I vividly recall driving across Hong Kong Harbor for the first time. It was 2006, my first trip to Asia, and my first time living outside the United States. I took a chance on a short-term assignment and loved every minute of it. Nothing can prepare a Westerner for their first trip to Asia—it's like an out-of-body experience. Everything is different. What hit me then, and still does, is how aesthetically stunning Hong Kong's skyline is. The buildings are epic, sweeping past in a never-ending panorama, framed by the juxtaposition of water and mountains. Inside, the cacophony of neon signs are a synapse stimulus package for your jet-lagged mind.
1997 marked the transfer of Hong Kong from the British back to the Chinese. (The Brits refer to this transaction as “the handover;” the Chinese call it “the return.”) And despite Tokyo's ambitions or Singapore's wildest fantasies, Hong Kong remains the capital of Asia. It's the non-China China, awash in the country's flavors and traditions, but without as much of the censorship or filth of the mainland.
There are two points of view on Hong Kong hotelling—those that prefer Kowloon and those that prefer Hong Kong Island. GWS has tried both, and the the island is the clear choice. One new, buzzy option is Upper House, which opened its doors in October. (Boutiques aren’t really done in a city this vertical—Philippe Stark has JIA, but it’s inconveniently located in Causeway Bay and offers no views in a place where you should insist on one.) What wins about Upper House is its pairing of substance and space. It has a chic Chinese design and incorporates beautiful verticals with incredibly spacious rooms—117 in total, all boasting views and a whopping 730 square feet minimum per. You can be in the thick of it on the 49th floor with gorgeous vistas from Café Gray, or escape—a rarity in this town—to their open-air lawn on the sixth floor. Its sister hotel, The Opposite House in Beijing, is also fantastic.
Pacific Place 88 Queensway 852 2918 1838 www.upperhouse.com
Few do it better than the Mandarin Oriental, and here you've got two options—the Landmark Mandarin Oriental and the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. I prefer the Landmark, perhaps because it’s connected to my office, but others swear by the “original.” Rooms start at around $300 in both, unless there’s a big trade show in town.
Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong 5 Connaught Road, Central 852 2820 4202 http://www.mandarinoriental.com/hongkong/
Mandarin Oriental Landmark 15 Queen's Road, Central 852 2132 0188 http://www.mandarinoriental.com/landmark/
If Kowloon is your thing, try the W Hong Kong. This gorgeous skyscraper is not even yet two years old, and it's hard to find any fault with it. The 393 rooms are a magnificent combination of high-tech and high-design, the rooftop pool on the 73rd floor is unreal, and the seemingly effortless services are a dream. Try the Triple Oxygen Facial at their Bliss Spa; it’s the best I’ve ever had. Rooms from $200.
1 Austin Road West, Kowloon 852 3717 2222 http://www.starwoodhotels.com
Everyone has their favorites in Hong Kong: M at the Fringe, Aqua, Nobu, Hutong, Gaddi’s, Harlan's, Robuchon, Grissini, Felix, or even Yung Kee for their famous roast goose. I remain committed to Zuma. This nuevo Japanese can also be found in London, Istanbul, Miami, and Dubai, and the recipe works: delicious food, cracking cocktails, stylish interiors, and beautiful people. The pepper-drenched calamari is fab. If you’re not on a budget it’s great for groups during lunch or dinner; try the outdoor space when the weather cooperates.
13 Queen's Road, Central 852 3657 6388 www.zumarestaurant.com
Isola is hands-down my favorite lunch destination. Smack-dab in the mania of Hong Kong's monstrous International Finance Center, you are immediately swept into what feels like a rustic Italian home: toasted hardwood floors, whispy-white walls, candles, a wood-burning oven, and piles of fresh meats and cheeses. The pizzas and pastas are the best in the city, and you can eat them on the outdoor terrace while taking in breathtaking views of the water.
1 Harbour View St. 852 2383 876 http://www.isolabarandgrill.com/
Crystal Jade remains my place for Shanghaiese dim sum. There's no English menu, but ask kindly and you'll get the steer from your server—if you can hook them as they speed by. No reservations and there's always a wait, but the slurpfest is a dream.
