TRAVEL: Go streetwise in Hong Kong

THERE was a time when a trip to Hong Kong had the shopping juices fired up.

Everything from the major fashion brand names to cameras and watches was seemingly on endless sale (even if Stanley Market and Granville Road presented some, er, cheaper options).

How many times were we offered the whispered attraction of a 'genuine' Rolex in Nathan Road? How about a shiny new Nikon lens, Sir? Or a tailor-made suit?

Well, times move on and Hong Kong's rents are now close to the world's most expensive and massive malls now attract wealthy visitors from across the border, leaving Aussies in their wake when it comes to brand name fever and conspicuous consumption.

Don't despair...there is good news if you know where to go and what to look for. And it's not necessarily shopping for luxury goods.

No, the real deal in Hong Kong is not in the major city areas and malls but rather in the fringe precincts. For example, Aberdeen on the south side and Mongkok in Kowloon are places where local people shop, eat and drink without the "tourist” prices that support developers and landlords.

One such emerging precinct is Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island, really an extension of Central but a safe walking distance or tram ride from the high-rise scene.

Sheung Wan's streetscape is a higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch of lanes, alleys and stairways designed to test the knees and thighs. The architecture is a beguiling mix of extremes...from old shop-front houses and terraces to modern commercial buildings and apartments.

Luckily much of the character of the area has been preserved, and community activity at the historic Man Mo Temple and other places still draws crowds.

But it's the new rather than the old that's transformed Sheung Wan into a vibrant neighbourhood popular not only with expats and the younger local crowd, but increasingly tourists like us looking for something different away from the usual shopping haunts and the business hotels populated by suits.

To get a true taste of the district we embark on a different walk with a small group led by Lilian of Foodie Tours. We've been warned that as the tour starts at 2pm to avoid the lunch hour rush, we should arrive with an empty stomach...and we are certainly glad we did.

We walk around the narrow streets, up and down steps of Ladder Street and others, linger a while for Lilian's informative commentary, and partake of a moveable feast of Cantonese delights. These range from special wonton noodles to roast meats like BBQ pork, preserved fruits, pure cane juice, herbal teas and the best dim sum you'll ever try.

After all, Hong Kong is recognised by many as a kind of foodie heaven.

We learn that the day of the dai pai dong (street food market) is nearly over, as licenses are not being renewed... much to the chagrin of local residents. However, on the positive side, the entire precinct is alive with the buzz of new ventures including quirky bars, Western-style bistros, cafes and fusion places where the culinary world meets in a plethora of tastes, smells and sounds. Even in a week, you wouldn't be able to cram in everything that Sheung Wan has to offer.

Roads and lanes like Hollywood Road and Cat Street offer a different kind of shopping experience from antiques and collectables to trendy fashion in small boutiques, with interesting new local designers making an impact. And street art, a.k.a. graffiti, has been encouraged, adding a colourful vibe to the streetscape.

There's another important facet to the area that should be mentioned. This is the advent of a new flock of interesting small hotels ranging from affordable boutique style to suites and apartments.

Our hotel, the One96 Hotel with its hi-tech appointments, clean modern interiors and ideal location was perfect for singles and couples, with just one room on every floor like our own private apartment. And behold, there's a mini kitchen with full size fridge, microwave, coffee machine and even a washer/dryer, while the 1st floor lounge has breakfast plus free snacks all day long.

We counted more than a dozen new hotels of this type, including sister hotels like Jervois, Putman and 99 Bonham which also cater to family travel. These accommodation options are fun, a bit quirky, modern and most of all...affordable in a city where hotel prices can be a killer.

After all, there's so much to do in Hong Kong that you don't want to spend all your hard-earned on a hotel room, do you?

There's now a direct air link from Gold Coast Airport to Hong Kong, without the need to travel to Brisbane or Sydney. Hong Kong Airlines takes you there and back (a short stop in Cairns on the way north) with full service including meals, drinks and baggage, and their reasonably priced Business Class has up-to-date flat beds for the return overnight flight. They also have connections onwards from Hong Kong to 28 cities in Asia and soon, direct flights to Vancouver, Canada.

The writer was a guest of www.discoverhongkong.com.

For more information, go to www.hongkongairlines.com, www.hongkongfoodietours.com and www.nationalhotels.com.hk.


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