The Peak Tram has been taking visitors up to 1,800-foot Victoria Peak in… (Hong Kong Tourism Board,…)
Hong Kong — India has the Taj Mahal. In France, of course, it's the Eiffel Tower. Russia has Red Square and South Africa has Cape Town's Table Mountain. Each a treasure, and each reason enough for a pilgrimage.
In Hong Kong, the sight to see is not a single monument or even a majestic natural vista. It is the city's glittering homage to the modern skyscraper — a breathtaking skyline with verdant Victoria Peak as the picture-postcard backdrop.
Still, when I arrived in Hong Kong for a long weekend last May, I was a bit worried that my first visit to the city of 7 million would be a disappointment. Like everyone else, I'd seen photographs of the skyline, which ranks No. 1 by a wide margin on lists of the world's most stunning cityscapes.
But could the real thing possibly measure up? And would the city's infamous pollution blot out the view?
For the next three days, I roamed the city in search of the best vantage point to take in the man-made monument to architectural ambition. The skyline revealed itself like a kaleidoscope, changing with the angle, the weather and the time of day.
My plane landed at dusk, and I hopped onto the airport train for the 23-minute ride to Hong Kong station. (Viewless, but intoxicatingly efficient.) From there, a $3 taxi ride brought me to the Lan Kwai Fong Hotel, in the Soho area in the heart of the city.
My plan was to spend my first night at the boutique hotel on Hong Kong Island, then move across the harbor to Kowloon and the Ritz-Carlton, which opened last year. The Ritz bills itself as the highest hotel in the world, occupying the top 17 floors of the 118-story International Commerce Centre.
After dropping my bag at the hotel, I took a 15-minute stroll through the narrow streets to the waterfront and got aboard the 123-year-old Star Ferry for the short trip across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. The ferry is a delightful and inexpensive way (one-way fare: less than 50 cents) to take in that view.
Most of the tall buildings are on Hong Kong Island side, so as the ferry pulled away from the pier, I looked back for my first view of the skyline. It was dark by then, and the illuminated skyscrapers danced magically above the water.
My eye was drawn immediately to the 72-story glass-walled Bank of China tower, designed by I.M. Pei to resemble growing bamboo shoots. The lights of its muscular neighbors twinkled on its crystalline façade. In the distance, behind the high-rises, the soft contours of Victoria Peak wore a garland of light.
The first high-rise in Hong Kong was built a little more than 75 years ago. Today, the vertical city has more than 3,000 buildings higher than 300 feet — more than three times the number in New York, Shanghai or Tokyo.
The 10-minute ferry ride arrived at Tsim Sha Tsui, a touristy area of shops, hotels and museums. I reboarded the ferry for the return trip across the harbor, feasting again on the view, and disembarked for the leisurely walk back to my hotel.
Hong Kong has plenty of nice hotels for those willing to spend $500 or more a night. But comfortable, stylish hotels for those without an expense account are harder to find.
Lan Kwai Fong was a gem, though. A narrow spire of 33 stories, a mere dwarf in this company, it was perched partway up the mountain. My 13th-floor room (about $200 a night) was small but ingeniously decorated so that it didn't feel claustrophobic: It had a high ceiling, tasteful Chinese décor and a huge window that offered yet another lovely view of the skyline.
The hotel's fourth-floor lounge, the Breeze, also made good use of the unusual space. It was an indoor-outdoor garden open on two sides of the building, with a soothing wall fountain that successfully muted the street noise below. I noticed a cigar menu, but a Cohiba Robusto, for about $50, was beyond my budget. So I chose a glass of wine ($8).
Early the next morning, I headed for the tram to Victoria Peak. The Peak Tram has been around for 120 years, and before there was a skyline, it was one of Hong Kong's main attractions. (The tram was featured in "Soldier of Fortune," starring Clark Gable and Susan Hayward, in 1955.) It's still a charming, and certainly less exhausting way, to scale the 1,800-foot peak.
The tram deposited me on the plateau before the shopping malls there had opened. I lingered over a cup of coffee to watch the skyscrapers emerge from the clearing mist below. No Hong Kong building can exceed the height of Victoria Peak, which makes it a delightful place to take in the view.
(Hong Kong does have a pollution problem, especially in the summer, owing to the factory output in southeastern China. But during my visit, the prevailing winds kept the skies clean.)
A hiking trail encircles the peak. The northern part of the trail looks down on the skyline, and as the path swung southward, the sweeping views took in the rest of the lush island, including distant beachfront settlements and the sea.