Birds twitter and sunshine twinkles through groves of bamboo and banyan trees adorned with cascades of orchids. With every step, my Vibram boot soles crush hibiscus blossoms littering a pathway, while butterflies flutter around a group of elderly folks welcoming the morning with the gracious silent semaphore of tai chi.
At a clearing where remnants of a World War ll gun emplacement rust, half-swallowed in greenery, an opening in the jungle reveals a panoramic view, and I find myself peering down on the rooftops of hundreds of skyscrapers. I am almost level with the penthouse of the 118-story International Commerce Centre, at 1,588 feet,Hong Kong'stallest building.
Here's something I never thought I'd find myself doing: kicking off my stilettos, hopping into hiking boots and spending a week hitting the trails of one of Asia's busiest hubs. Although hiking Hong Kong may sound like an oxymoron, this city of 7 million is not just a forest of skyscrapers. More than 70% of the former British colony's 426 square miles is rural, sparsely populated countryside with rolling hills, hefty peaks, 264 Outlying Islands and pristine coastline fringed with serious beaches.
Starting amid the commercial chaos of downtown, I catch the tram up Victoria Peak, the green summit of mountainous Hong Kong Island. Passing a garish shopping mall, I quickly find the network of lanes that encircle the summit, shady colonial paths called Lugard and Old Peak roads. They are the nearest forest walks to city hotels, but it's surprisingly easy to find pockets of serenity all over Hong Kong.
Locals are enthusiastic about heading outdoors as a break from crowded urban life, but few visitors are aware of the hundreds of miles of easy to challenging trails that can lead you to hillside monasteries and through idyllic fishing villages or to serious vertical trekking and wilderness camping.
My jaunt around Victoria Peak is part of the 30-mile Hong Kong Trail. If I were so inclined, I could hike down the back of the peak, then amble up and down hills through five parks to reach the coast, but that's considerably more adventure than I had in mind.
Later in the week, however, I take a shortcut to the Hong Kong Trail's most scenic sector, the Dragon's Back, one of the region's most spectacular hikes. I catch the No. 9 bus from downtown and tell the driver to let me off at the trailhead. (In Hong Kong, even the most remote treks are accessible by ferries, buses, trams and the octopus arms of the MTR subway.)
Dragon's Back is appropriately named because the three-mile route follows a high, narrow ridge with views on both sides of seaside villages such as the very British expat outpost of Stanley and the surfers' paradise of Big Wave Bay, as well as the zigzag coastline jutting into the South China Sea. The trailhead is well marked and the hilly, winding path easy to follow through low forest.
When I arrive in the fishing village of Shek O, I pick from a row of seaside restaurants and tuck into a spicy, authentic Thai seafood lunch at the family-run Happy Garden. I stroll the almost-deserted beach, then nap in the sun on the white sand.
Another day, I catch the modern MTR urban rail line to hilly, green Lantau Island, home to Hong Kong's international airport. There is a rigorous trail up to a mountaintop monastery, but I choose instead to let the new cable car whisk me the five miles to the summit.
Once there, I elbow my way through a hive of gaudy commerce toward the base of a 75-foot-tall bronze Buddha. It's tranquil within the traditional, ornate Po Lin Monastery and its dining hall, where incense wafts through the open doors as I dig into a delicious communal veggie feast (tofu and seitan standing in for chicken and pork). Then I walk off those calories on the three- to four-hour trek downhill on a scenic, though steep, route that takes me to the ferry to central Hong Kong. Keener hikers can also hook into part of the 45-mile-long Lantau Island Trail at the summit to visit Tai O(a 10-mile hike), a traditional fishing village built on stilts.
Catching a ferry is a relaxing and charming way to reach a hiking trailhead. A 30-minute chug across the South China Sea brings me to the Lamma Island fishing village of Sok Kwu Wan, a single waterfront street lined with open-air seafood eateries. I follow the route along the local beach to the "Kamikaze Grottos," a drippy series of eerie tunnels supposedly excavated by the Japanese army hiding on the island during WWII.
Zigzagging up and down, I climb hills and pass pagodas, then descend toward beaches on the 4-mile route to seaside Yung She Wan, an artsy town of narrow alleys lined with offbeat clothing and jewelry boutiques that, along with European-style cafés, make Lamma another favorite getaway of expats.
A friend's tip led me to the Lamcombe Seafood Restaurant — one of many lining the waterfront — and I wasn't disappointed: squid with chile and spicy salt and a plate of steamed fish with ginger and spring onions made this one of the best meals of my Hong Kong stay.
Throughout my week in the city, I often mention that I have a weekend date to hike a section of the legendary MacLehose Trail. I soon realize that there is an avid culture of urban über-hikers in Hong Kong. I am surprised when chic and proper male and female executives excitedly ramble on about having "done the entire MacLehose" — all 60 miles of it — in less than 48 hours. What? They speak of donning headlamps and clambering on hands and knees up the steep stretches, eating on the run. They would tell stories and jokes to keep one another awake through the two days and two nights of the annual November Oxfam Trailwalker, one of Hong Kong's biggest sporting events and a major fundraiser in support of the charity's poverty and emergency relief projects in Africa and Asia.
The MacLehose is the Special Administrative Region's longest trail, and it crosses the New Territories, the northern section of Hong Kong that adjoins the Chinese mainland. It's made up of 10 sections, and it's wild as it traverses some of Hong Kong's highest peaks. On the way, you encounter remote temples, eroded sea caves, jungles screaming with macaque monkeys and remnants of a WWll trench called the Gin Drinker's Line.
Every year for the Great Outdoors Hong Kong hiking festival, more than 3,000 locals sign up to volunteer on free guided weekend outings on several popular trails. It's a great way to get to know the terrain and outdoorsy Hong Kong-ites at the same time.
I am bunched in with the C group, which is to follow a pack of neon-orange T-shirt-clad guides, including a tiny teen with a too-big fluorescent ball cap that proclaims, "Finger Lickin' Good!" Her name is Jasmine. The section scheduled for that day is No. 4, eight miles long and by far the most challenging. When I see it is rated "extremely difficult," I scoff. How hard can it be? This is Hong Kong, after all.
The trail is well marked throughout and begins as a leisurely climb, then suddenly changes its mind. I'm surprised by the serious Sino-Stairmaster etched into the hillside, and when I finally reach the horizontal ridge and pause to catch my breath, I see that Jasmine isn't even breathing hard. She giggles because she can't remember how many times she's done this section. I am humbled.
After six hours, I am not only limping but also reeling with culture shock as our group walks out of the woods and into a futuristic subway station. Zipping back to central Hong Kong, I stagger into the first Chinese foot massage clinic I come across and doze off as my aching feet are kneaded.