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  • Debra Palmen

Are we there yet? On the road to Hong Kong.


Are we there yet? No.

Are we there yet? No.

This is the conversation Doug and I have every single time we get on a plane, until I get distracted by a movie or he smothers me. Bring on teleporters, I say. Why can’t Star Trek be true?

This time our flight to Hong Kong went via Cairns, which had the added bonus of an extra two hours flying time and an hour to stooge around Cairns International Airport. I hate getting off a plane if I’m not leaving the airport and going to play somewhere. But what’s there to do in Cairns anyway? No offence Cairns, but apart from dodging the occasional crocodile and drinking beer – in that order if you want to avoid Crocodile: 1, You: 0 – there’s not a lot to do.

If you have an abiding hatred of mosquitos you can spend a few happy hours slaughtering the hundreds of thousands that will assail you. If you’re there at night you can goggle at the cane toads the size of small horses. For a few hours you can ensconce in the window of a bar and marvel at the backpackers wandering aimlessly up and down the promenade.

Yes there’s good diving if you’ve the time to catch a boat out to the reef, but for short-term visitors that’s out. But I’ve dived the reef before, and as soon as you get in the water you’re dealing with Stingers and also Irukandji (the most deadly box jellyfish in the world and originally discovered just a tiny bit north of Cairns).

But other than these barrels of laughs, fun for all the family, nup I’ve got nothing. You can’t even walk along the shoreline, unless you enjoy wading in mud and providing endless entertainment for the local crocodiles as you flounder enticingly.

Even venturing further afield, there’s precious little to do. I’ve been to the Daintree Rainforest – yep it’s a rainforest. Trees. Lots of trees. And a river full of yet more crocodiles. That’s where I learned from helpful park rangers that should a crocodile ever chase you, you should flee in a zig-zag manner not in a straight line. If you leg it in a straight line it will catch you because crocodiles can run faster than people. If you try to climb a tree, 1) you won’t climb fast enough, and 2) a crocodile can jump surprisingly high when it sees its breakfast scampering up a tree.

Who would have thought that a Newsletter on travel and antiques buying would also give you free nature lessons? You can thank me the next time you escape with your life from a marauding crocodile. Did you know there is a crocodile named after me at Australia Zoo? It’s true. I once did a trifling favour for the late Steve Irwin, and he was sufficiently pleased that he named a crocodile after me. But was that really a compliment? Really? He told me it was a lovely one, but I’ve yet to visit Australia Zoo to check.

So anyway, after pondering all the fun we could have had but didn’t because Cairns International Airport is even more boring than Cairns itself, it was back onto the plane for another 8 hours.

If you have a copy of my book, my advice is to read Chapter 18 on Hong Kong now if you haven’t already. That will set the scene for you to follow along this time.

We haven’t flown with Cathay Pacific for some years, and I have to report that I’m less than impressed with their movie selections – not exactly recent releases. And their music! Shall we kindly call it retro? But boring retro, not classic retro. The Best of Rod Stewart, anyone? Anyone at all?

And lunch – what lunch? If you forked out an immense amount for Business class or a lesser but still considerable amount for Premium class, yay you got lunch. For us poor souls in Economy class it was a dry biscuit and water.

Okay not exactly a dry biscuit – more like a blueberry muffin. And water. Thai Airlines is far more egalitarian, and everyone on the plane gets lunch. Lucky I’m saving myself for lots of pain au chocolate when we get to Paris.

But finally we reached Hong Kong, and it didn’t take long to figure out the train and bus systems, which are remarkably efficient. Most of the signage is in Chinese, but there is sufficient English that you can navigate (mostly) with ease. The hotel is conveniently located close to the Harbour, but it has the hardest mattress we’ve ever encountered. It’s like sleeping on a plank. No lounging in bed here. No pleading jet lag as an excuse for an extra few minutes snoozing. Get Up this mattress insists. GET UP.

