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Hong Kong Without the Hustle

Lantau Island is a bucolic retreat a half-hour ferry ride from the city.

April 22, 2001|CARL DUNCAN

HONG KONG — Outside our open windows, the sighing of the South China Sea and the rustle of palm fronds were the night's only sounds. Moonlight bathed Silvermine Beach, where a handful of small hotels lines the boardwalk.

Hard to believe that the bright lights of downtown Hong Kong -- the incomparable shopping, dining and sightseeing destination -- are just a half-hour ferry ride away. But it's true: We spent a typical tourist day in the city, ending with a tram ride up Victoria Peak to watch the city lights come on. Within an hour we were back in our beachfront B&B in the quiet community of Mui Wo on Lantau Island.

Lantau is Hong Kong's largest island, but it's still rural, with hiking trails, a scenic rocky coastline, hilltop monasteries and quaint, boat-access-only fishing villages. This makes it a popular weekend outing for urbanites as well as a favorite day trip for many visitors to Hong Kong. Even on Saturdays, when prices nearly double, rooms cost far less than their city counterparts.

My partner, Maria, and I found that staying in Mui Wo, with its ferry access to Central (as downtown Hong Kong is called), was the key to making one of the world's most expensive cities affordable and enjoyable.

When a friend, whose import business takes him to Asia often, heard we were planning to stop in Hong Kong after a trip to India in January, he told us about a little hideaway in Mui Wo. "It's just a bar and restaurant run by a couple of expats," he said, "but it's right on the beach, and they have a little flat they rent out as a B&B. Sort of funky, but clean and comfortable. You'd like it. And it costs less than 50 bucks a night."

We called and booked a week. Our seven nights, breakfast included, would cost us about what we would have paid for a single night in a Central high-rise.

Even though our flight didn't land until 10:30 at night, getting to Mui Wo from the airport couldn't have been easier. (The new Chek Lap Kok International Airport is on reclaimed land connected to Lantau.) A plush airport bus took us over the mountain range that bisects the island and down to Mui Wo, dropping us off at the ferry terminal, still well lighted at that hour. We followed the paved boardwalk -- the only beach access -- and found the China Beach Club, a two-story structure near the end of the quiet strand.

Our ground-floor room was spacious and more comfortable than our friend's wry description had us expecting. With a private bath and our own boardwalk entrance, it was easy to settle in and feel at home.

In the morning we explored the neighborhood. The beach curving around Silvermine Bay was immaculately clean. On the sand, a Chinese couple did calisthenics, while along the boardwalk an expat, with backpack and briefcase, pedaled his bicycle, no doubt heading for the ferry and work in Central. A shady walkway led us off the beach and past small vegetable gardens, rice paddies and, next to a starfruit tree, a black Brahma bull chewing his cud. Farther along we found a winding canal lined with cute cottages and tiny docks, and soon we entered the village proper. A man placed burning joss sticks on a shrine at the base of a banyan tree; down another lane, a half-dozen retired people played croquet in a small park.

There were no cars, just pedestrians and bicycles passing along the quiet lanes.

The town clearly reflects Hong Kong's dual-national character (Chinese for 2,000 years; a British crown colony for 158 years, until 1997; and now Chinese again). In the traditional Mui Wo Market, where little English is spoken, we watched as a fishmonger took only seconds to grab, gut, scale and weigh a fish that was still flapping when she slid it into a plastic bag. The British expats prefer to shop in their impressively stocked grocery stores. At the Wellcome Supermarket we found everything from Mot et Chandon champagne ($51) to Skippy peanut butter ($2.50) and fresh produce from a dozen nations. (All prices here are in U.S. dollars.)

Completing our Mui Wo reconnoiter, we discovered a convenient ATM, a mountain bike rental, three pubs, a couple of cute Euro-style cafes, a food court that served cheap dim sum until midnight, and a popular McDonald's (Big Macs $1.50).

Sunset found us in the China Bear pub near the wharf. When the first ferry of the evening arrived from Central, the pool table got lively and the booths filled up with expats, most of whom apparently have prospered teaching English at private schools in the city. They would all be catching the 8:30 fast ferry in the morning. And so would we.

At 8:20 a.m., as we bought our tickets ($2.90 each), dozens of island commuters, mostly on bicycles, were converging on the ferry terminal. We hustled inside, the last few seats filled, and the ferry left the pier at 8:30 sharp.

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