants. Farther back from the harbour but still with great views is the Mondrian, its 324 rooms each adorned with pops of colour.

Nearby, Kimpton is due to join the roster this summer, with 492 rooms on the site of the former Mariners’ Club. And by the old airport, Dorsett Kai Tak will open next to the city’s new sports and concert stadium, with minimalist rooms and an outdoor rooftop pool and bar.

On the attractions front, Disney fans can experience the first World of Frozen, which opened last November at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, visiting the fjord that’s home to the Kingdom of Arendelle and seeing Elsa’s Ice Palace.

When to go

October to April is the best time of year to visit. It’s slightly cooler from December to February, but that means you’ll get clearer views and fewer visitors.

This is the best time to walk Hong Kong’s Dragon’s Back trail, a five-mile route with stunning coastal views that has been dubbed the world’s best urban hike. It’s advisable to avoid the sticky summer, from June to September, with its soaring temperatures, humidity and chance of typhoons.

Chinese New Year (which occurs on the new moon that falls between January 21 and February 20) might bring colourful dragon dances, but it also means crowds and higher prices, and many small businesses close over the extended holiday.

Where to stay

The best hotels straddle Victoria Harbour and offer show-stopping views of Hong Kong’s skyline from their windows. Among those in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side are Rosewood Hong Kong, which took the number-two spot in The World’s 50 Best Hotels listing in 2023, and Hong Kong’s grande dame, The Peninsula, where guests can check in as early as 6am and check out as late as 10pm at no extra cost.

Facing them on Hong Kong Island are Four Seasons Hong Kong, with a total of seven Michelin stars under one roof, along with Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2023 by adding the seductive Aubrey Japanese bar and revamping its Man Wah restaurant.

Its rooms are also being renovated. On the boutique side, The Upper House, above the Pacific Place mall, has stripped-back, minimalist interiors by André Fu, one of Asia’s hottest designers.

What to do

This city revolves around its harbour, and you can’t miss the iconic Star Ferry crossing from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. The 10-minute journey is ample time to marvel at the sky-piercing buildings and take in passing junks and sampans.

It’s particularly scenic when the skyscrapers are illuminated. If you want to see the nightly Symphony of Lights show at 8pm, featuring changing lights and lasers on the waterfront buildings accompanied by music, cross to the Kowloon side or book an evening cruise.

By day, you can also take in Victoria Harbour by helicopter from The Peninsula, which has a helipad on its roof. It’s a great way to see the scale of Hong Kong’s high-rises, and longer flights can also be booked to see the coast and its offshore islands.

Don’t miss the shopping – visit the buzzy Temple Street Night Market in Jordan and Ladies’ Market in Kowloon for everything from Chinese waving cats to fake handbags. Be prepared to haggle.

For silk and Chinese products, Yue Hwa department store in Jordan is the place to go. You can also get a tailored suit or shirt made in a matter of days. For speedy service, fair prices and great-quality garments, I recommend L&K Custom Tailor on Nathan Road.

What to see

The views from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak are not to be missed, but the ascent is pretty special too; the tram tracks are so steep that as you climb the hillside, the city’s skyscrapers appear to tilt at an angle.

Another great viewing point is on offer at the International Commerce Centre. Advise clients that rather than paying to visit the centre’s Sky 100 Observation Deck, they can enjoy an even better panorama from a higher floor in the same building at The Ritz-Carlton’s Ozone rooftop bar. As well as all those views, there’s plenty of Chinese culture.

Find it at Man Mo Temple, one of the oldest in the city, with its ornate incense-filled interiors and curling jade-green roof. It’s also worth taking a ferry to Lantau Island, with its cable car up to Tian Tan Buddha.

Also known as Big Buddha, it’s some 34 metres high and reached by climbing 268 steps. There are more Buddha statues – 10,000 to be precise – in Po Lin Monastery here, as well as a three-storey temple. A visit to nearby Sai Kung, known as the back garden of Hong Kong, is a must.

Where to dine

You’re spoilt for choice in Hong Kong, from street food to Michelin-starred tasting menus. The city is famous for its dim sum – try a fast-food version at branches of Tim Ho Wan or tantalise your taste buds at Man Mo Dim Sum, an upmarket wine bar where the dumplings have a contemporary twist.

Among the best are goat’s cheese and spinach or French Peking duck, as well as the amazing truffle brie. For outstanding Cantonese food, try Michelin-starred Duddell’s – for one of its chicken dishes, the chef ladles hot oil more than 300 times over the meat to leave it silky smooth with a paper-thin crispy skin.

If clients are flying home with Cathay Pacific, advise them to save some room for the excellent noodle bar in the business-class lounge, alongside a coffee shop and decent buffet.

Book it: Cathay Pacific has return flights to Hong Kong from £632 in economy, £1,176 in premium economy and £3,550 in business. cathaypacific.com


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