x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

In Hong Kong, a heady mix of colonial and contemporary

Mo Gannon gets an exclusive tour of Hong Kong – but it's hard to leave the hotel.

A Victorian-era tram takes visitors up to Hong Kong's Peak. Getty Images
A Victorian-era tram takes visitors up to Hong Kong's Peak. Getty Images

Every afternoon around teatime, the old gargoyles atop the pillars in the palatial lobby of Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel look down on a curious sight: a long line of designer-clad young people queueing, not for iPads or a rock concert, but to savour scones and finger sandwiches while a string orchestra plays from the balcony.

In a snapshot, this is the Hong Kong I encounter, combining the history of the former British colony with the new-world verve of a modern Chinese city.

Most iconic hotels reference their locations and so it is with the Peninsula, which reflects Hong Kong's mix of old and new. The hotel was originally built at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula in 1928, but in 1994 a 30-floor tower was added, topped by a helipad and a restaurant designed by Philippe Starck.

After a seven-hour flight from Abu Dhabi, the journey from the airport is in one of the Peninsula's fleet of hunter green Rolls-Royce Phantoms through the hills of Lantau, past Hong Kong's massive port and then into the skyscrapers and futuristic-looking double-decker buses of Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon.

Pulling up to the Peninsula, the staff who greet us include the pageboys in white uniforms and pillbox caps who were captured in portraits by the photographer Annie Leibovitz for one of the hotel's campaigns.

My superior suite has a sweeping view over Victoria Harbour, with an old-fashioned telescope through which I can gaze at the colourful junks on the water and across to the neon-lit advertising on the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. The room is decorated with old-world Chinese furniture, flanked by technology from a newer era: curtains that open with the press of a button, a panel near the door that flashes when I have a fax (I have my own personal fax number, which the concierge uses to send me messages) and a panel near the bed that controls everything from the air conditioning to the television.

It's a mixed blessing to have landed at Hong Kong's most famous hotel: having everything to offer a visitor on a short stay also makes it very hard to step outside and discover what else is on offer.

Before dinner, there's time for a shopping expedition, and even for that I don't need to venture outside the hotel, which has its own shopping arcade that includes boutiques such as Prada, Harry Winston and Goyard.

I finally manage to take a short walk around the neighbourhood, a busy shopping area with luxury shops such as Chanel and Hermès. Nearby is Harbour City, Hong Kong's largest shopping mall.

We return to the hotel to experience the Peninsula's "Culinary Journey", which it describes as a "dining odyssey" consisting of six courses in four of the hotel's nine restaurants and bars over the course of an evening.

We begin at Salon de Ning, a basement lounge featuring a series of themed rooms designed in Shanghai deco style as the imaginary haunt of a certain Madame Ning, a globetrotting socialite. We move on to Spring Moon, the hotel's Cantonese restaurant, where we're served chrysanthemum-flavoured chicken consommé and braised cloud fungus (aka mushrooms) with seasonal vegetables.

At Gaddi's, the hotel's French restaurant, we again step back in time: a lounge singer in a black sequined dress croons Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Girl from Ipanema, backed by a live orchestra. A small problem - our male guests don't have jackets - is easily fixed by the waiting staff, who produce some on loan before bringing out our beef fillets.

The final site is Felix, the 28th-floor restaurant with a panoramic view, where we're served a poached pineapple dessert.

Later that night, we explore the cultural area in front of the hotel. Even around midnight, it's thronging with tourists and locals, strolling the route and taking mobile photos of one another in front of the Hong Kong skyline.

Soho on Hong Kong Island is only a HK$60 (Dh28) taxi ride away, where expats crowd the restaurants and bars lining the hilly streets well into the night.

We return the following day in the Peninsula's Mini Clubman to explore the surrounding area, with a commentary given by the driver pointing out sights such as the island's the oldest public toilet to the longest covered outdoor escalator in the world.

After taking in the view of the green hills from Peak Lookout, we take the Victorian-era Peak Tram back down the tree-lined hill, where our driver is waiting to take us to a nearby shopping area in Hollywood Road and Cat Street, featuring everything from modern art galleries to stalls selling Chairman Mao alarm clocks and vintage Chinese advertising posters.

Back at the Peninsula, we're treated to our grandest view of Hong Kong yet: a "flightseeing" tour in a helicopter, taking off from the hotel's rooftop helipad for an exhilarating ride that introduces me to places that I put on my list for the next trip: Aberdeen, Lamma Island, Ocean Park, Stanley Market and Hong Kong Park with its hiking trails. Although we pass over areas where residential towers are stacked like dominoes, our pilot informs us that buildings are only 15 per cent of the land mass: "One of the reasons I like to show Hong Kong by the air is it's very green."

After 15 minutes and a few more sharp turns, we land back on the Peninsula's 30th-floor helipad and I vow to return very soon.


Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Hong Kong from Dh3,620 return, including taxes. A double room at the Peninsula (www.peninsula.com) costs from HK$5,918 (Dh2,793) per night, including breakfast and taxes.