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Hong Kong's metropolis of bargains, bustle and beauty

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Approaching Hong Kong by air in the daytime is unforgettable. The city looks like a forest of Erector-set towers gleaming against dark hills. The parade of nearly identical skyscrapers, honeycombed with windows, seems endless. It's Manhattan on steroids.

An East-West trading center since the mid-19th century, Hong Kong remains a major international crossroads — but a troubled one. Much of its elite class fled before the British territory reverted to Chinese control in 1997. The ensuing Asian recession, plus competition from China's booming Guangdong province, has sapped some of its economic strength. Real estate prices, once among the world's highest, have plummeted.

Then came the outbreak, first reported widely in March, of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which decimated tourism, one of Hong Kong's top five industries, before the World Health Organization declared it contained here in June. Tourism overall has recovered, although Americans are still skittish; 13% fewer of us visited in August than in the same month last year.

Tempted by one of many post-SARS bargains, my partner, Wesla, and I this month visited Hong Kong for the first time. We plunged into a bustling, beguiling city of more than 7 million, boasting New York's density and hustle and San Francisco's nautical, hilly setting. We saw few non-Asian faces and encountered only a handful of Americans, who usually comprise more than 8% of Hong Kong's long-haul visitors. On the streets we saw only one person, besides sanitation workers, wearing a mask, as was common during the SARS outbreak.

As for our deal: For $2,508 total for two on Virgin Vacations' "Hong Kong & Singapore Budget Fling," we spent three nights in Hong Kong and four nights in Singapore. Our package included airfare, transfers, luxury hotels, a half-day Hong Kong tour and trip insurance.

In Hong Kong, we found a friendly, energetic, endlessly fascinating city that barely betrayed its troubles. Take our guide: Daniel Fung of PC Tours and Travel waited more than four hours to greet us at Hong Kong's sleek but cavernous $20-billion Chek Lap Kok airport. He said Virgin Vacations forgot to tell him it had changed our airline and flight times. ("It was definitely a miscommunication," a Virgin Vacations spokeswoman told me after I returned. I had not identified myself as a reporter when traveling or making the arrangements.)

Unfazed, Fung briefed us on our package details in a New York minute. Then he grinned broadly and added, "Welcome to Hong Kong. Spend lots of money."

There were enough bargains that we didn't have to.

Our hotel, the 700-room Kowloon Shangri-La on Kowloon peninsula just across from Hong Kong Island, was one of them. Sans package, the published rate for our elegant room on the 19th floor, with partial harbor view, was nearly $400 per night. Service was flawless; a pot of hot tea in a wicker basket and two pears awaited us.

So, unfortunately, did a typhoon warning. An average of six typhoons a year come within 500 miles of Hong Kong, mostly in late summer or September. This one passed us by without harm. Meanwhile, offices, shops and schools shut down and traffic halted — but the venerable Peninsula Hotel, a few blocks away, continued to serve afternoon tea in its opulent lobby. Of course we indulged.

Patronized by glitterati for generations, the Peninsula is marking its 75th anniversary by offering 25% off many items, including tea. For $37 for two, we sipped its signature-blend and fragrant camomile teas; nibbled on three tiers of exquisite pastries, scones and finger sandwiches served by waiters in white brocade jackets; and strained, over the din of conversation, to hear the string quartet playing in the balcony. Less formal than I had expected but still oh-so-British.

We had arrived by cab but had to make our way back to our hotel by foot in the rain. Taxis had stopped moving.

The next morning we went to the Tsim Sha Tsui pier, where Star Ferries depart for the eight-minute trip to Hong Kong Island. We hoped to score some dim sum at Jade Garden restaurant. It's one of two branches on Kowloon; this one is near the pier. It was a short but challenging walk from our hotel because subway construction for a Kowloon-Canton Railway extension, expected to open next year, has torn up sidewalks and streets. (Pedestrians, be forewarned.)

Alice in retail landTo kill a few minutes before the restaurant opened, we entered a nearby shopping mall.

Unwittingly, we had fallen down the rabbit hole into the capitalist wonderland of Harbour City, one of the world's biggest shopping areas, sheltering more than 700 high-end stores.

