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Thursday 10 May 2012

Going Local: Travel Tippers Who Call Your Holiday Destination Home

I've been thinking about travel a lot recently.  Not just the usual dreaming of sipping mojitos on a white beach, but also the actual mechanics of getting from desk to beach and how to plan what to do once you get there.  It's great that we have the internet to help us book and plan our trips; armed with a few fantastic travel websites, the holiday of our dreams really can be just a couple of clicks away.  But the real question I've been pondering is how we make sure that when we arrive at our dream destination, we're equipped with all the right information to know where to get an authentic, tasty meal; which bars mix the best martinis and just generally how to have the best holiday that we can possibly have.    

There's a wealth of information out there, from the traditional printed guide books to e-guides to articles in newspapers and magazines to online traveller forums and blogs.  But, where to start?  Who to trust?  And how prepared is too prepared? 

I read a very interesting piece recently on Quite Alone about guide books in the digital age.  The post lamented the growing trend for overguiding.  Publishers it seems, are becoming obsessive about including infinite detail in their guide books: geotags for everything, telephone numbers for churches and the locations of every wifi hotspot in the vicinity.  I'm as guilty as anyone of overplanning and refusing to go to anywhere not featured in my chosen guidebook.  I have travel FOMO - an intense fear of wasting a meal on something disappointing or average, when just around the corner there might be a restaurant serving exquisite food that I'd be enjoying if only I'd done my research.  

But am I missing out on the adventuring and exploring side of travel by confining myself to the guide book picks?  Is having the odd average experience really so terrible?  Is travelling by rote and knowing what you'll get when you arrive at a place really better than the joy of the unexpected, fantastic find?  Am I missing out on the real gems by blindly following the swarming packs of tourists to the places featured in the guides?  

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  I see no harm in taking advice from a guide book, newspaper or blog.  The people who put these books and articles together have (hopefully) visited the places that they write about and can point out hard to find places in an area that you're not familiar with.  But I think that these resources should be used to help steer you in the right direction, not dictate where you should and shouldn't visit.  You shouldn't be afraid to try new things and make mistakes; travel shouldn't lose its spontaneity.  A memorable holiday is very often the one featuring not just the sublime but also the terrible, the unexpected and the downright odd.

With this in mind, I go back to my initial question - with a glut of guides and tips, where do we start when we're looking for our steer?  I very often find that the best source of travel tips is friends who live in the place that I'm visiting.  They'll guide you away from the tourist traps and towards the locals' favourite haunts.  Having dragged various visiting friends and family around all the main landmarks and must-sees, they'll have the inside track on skipping queues and the best time of day to visit various tourist hot spots.  But this only works if you know someone living in the place that you're visiting doesn't it?  Well, the Guardian to the rescue.  The Guardian's Been There Locals webpage features a local from various cities around the world who regularly posts tips about the city that they live in.  So next time you're in Seville head to Kim's favourite tapas bar.  Off to Prague this summer?  Shop up a storm in Helen's favourite Czech boutique.  

And the latest edition to the crew of locals?  Me!  I've already posted several of my top Hong Kong tips to the website and I'll be adding and updating as often as possible.  In the meantime, if you're visiting Hong Kong anytime soon, here's a couple of pointers to get you started:

The Peak

Victoria Peak is the highest point on Hong Kong Island which means 360 degree views of the island and a breathtaking harbour vista as you look across to Kowloon side.  Hong Kong's most popular tourist attraction is a definite must-see, but I have a couple of tips that the guide books don't include.

