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Hong Kong & Macau

13/08/2010

In June I opted for a short trip to Hong Kong, a city that I have heard nothing but good things about and so have long been keen to visit. This time I was thinking of making it a more relaxed solo trip after the exhausting albeit enjoyable Vietnam trip. Not to be however, my holiday was aligned with a couple of other Papua Captains who were also keen to go to Hong Kong. With these two it was bound to be a good laugh so we started thinking about planning.

In truth we really didn’t do much planning at all but the first thing we did was book our airline tickets. This we decided was going to be a ‘high-roller’ trip so we booked with Singapore Airlines from Jakarta to Hong Kong via Singapore. The Singapore to Hong Kong leg was scheduled on an Airbus A380 – a suitability extravagant aircraft.

Getting out of the Jungle

The day of departure fast approached, myself and one of the other Captains were heading from Sentani to Jakarta and would meet the other Captain on our transit through Singapore. From Sentani we flew in one of Garuda Indonesia’s new Boeing 737-800’s which uses nice brown/beige tones and has seatback screens all through economy. One day I might even feel like the possibility of dying with them is incredibly low, but alas the back-seat pilot in me only seems to get more vocal.

Because of the flight timings in order for us to connect to the A380 we would have an overnight in Jakarta and get the early morning flight to Singapore the following day. We decided to try the Jakarta Airport Hotel which sits atop the International Terminal (Terminal 2). Even with a discount as holders of residency permits it was quite pricey at just over 1 million Rupiah (NZ$155). However, the rooms were very nice and comfortable and amazingly you could hear nary a mouse outside at what is Indonesia’s busiest airport. Despite having just a night at the airport, we felt it necessary to still head into town and get some first world food. So we headed to Senayan City, one of Jakarta’s newer and trendy malls. They didn’t actually seem to have our much beloved Sushi Tei so after pottering about we then headed to the newest and trendiest (theme developing?) mall, Central Park. There after what seemed like an eternity (3 months of Sushi Tei deprivation) I had my usual Tuna Salad Crispy Mentai roll washed down with free-flowing green tea.

After a fairly good night’s rest it was necessary to get up painfully early and get ready for the departure to Singapore. Although Singapore Airlines catering is pretty good and we would be served breakfast on the short 1 and a half hour flight, I decided to have the hotel breakfast seeing it was included in that fairly steep price. After that we met up and headed downstairs for check-in. I won’t bore you with mundane details of the short flight to Singapore.

The A380

In Singapore there wasn’t much time between flights so we headed across on the Skytrain to Terminal 3 and once in the departure lounge met up with our 3rd Amigo on this trip. Within moments it was time for boarding and thanks to the 3 boarding gates it doesn’t really take long. We had booked seats on the upper deck (you really have to on the A380, it’s kind of the whole point) and boarded directly to the upper deck. Surprisingly or possibly even disappointingly for some the interior of the A380 is the same as you see on the other new member of the long-haul fleet, the Boeing 777-300ER with the Givenchy coloured seats in blue and brown hues. Like the 777-300ER it is also fitted with the excellent Panasonic eX2 in-flight entertainment system. The upper deck is in a cosier cabin configuration for economy, the layout is similar to an Airbus A330/A340 with seats in 2-4-2 rows, the entire upper deck economy cabin is quite small with just 13 rows comprising of 88 seats altogether because it was originally going to be an executive economy section until Singapore Airlines shelved the plans. The overall impression is that you are not on the world’s largest passenger aircraft at all and that illusion certainly continues once the engine start is complete.

Boarding the upper deck

I had read and heard much about the quietness of the A380 cabin. I knew it wouldn’t be hard to make it quieter than the 777 for example with its 2 gargantuan engines making a bit of a racket, especially in intermediate cruise climbs (relatively speaking of course, it be no Embraer Bandeirante!). But the level of quietness was actually pleasingly surprising. After pushback as we began to taxi I couldn’t quite believe that all 4 engines were actually running, but indeed they were. Takeoff was somewhat odd in that here is a 560 ton (at maximum takeoff weight) amalgamation of sundry plastics and metals barrelling down the runway at immense thunderous pace and yet the volume inside the cabin is not thunderous but calm and serene, it actually feels quite weird. And when that point of rotation comes and those impressively massive aerofoils start generating lift the flex as they absorb the earthly weight of the beast is again impressive.

Other than that, which is not to discount the shock and awe effect of the A380’s party tricks the flight was the normal high standard that you come to expect from Singapore Airlines – save for the fact that my ANR travel headset was near redundant.

