“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hong Kong and Macau

Woah boy, do I owe you blog post.  I haven't updated since 2015.  I owe a bit of Madrid, some Thailand, Switzerland, Milan, Paris, and Mumbai.  For now I'll focus on Hong Kong and Macau.  This trip - more than any other - was chock full of learning experiences and I just had to get words on paper.  Whenever someone asks about this trip, I just want to point them to a blog so they can understand just how this journey went, and even after years of traveling, you can always learn something new.

HK happened quickly.  Airfare sale was spied and the ticket was bought immediately.  It worked out this year just as Istanbul 2012 did: fare sale over Thanksgiving weekend allowed us to take few vacation days off work.  Bonus: we'd miss Black Friday insanity and have "Chinese turkey," aka, roasted goose, for our Thanksgiving feast.  After the Mumbai trip I came to appreciate a solo hotel room.  In Mumbai that was possible.  In Hong Kong, notsomuch.  We're not made of money.  Basic Holiday Inn rooms were going for $250/night and that was with a Friends and Family discount.  I stumbled upon a 3 bedroom apartment on AirBnB in a quiet neighborhood on Hong Kong Island and across the street from a subway line.  Kitchen, washing machine, balcony with a water view, and most importantly, since we were a trio on this trip, one room for each person.  We paid under $1000 in total, which made this an ideal choice.  Listen, I'm a night owl and not a morning person.  I'm the last to get up and the last to bed.  Separate rooms are a relief for everyone involved if you can be on your own schedule in solitude without disturbing anyone else.  I tend to get overstimulated by too much activity, noise, and goings-on (like not being a morning person, but all day), so to be able to shut a door in quiet solace helps bring the volume in my brain back down to a reasonable level.

Usually my routine involves sleeping on the plane, checking in, napping, then going out.  This time we hit the ground running.  Ever since being scammed in Buenos Aires by a taxi driver upon arrival, I've always scheduled a private car/pickup at the airport.  Mumbai spoiled me for a comfortable Mercedes, so we did this again in Hong Kong.  The cost split between a few people was unnoticeable once we arrived, were escorted to our car, and driven across the island in comfort.  Worth every penny instead of stepping off a plane 20 hours later and having to navigate a new subway system.  Lately I've been relying on a concierge service provided through my Citi AAdvantage credit card (which gets me Admirals Club lounge access +2 guests which I will never give up).  In the past, the concierge service helped me book two hard-to-get restaurant reservations in Paris, so I turned to them again for the car service.  Upon my request, they triple-bid a car service and HongKongShuttle.com gave us the best rate by far.

Back to our schedule... we arrived on Wednesday, were delivered to the apartment, and immediately hit the streets.  We had plans to have tea at the Peninsula Hotel at 2.  Carrie has carefully detailed the food and experience at the Peninsula on her blog so I can skip the pictures.  It was nice, and finally a chance to relax.  Well-worn silver, tiny treats, and the obligatory champagne lead.

Go Cubs Go!
We explored the idea of doing a hop on/hop off bus pass on one of those double-decker buses.  The three of us bought a pass, with Kat getting a 48 hour pass (Carrie and I had other plans the next day).  In hindsight, if you're doing to do this, then don't schedule anything else for that day.  We only managed to take advantage of the bus to get us to Victoria Peak (the bus ticket included a pass to the Victoria Peak tram and able to skip that ticket line).  After Flying the W over Hong Kong, we had a food tour to catch, which was 4 hours long.  Fantastic, but that cut into our bus tour time.  We explored around Mong Kok neighborhood during our food tour (Thanksgiving Day roasted goose and snake soup!), then hopped back on the bus to get to the Peninsula to catch the night tour bus.  It just so happened that the night tour (that we paid extra for) was the same route as the regular daytime blue line bus tour.  We could have saved some money here.  The next day when Carrie and I headed to Disneyland, Kat took advantage of her Day 2 bus ticket and toured all around the city.  She wasn't even the first person back to the apartment that night!  I may not opt for a bus tour in all cities I visit, but it is a good chance to get from point A to B and do some sightseeing while sitting down.