Prices on the few goods we checked were about the same as in the U.S. But that's beside the point: Everything is here. No time to jet to London? Marks & Spencer is steps away. We'll always have Paris, so why rush over there? Especially when Yves Saint Laurent and Lalique are here.

Like Lewis Carroll's heroine, we instantly lost our way. Forty-five minutes later, we stumbled onto bustling Jade Garden, which had a wonderful skyline view and nary a non-Asian patron. You order from the menu, not from carts. For $28 total for two, we stuffed ourselves on seven courses of classic dim sum, from pan-fried water chestnut cakes to steamed rice-flour rolls with scallops and greens.

We waddled over to Nathan Road, the peninsula's shopping spine. It's a touristy, raucous mix of upscale and downscale stores selling electronics, clothing and more. Colorful shop signs dangled over the street like banners. Hawkers on crowded sidewalks besieged us: "Copy Rolex? Just like original." "Make a suit? Just a blouse maybe?"

For an even grittier experience, we ducked into Chungking Mansions, the warren of shops and cheap tourist digs along Nathan that director Wong Kar-wai featured in "Chungking Express," his 1994 jump-cut paean to this hopped-up city.

Also on our afternoon agenda was the Hong Kong Museum of History, free on Wednesdays, when we went. Its sprawling "Story of Hong Kong" exhibition offered marvelous nature dioramas and simulated street scenes from colonial days.

In the museum lobby was a poignant addition: an exhibit on the city's history of fighting and defeating plagues, designed "to strengthen our confidence in overcoming SARS."

A heart-shaped box was stuffed with woven paper hearts, made by visitors from leaflets and inscribed with loving messages for victims and health workers.

Slapstick operaNight found us on the Star Ferry en route to Hong Kong Island, the city's Manhattan, to take in double-header Chinese operas performed by a visiting company from Hubei province.

We most enjoyed "Catching Sanlang Alive," in which a rejected, murdered woman retrieves her lover and drags him to the spirit world. Besides the singsong music and stylized gestures we associate with the genre, this opera was, oddly, full of slapstick comedy — a cross between Jerry Lewis and Cirque du Soleil, with English subtitles. All this fun for $25 per person. (I booked my opera tickets through the URBTIX ticketing office, 011-852-2734-9011.)

On our third day, after committing the trip's biggest budget blunder ($52 for two for the hotel's Western-style breakfast buffet), we boarded a bus for a five-hour spin around Hong Kong Island with PC Tours' Fung.

Like so many commercial tours, this one was heavy on shopping stops: the touristy Stanley Village Market on the island's south side (which was far from bustling) and a jewelry factory in the city, unredeemed by even a token crafts demonstration. ("I can shop at Macy's back home," one tourgoer groaned.)

But the sublime city view from 1,805-foot-high Victoria Peak (reachable by bus or tram) and a boat tour ($6 extra) of Aberdeen's photogenic sampan village and garish Jumbo floating restaurant were worthwhile, as were Fung's insights.

One of his tips: See the sampan village soon. In 1991 it was home to 150,000 souls, but it has one-tenth that many today and may disappear by 2007, he said. Many factors have taken their toll on the live-aboards, who once made their living selling eggs. In 1997, keeping poultry on board was outlawed; earlier, residents' children moved to land for mandatory schooling, Fung explained. And the government isn't renewing boat licenses when they expire.

At the other extreme, beleaguered or not, Hong Kong's wealthy roar on, Fung said, snapping up 2% of the world's production of Rolls-Royces.

After the tour, we took a one-hour ride on the Duk Ling, the restored Chinese junk that bobs across many a photo of this city's renowned skyline. The Hong Kong Tourism Board offers free rides to visitors on Thursdays and, through this month, on Mondays. (The catch: The trips typically book up a week in advance. To assure a seat, you can fax your passport to a friend or colleague in Hong Kong, who then must pick up the tickets in person from the tourism office there. See "Ultra-urban idyll" for details.)

Disappointingly, the flat-bottomed boat runs by motor, not under sail. But the voyage was relaxing and afforded a chance to meet other tourists — most of them, on our outing at least, Australians, Germans and Dutch.

"People are scared," said Kathryn Foster, a travel agent who works near Allentown, Pa., and was spending four days in Hong Kong. Her clients, worried about SARS, won't be coming any time soon, she said.

