Here are three things you can guarantee about Hong Kong: There will be pollution. There will be crowds. There will be rampant commercialism.
Here are three things I hate: pollution, crowds and commercialism. Hong Kong was clearly not an intuitive choice for a holiday destination. Which is why, when I arrived there to visit my friend, I wanted to do something a bit out of the ordinary.
Of course, there are some things you have to do in Hong Kong: take the cable car to The Peak, visit the bird market, get ripped off by a taxi driver, get lost in any of the myriad underground or above ground walkways, marvel at the post-colonial hangover (yes, many expats still have Filipino helpers who live in little more than a closet at the top of the house).
I decided to centre my explorations on islands – Lantau and its outlying islands, in particular, as they seemed least likely to pollute me, crowd me or sell me something. The central city is itself an island (along with more than 200 other islands, Lantau being the largest). With a chunk of the mainland it adds up to the Special Administrative Region that is Hong Kong.
While there are some very touristy things to do on Lantau – like riding the breath-taking gondola to visit the aptly named Giant Buddha – the island also offers several less frenetic excursions. Transportation is very cheap, reliable and as punctual as an executioner. But beware of the bus drivers on some of the more remote routes – like the road to Tai O, where I was standing at the front of a packed bus that was hurtling so fast around the winding hill roads that I almost became religious.
Tai O was worth the trip for the sheer otherworldliness. It's a traditional fishing village which has stilt houses along the main waterway (although if you explore a bit, the inlying areas are quite modern). The market sells a marvellous selection of all things traditional – plenty of dried fish.
There are many ways to get to the outlying islands – but the ferries go frequently and they're cheap, if basic. Besides, if you wanted to splash out, Cheung Chau and Peng Chau are not places you'd head to. Cheung Chau is the larger of the two, with a population of about 23,000.
As you come past the monsoon barriers into the harbour, there are hundreds of fishing boats moored and the town stretches out along the flat centre of the island in crowds of colourful low-rises.
The residential area dovetails with the business area and stretches up into the hills on either side. There's a walkway along the waterfront with a large selection of fresh seafood restaurants. The golden rule: pick the busiest one.
As you start exploring inland, the most pervasive smell is not of fish – as you would expect – but of fresh baking.
I counted at least four bakeries, and sampled a truly marvellous donut in the main square. The highlight of the year is their Bun Festival – eight days of festivities and bun eating in April or early May. If you want crowds – that's the time to head over.
Both islands are free from cars (except for the police) so you can choose to walk around the town or rent a bicycle. I did the latter on both islands (after manoeuvring my way around the almost crippling language barrier on Peng Chau – English is not as common as it is in Hong Kong city) and covered much more ground than I would have on foot. Bicycles (and there are thousands of them) seem to have right of way there – which is a good thing because what they don't have are gears, decent steering or effective brakes. You just ring your bell as you teeter along and the crowds part.
To enjoy the extensive and exceptionally well maintained tracks you'll have to leave your bike behind unless you fancy biking down steps. Cheung Chau has at least three good beaches you can reach on foot as well as the usual smattering of temples, a 3000-year-old rock carving (in situ but glassed-in and a bit anti-climactic) and an entertaining tradition of imagining and signposting what the abundant rock formations on the shore resemble.
Elephant Rock and Human Face Rock lead the way to a cave in which an 18th-century pirate apparently used to stash his loot. Your bonus, having hiked all that way, is that you can get a boat back to town from there.
The great thing about exploring the more remote walkways and windy streets of both islands is that they're small enough that you can never get seriously lost – just pleasantly so.
Cheung Chau is about four kilometres square, and Peng Chau is less than one. They're very busy on the weekends but weekdays have a lazy village feel to them.
Peng Chau has a history of resident artisans, almost all of whom have gone to mainland China now. But there's a little place tucked away on Wing Hing St called Chiu Kee Porcelain.
I was unable to establish their names but the wife is the artisan and the husband is the front of house. She decorates traditional porcelain and also makes her own stunning pottery. She also offers pottery workshops – as does the other resident artisan, Conrad Li who displays at the Sunday Gallery (only open on Sundays).
He's a Hong Kong native but studied at the Emily Carr Institute in Canada before settling in Peng Chau to take advantage of the cheaper rent and laid-back lifestyle. He tells me there are other artisans with studios here but they live off the island and that the most senior artisan (Mr Li, no relation) had recently retired and left a box of his unpainted vases to him. Conrad gave me one – which I'm looking at as I write.
Peng Chau is like a smaller more charming version of Cheung Chau, with far fewer restaurants but the friendliest locals in all of Hong Kong.
I almost felt at home as I meandered through the crowded but clean, leafy residential areas with people greeting me like I was a neighbour.
My only regrets were that I couldn't stay for longer than a day and that I didn't have a chance to do a pottery workshop there and support the practitioners of a very special island's tradition.
Take a phrase book. Even if you can't read the phonetics, you can point to the characters. Wander through Cheung Chau market which sells everything from lingerie to traditional medicines to fireworks and all sorts of exotic, fresh and colourful seafood.
Don't be put off by the toilet paper rolls on the table – order the Spicy and Sour Steamed Fish on Stove at Thai Snack on Peng Chau. The stove is a fish-shaped aluminium dish heated from underneath. NZ$12.
Rent a bike. It will be too small, rusty, have a hard seat, no gears and poor brakes. You'll love it.
Take the ferry from Mui Wo in Lantau – but first stop at Deer Horn, a Himalayan/Italian restaurant for the Chicken Momo (dumplings) and Tibetan Yak cheese. Exceptionally yummy.
Explore the rabbit warren of a market in Stanley on Lantau. Then head to the beach town of Shek O with its golden sands, clear water and meandering streets of little shops and rainbow houses.
Buy paper lanterns from the fireworks store on Wing On Terrace in Peng Chau. Wander further down to visit the turtles that live in the ground-level well beside Kam Fat Temple. They're said to bring longevity and good luck.
- The Dominion Post