The last I will say in this pilot-nerd (or nerd-pilot) segment is that the landing was just as impressive as the rest of the flight, wonderfully soft with the wings drooping down inversely to the takeoff as all that lift was dumped. Despite the thrust reversers being deployed it was again oddly quiet inside the cabin. Consider me heartily impressed by this fantasmical flying machine.

In the landing roll at Chek Lap Kok Airport, Hong Kong

Finally, Hong Kong

After baggage collection where as seems to be convention my bag takes an eternity to roll onto the conveyer, we cleared immigration and headed for a taxi. Unlike Indonesia and in a similar vein to Singapore getting a taxi was effortless and hassle-free. The ride from Lantau Island where the airport is located to our Hotel in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island was around 30 minutes and provided impressive views across large bridges and through tunnels (where I guess you can’t really rave about the views but hey). This is a very densely populated area, more so than Singapore in parts it seems. Although Singapore is actually listed as the 3rd most densely populated country or dependency and Hong Kong’s comes out in 4th place. I guess the vast tracts of land in the mainland New Territories help spread out the load, at least on paper. This density of course means a plethora of skyscrapers. I don’t know why tall building fascinate so much but no matter how much I travel I always seem to be peering out and up at these massive constructions, just like 20 years ago on family holidays in Auckland.

Now that I have endlessly blathered on about the journey I guess I should throw in some stuff about Hong Kong itself. Overall I was just as impressed by Hong Kong as I was expecting to be, and that is not faint praise. I think Hong Kong is my new favourite city destination, surpassing even Singapore.

Wan Chai, the area we stayed in on Hong Kong Island is a bustling area to the East of the main heart of Hong Kong Island. There is a large collection of bars and restaurants nearby and it’s a short walk to the MTR (underground mass transit railway) and ferry terminals. Taxis are also reasonably cheap like Singapore so there really are a multitude of options.

Our first order of business was to check out Victoria Peak, we decided to walk to the Peak Tram Station from the hotel. The tickets are a little pricey but it is pleasant enough experience – the traverse is very steep, both longer and steeper than the Wellington Cable Car. At the top is a tourist trap/shopping mall/food court which is quite nice. After assailing the numerous escalators there is a viewing deck where you can look down to the harbour and across to Kowloon. Unfortunately as you can see from the pictures the weather was rather gloomy and the entire peak shrouded in mist and cloud. Still it was a pleasant enough place and another mall was next door which we had a look at too. Big city adventures do tend to include an awful lot of mall-ratting, and despite them all being by and large much the same you seem to find yourself like lab rats in the maze traversing through them all. I say that because after Victoria Peak we headed to IFC which is a rather large mall beneath one of the tallest buildings in the world, IFC 2.

One of the Tram Cars leaving the main Station

On-board the Peak Tram

Not much to see

Looking up to IFC 2

I’ll diverge from the chronological description of the trip and say that in both Kowloon across the harbour and in Causeway Bay to the east of Wan Chai we also frequented the myriad of shopping malls. Being the consumer hungry, just released from the jungle (literally) types we are we made a fair few purchases along the way. Kowloon and Causeway Bay are nice because aside from the shopping malls there also nice shopping precincts along the old streets where you can soak in the atmosphere as you move along the footpaths from shop to shop.

Mongkok in Kowloon

The Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon

Shopping in Causeway Bay

Food, glorious food

In amongst all this much attention was paid to gastronomic activities, this was after-all a ‘high-roller’ trip and we were fresh from the jungle deprivation of typical low-grade, deep-fried in palm oil foods. Being the world-class city that it is Hong Kong did not disappoint and we were undoubtedly spoilt for choice. Cafe de Paris is a nice little French bistro in SoHo. Dinner was washed down with a very nice bottle of French Chardonnay whose name escapes me and I should really have written down. Duetto is a fusion Italian and Indian restaurant which was within walking distance from our hotel close to the northern shore of Wan Chai, it included a nice outdoor dining area where we sat with views to the skyscrapers of Causeway Bay and across to Kowloon. The meal was excellent and from memory we washed it down with an Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, good kiwi boys that we are (well one of whom is an Australian import who stubbornly holds on to his Australian heritage). Spasso another Italian establishment at the Harbour City Shopping Mall in Kowloon was great for lunch. We decided we weren’t high-rolling enough and really needed to up the cocktail consumption so a boozy cocktail lunch was the order of the day. We continued that theme into the afternoon and yet were still quite capable of making it onto the Ferry and heading back to the hotel before heading out to our dinner destination.

