City Travel Guide: Hidden Hong Kong

- Rick Molinsky, Guest Blogger

Revitalized neighborhoods, pop-up shops, secret doorways, tapas bars and dragons. Rick Molinsky discovers another side to the high-octane metropolis of Hong Kong hidden amongst the urban glitz.

Upper delight
While it doesn’t have the Ferraris parked out front like the Ritz Carlton, the Upper House doesn’t pretend to be anything but a luxurious boutique hotel. Situated on the top 11 floors (floors 38-49) of the J.W. Marriott, Upper House is a former apartment complex re-imagined by architect Andre Fu, (the “Asian sensation”) as an urban retreat for the weary traveler. It also has some of the most spacious rooms available in Hong Kong. Check-in is a hoot, since you enter through a secret-ish small entrance at the foot of the building, well around the corner from the more bustling J. W. Marriott lobby. There’s no reception, just a small valet desk. It’s all been streamlined to make checking-in easy so that you’re able to enjoy your stay quicker. A staff member, iPad in hand escorts to your room, where a jaw dropping view of Victoria Harbor awaits. And the bathtub—we’ll save that for another time.

Get some space
The shopping malls in Admiralty, Central and Soho will always be a shopper’s paradise, but the real action is happening over in Sheung Wan, only a 10-minute walk from Central along Hollywood Road. This unofficial antiques district weaves its way through a gravelly grid of steep lanes, past Chinese herbalists, coffin shops and impromptu markets. The neighborhood found new life a little more than three years ago when a crop of restaurants, galleries and nightlife spots started moving in. Among these is the Space, a former meat-packing warehouse transformed into a slick, state-of-the-art, multi-function space used for exhibitions, parties and pop-up shops. In April, London-based, vintage furniture dealer, Circa, will present a week long pop-up shop featuring a salon-style selection of stunning vintage furniture and home accessories from the 1950s to 1970s. Circa HK will feature vintage design pieces by Willy Rizzo, Romeo Rega, Maison Charles, Studio Jansen, Mahey and many more.

Coffee’s up
Unable to function until you’ve had a decent coffee? Forgo the usual hotel offerings and instead head to Tai Hang (4 Second Ln Tai Hang; 852-2838-5231). Wedged between Jardine’s Lookout and the skyscrapers of Causeway Bay this neighborhood of 1960s apartment buildings is notable for its 19th-century Taoist temple, Lin Fa. With a sprinkling of noodle stalls and car-repair shops, the area has a gritty, residential charm that has attracted a new crop of cafés and dessert shops. While some people prefer Le Gout for it’s moreish French pastries created by Carole Chan, caffeine addicts will love the Unar Coffee Company. Blink, and you might miss the charcoal-hued hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, started by twenty-something baristas Raymond Kwong and Wai Kwan who were inspired by the sky-high rents in central Hong Kong to take their talents to Tai Hang. While’s there’s a small counter inside, it’s more fun to sit curbside on the small stools and people-watch while sipping your latte.

Red means “go”
Made internationally famous by the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, historic Wan Chai is no longer just Hong Kong’s party and red light district; by day, it’s a pleasant neighborhood for wandering and shopping and by night, it’s becoming a destination for foodies. The hottest and hippest of the new eateries is 22 Ships, launched (pardon the pun) by chef Jason Atherton who cut his teeth at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, and who calls Hong Kong the “New York of Asia.” Atherton set out to de-formalize fine dining, and he’s succeeded. The high ceiling and furnishings create a casual, friendly and intimate setting. The black-and-white photos of local protests, as well as the bold and eye-catching Chinese calligraphy by the famous, late Hong Kong street artist, Tsang Cho-choi add a nice local flavor. The eclectic Spanish tapas menu includes petite char-grilled Iberico pork and foie gras burgers that pair well with the ice-cold Spanish beer served.

Raising the bar
Inspired by the Prohibition Era, Lily & Bloom—the hip bar and restaurant concept from the guys behind Volar, Halo and Roxie—is located in Central Hong Kong. Created in partnership with creative agency The Mangkut Group and New York-based design firm AvroKO (whose previous Big Apple projects include Public and Double Crown), it’s a large and deftly elaborate space spanning two floors. While Bloom is the main dining side of things, we’re here to drink so we head upstairs to Lily. You soon see why business is booming. There’s clever features, such as an ornate grill that backs the bar and chairs inspired by seating from various forms of transport of the era, plus an extensive drinks menu with a focus on cocktails. These guys and gals know their stuff and you soon wonder why you don’t drink martinis more often. Don’t miss the Old Cuban, or if you’re feeling a bit Ernest Hemingway, order the off-the-menu Periodista made from rum, lime, spiced brandy and triple sec.

Take a Hike
In Hong Kong space is tight and so the only place left to go is up. But while the glittering skyscrapers offer impressive views, the most awe-inspiring sights can be found along any of Hong Kong’s hiking trails. There are six main trails on offer and each is perfect for walking off last night’s over-indulgence of dim sum and cocktails or for just getting a nature fix. One of the most popular is the Hong Kong trail, with its city views, that starts at Victoria’s Peak and slowly reveals scenic rivers, ending in Big Wave Bay. But for a pre-lunch workout try Dragon’s Back. This 3-mile trail runs from the edges of Hong Kong itself to a great island hang out, Shek O. The views of Stanley Peninsula, Clear Water Bay and the sea are impressive and quite beautiful. Any of the seafood restaurants in Shek O make for a well-earned reward for your efforts.

Follow Rick on Twitter: @ontvrick

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