Much of today is spent in Kowloon. Kowloon (which is a corruption of Kau Lung which means Nine Dragons referring to the nine hills above the city) is a part of Hong Kong on mainland China opposite Victoria Island or Hong Kong Island. It is a place of great contrast and can be overwhelming. Our plan was to see some street life , perhaps some window shopping and then take afternoon tea at the famous Peninsular Hotel.
After getting off the Star ferry at Tsim Sha Tsui, the onslaught begins. As a westerner, not simply a tourist, you are a target for hordes of street touts almost always from the sub continent. These boys make the Morrocan kids in the Marrakesh souk look like failures. They are Premier league mitherers: ” Sir, sir..suits,shirts,copy watches, handbag..” Every possible method is used to deflect their attention from replying in Russian to adopting the “Clint Eastwood” 1000 yard stare. If even if you phase one, three or four more converge from left and right. Eventually one of us cracks, and not in a good way, especially for the tout. A step back and a surprised: “No need to get angry, Modom, be cool , yes?”
I grin and think “Oh don’t smile O’Reilly”.
We turn into Nathan Road to take a look at one of world’s most famous dens of iniquity, Chungking Mansions. This huge block is reputedly home to all manner of vice hidden away in it’s maze of tacky shops, indian cafes, cheap hostels and money exchange shops. We take a walk around the first two floors and quite honestly I was disappointed that it was not really that edgy. It seemed to be full of shops selling fake watches and nail salons for filipino women. I learn later that a lot of money has been spent cleaning the place up and improving security. Outside the heat and humidity are getting into their stride and the toutwallahs relentless. Nathan Road, we’ve been here too long.
Kowloon Park offers sanctuary across the road. Time spent among trees and flowers is never wasted and we get our breath back literally before completing our escape to civilisation in the expensive Harbour Mall. Yet more Manolo Blahnik, Canali, Christian Louboutin, soddin’ Betty Boop etc …this does nothing for me. Soon it’s 2.00 pm and first servings of afternoon tea are available at The Peninsular Hotel.
Built in 1928, this is one the world’s great hotels. Designed to be the finest hotel East of Suez, that very phrase gives a clue to it’s colonial past. Rooms here start at £400 a night, if you want a harbour view, then the damage will commence at around £700. So afternoon tea in the famous lobby at £22 per head is a bargain. (Another £12 if you fancy a glass of champagne) There is a dress code but it is relatively flexible and I have seen stricter ones at a suburban golf club. It’s likely to be an excuse to keep out riff-raff; I expect they would overlook your flip-flops if you were wearing an Audemars Piguet watch.
The lobby is magnificent, double height with columns and gilded ceilings, classic furniture and a superb Tai Ping carpet. The serving staff are very professional with an interesting hierarchy evident but even the suited floor managers participate and take you from the waiting queue to your table. Above us, at first floor level, a string quartet entertain the queue and the diners. Just in case you couldn’t spend enough at the Harbour Mall, then the hotel has it’s own arcade of luxury shops, perfect for that essential Gucci nail scissors case, which can later get it’s own seat at table, or a Bulgari necklace for your pet poodle.
The Tea itself is very good. You can choose from a range of different teas, we chose Peninsular Afternoon, and you are provided with a cake stand of delicious sandwiches of cucumber, ham, smoked salmon, all on different breads. There are 4 scones with clotted cream and jam and it’s rounded off with a selection of pastries and cakes that were consistently excellent. During the tea, the staff were very attentive with more hot water and a surprise of a shot glass of a peach pannacotta. When the bill came, it was presented with two macaroons. I begin to feel like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote.
We return home by the ferry as the concierge doesn’t offer one of their long wheel base Roll Royce’s in signature Peninsular Green for my convenience. Later the same evening we return to Kowloon, OH and I leaving early, taking the ferry to act as an advance party to try to secure seats at Aqua, a bar situated on the 29th floor of the modern 1 Peking Road building.
Aqua is reputedly one of the best bars in the world for a view. The spectacular panorama of the harbour lightshow though cannot be compromised by anything more than sepulchral lighting inside. So little that you can barely read the cocktail menu. No matter, the waitresses have little torches like cinema usherettes and it’s for your own benefit as the prices are as high as the bar you are drinking in. Finding your way to the ‘facilities’ need either well developed caving skills or a ball of string tied to your starting point. But this is sounding churlish, the cocktails were great, the view unreal and the experience not one to be missed.
Afterwards we have reservations at Hutong, a restaurant a couple of floors down in 1 Peking Road. This place is owned by the Aqua group of companies and has the same outstanding view of Hong Kong harbour and those towers of Mammon. Apparently a Hutong is a Beijing courtyard and the decor stylishly echoes this. The food in Hutong is exceptional, featuring Northern Chinese dishes some of which are possibly adapted to Western tastes. The tasting menu here has a Michelin star and it’s not difficult to see why. Grilled pork ribs with fennel seeds, Beef tenderloin with scallions both sound relatively simple but were memorable. We also tried the dumplings to start, another succesful aubergine dish and the best fried rice ever.