Mystic Point at HK Disneyland
Friday took us to Disneyland.  This was Carrie's day to plan.  She was going with our without Kat and I, so I decided to join her.  I've never been to any other Disney property outside Orlando, let alone an amusement park in another country.  Like all things in navigating Hong Kong, you have to be a dummy to not be able to find your way around the city.  Disney was no exception.  The park even had its own train line.  I've never experienced a more sophisticated infrastructure than in HK and we were all thoroughly impressed with how easy it was to navigate, and how clean and comfortable the trains were, including all the pedways.  America, you have some major catching up to do.  HK Disneyland was like Bizarro World... everything was the same but just slightly different.  Sadly there was no Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but there is a Jungle Cruise, the Tarzan Treehouse replaced the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse (I want to live in there!), and the Haunted Mansion was replaced by the Mystic Point mansion which I absolutely LOVED!  Ghosts don't exist in Chinese culture, so Mystic Point was a story about a professor and his mischievous monkey companion who opens a charmed box and releases magical light that took us on a journey through time.  Very well done.  Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in HK was the Grizzly Gulch coaster ride and it had a few surprises thrown in!  I won't spoil it for you, but this HK ride is even better than the Orlando version!  If you want to delve into details, Carrie has the info here.

In the meantime, Kat journeyed with us to the Disney train connection, where we got off and she continued to the end of the line to see the Big Buddha.  Carrie and I didn't do this until the last day of our trip.  I didn't make it an entire day through Disney, as I tuckered out at about 4 and headed back to the apartment.  Carrie stayed for the night parades and lights.  If I had to do it all over, I would have gone to the Big Buddha in the morning and met Carrie later at Disney to see the night lights.  Our experience 3 days later at the Big Buddha had us standing in lines for hours to get a ticket then another hour to get on the gondola, then another hour to get back.  At that point we were lugging our carry-on luggage and I had a major indentation in my shoulder from dragging around a large tote bag with a vase that I had purchased in Macau.  I could have gone to the Buddha 3 days sooner, not been lugging the bag, and not waited in lines as long.  But in the end, we saw what we wanted to see, so I hope to save you some time with logistics.  The Buddha is near the airport, so we opted to go to the statue first then head right to our flight, hence our carry-on bags.

Big Buddha

Which brings me another infrastructure point: the airport express train line.  It runs from Central to the airport.  And if you were like us and had an evening flight but nowhere to put your bags after checking out of your lodging, you can go to the airport express train terminal in Central and CHECK IN YOUR SUITCASES TO YOUR FLIGHT!  I kid you not.  The train station had airline desks and computers so we checked in to our flight from across town, saw our bags get toted off, they were put on a train, and re-appeared in Chicago 24 hours later.  Magic.  The HK transportation system is so efficient that it blew my mind.  There is no reason why Chicago couldn't do this with the Blue Line that runs from downtown to O'Hare and just tack an extra luggage car to the back of the El train.

While I'm talking about infrastructure, let's discuss HK culture.  It's the most densely-populated city in the world, home to 8.5 million residents.  We were there for 5 days.  Not once did I hear a car horn.  It took 5 days until we saw a police officer.  Not a lick of trash anywhere, including anything washed up along shore.  Nothing.  The trains didn't smell like urine, no one ate or drank in on the subway, the floors were very clean, and signage was abundant, including guide lines to stand off to the side to permit others to exit the train car first.  Glass partitions separated the train platform from the tracks, a major point if you live in NY or Chicago and are used to delays due to people jumping, falling, or being pushed in front of trains.  *sigh*  Why aren't all subways built this way??

Tea at The Peninsula
So some thoughts about food... A few things were on our must-do list: Tea at the Peninsula, a food tour, lunch at Amber, and dim sum.  We chose The Peninsula because of the time-honored tradition of high tea there, done in a traditional British manor.  The scones were worth writing home about.  The silverware was so pure and heavy I was tempted to pocket them.  No worries, nothing was taken, but it did give me flashbacks to my childhood of polishing our mother's silver.  Tip: Tea starts at 2, and we were in line just after 1:30.  They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait.  We were seated a few minutes past 2 with no problems.  And dress up a little.  Call me old fashioned, but I just because you're a tourist doesn't warrant jeans and a t-shirt.