Crossing the harbour on the Star Ferry

Dining outside at Duetto

It is hard to pick a dining highlight but when it comes to the view Cafe Deco was quite impressive. Because of the boozy afternoon delaying us we took a taxi from the Hotel rather than the Cable Car up to Victoria Peak. This time the weather was playing ball, it had been a really nice blue-sky day and this continued into the evening. I had previously made us reservations in the hope of getting a table right next to the window but we were one table back, although the floor to ceiling windows meant the view was still spectacular. Again it was another fine meal and continuing the theme two bottles were used to wash the food down. The first escapes me but was a kiwi classic, the second again another kiwi drop, Wild Rocks Vin Gris Rose. A bloody good drop it was too.

The view from our table at Cafe Deco

The view from the Sky Terrace on Victoria Peak

Macau

Seeing we were rather close it was unanimously decided that it would be criminal to be in Hong Kong SAR and neglect to visit Macau SAR. So we headed down to the Turbojet terminal which is in Central (the uniquely named centre of Hong Kong) and purchased our tickets, the 1 hour trip was on a hydrofoil which is slightly smaller than the catamarans they have but no less comfortable. Coming into Macau was quite unusual, it really is a tiny place and land reclamation has down little to spread things out, it is after all the most densely populated territory in the world. There is so little space for the airport that one of the taxiways on the airport is essentially a bridge between two reclaimed pieces of land. Approaching the ferry terminal the Casino’s come into view and provide quite a surreal atmosphere – the real high-rolling was about to begin.

In line with the general theme and given it was only 2 nights we had booked in at a 5-star hotel, Hotel Royal. It is undergoing renovation on some floors and we were on an un-renovated floor but it was by no means disappointing. Macau feels and in all reality does have much more of an old-world feel to it. I knew it was former Portuguese colony but I did not realise that it wasn’t handed over to China until 2 years after the Hong Kong handover. Just walking around is a visual feast with the lay of the land quite undulating combined with the old buildings and skinny streets.

The euro-esque cobbled streets of Macau

The colonial architecture and Chinese script signage makes an interesting juxtaposition

After a bit of rest we got a taxi and headed across one of the many bridges from the Macau peninsula to Taipa Island and onto The Venetian. Like the Las Vegas version this Casino complex looks just as gaudy as you approach but it is in fact much larger. That immense scale certainly translates to the gaming floor where after the obligatory walk through wide marbled halls you enter. It was dinner time so after scoping out the gaming floor we headed to a nice Japanese restaurant within the shopping arcade. It is as you’d expect set up like Venice with Gondola’s cruising down the canal that loops around the arcade. Very kitsch it is. Dinner this time was washed down with Sapporo Japanese beer, it’s actually quite hard to find a bad Japanese beer and Sapporo is a good’un. But the gaming floor beckoned so down we went. Being the casino gambling novices we were we weren’t really game enough to rock up to a table so largely kept to the slot machines (pokies). Time really does pass quickly on these things but they truly are mind numbing. I really failed to see the attraction in them.

The gaudy arcade inside The Venetian

In TV shows and movies that feature Las Vegas casinos it seems that drinking on the gaming floor is to be encouraged. I don’t know if it’s just the general Asian sensibility or Chinese-imposed directive but drinking on the gaming floor was not allowed. This means after developing quite the thirst you need to head off to one of the bars around the periphery of the gaming floor. Now from a social justice point of view it is by no means a bad thing but surely a missed profit opportunity for the Casino’s. Cocktails were naturally the order of the evening in such circumstances and in between drinking we ventured back to the gaming floor, where we moved around the different slot machine zones. This was to become an issue after midnight when we decided to head back to the Hotel. I had with me my DSLR camera in its bag and had been sitting it down beside each slot machine. At some point I obviously forgot to take it with me and only realised as we were about to head out. That horrible sinking feeling crept in.

We split up and walked around the area’s where we had been playing and I also went and left my details with the Bar Manager in case I had left it at a table and a waiter had picked it up. After that we clicked that Casino’s are all about security and have more cameras than a Big Brother house so I approached one of the security guards to ask if they had a lost property office. The security guard collected some details about the camera and bag and asked what areas we had been in. He then relayed that information through on his radio and after a while asked if I could follow him. We headed towards the rear of the gaming floor and then progressed through a set of double doors that lead into what I guess you could call the bowels of the Casino. Down the corridors we went until we came to a non-descript door and entered, at the desk sat a security manager who asked me to take a seat, he asked me to describe the photos that were on there and then asked me to fill in a form with my details. He then much to my surprise lifted up my camera and placed it on the desk – Hallelujah. I was very happy as I had started to write it and the days photos off as lost forever. I thanked him very much and the security guard escorted me back to the gaming floor.