Shop 2018-2020, 2/F IFC 2, Central 852 2295-3811 http://www.crystaljade.com/
And, of course, there's The China Club. Sir David Tang's retro Shanghai-style private club is a throwback to the '30s—for those worthy of his invitation. If you can find a friend who's a member and can get you in, go. You'll find pictures of Patton, gorgeous silks, sexy rooms, and spectacular food. Don't be surprised by the all-silver chopsticks—they're impossible and meant to remind us all that we're just visiting.
12/F, The Old Bank of China Building Bank Street, Central 852 25218888
You can wander Hong Kong for an eternity, exploring gorgeous, musty temples, skyscraper malls, funky tea shops, bakeries, and cellphone shops touting the latest models. By day you'll be coerced to hike "the Peak" (I like the tram, thank you) for a quiet view of Kowloon. Definitely make time for a refreshing water-based journey on a Chinese junk boat (I like aqualuna.com.hk) or take the Star Ferry around the Harbour. And unless you're careful, you'll be asked for a traditional Chinese brunch that will most likely include glutinous chicken feet.
One thing I can't recommend enough are the Margaret Court seamstresses, who will treat you ladies to the best-fitted tailoring of your life. Whether you're looking to start from scratch or refit an old reliable, these women will prod you into a truly impressive outfit. Allow time for fittings; they don't do 24-hour turnarounds, something you should take as an assurance of quality. Seek out Tania Mohan, founder of the amazing clothing line Tabla. (She also sells to Scoop NYC, Kitson, and Fred Segal.) She specializes in ultra-feminine tunics and dresses—rumor has it they (ahem) inspired Tory Burch.
When you've had enough of the endless maze of people, escape to perhaps my favorite Hong Kong indulgence: Happy Foot, a massage parlor with three locations. You can opt for a 90-minute foot rub for roughly $24. Words fail me. Better still, they're open until midnight.
Speaking of which, once darkness falls you'll inevitably end up in LKF, Lan Kwai Fong, the bar capital of town filled with expats and locals alike. If you're feeling adventurous, you may find yourself in seamy Wan Chai, surrounded by "happy ending" massage parlors, but I wouldn't advise it.
Margaret Court Seamstresses Flat G, 8/F., Blk. A, Winner Bldg. 27-37 D'Auguilar St., Central 852 2525 5596
Tabla M31 Princes Street, Central 852 9755 6669 www.tabla.hk
Happy Foot 6/F, 11/F, and 13/F, Jade Centre 98-102 Wellington St., Central 852 2544 1010
Before you think I'm a total sybarite, pull yourself away from the spoils of the restaurants, bars, and shops to make some time for real Chinese culture. Everyone talks about the Big Buddha on Lantau Island, which is cool but nowhere near authentic. What I love is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery way out in Sha Tin. It's a 50-minute car ride (30 on the train) and well worth the schlep. Even though it’s technically not a monastery because it’s run by laypeople instead of monks, you will not spot another Westerner among the 10,000 buddhas. You'll find big buddhas, small buddhas, happy buddhas, angry buddhas, old buddhas, young buddhas, and miniature ones—it's a spiritual feast for the senses.
Lots 358-359, IN D D 185 Sha Tin 852 2691 1067
Day and weekend trips are an appealing option when you're in Hong Kong, and Macau, billed at the "Vegas of the East," seems as good as any. How wrong this comparison is. You need your passport to board a boat to Macau, and once you get off (it takes an hour and feels like 12) you'll be met with a relative wasteland of non-descript buildings and chain-smoking Chinese men—not a hint of glamour or mystique. Despite its reputation as a center for gambling and fireworks, it's nearly impossible to find either.
Hong Kong loves its markets: there's Stanley, Temple, Ladies, Cat Street, even the Business Card Market. I'll spare you the time—don't go anywhere near them. And before you think I'm some Chanel-only snob, I offer this advice as a fan of street and flea markets. I dragged out to all that Hong Kong's markets have to offer, and unless you're in the mood for bras or Mao tea cups, they're not for you. Instead, try Hollywood Road for gorgeous local treasures and even a tasteful Mao head if you so incline.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than half of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.