Snake soup
Also mandatory on the food front: A food tour.  We took the Kowloon tour via Hong Kong Food Tours because it was a bit more adventurous.  We spent Thanksgiving Day eating roasted goose!  It was a long 4 hours and we were stuffed, but the group was small and made for good conversation.
 We got a bit of history, a bit of pastry, tofu, dim sum, snake soup (yep!) and a stroll through the seafood market.  You won't need any other big meals this day if you're on this tour.

Dim sum was another obligatory item on the food checklist.  Since we got acquainted with a few new bites via the food tour, we felt comfortable venturing into a dim sum restaurant on our own.  We had heard of Tim Ho Wan through other foodie blogs and knew about their Michelin star.  There are a few branches throughout the city; we frequented the shops in Central and North Point.  It's well worth the stop!  The restaurant has a green sign written in Chinese, and no identifiable markings in English.  You know you're in the right place by seeing every table packed with diners, a line outside, and a tiny red Michelin sticker on the door.  We even saw a few other lone tourists looking at their phones, looking lost, and helped them out with a greeting of, "Yes, this is the place you're looking for."

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Something that Carrie and I do whenever possible is dine at one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants if there's one in the city we're visiting.  Hong Kong happened to have a few, so we chose the best in town: Amber.  Once in a while we can splurge on a full dinner tasting menu with wine pairing, but last I checked, the money tree in my living room window was dead.  So we opted for the Wine Lunch which kept the individual tab under $200.  It was a lovely long lunch and our table had a great view of the dining room.  The restaurant captain was from Paris and eau-so-very French at that.  A table across the way was full of businessmen (and one woman) who appeared to be a mix of French and Chinese diners.  They also opted for the wine pairing lunch, and the three of us were appalled at their inability to finish their glasses of wine.  So much good vino left on the table!  Lightweights.  Amber had a standard waiter, a bread person, a sommelier, busers, water person, etc.  The captain roamed the room keeping a sharp eye on the goings-on.  At one point, one of the French gentlemen at the opposite table got up and helped himself to the bread basket that was on the service station at the center of the room, and returned to the table.  *GASP*  Serious faux pas!  The captain caught this and approached the man, both talking in very hushed French tones, perhaps delivering a scolding.  As a guest, you don't help yourself to anything but the restroom in a 3M-star restaurant.  A schooled Frenchmen should know this.  The captain knew this.  We knew this.  Eventually the captain stopped at our table to chat, and we hinted that we saw what happened, and that we knew it wasn't kosher.  He rolled his eyes and shook his head toward the table.  Mind your manners, people!  It may seem like a small gesture, but in an industry and restaurant that prides itself on delivering service, and following protocol, helping yourself and stepping on the staff's toes is a big no-no.

Besides eating, we did do a bit of shopping.  Okay, I did a lot of shopping, Carrie and Kat did a bit of shopping.  Kat and I were set on hitting the Jade Market, and we had a great time, especially since we went early one Saturday morning as soon as they opened and practically had the place to ourselves.  It took a while to get a feel for how to identify the real versus fake jade.  The fake glass "jade" was easily identifiable by the sheer volume of items on display on the tables.  If it's piles high, it's

I use this method at home now.
probably cheap and easily manufactured.  But that's not to stop you from buying something you like.  Just haggle hard.  Be prepared to walk away because chances are there are five other stalls selling the same thing.  Shop around first to get a feel for pricing, then go back to the stall you want to deal with.  A lot of stalls are owned by the same family or groups.  The real jade can be spotted by looking for the stalls with just a few items, and locals huddled around.  Once I figured this out, I also realized that these dealers don't haggle as much.  Their prices don't drop as easily, and they're happy to wave you off and not make a sale at all.  I landed at a stall near the rear that was selling beautiful light green Burmese jade.  I picked out a bracelet, beaded necklace, and a small wheel-like pendant.  At first I couldn't get the bracelet on my arm.  Too small.  The woman shook her head and put a small plastic bag over my hand, then slipped the bracelet over it.  Magic!!  The jewelry went on and off with ease.  Her prices were higher than the fake stuff, but the value was fine for me and I was happy with my purchase.  It's very much worth making a stop here in Kowloon (north of the Temple Street Market) if you're a fan of jewelry.  Plus I walked out with two blue glazed ceramic foo dogs to boot.