I found three other Americans, all with ties to the region, among the two dozen boat riders: Tom Shui, who lives near San Jose, vacationing with his Taiwanese girlfriend, Maggie Chen; and a New York couple, one of whom was born in Hong Kong.

For our final night, Wesla and I headed for Yung Kee Restaurant, a classic Cantonese place known for roast goose and what are popularly known as thousand-year eggs, the latter placed on your table unbidden. (They're not really 1,000 years old, we're told, but rather preserved in a mix of ash, lime and salt for about 100 days.) The whites were gelatinous, brown and tasteless; the dark-olive yolk was a bit like cheese. We also shared fried prawns with crab roe, water spinach, a roasted-duck rice bowl and mango pudding — all wonderful — for $42.

Our favorite experience that night was free. We headed up the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, half a mile of elevated walkways and escalators that take commuters down the hillside to Central Market in the morning and back up at night.

Running daringly close to high-rise businesses and apartments, it's a voyeur's buffet, affording riders a peek into people's lives. We saw tailors at work, fruit sellers and more.

For a second, we felt like locals. But then we realized, sadly, that we had barely skimmed the surface of this urban chimera. We'll have to come back to see more.

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Hong Kong, Singapore packages

Hong Kong & Singapore Budget Fling: The booking deadline is past for the Virgin Vacations package we went on. With an extra night in Singapore, it cost $2,508 for two, including seven nights in hotels, round-trip airfare from LAX and between the two destinations, transfers and trip insurance.

Current Asia offers from Virgin Vacations start as low as $549 (plus taxes and fees) per person, double occupancy, from L.A., with five nights in Hong Kong. (888) 937-8474, http://www.virgin-vacations.com .

Some packages from other companies, with air from L.A. but excluding taxes and fees, available as of the Travel section's deadline Tuesday:

Hong Kong Chinese New Year Special: Air, six nights' hotel, half-day tour and Chinese New Year parade tickets, from $649 per person, double occupancy. Go-today.com, http://www.go-today.com , (425) 487-9632. (Bookings by phone are $20 extra.)

Seven-Day Singapore Sampler: Air, five nights' hotel, half-day tour, from $692 per person, double. United Vacations, (800) 917-9246, http://www.uv-asia.com .

Essential Asia: Air, three nights each in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore with a half-day tour of each, from $1,250 per person, double occupancy. Pacific Bestours, (800) 272-1149, http://www.bestour.com .

— Jane Engle

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Ultra-urban idyll

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop service is available on Cathay Pacific, and connecting service (change of planes) is on All Nippon, JAL, United, Asiana, Northwest, China Air, Korean and Air Canada. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $773.

TELEPHONES:

To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international code), 852 (code for Hong Kong) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Kowloon Shangri-La, 64 Mody Road; 2721-2111, fax 2723-8686, http://www.shangri-la.com . This elegant high-rise, in Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui East area, offers inspiring views of Hong Kong's skyline across Victoria Harbour. Doubles begin at $340.

WHERE TO EAT:

Jade Garden, Fourth Floor, Star House, 3 Salisbury Road; 2730-6888. This sprawling, bustling restaurant is near Kowloon's Star Ferry pier and offers reasonably priced dim sum. Our seven-course lunch cost $28 for two.

The Peninsula Hong Kong, Salisbury Road; 2920-2888, http://www.peninsula.com . Afternoon tea is a blast from Hong Kong's colonial past. We had "The Peninsula Afternoon Tea for Two Persons," about $37.

Yung Kee Restaurant, 32-40 Wellington St.; 2522-1624. Known for its roasted goose and thousand-year eggs. Dinner for two was $42 for three courses and dessert.

BOAT RIDE:

The Hong Kong Tourism Board offers tourists free one-hour rides on the Duk Ling, a restored Chinese junk, on Thursdays and, through the end of this month, on Mondays. It's a good idea to reserve in advance. For details, call the Visitor Hotline, 2508-1234.

TO LEARN MORE:

Hong Kong Tourism Board, 10940 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024-3915; (310) 208-4582, for brochures (800) 282-4582, fax (310) 208-1869, http://www.discoverhongkong.com/usa .

— Jane Engle

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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