Forget the busy metropolis with its expansive skyline, there’s another side to Hong Kong that offers stunning beauty, outdoor pursuits and some rather interesting marine life, writes Paul Bloomfield.
Bobbing just off a deserted beach on Bluff Island, my kayak guide, Paul Etherington, is describing what I’d see below if I donned a mask and snorkel: ‘Vividly coloured parrotfish, clownfish, lionfish, sea horses… and a Mitsubishi Pajero 4x4.’ Excuse me?
‘We think it was dumped by smugglers,’ explains Etherington with a grin. ‘But now it’s encrusted with soft coral – it’s one of the more intriguing dive spots around Hong Kong.’
Yes, Hong Kong. Not the one you’re thinking of – the 24-hour, 22nd-century city of dizzying skyscrapers. No, this Hong Kong is another world: rugged mountains criss-crossed by hiking trails, empty waters populated by pink dolphins, kaleidoscopic fish, small coastal communities – and the odd sunken car.
Perhaps surprisingly, some 40 per cent of Hong Kong is protected as country or marine parks and thanks to a frighteningly efficient transport system, it’s a doddle to escape the urban areas and experience its greener side. I’ve joined Etherington (inset below) and friend Charlie Frew to explore the new geopark encompassing the islands off the Sai Kung Peninsula east of Hong Kong Island.
At Sai Kung town we board Etherington’s Black Mamba – an ex-marine police fast-pursuit boat – to speed out to the rocky outcrops. Overhead soars something impressive-looking – as a marine biologist, Frew’s just the man to identify it.
‘White-bellied sea eagle,’ he says, watching the raptor circling. ‘We see plenty of those, along with reef herons and scores of other seabirds, plus finless porpoises and the occasional bottlenose dolphin – last year we even had a visit from a humpback whale.’
I cling on as Etherington opens up the throttle and launches us into a bucking bronco ride over the swells towards Basalt Island. The name’s a giveaway: it’s a towering mass of hexagonal basalt columns, a little like Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway but much loftier. For geologists, this region’s a fascinating volcanic curiosity. For the rest of us it’s a spectacularly dramatic seascape, its 45m of rock arches tempting intrepid kayakers. Today, though, we’re headed to a more sheltered spot on High Island.
Etherington launches the two-person sit-on-top kayak and I recall paddling tips: use stomach muscles to twist your body rather than pulling with shoulders. Fine, if you have stomach muscles – I’m ashamed to admit Etherington’s doing most of the work. But the water’s so flat, the kayak so light, it’s a smooth glide over to a small, rock-lined beach where we hop off to feel sand between our toes.
Gazing at turquoise waves kissing pristine sand, I’m reminded that it is actually a tropical island. Sometimes that’s easy to forget when surrounded by throngs of people in Kowloon district.
Working up an appetite for lunch, we steer the kayak around the headland and into Sha Kiu Tau village: a cluster of green shacks anchored offshore, with en-suite fish farms tethered beneath. We weave among them, the air pungent with drying fish. Hauling the kayaks ashore, we stroll across a courtyard to a substantial temple, dedicated to the goddess Tin Hau, protector of sailors and fishermen – understandably in an area so dependent on the sea, she’s revered above all other deities.
‘The locals throw a festival here each spring to celebrate Tin Hau’s birthday and it’s quite a spectacle,’ Etherington says, as we nose inside the incense-hazy temple. ‘There’s Chinese opera, an acrobatic dragon and lion dances. Tin Hau herself gets carried out of the temple for a ceremonial lap around the bay on a specially decorated barge.’
Back on the isthmus separating the fishing village from the beaches, we settle in at Yau Ley restaurant. We sip tea in silence punctuated by lapping waves and laughs from the kitchen where spicy squid is being fried. It’s unexpected peace. Hong Kong’s a hot ticket for city action – shopping, eating, bars – and rightly so. But, I reflect, it’s worth sparing a day to discover this other Hong Kong – where the only cars are covered in coral.
Paul flew to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. Tel: 020 8834 8888. www.cathaypacific.co.uk
. Returns from Heathrow start at around £579.
He stayed at the Luxe Manor in Kowloon. Tel: +852 3763 8888. www.theluxemanor.com
Rates vary considerably but last-minute online deals bring doubles in at under HK$1,000 (£86). Hong Kong Tourism Board. Tel: 020 7533 7100. www.discoverhongkong.com