The hidden gems beyond Hong Kong’s well-trodden tourism path

It's well worth the effort to find the secret delights of this city of skyscrapers

Hong Kong's skyscraper metropolis hides many secrets that are worthy of a visit. Photo: Unsplash / Joseph Chan
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I am surrounded by 38 wooden beams that rise from the midst of this wilderness and seem to stretch their way to the skies. This paved trail, carved into the lush greenery of a mountainside, is called the Wisdom Path, and it’s easy to see why. Located at the foot of Lantau peak, a mountain on the largest of the 250 islands that surround the metropolis of Hong Kong, each pillar here is inscribed with Chinese verses that are revered in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

The columns tower about 10 metres high, laid out in a figure of eight, which, in numerological terms, I’m told, represents infinity. The verses inscribed on the pillars are a kind of prayer – and part of the centuries-old Heart Sutra, from the Mahayana Buddhism scriptures. The tallest column, marked No 23, has been intentionally left blank to convey "that form is emptiness and emptiness is form”, a key concept in the Buddhist philosophy that everything in this universe is interconnected.

As I stand on that mountain path, I am aware I am the smallest speck but I feel drawn like never before to the powder-blue skies, the shimmering South China Sea, mud, grass and mountain that’s all around me. In an instant, I realise I’ve imbibed the essence of exactly what that empty column means.

A 10-minute walk away is a sight that most people come to Lantau island to see. At Ngong Ping, a highland in the western part of Lantau, is the towering Tian Tan Buddha, a 34m-tall bronze statue sitting serenely in the hilltops. To reach the top, there's a climb of 268 steps. Here, right under the giant Buddha’s lotus feet, next to shops selling silk, incense and prayer beads, is a breathtaking circular shrine decked with flowers, paper art and paintings of fiery dragons.

For something a little more adventurous, the 70km Lantau trail is hard to resist. It consists of 12 sections with varying levels of difficulty and the walking path blazes across the island, offering hikers the chance to drink in some of the most memorable viewpoints. If you’re an experienced climber, the trek to Sunset Peak will take about five hours across rough and difficult terrain, but the sweeping views of bays, beaches and a dazzling sunset more than make up for the effort. Adding more drama to this landscape is Chinese Silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis). Native to Japan, China and Taiwan, the shrub consists of bunches of finely textured foliage – arching silvery grey grass that shimmers like a cascading waterfall.

For a sweeter experience closer to the ground, drop in at the Art of Chocolate at Ngong Ping Village. I had my first bite of raw chocolate here during a tasting session. With no sugar, additives or chemicals and rich in cocoa, it melts in the mouth, with a slightly bitter, earthy flavour. The Art of Chocolate isn’t just another confectionery shop, however – it’s a space that showcases chocolate art. A Ukrainian chocolatier has modelled eight large exhibits made of 388 designs, recreating complex scenes from day-to-day life in Hong Kong and immortalising them in raw chocolate. This includes skyscrapers, an evening gown modelled by a mannequin, a wet market, a mahjong game and a table laden with dumplings, cupcakes and pastries.

At the far end of Lantau island is Tai O, a traditional fishing village whose origins date back to the Ming dynasty. It reminds me of Venice, with its traditional houses on stilts and boats weaving through the moss-laden waters of the village. The roadside stalls here sell salted fish and shrimp paste. From Tai O, you’ll find plenty of tour operators that can take you on a journey to the Pearl River estuary, home to Hong Kong's pink dolphins. Sadly, their numbers have been dwindling in recent years with only 40 recorded in Hong Kong in 2021, so be sure to book the ethical tour that prioritises the dolphins' welfare over tourism.

For more outdoor entertainment head to Tai Mei Tuk, next to the Plover Cove Reservoir in the New Territories of Hong Kong. Plover Cove is a perfect picnic spot, with scenic waterfalls, water sports and biking trails. Criss-crossed with footpaths edged with wild flowers and highland forests, this is definitely one of the prettiest spots in Hong Kong and a place that most travellers fail to visit.

Bargain hunters should make a beeline for the neighbourhood of Mong Kok, the best place in Hong Kong to shop for the latest and cheapest tech goods. If you love collectibles, head to Sim City, where you'll discover an entire Asian subculture with shoppers sporting coloured hair and dressed up as their favourite manga characters. This is also a great place to pick up Pokemon Go cards, camera equipment and to tackle some of the most exciting escape rooms in the city.

While Hong Kong abounds with hidden gems, even the city's well-trodden tourist spots are bursting with something new this year.

Nestled in Victoria Peak, the recently opened Monopoly Dreams is the world's first attraction themed on the popular board game. This theme park has a jail to which players can be banished, as well as a VR ride and museum that enlightens visitors about the history of the game, and where you can pose with a giant version of the Monopoly racing car, a 1940s-era Kurtis Kraft.

For those who love the performing arts, the newly opened West Kowloon Art Park in West Kowloon Cultural District is an exciting place to be, and it's home to two new museums – the M+ and the Hong Kong Palace Museum. The M+ opened at the end of 2021 and its collection showcases the visual art and culture of Hong Kong. The exhibition Hong Kong: Here and Beyond captures the city's remarkable transformation from the 1960s. If you're looking for a place to study Chinese art and how it evolved, its major trends, and contemporary and unconventional styles, there's much to explore.

The Hong Kong Palace Museum, meanwhile, which opened in mid-2022, is a 10-minute walk from M+ and houses more than 900 priceless treasures from Beijing's Palace Museum in the Forbidden City. Most of these priceless objects are on loan and being exhibited in Hong Kong for the first time.

Frequent travellers to Hong Kong will know that a picture by the classic Victoria Harbour has its own allure – the glittery skyscraper-laden waterfront is always teeming with glamorous cruise ships and quaint fishing boats. Here, check out the new and sleekly designed stretch of promenade by the Wan Chai Convention and Exhibition Centre, where there's an outdoor children's playground and paddle boats for hire.

Hong Kong had 4.1 million visitors in August, which is 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic tourist traffic for the same month, with the government committed to introducing even more new attractions. For example, it is now starting a Night Vibes Hong Kong campaign during the autumn festival in late September. This will include three night bazaars with colourful sound and light shows along the Wan Chai promenade and the waterfront areas in Kwun Tong and Sheung Wan.

It just goes to show how this timeless city will never have a dearth of less-trodden paths.

Updated: September 21, 2023, 7:01 AM