Hong Kong conjures images of a modern metropolis, one that possesses a certain energy and buzz that makes its people walk twice as fast and half as politely. Towering buildings with a thousand windows line the streets, filled with pulsing fluorescent lights and the clamor of traffic, construction and daily life clashing around you - I find it both energizing and claustrophobic all at once. But Hong Kong is more than city life - it really is an archipelago of 262 outlying islands. So with a tap of my Octopus Card and a short ferry ride from the Central Ferry Pier, I found myself transported as I explored three of Hong Kong’s outlying islands in my week here, where the bustle of the metropolis is but a distant echo.
My first island escapade was to the Y-shaped island of Lamma, where I found myself hiking along the Family Trail that connects its two ports Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan. This laidback island was once a thriving fishing industry, though these days most people come here to hike its green hills, enjoy its coastal scenery, and bask in the pleasures of village life for the weekend.
Here on this car-free island I could breathe deeply; my only worry was hanging on to my hat in the strong breeze. The peak of Tai Ling on the western coast of Lamma is one of the windiest places in Hong Kong and home to Lamma Winds, a single wind turbine, the first of its kind built in Hong Kong to explore green energy options. Its bird’s-eye view of the coast and neighboring islands make it a spot worth checking out.
Most of the island’s visitors I found on Hung Shing Ye Beach, a beautiful beach I discovered by trailing after groups of locals determinedly trekking inland, each laden with large bags of food and skewers, all prepared for a hearty barbecue dinner. While I missed out on an outdoor picnic experience, I had my fill at one of the many seafood restaurants next to the Sok Kwu Wan harbor while waiting for the ferry to take me back to Hong Kong Island. The restaurants look nondescript from outside, but never judge a restaurant by its décor. I indulged in some of the freshest seafood available - tasty fried squid, large juicy scallops and some spiky but delicious crayfish. All in all, a lovely way to end a day spent in the outdoors.
Night had fallen when I returned to Hong Kong Island, greeted by the glow of its tallest commercial buildings along the shoreline. It was like popping your ears as the plane descends - everything just felt so much louder back here.
Charming Cheung Chau
The bright lights of Hong Kong beckoned - I spent two days hitting the standard tourist sights: squeezing onto the tram for the iconic view from Victoria’s Peak, queuing for dim sum at the one-Michelin-star Tim Ho Wan, and braving the crowds to find some bargain apparel at the traditional Ladies Market in Kowloon. But after this bout of frenzied shopping and crowded tourist attractions, I found myself in need of another island escape and headed back to the Central Ferry Pier for a new island adventure.
Cheung Chau is a fraction of the size of Lamma, but has a much more colorful reputation. The annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival is a week-long affair that takes place during the fourth month of the lunar calendar and is a reminder of successful ancient rituals once used to appeal to deities to rid the island of plague. The most spectacular part of the festival involves a vertical race up a tower made entirely out of round white buns with the aim of collecting as many of them as possible - for good luck of course.
But I was in Cheung Chau weeks before this festival was due to take place, so I decided to chase a different legend. The Cheung Po Tsai Cave on the southwestern coast was named after a notorious 18th-century pirate as it was apparently his favorite hiding spot. The path to the cave was easy to follow, but the entrance to the cave was barely a gap amidst the boulders - ancient law enforcers would not have had an easy time trying to find this elusive pirate’s hiding spot without any signage in place.
It was a good thing I had a torch on me as I scrambled through this pitch black cave with barely enough room to wriggle through at points, heading towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. There was no buried treasure to be found, but the view that greeted me when I emerged from the cave was reward enough - a quiet bay surrounded by large boulders lit by the orange glow of the sun and just the sound of waves lapping gently around me.
This quiet island life was not a Hong Kong I was familiar with, but I could definitely get used to it.
Peaceful Peng Chau
I saved the smallest island that you can access by public ferry from Hong Kong Central for last. Peng Chau is an often overlooked destination among Hong Kong’s outlying islands because of its small size at just under one square kilometer. You can hike the entire island quite comfortably in half a day - it is perfect for those who are short on time.
Peng Chau was once an industrial hub for the production of quicklime, produced by burning coral, oyster shells and clam shells, but all that was made obsolete by modern alternatives, so that all that’s left today is one of 11 lime kilns in a rather derelict state. Also a victim of modernization was the largest match factory in Hong Kong, reduced to a few stones that mark the boundaries of the buildings thanks to the introduction of cheap lighters.
But the highlight for me was high up on Finger Hill, with a panoramic view of neighboring Lantau Island, the largest of Hong Kong’s outlying islands. You could see glimpses of Hong Kong Disneyland and the impressive Tsing Ma Bridge that links Lantau to Hong Kong’s peninsula. I caught the sunset here, watching the boats glide across the water. It felt good knowing that the option for paradise in Hong Kong was just a quick boat ride across the water.
I expected my week in Hong Kong to be a fast-paced adventure where I would be on the go everyday, trying to keep up with the pace of the city as I explored it. Instead I found these little pockets of serenity on the outskirts of the city, each just a short ferry ride away, and the perfect way to balance out boisterous tourist crowds with a little bit of mother nature. It’s made me curious to see this other, less famous side of Hong Kong - the next time I come back, I’m packing my hiking boots instead of more party dresses!