Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: April 2015

Hotel review: Courtyard Hong Kong

If the opposite of a last minute traveller is a first minute traveller I must surely be one as from the time I confirm my air tickets normally many months in advance I’m scouring the accommodation options looking for that high value, low dollar deal that delivers the best return on my investment in a hotel. Rare is the reservation that survives from first search to check-in but the Courtyard Hong Kong proved one of those anomalies on a Chinese New Year visit to the territory.

Having stayed at the hotel previously I was familiar with its location sandwiched between  Des Voeux Road West with its historic trams that snake their way along and the north side of on Hong Kong Island and Connaught Road West that is a busy multi-lane freeway running parallel to Victoria Harbour.  Hong Kong February 2015 269

This hotel’s location is a few miles from the main commercial and tourist hub on the island known as Central but the trams which have been serving Hong Kong since 1904  (Hong Kong Tramways) cost pennies to ride and are a fun way to soak up some local colour.  An underground subway, or MTR, station is a few blocks away with the new Sai Ying Pun station coming online mid-2015.

In addition to these public transportation options the Courtyard Hong Kong offers a complimentary courtesy bus service with nine stops amongst the main office towers, convention centers and Airport Express terminals in Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai. A full timetable for this bus service is here.  I did use the free city shuttle one morning and the first stop was at the IFC building which is a short walk to the Star Ferry terminal. The mini-bus left precisely at the stroke of 8:00 AM which was the advertised departure time and was a reminder how efficient Hong Kong can be. I’d arrived from the airport on the Airport Express but at a time in the early afternoon when the next free shuttle wasn’t scheduled for another 90 minutes and rather than wait simply hopped in a cab costing no more than 30HKD or approx. CAD$5 for the short ride to the hotel.

I would recommend taking one of the little business cards the hotel has available as it has the name and address in both English and Cantonese so may be shown to taxi drivers who may not be fluent in speaking English or are unfamiliar with the hotel.

Hong Kong February 2015 114Hong Kong February 2015 116Room 2008 is a non-smoking Deluxe guest room with king bed that had both a city and harbour view. The location at the end of the hallway helped keep the noise from the corridor down to a bare minimum. The room had a nice large ledge to sit and enjoy the water view though the proximity of the adjacent residential tower had me wondering if others were looking at me looking at the view. The power blinds blocked almost all light so were appreciated by this light sensitive sleeper.

The room was nicely equipped and everything worked well. I appreciated the in-room electrical adapter that was in a neat little box beside the desk phone and used it several times to recharge camera batteries and smart phones overnight when not in use. If there is one thing about the room to nitpick it’s the lack of a strong light on above the bathroom mirror making shaving a little more of a challenge. The bathroom is equipped with a shower only but it is a large shower stall with both hand wand and ceiling mounted rainfall shower head. Hong Kong February 2015 115

It should be noted that the bathroom is separated from the bedroom only by a Plexiglas wall though does features blinds should some privacy be desired or required.

Hong Kong February 2015 117There is one dining choice on-site, MoMo Café, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as a MoMo To Go in the lobby for smart coffee & light snacks for consuming on the commute. There are ample dining choices within easy access of the hotel in the hip, new areas of Hollywood, SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong or LFK as it’s often abbreviated for additional coolness.

Beyond the hotel’s location and quality of accommodation the human factor is an intangible the Courtyard Hong Kong does so very well with friendly greetings by the lobby staff upon entering the bright modern lobby, a gracious greeting upon check-in and pleasant farewell upon check-out. Staff encountered in the hallways or other public areas always offered a polite hello and this warm hospitality is appreciated and is sadly often missing in North America hotels.

This stay was easily as good if not in some ways better than my first stay and I would happily return to this value four star that keeps delivering a consistently high quality accommodation experience.



Hong Kong that’s new to me

When returning to a destination I’ve visited before I like to try something new and so approached the Hong Kong trip with a small list of new sights to explore & experiences to try.

