Fishing boats in the harbour of laid-back and quiet Cheung Chau island
Made up of 263 islands sprinkled off the southeastern coast of mainland China, this sprawling metropolis is most famous for its futuristic skyline, ancient temples and throbbing street markets. But that is only one very small part of Hong Kong’s rich and varied identity.
Beyond the districts of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, separated by Victoria Harbour, are exotic isles and patches of paradise that few discover.
Despite consisting of so many islands, most travellers only ever visit two or three. I was keen to see a different side of Hong Kong. After a day exploring the fishing village of Tai O, home to just 3,000 people who live in stilt houses above tidal flats, I journeyed to one of the smallest inhabited islands in the chain. Barely an hour after setting off from Hong Kong Island, the ferry docked at Cheung Chau where the pier and surrounding streets were throbbing with young families and elderly couples.
Long queues had formed at many of the weird and wonderful eateries. The choices ranged from seafood smoothies to red bean puddings available from a tiny kiosk on the corner of Church Road where eightysomething Mrs Lee shuffled in and out of the kitchen with trays laden with steaming buns.
Sweet-toothed locals skipped away clutching their snacks bound for the jewel of Cheung Chau: a slither of soft sand lapped by gentle waves and dotted with bright umbrellas.
It may seem surprising but with more than 40 beaches around the city, there is plenty of sun, sea and sand to be enjoyed in Hong Kong.
Most boast world-class facilities including patrolling lifeguards and even nets to ward off curious sharks.
I found a spot on the sand and watched dogs frolic in the shallows, the windsurfers out at sea and toddlers building sandcastles in the late afternoon sun.
It seems impossible to think that we were in the middle of one of the world’s most densely populated cities yet we were.
That evening, back in the thick of it. I explored the markets and neon-lit streets of Kowloon.
The lively streets of Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon are lined with shops and bright neon signs
Dinner was a curious affair, at no-frills restaurant Tim Ho Wan which has a unique claim to fame by being the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.
I joined the queue outside, eager to sample some of its famous dim sum that’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. On the menu were perfectly formed pork buns for less than £2 and an egg cake, steamed and spongy, for only £1.70.
Emerging from the kitchen was chef and owner Mak Kwai Pui. “It takes years to learn how to make a great dumpling,” he said, speaking of his life’s work. “I started when I was 12 years old and I still do it every day. I want my food to be for everyone, not just the wealthy.”
It’s an approach that has won him an army of fans, with hungry diners of all ages often out on the streets patiently waiting for a spot in the otherwise bland and uninspiring restaurant.
At Tim Ho Wan, it’s definitely the food that does the talking.
Afternoon tea at the elegant Peninsula Hotel, the city’s grandest place to stay
Kowloon’s other famous institution can be found further south, a stone’s throw from Victoria Harbour.
The genteel Peninsula Hotel first opened its doors in 1928, making it the oldest in the city. Almost a century on, it continues to stand as a symbol of Hong Kong’s colonial past as an outpost of Great Britain until the handover in 1997.
Arriving, I passed the fleet of Rolls-Royces parked outside (used to ferry guests to and from the airport in real style) and swept into the marble lobby where afternoon tea is served to the sound of clinking china cups.
I was rather smug to discover that my room, one of 300, was facing the harbour and offered panoramic skyline views so mesmerising that I didn’t draw my curtains at any point during my three-night stay.
Each evening I would lie in bed staring at the skyscrapers, vast columns consisting of a million lights that tickled the clouds, until eventually vanishing behind my heavy eyelids.
Tim Ho Wan which has a unique claim to fame by being the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restauran
These man-made structures are natural highs too. The following day I set off to stretch my legs along one of the city’s best hiking routes. The Dragon’s Back Trail, named for the way it rises and dips along the mountain ridges, winds for 8.5km along the south-eastern corner of Hong Kong Island.
Strolling along the quiet path, we passed through a section of bamboo groves where sapphire-coloured butterflies fluttered between the branches.
After climbing a series of stone stairs, the trail opened up to reveal vistas of the island and the South China Sea. In the far distance, nestled away discreetly, was a cluster of streets and houses belonging to the enclave of Stanley, a former administrative centre established by the British in the mid-1800s. But that was the only evidence of man to be seen.
And from the hilltop Shek O lookout, which stands at 310 yards, the scene was one of lush hills, crescent bays, quiet beaches and Tung Lung Chau island out at sea.
All was still and silent yet somewhere beyond the verdant peaks, not very far away at all, was the hustle and bustle of the modern world. It barely seemed possible.
British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787/ ba.com) offers four nights at The Peninsula in Hong Kong from £1,197 (two sharing), room only. Price includes return flights from Heathrow. Hong Kong tourism: discoverhongkong.com