Rising above the chaos of modern Hong Kong, The Peak has long had an exclusive air, offering a place to retreat from the chaos, the smog – and the heat – of the city.Dodging traffic in Central, or struggling out of the MTR in Causeway Bay, it is easy to forget that Hong Kong is actually a mountainous island rising out of the sea; anywhere flat is usually reclaimed land. Most of the island is covered in dense vegetation, for this part of the South China Sea is filled with scrub-covered islands, making perfect hide-aways for those pirates who loom so large in legend and history.
The mansions up on The Peak were (and remain) the retreats of the incredibly wealthy. Those without their own means of transport relied on rickshaws to reach the summit, an arduous trip taking over three hours. Then, amongst predictions of spectacular failure, The Peak Tram opened in 1888. With the best seats initially reserved for use by the Governor, The Peak could now be reached in 8 minutes, in all weathers save a typhoon. The Peak Tram was a complete success, and the rickshaws vanished.
Although the closest MTR is Central, I stopped at Admiralty to walk through Pacific Place. This luxury shopping mall shames all other malls. At every step advertising and shop-front displays enticed me to spend, spend, spend, so my life would be complete. Resisting temptation, I took the exit near The Conrad and The Island Shangri-la (two luxury hotels beyond my reach) and so ventured into Hong Kong Park.
The sound of water filled the air, a refreshing note in the humidity. Families were everywhere, having picnics, chasing squealing children. The park is a 20-acre oasis in the heart of Hong Kong, boasting green houses, plants from all over the world, the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, and a tropical rain forest complete with an aviary of exotic birds. Best of all, it is free.
The Lower Peak Terminus is on the far side of the gardens, on Garden Road. Long queues (at times stretching to an hour) usually mark the spot, for riding the Peak Tram never fails to delight, and has to be done at least once. (If using an Octopus card, you can often skip past the people waiting for tickets.) Although the tram has been modernised, it still uses the same principle of the two tram carriages counter-balancing each other through a system of pulleys: as one ascends, the other descends, passing each other at the one spot on the track wide enough for the two.
Whether ascending or descending the seats always face the summit, and not until you are thrust into the back of your seat as the tram leaves are you aware of the ridiculous steepness of the ride. The walkway beside the track is more a series of steps, with trees and apartment blocks leaning at impossible angles. Occasionally the tram is left hanging in the middle of nowhere, as the other tram halts at one of the stops along the way.
Eight minutes later the tram arrives at the rather ugly Peak Tower – and to spectacular views down into Victoria Harbour and across to Kowloon and The New Territories. Black kites soar below on the thermals, and the towering skyscrapers and apartment blocks seem very far away, their rooftop pools glinting in the sunlight.
Within the Tower are enough shops to delight any tourist (I always find presents and gifts here), plus restaurants, cafes, even a Madame Tussaud’s. Across the road the Peak Galleria is filled with even more shops and restaurants.
Both these buildings, and the courtyards between them, can prove incredibly crowded, as if all the tourists of Central have relocated here. The same can be said for the viewing platform looking down onto the city. Yet for me the best part of The Peak, and one often missed, are the walks.
There are many walking tracks up here, including short strolls near the Tram. My favourite, however, is a circular route winding around the top of The Peak. On leaving the Peak Tower, follow Mt Austin Road to Lugard Road. About halfway through the loop the track veers into Karlech Road – simply follow the signs. The 3.5 km walk is largely flat, and takes less than an hour of easy strolling (shared with the occasional car).
The circuit is lush and beautiful. Birds are everywhere, as much of the walk is through bush. With the path circumnavigating The Peak, it offers views over all parts of the Island – the high-rises, hidden harbours, bush-land, parkland, and down into forgotten valleys and beaches. Remarkably, these vistas are even more stunning than the famous one down into the main harbour (and a reason not to pay the extra money to go to the upper viewing platform at the Peak Tower). Often little can be seen because of the dense number of trees, which then clear to reveal a steep hillside running down to hidden bays. It is easy to see why pirates feature in so many legends, as do dragons soaring out of dense forests. Islands are everywhere – then, as the path returns to the other side of the Island, the waters are filled with an impossible amount of shipping.
On a weekend, the walk is popular with joggers, replaced of an evening with romantics.
Locals come to walk their dogs. The path passes half-hidden mansions, some still lived in, some long deserted.
Other walks around The Peak include a 45 min walk downhill to Pok Fu Lam Reservoir, a popular picnic area offering spectacular views. A bus stop is nearby to catch a lift back down to Central. There is also a more strenuous walk down into Aberdeen, the floating village on the far side of the Island – I have never done this, but it is on the to-do list for next time.
If the queues at the Peak Terminus prove too much, simply catch a bus back down to whatever part of The Island you wish to go (or simply catch any bus and see where you end up. I’ve never been disappointed.) There is a bus terminus near The Tower, with all the routes well-marked. The buses winds round and round the side of The Peak, past all the exclusive houses and apartments of the Upper and Mid Levels. Whatever the route, the ride is an adventure in itself, showing parts of the Island often missed, for there is never enough time to see everything in Hong Kong.
Tips On Reaching The Peak
Catching the Peak Tram:
The Peak Tram can be reached from either Central MTR or Admiralty MTR.
A one way ticket is $25 HK / return $36 HK – it is cheaper with an Octopus card, (a multi-purpose transport card available at most MTR stations which can also be used at a lot of shops) – and this often lets you skip the queue
Buy a ticket for the ride only – it costs significantly more to go the Sky Terrace, and there is another free viewing terrace with good views.
Also, arrive early to avoid the queues, and try to sit at the front of the tram.
From the Star Ferry: Catch Bus no. 15c – sit up the top for great views and close shaves with the buildings (it is an open top shuttle bus) $4.25 HK
Bus no. 15 offers a more direct route $9.80HK
The Literary Traveller
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life Shelley
Somerset Maugham wrote The Painted Veil in 1925. If follows the life of the socialite Kitty, who, fearful of becoming an old maid marries the bacteriologist Walter Fane. Shortly after their marriage, he is posted to Hong Kong. Maugham takes us to the Hong Kong of the 20’s: the vibrant, decadent, luxurious and often shallow world of wealth, surrounded by the poverty and hard lives of the local Chinese. After Fane discovers her affair with a senior diplomat, Kitty accompanies her husband to mainland China to deal with a cholera epidemic. Here, seeing the respect in which others hold her husband, she embarks on a bitter journey of self appraisal, before returning to Hong Kong.