After arriving 16 hours late thanks to a unexpected flight diversion to Anchorage (see previous blog post) my rough outline for sightseeing underwent a quick revision to fill-in my late afternoon & evening with a short voyage on the iconic Star Ferry to Kowloon to catch two shows that would play out almost beside each other: A Symphony of Lights and the Hong Kong Pulse 3D Light Show. Hong Kong February 2015 052The former is a choreographed light and laser show that plays across the high-rise buildings that circle Victoria Harbour and is accompanied by narration and an audio track played along the Avenue of Stars and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and the Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai while the latter is a newer 3D projection show splashed on the exterior of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre set to music.

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Both free shows are performed nightly and timed so that when one ends the other begins so views on the two level waterfront promenade by the Hong Kong Cultural Centre only have to walk a few feet. I would recommend showing up early for the Symphony of Lights as low concrete benches facing the harbour are at a premium and fill fast. The Hong Kong Pulse 3D Light Show is standing room only but at 15 minutes isn’t an overly long performance but one well worth seeing.

Few travellers venture beyond Kowloon and Hong Kong Island with their impressive skylines but there are hundreds of islands that make up the territory and many of the larger inhabited islands are within a short ferry ride and well worth a day trip.

While the Kong Kong Tourism Board has excellent information on self-guided hikes on their website  I opted to join a full-day escorted day tour of Lamma Island to benefit from the insights of the tour leader and in that respect there could be few more knowledgeable or interesting guides than Martin Heyes of Walk Hong Kong who not only is a 40 year resident of the territory but also a former British Army officer and Marine Police Force officer. After meeting at the main post office in Central we made our way to the modern double decker buses for the fairly short ride to Aberdeen on Hong Kong Island’s south shore.

Aberdeen as it was renamed after the British arrival in 1942 was the origin Hong Kong as this the rough Anglicized translation of it’s Cantonese name heung gong meaning  fragrant harbour after the sandalwood incense factories or  go-downs that lined the waterfront. Today high-rise apartment buildings line Aberdeen harbour and there is little that’s fragrant beyond the smell of diesel from the dozens of smaller fishing boats and small ferries that ply the coastal waterways.

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While pulling out of Aberdeen harbour Martin mentioned we would be crossing busy international shipping lanes and had barely said this when a giant container ship cruised past our suddenly small ferry.

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Our Lamma Island walking tour started  in the south in Mo Tat Wan before climbing into the interior for view of neighbouring islands Cheung Chau and Lantau before lunch back at sea level in Sok Kwu Wan. The morning trek of the southern half of the island was quiet as no other hikers were to be found as we strolled through the marked trails through the rugged landscape to hilltop outlooks and through bamboo groves.


Sok Kwu Wan has a waterfront Tin Hau temple that was bedecked in red banners in honour of Chinese New year.

Hong Kong February 2015 329Hong Kong February 2015 331After a delicious seafood lunch we pressed on to the northern half of the island which was much busier with many more fellow hikers on the island trails.

Another climb brought us to a look-out above Sok Kwu Wan and the mild and clear day afforded decent views, or at least better views than were to be found in Kowloon with its low fog/smog layer obscuring the skyline.

Hong Kong February 2015 340Some interesting sights such as World War II kamikaze tunnels were to be found before our tour and day trip ended at the ferry pier that would take us back to Central on Hong Kong Island. I would highly recommend this tour as it’s a very pleasant day away from the densely packed neighborhoods on either side of Victoria Harbour and the tour price of CAD$100 includes everything from bus and ferry tickets to lunch and guide which for a 7 hour tour is excellent value in my experience. Walk Hong Kong offers a wide variety of tours suited to almost every interest so am sure I’ll be among the participants on some future tour on my next visit to Hong Kong, the polite Canadian in the back with the inquisitive look and camera ready.

Past trips to Hong Kong have unfortunately not coordinated with horse racing season but this trip saw me able to take in the sport of kings at Sha Tin Racecourse, a 3/4 mile track in the New Territories that can house 85,000 screaming spectators and it seemed full to capacity during my visit. Hong Kong February 2015 252I’d learned online that for HKD$10 (CAD$1.70) one could enter the grandstands but for HKD$190 a tourist badge could be bought that afforded access to a special members-only enclosure that was not only less crowded but had dining & bar access. I showed my passport,  paid my member price and received a small square cardboard token to be worn to show my newly acquired special status.