As I said earlier Macau is a place steeped in history, I won’t go into any of that here but there are some pretty interesting places that are worth a visit notably Largo do Senado (Senate Square), Ruinas de São Paulo (Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral) – which despite being an Atheist is no less impressive and Fortaleza do Monte (Mount Fortress) which dates as far back at 1617. These sights are all collected next to each other, the Macau Museum sitting atop Mount Fortress. To the east and slightly closer to our Hotel is the Guia Fortress which is also circa 17th century.

Ruinas de São Paulo

Largo do Senado from the facade of Ruinas de São Paulo

Fortaleza do Monte

The Macau Museum on top of the Fortaleza do Monte

A 17th century cannon, I'm guessing

The Lisboa Hotel & Casino seen from Mount Fortress

The Macau Tower, not the Sky Tower although it too has an AJ Hackett vertical bungy

The Chapel and Lighthouse on top of the Guia Fortress

A classy little restaurant serving Portuguese and Macanese food

But as sure as the setting sun signals the approach of darkness it was getting close to gambling time. This time we decided to head for the uber-modern City of Dreams complex which is anchored by not 1 but 3 hotels – Crown, Hard Rock and Grand Hyatt, it certainly is a spectacle. Dinner was the first order of business and we decided on Horizon’s in the Crown Tower which is contrary to popular belief not a monument to James Packer’s beliefs in Scientology (now for any nutjobs practitioners of said religion that is just a joke). A fantastic filet mignon was washed down with a nice Portuguese red.

Horizons Restaurant in Crown Towers at the City of Dreams

Looking across to The Venetian

Gambling time approaching

We ended up spending our time in the Hard Rock Casino floor which sits above the main City of Dreams gaming floor, after the obligatory spin on the slot machines we discovered the electronic roulette table. This was to consume our attention for a fair while and I actually managed to come out with a bit of profit while the other 2 amigos shelved some decent losses. There was as has become customary time for a cocktail break at the bar in between but eventually fatigue crept in and we headed back to the Hotel.

The closest you can get to getting a photo in a casino

The final stretch

As you can probably now realise if you’ve read this far this short trip quickly became quite busy. On arrival back into Hong Kong we were really starting to feel it. Despite our increasing fatigue we realised we hadn’t even ventured into the markets and sampled the street food. So we headed for the MTR which whisked us under the harbour to Kowloon and walked to Temple St. Here we were able to check out the knick-knacks and assorted tack and buy some souvenirs. I bought a cool set of Chinese propaganda playing cards and a 1950’s Hong Kong cigarette advertising poster.

The market in Temple St, Kowloon

Having crossed the market off the list we found a nice little restaurant with street-side seating and selected from the limited English menu. I got a chicken dish which came with some odd sausage that was very fatty, it was tasty nonetheless and washed down with a surprisingly drinkable bottle of American beer.

Heading to the MTR Station

Waiting for train to Central MTR Station

The following day was our final one and decided to utilise the city check-in at the Central MTR Station seeing our flight was after lunch, having ridden ourselves of our luggage we took the Airport Express to Lantau Island and then went outside and got a taxi to the Ngong Ping Cable Car. The Cable Car is a 5.7 km long Gondola lift and has ‘Crystal Class’ cabins which have glass-bottom floors – these are not much more expensive than the standard cars so we opted for one of those. Our cabin was shared with an Australian woman and her kiwi husband (horrendously small this world, it really is). At the end of the line there is a short walk to a theme village (euphemism for tourist trap) where we stopped in at a Starbucks, we then walked up the path towards the Giant Buddha, paused for a couple of minutes and then headed back to the Cable Car. We got a taxi from there back to the airport and not long after clearing immigration we were boarding the portal for the first stage back to the Jungle.

Catching up on NCIS on-board the Airport Express, sadly the train goes so fast

The glass bottom of the Crystal Cabin Cable Car

The tourist trap on the trail to the Giant Buddha

One Giant Buddha, tick

Great view of the airport as the Cable Car descends

Singapore Airline Boeing 777-300ER, our vessel through the portal

Well after a somewhat convoluted 3500+ words if anyone has managed to endure this far I can wholeheartedly say that a visit to Hong Kong and Macau is well worth it as destinations in their own right, in fact they are worth of being visited more than once in a lifetime. Hong Kong especially so given its surprisingly large size.

Yet again this has been another post on a holiday as I finish writing this from my hotel in Bangkok which will surely require another post. I swear in between these holidays I do work, honest. There has certainly been plenty happening to post about so I will try and prove my continued employment at some stage.

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