Faberge phoenix at the Wynn Cotai
We also decided to spend one day in Macau.  It's another autonomous Chinese territory just an hour's ferry ride away.  We didn't plan much for this.  Figured we'd just head down to the ferry, buy a ticket, and be on our way.  Lesson: Set aside one day for this and don't make any other plans.  It took nearly two hours to get tickets, go through passport control, board, sail, disembark, back through passport control, and we were in Macau.  And... this is where we really should have planned more.  We had no idea how to get from the ferry port to the old city center.  Didn't see a taxi stand.  Had no idea how far the city center was (is that a mile on the map, or five?).  After wandering a bit we saw free casino shuttle buses lined up and figured we'd just get on one that would bring us nearest to the old center, and we could hoof it.  We saw a bus for the Wynn, and knew that casino was near where we wanted to go.  And hey, the Wynn is a classy joint.  We figured we could trust it.  It wasn't like getting on the bus to Circus Circus ifyouknowhatimean.  If we got to the Wynn, somewhere a concierge would help us out.  So on the bus we go, aaaaaand over a bridge we go.... away from the city!

We didn't realize that the Wynn also had a casino on the other side of the territory on the other island and we got on the wrong bus!  Whoops!  We were headed to Cotai.  Welp... this is where so often we realized that the three of us developed an unspoken dynamic.  Kat was always ready to walk up to any hotel concierge and request information and ask for directions.  Carrie was good at spotting landmarks and signage that we needed to look out for.  And I usually would get us from Point A to B (okay, except this one time in Macauj; I took a time-out from navigation).  After a lovely spin around the Wynn Cotai, we hailed a cab from taxi stand and headed into old Cotai.  I had previously flagged a traditional Portuguese restaurant on this side of the city and it was time for lunch.  The cab didn't have any idea where we wanted to go, so I sat up front with Google Maps and directed him.  We found the restaurant on a pedestrian side street and loaded up on Portuguese goodness.  This was a nice break from Chinese food which was frequently full of bones and chicken feet (apparently the Chinese cuisine is big on texture and working for your food).  Another taxi got us back to the old colonial center of Macau where we hit up a couple churches and historic sights, and decided to head back to Hong Kong.

Except we also should have purchased our return ticket that morning.  The return ferry was full and we stood in standby lines in the terminal to try to get on the next ferry.  We had reservations for a traditional Chinese junk Victoria Harbor cruise that evening.  We did get on an earlier ferry, but missed our junk cruise boarding time.  All this took another 3-4 hours to get back to Hong Kong.  At the Aqua Luna cruise dock, I explained the situation to the host, and she was happy to let us on to a later cruise.  We had paid for a more expensive, earlier cruise that we had missed, so in exchange, she agreed to allow us additional free drinks on the later cruise.  Woot!  
It was no hassle at all and the staff was very accommodating.  We arranged to board the cruise on the Kowloon side, but since our plans had all been re-arranged, we wanted to actually disembark on the Central side.  Again I spoke to the cruise host, explained the entire situation, she spoke to the captain, and they agreed to make an exception for us and let us stay on until we reached the Central dock later in the evening.  Aqua Luna had been especially accommodating and I have to remember to leave them a rave TripAdvisor review.  The cruise was so relaxing, sitting on the front of the boat, reclining with a glass of wine and a warm breeze and staring at the gorgeous Hong Kong skyline.  For as crazy as that day was, everything still worked out.

We combed Hong Kong.  By the end of the week we were exhausted and not looking forward to 11 hours in cattle class.  Fortunately Carrie and I applied for upgrades and we scored seats in Business Class (I love free pajamas and lay-flat beds!).  We had a long layover in LAX, and Carrie was my guest in the Admirals Club lounge.  After 10 hours in flight, I used the lounge showers to freshen up and feel a bit more like myself before getting on the red eye to O'Hare.  I may never give up lounge access.  Free wine, snacks, soups, salads, showers, power charging stations, and friendly service.  Bless them.

Hong Kong was a success.  I learned so much on this trip.  Just when I thought I had traveling figured out, it throws a curveball and you learn on your feet again.  I'd happily go back.  It's friendly, clean, organized, well-marked, cosmopolitan, international, and just beautiful.