View from Victoria Peak

My first top tip relates to getting up to the Peak.  Your guide book will tell you take the Peak Tram, a funicular railway that's been running since 1888 which creaks 396 metres up the side of the hill at a hair-raising gradient.  The ride is an experience not to be missed but the queues to catch the tram up the Peak (at the Garden Road Terminus in Central) snake right around the block morning, noon and night.  The queues at the top to ride back down again however, are much smaller and anyway, in my opinion, the ride down is even more exciting and roller coaster-esque than the ride up.  So, I always save the tram for the way down the hill and just jump in a cab on the way up thereby skipping the maddening queues at the bottom (Hong Kong's cabs are plentiful and cheap - the red and white taxis are for hire when the red circle on the dashboard is lit up and the white taxi sign on the car's roof is alight). 
My second tip centres on what to do once you get up there.  The majority of visitors flock straight to the Peak Tower, a wok-shaped viewing platform 428 metres above sea level.  You undoubtedly get breath-taking views from this lookout point but it sits atop a giant shopping mall packed with tacky souvenir shops and generic chain restaurants.  While I see the Peak Tower as a definite must do (it’s a great place to snap a few impressive skyline photos) I’d suggest that you don't confine your Peak experience to this Disneyfied corner but instead combine it with something that not everyone does.  Ask your cab driver to drop you off outside the Peak Tower and take a gentle stroll along the Hong Kong Trail, a route which loops for about an hour around the top of the Peak through lush greenery that chirrups with cicadas.  Along this trail you'll get beautiful views across the city and wind past some of Hong Kong's most luxurious houses (prices of the real estate up here exceed even those of Monaco's mansions).  This is a perfect walk to take during the latter half of the afternoon so that you end up back at the Peak Tower just before sunset.  Head to the viewing platform in time to watch the sun sink below the skyscrapers and stay until the city’s kaleidoscopic lights come up.  By this point you should have worked up a healthy appetite.

Which brings us to my third tip - where to eat.  Scoot straight past the shopping mall chain restaurants and head directly across the road from the Peak Tower to the Peak Lookout, the quaint cottage-like building that twinkles under chains of fairy lights.  The restaurant sits on the site of the former resting shelter of the sedan chair carriers whose job it was to ferry the Peak's wealthy residents up and down the hill.  Bag a table out on the terrace which overlooks the South side of the island and refuel with jet-fresh seafood, tandoori oven fired meats accompanied by pillows of fluffy naan or a char-grilled steak from the barbeque. 

The Peak Tower
128 Peak Road, The Peak, Hong Kong Island.
Google Maps:

The Hong Kong Trail

The Peak Lookout
121 Peak Road, The Peak, Hong Kong Island.
(852) 2849 1000 
Google Maps:


For arguably Hong Kong’s best cocktails in a bar so cool and under the radar that a lot of Hong Kong locals don’t know about it yet, head to 001.  That’s if you can track it down.  Hidden away in the Graham Street wet market, this Speakeasy is accessed via an anonymous black door sandwiched between a fruit stall and a stall selling paper lanterns.  Bustling by day, at night the market takes on an eerie, ghost town nature.  Gingerly pick your way around stray tomatoes squashed underfoot by the day’s shoppers and through puddles from where the pavements have been hosed down of fish guts after a day’s trading and, turn down Graham Street a side alley off the main market road.  Come to a stop outside the unmarked doorway, keep your fingers crossed that you’ve picked the right door and ring the spotlight-illuminated doorbell.  

Not the most obvious location...just outside 001 in the wet market

At this point I should warn you that a prior booking is essential, I’ve seen a couple who decided to drop in for a spontaneous drink turned away by the bar staff on the basis that the bar was full, on entering the bar this very clearly wasn’t the case.  This may sound petty, but as long as you’ve had the foresight to book, giving your name and whizzing straight past the floundering people being turned away is all part of the fun.  Once you’ve made it in, you’re greeted with a moodily lit bar full of shadowy nooks which hint at secret liaisons and misbehaviour.  Low jazz hums below the burble of the bar's patrons' conversations and waiters glide around proffering silver trays of cocktails and bowls of nuts.  The Earl Grey Martinis are legendary and deservedly so.  The Elderflower Caipirinha and the Strawberry Blonde come a close second but be warned, the Pear Side Car is deadly.  A few cocktails down, order the grilled cheese sandwich and a plate of fries, a deliciously naughty midnight feast.  For an elegant evening of liquor and languid lounging, 001 can't be beaten.   

LG/F Shop G1 Welley Building 97 Wellington Street, Hong Kong Island.
+852 2810 6969 
Google Maps:

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