But just as well we put aside the jet lag, because we made it to the Turbo-Jet Ferry to Macau with one minute to spare. As usual, Hong Kong laid on a terrific amount of smog, which is such a pity because the landscape around the Harbour is so dramatic and beautiful – if only you could see it.

Macau is just as massively crowded and hectic and hot and polluted as Kowloon, but with the advantage – to my mind – of beautiful old Portuguese architecture alongside the high density Chinese living. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of elegant old European buildings, with painted shutters in bright colours, next to drab, concrete high-rise apartments. Yet again we were the only Western faces among the sea, the positive tsunami, of Asian tourists.

Given its history as a Portuguese colony, Macau’s menus always include a ready supply of delicious Portuguese custard tarts – my favourite type. So we hopped off the ferry, figured out what bus to catch to the antiques quarter, and as soon as we got there we sought out a Portuguese custard tart shop for a spot of breakfast. Yum-O! Freshly baked and slightly warm, that’s the best way to eat these tarts. Crispy pastry, with a light and creamy filling, they’re the best.

Then a wander around the historic old centre of Macau, with its charming cobble-stoned streets as well as lovely buildings, and a visit to a few antiques shops was in order. Oooh, I saw a lovely Sung Dynasty celadon lidded bowl I really wanted. But at $A7,000 that had to stay behind. Next I spotted a lovely old Ming Dynasty bowl, but even at $A1300 it was too rich for me.

Finally a very large and very beautiful Tang Dynasty ceramic horse caught my eye. But if you’ve read my Hong Kong chapter you know my views on Certificates of Authenticity in this neck of the woods. And if you’re going to spend almost $A20,000 you really need to be sure of what you’re buying, don’t you think? Not to mention I don’t actually have $A20,000.

So it wasn’t looking promising.

But I’m nothing if not persistent. Eventually I rummaged up a lovely late Ching Dynasty large wooden lidded pot, for storing moon cakes and other sweet things.

It’s a distressed red, with red being the colour of good luck for the Chinese, with lotus blossoms painted on the lid. Lotus blossoms traditionally symbolise purity of speech, body and mind, but red Lotus blossoms symbolise enlightenment in particular. So it’s a nice thing to own.

And because I hunted high and low, and then haggled hard – with Doug playing the part of the Bad Cop to my Good Cop, I walked away with it for only $A120. Yay, that’s seriously good buying. I should have photographed it, shouldn’t I? I’m the world’s worst photojournalist, though, and it’s now wrapped and packed so you’ll just have to imagine it. I might photograph it when we get to England. If I remember.

We opted to return from Macau into Hong Kong rather than Kowloon so we could try a famous restaurant called Tim Ho Wan. It’s the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world but certainly not because of its décor and ambience, which is more ‘Cheap and Cheerful’. Actually, given the dour waitresses it wasn’t so cheerful, although it was cheap.

Our plan had been to try the Kowloon outlet, but you need to queue for up to an hour and really need to speak Cantonese to get by in that establishment. At the Hong Kong location, with exactly the same menu, we walked straight in. Some items on the menu had sort-of-English translations and our efforts with mime went a long way. That’s a big difference between Hong Kong and Kowloon – there’s far more provision for English speaking visitors in Hong Kong, but you need you wits about you a bit more in Kowloon if you don’t speak Cantonese.

Tim Ho Wan is famous for it’s bbq pork buns, which some reviewers have described as ‘life changing’. It’s going to take somewhat more than a good meal to change my life, although I must say they were the best bbq pork buns I’ve ever tasted. These buns can be quite stodgy, but Tim Ho Wan’s pastry was light and crispy, filling not too sweet, and they were terrific. And the deep fried won tons with shrimp were also the best I’ve ever tried. I’m not fond of spring rolls but Doug is an aficionado and he declared them the best he’d ever had. So all in all, it was some pretty good food at a remarkably cheap price.

We have half a day here tomorrow before we hit the road for England. We’re thinking of staying on Lantau Island for the return stop-over, but we’ll make a decision on that in due course.

More soon!


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