Chinese New Year race day runs all day and I managed to arrive in time for the fourth race and something was telling me to bet the fourth horse in the fourth race so wagered heavily (HKD$10 or roughly CAD$1.60) and in a thunder of hooves of cheers promptly lost it.

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I did however keep betting the fourth horse and my luck finally changed in the sixth race when my HKD$I0 won a grand total of HKD$100 so holding my betting slip firmly in hand I strutted through the crowd to claim  my windfall at the cashier.

It was quite a fun afternoon and was glad I’d spent it in the members-only lounge as even in this more comfortable enclosure there was barely a seat to be found inside in the restaurants, cashier area or out on the terrace overlooking the track so can only imagine what the general admission grandstand would’ve been like.

My time in Sha Tin also included a morning visit to the excellent Hong Kong Heritage Museum for an exhibition on the life and legend of kung fu superstar Bruce Lee followed up with an afternoon of sightseeing by bike. There are several bike shops opposite the Tai Wai MTR station that will rent bikes but come prepared with at least HKG$600 cash deposit and your passport to show the staff before you’ve given a set of wheel which in my case was severely on the small side.

Hong Kong February 2015 292There are miles of well marked paved walking and cycling trails that hug the Shing Mun River making following the terrain easy, easier in fact than trying to gauge the intentions of fellow cyclists who seemed new to two-wheeled travel stopping frequently and inconveniently in the middle of the trail.  There’s a detailed tourism board map of the recommended ride here.

I smiled cycling past the Sha Tin Racecourse from the opposite bank of the river still reveling in my windfall noticing for the first time how enormous the grandstands are. The walk from the closest MTR station I’d taken obscures the scale to a degree as you come at the track from the back and side.

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Despite a persistent low cloud cover that threatened rain but luckily only delivered on that promise a few times the afternoon ride was a fun way to explore a new corner of the territory and enjoy the great outdoors in the process.

A trip to Hong Kong is incomplete without Dim sum, the small bite sized Cantonese food often served in a bamboo steamer baskets or on plates.  I’d tried it on past trips but to really spend some time savouring it opted to invest in a culinary experience with a leader who spoke the language and could narrate what was being served and consumed so joined a small group for a Friday morning outing with a tour company called Dim Sum Experience. As this tour doesn’t meet until 10 AM at one exit of the Jordan MTR station I’d recommend going early and visiting the local Tin Hau Temple which is a short walk away in Yau Ma Tei. This temple, dedicated to the goddess of the sea, looks ancient but dates back only to the late 19th century when this area was waterfront yet thanks to land reclamation is almost 3 KM from the harbour today. The temple’s ceiling is crowded with burning incense coils that fill the air with a fragrant smoky aroma you sense long before entering.     Hong Kong February 2015 139

After pulling myself away from the morning calm of the temple I met with Sarah hungry for Dim sum and after meeting a German couple and an American student we walked the short distance to the restaurant which was full of local families and friends enjoying a mid-day meal.

Hong Kong February 2015 146Not long after tea arrived so did the bamboo baskets and over the course of the next hour we sampled deep fried spring rolls, har gau (shrimp dumplings), cha siu bao (steamed barbeque stuffed pork buns) and a few I’ve forgotten. The rice and tea helped add to the lunch feast and I came away having tried all the dishes but found like most North Americans I prefer the deep fried dishes the best. the steamed buns were not far behind and were both tasty and filling.

Hong Kong February 2015 145It’s not hard to believe a common greeting in this food focused city of 7 million is Chi fan le mei you or  ‘have you eaten (rice) yet?’ so jump in and enjoy the diversity that’s on offer. My foray into dim sum helped me navigate restaurant menus several more times during my stay and so was well worth the HKD$200 cost, especially for a single traveller who was able to join others sharing a hearty meal of authentic Cantonese food.

So many new experiences for me in a city I’ve visited several times but somehow still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Fortunately I plan on returning to see and do some more as there’s an almost endless choice of sights, sounds and scenery to explore and experience in Hong Kong the hardest part isn’t deciding what to do but what to leave out.

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