With global travel on pause and almost everyone stuck at home, we know you’ve been dreaming about where you’ll go as soon as you can book that next flight. To help give you some inspiration, we’re asking our well-traveled staffers about their best trips. Here, executive editor Nicholas DeRenzo tells us about his 2019 trip to Hong Kong.
1. What about the destination made this your favorite trip?
As a native New Yorker, I always say that I couldn’t move out of the city, because I’d miss the density of all the cool stuff we have—the restaurants, bars, theaters, indie cinemas, concert venues, parks, museums. I’ve been to Hong Kong twice now, but during my second visit, it really clicked: This is a city that’s as jam-packed with exciting things to do as almost anywhere in the world. And because of its East-meets-West colonial history, the muchness is remarkably diverse, encompassing traditional Chinese temples and apothecaries, grand British imperial architecture, and a natural setting that’s teeming with tropical flora and fauna. I went with my friend Deanna, who I’ve known since elementary school. She’s also a big-time traveler (she recently took a six-month sabbatical to visit Southeast Asia and Europe, including a language-immersion and cooking stint in Bologna), and we both spent the whole trip saying, “Should we just move here?”
2. Can you pinpoint the moment when you fell in love with the city?
Early during my trip, I strolled into the newly opened Xiqu Centre, a Chinese opera house in the still-under-development West Kowloon Cultural District. The neighborhood was largely a construction zone, so the area was noisy and chaotic. The opera house is shaped like drawn theater curtains, and even though the courtyard is open-air, stepping inside was seriously transporting. The acoustics must be magical, because the outside world immediately fell away. In the center sits a wooden house (above) that looks as if it were brought in from some village, and the trees in the atrium started filling up with birds I had never seen before, with pointy crests and blushing red cheeks. (I love birds, so I had to Google them immediately; turns out they’re called red-whiskered bulbuls.) Next, musicians filed in and set up chairs for a free open rehearsal. As they were tuning up, I ducked into the theater’s bakery, Go Cakes, and picked up a honeydew soda and a few bite-size confections made out of sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas. The concert was weird and wonderful—mostly because I know absolutely nothing about Chinese music, which made it impossible to predict where any song was going. It was a cool, unexpected few hours, and it all felt serendipitous and special.
3. What was your favorite tourist attraction?
It’s pretty far off the beaten path, but we trekked out to the Sai Kung Peninsula, which is this wild landscape of secluded beaches and hiking trails through the jungle. It took us hours to get there by subway, minibus, and taxi—including a brief detour to join hordes of wannabe influencers at a rainbow-hued basketball court (above). Our ultimate destination was the High Island Reservoir East Dam (below), which feels like the set of some futuristic movie. The dam is a sloping wall of stones with holes in them that look tiny from afar but are actually the size of a person. Surrounding it are sea caves and hexagonal rock columns that are nicknamed “the petrified waterfall” because of their oddly fluid appearance. We hiked down into the big basin, where we saw 7,000 dolosse—concrete blocks that look like gargantuan jacks and are used to stop shore erosion—which were hiding a herd of feral cows, munching on grass and weeds among the cement. I’d highly recommend a visit, but don’t make the same mistake I did: Remember to bring gallons of sunscreen and bottled water.
4. What was the best meal you had on the trip?
The first bite that comes to mind is Cheung Hing Kee’s crunchy-bottomed shengjianbao (Shanghai-style pan-fried buns), which are filled with pork and bone broth and topped with sesame seeds and scallions. The unassuming street counter was recommended in the Michelin guide, and it even offers a surprisingly subtle bun with black truffle.
In terms of proper meals, it’s hard to think of a place more inventive and delicious than Happy Paradise. The space is funky and neon-lit, and the food is extremely creative without every feeling pretentious or mad-scientisty. I loved the sourdough waffles with bottarga whip and the seared Australian Wagyu skirt steak with seaweed butter, rice noodles, and preserved lemons. Deanna and I still talk about the pig brain (!) served inside a little pig-shaped ceramic pot—it might sound odd, but it was as rich and fatty as foie gras.
5. Did you have any memorable nights out on the town?
We visited (accidentally) during an international rugby tournament, so a bunch of the bars were packed with rowdy expat hooligans. Luckily, we found The Sea, which is the second bar from the team behind the Hemingway-themed The Old Man (get it?). Sadly, I read that The Sea closed, but The Old Man is still going strong—it was just named the second-best bar on the continent in the Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2020 list. I should mention that the best part of any night out in Hong Kong is not the drinks themselves but the late-night food at the cha chaan tengs (basically diners), such as macaroni and ham soup, pineapple buns, milk tea, and French toast.
6. Did you meet any cool people?
Visiting a city as a travel writer definitely has its perks, and one of the biggest is the ability to meet some incredibly in-the-know folks. One such person is Olivia Toth, the director of communications at the Rosewood hotel (above). Deanna and I mentioned to Olivia that we wanted to find an amazing view of the city, and she showed up later that afternoon with headlamps and water bottles and took us on an impromptu sunset hike up to the 1,624-foot summit of Lion Rock (below). We passed wild boars along the steep trail—my iPhone said we climbed 90 floors!—and well after dark we reached the peak, from which we looked down upon the urban landscape twinkling in the darkness. Deanna and I celebrated our achievement with ramen at Ichiran—salty broth is a good way to replenish those electrolytes, right?
7. Did you bring back any neat keepsakes?
One of the places I kept coming back to was PMQ, an arts hub (with great cafés and restaurants) in the former Police Married Quarter barracks (below). It’s filled with designers selling items like lotus-root-shaped vases and mah-jongg-print socks. PMQ is also home to a location of the local chain GOD (Goods of Desire), which feels a bit like Hong Kong’s answer to Urban Outfitters. I stocked up on, of all things, underwear featuring prints inspired by retro HK mailboxes, old newspapers, pandas, and vintage Chinese porcelain.
8. What’s the first thing you’ll do when you go back?
One thing I didn’t get a chance to do last time—too busy!—was search out some of the abundant wildlife that lives in the area. Next time I return, I want to climb “Monkey Mountain” in Kam Shan Country Park to see the macaques and go on a boat tour to see the Pepto Bismol–hued Chinese white (or pink) dolphins. Oh… and Hong Kong Disneyland!