A tempest and a teapot on a whirlwind trip

Times Staff Writer

Our trip to Asia started auspiciously enough when my partner, Wesla, and I snagged one of the super-cheap deals offered after the SARS crisis: three nights in Hong Kong, four in Singapore and round-trip air from LAX. All for $2,500 for two.

But this deal would be more than we bargained for.

Naively we embarked on our 17-hour trip, which had a stop in Taipei, Taiwan. That was where we first learned of Typhoon Dujuan. Because of it, flights to southern Taiwan had been canceled that morning. But not to worry. We were heading for Hong Kong.

The problem: So was Dujuan.

When we checked into our hotel, the desk told us there was a Level 3 typhoon alert. But we weren't alarmed. Such an alert is not uncommon in summer and fall in Hong Kong. Businesses stay open; residents are advised to monitor the news and secure loose outdoor objects such as flowerpots. Not a big deal.

Besides, we were dazzled by our hotel, the Kowloon Shangri-La. From our elegant 19th-floor guest room, we grandly surveyed a not-very-threatening Victoria Harbour.

Jet-lagged and lacking flowerpots to secure, we decided on a nap. It was 2 p.m.

We were startled awake by the ringing phone. Groggily, I strained to focus on what my U.S. colleague was saying: Her flight to Hong Kong had been canceled because of bad weather. The typhoon alert, our hotel told her, had jumped to Level 8.

Let me digress: In the Midwest, where I was reared, I cowered under many a tornado, torrents of hail and other tantrums of nature. But we Midwesterners just didn't do storm alerts. A storm was a storm was a storm. The only meaningful numbers were trees felled, windshields broken and fingers frozen.

I'm not math-challenged, however, so I had a vague idea that Level 8 must be worse than Level 3.

The sky had darkened. We inferred this wasn't good.

Things weren't bad enough, however, to interrupt afternoon British tea at the nearby Peninsula hotel, the Shangri-La desk told us.

Determined to sip and stiff-upper-lip our way through this setback to our tight sightseeing schedule, we grabbed our umbrellas and hailed a cab.

We arrived at the Peninsula about 4:30 p.m. and found its high-ceilinged, gilt-trimmed lobby as calm as the eye of a storm. In a scene I imagined little changed from the hotel's opening in 1928, waiters in white brocade jackets ministered to well-heeled patrons, serenaded by a string quartet perched on a corner balcony.

We felt oh-so-sophisticated as we nibbled cheese-and-curry sandwiches, scones and glazed tea cakes topped with tiny chocolate violins, all artfully arrayed on a tiered silver tray.

As the treats slowly vanished, so did much of the chattering crowd.

But I barely noticed as reinforced shutters were rolled down, securing the hotel's harbor-facing entrance and darkening the lobby. As if on cue, waiters bustled by, bearing trays of lighted tea candles for the tables. How festive. I thought it was all part of the ambience.

It was 5:45 p.m., and we were full and warm and ready to go back to our hotel.

If we could.

With the Peninsula's front entrance shut, a tag team of underlings ushered us out to the loading dock, where we were unceremoniously deposited. We were among the few tea-takers, it seemed, who weren't actually staying at the Peninsula.

I wish I had known then what I know now: A Level 8 alert warns of winds up to 72 mph. "Complete all precautions now before gales commence," the Hong Kong Observatory advises in such a situation. "Lock all windows and doors." The weather had deteriorated since we bit into our first scone, and so had the taxi situation. Cabs were parked behind the Peninsula, but when we hailed them, their drivers glumly shook their heads. Apparently they were heeding this Level 8 advice from the Hong Kong Observatory: "Park your car where it is least likely to be damaged."

Gamely, we opened our travel umbrellas, donned our pack-in-a-pocket rain ponchos and headed for our hotel. It was just a few blocks away.

Our ponchos lifted like sails, and wind-whipped rain angled under our tiny umbrellas. We were soaked. And bedraggled. And, we soon realized, lost.

How could that be? On the map, the Shangri-La was a straight shot up Salisbury Road, a major thoroughfare.

But alas, Salisbury Road was torn up with a transit project, rendering our route anything but straight. A forest of signs diverted us into a confusing maze of walkways and detours.

Under different circumstances, it would have been a colorful tour of Kowloon's streets and alleys. As it was, every step launched us into a new uncertainty. We couldn't see half a block ahead.

Finally, through dumb luck and much squinting at our fortuitously waterproof map, we found our way back to our hotel. Relieved, we doffed our wet duds and settled in for the evening.

Then we flipped on the TV, just in time to learn that Dujuan was a Level 9 typhoon, the worst in years.

And it was headed for Hong Kong.

So we did the only thing that two tired, nervous tourists could do: We went to sleep.

Morpheus must have been watching over us because the typhoon swerved away from Hong Kong at the last moment, sparing the island. It went on to kill dozens of people in mainland China.

Gray skies often spewed rain during our next two days in Hong Kong. But given our misadventures, it seemed like the sun was shining favorably on us the whole time.

Jane Engle, an editor in the Travel section, continues to pinch pennies by traveling off-season. But now she reads the weather reports first.

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