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We had decided to travel premium economy on long haul despite the expense after our experience suffering Dreamliner cattle class with Vietnam Airlines on our previous trip. A fellow tourist in Vietnam had told us that, in his experience, Air New Zealand offered the best service so, as New Zealand was our main destination, we decided to fly with them.
We wanted to revisit Hong Kong after so many years and fly round the world back though San Francisco where we had not been since 1988. Unfortunately Air New Zealand did not fly between London and those cities so we elected to travel Virgin Atlantic on those legs.
First impressions on boarding the 787 Dreamliner was that we did have more room with 38 inches seat pitch and 21 inches seat width. This compares to 31 and 17.5 inches in economy. The seats also recline enabling you to get some degree of comfort to doze but we still felt the effects of the flight for some days after despite the claim that the lower cabin pressure of the 787 reduces the effects of jet lag.
I still found the cabin noisier than the Rolls Royce engined Qantas A380 on which we travelled economy back from Australia 5 years ago and where we had minimal jet lag and where we did manage to sleep despite the reduced space, no reclining seats and higher cabin pressure.
It is the airline who chooses the seat configuration and engines but economy seating is pretty standard with all airlines. In Premium Economy there are some differences between airlines and the type of aircraft used in both seating and service. Our first impression with Virgin was the extra space and comfort was worthwhile but the food and service was still economy class.
Before departure we had decided to stay on Hong Kong Island and pre-booked and paid for a round trip ticket to the central station on the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Airport Express which whisks you into the city in just 23 minutes. It is cheaper to do this in advance on line and you are issued with a voucher to claim your ticket from a desk on the platform at Kowloon or Hong Kong central station. You just get on the train without a ticket.
Airport Express also run a shuttle bus service to all the major hotels from the station and although it did not go to our hotel it went close enough for a short walk. It is well worth doing some research in advance in this regard.
Our hotel was the Butterfly on Hollywood which we booked as usual with Booking.Com. It was a comfortable room at a reasonable price in a central area but that was all that could be said as the hotel had no restaurant facilities and breakfast had to be found outside. They did provide us with a mobile modem which enabled us to get on line with our smart phones anywhere so that google maps was put to good use as a navigation aid.
Cash is largely redundant now in Hong Kong except for low cost items and street traders. Everyone uses the Octopus cards which are like the London Oyster cards on steroids! They can be purchased at central station for HK$115 each and you get a refund of any credit left on the card at the airport when you leave. Most fares are discounted using the card and we were three days travelling all over including ferries, MTR, trams and the peak tram and still got HK$45 back from the two cards when we left.
Hong Kong is famous for its Dim Sum cuisine and even has a few Michelin starred Dim Sum cafes. These are very cheap places to eat in a city which is currently reckoned to be the second most expensive in the world but they are by no means "fine dining" and you go there to eat in cramped conditions, order what you want from a printed list which also include noodle dishes and are brought to your table quickly with unlimited supplies of tea. There is usually a queue at popular times of day.
I did some research on line and on our first evening we walked to a place called Dim Sum Square on Jervois Street where we enjoyed our first meal for HK$120 (exchange rate was about HK$10 = £1). On another night we also visited Dim Ding 1968 in Elgin Street which offered a tasting menu and a cold beer in slightly more salubrious surroundings. The food here was excellent if slightly more expensive.
On our first morning we walked along Hollywood Road to Old Bailey Street and into "The Flying Pan" (a nice skit on Chinese pronunciations) for breakfast. There I had the Ranchero Eggs Hong Kong style which came with bacon, refried beans, potatoes on a tortilla and set me up for a week! Then down the central escalators (they go down until 10am then go up) and walked across to central station to purchase our octopus cards which we used on the Star Ferry across to Kowloon.
The first time I was here was in the late fifties as a seagoing engineer. The far east run was a favourite as it was usually only three to four months duration. My company operated a fleet of fast cargo liners, older ones with twin screw 750mm bore Doxford opposed piston two stroke engines and more modern smaller vessels with more reliable Sulzer four stroke engines.
The Doxfords were very unreliable which meant in addition to bunkering at Aden we would usually stop in Colombo to change a few pistons before proceeding to the Phillipines, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong where we would anchor in Victoria Harbour and load from barges. If we were not pulling pistons again then you had to hire a sampan to get ashore hoping the wash from the Star Ferries would not capsize you!
The only thing unchanged about Kowloon was the clock tower of the old railway station from where in those days you could catch a train to London.
We walked along Nathan road, a long (1.6 miles) straight road full of shops. We eventually found ourselves in Kowloon Park, a green oasis in a sea of concrete containing aviaries, sculptures, bird lakes with pink flamingos and huge Banyan trees.
Kai Tak airport used to be on the other side of Nathan road. It used to be quite exciting to land here in those days as you flew literally between high rise flats as women calmly hung out their washing without a second look! Once the new airport on Lantau Island was completed, many high rise blocks over 200m high were built after Kai Tak closed and building height restrictions in Kowloon were removed. The city now has more people living at the 15th floor or higher, and more buildings over 100 m height than any other place in the world so that green spaces like Kowloon Park are much used.
The effects of jet lag were by now taking effect so we returned to our hotel for a kip via the MTR emerging later in the evening to admire the light show of the HK waterfront.
The old double decker trams remain a good cheap way of getting around HK. There is a flat fare of I think HK$2.50 for each journey however long. You get on at one end and exit at the other, paying with your Octopus card by placing over a card reader just like the Oyster card.
The Peak tram is really a cable car which has been running since 1888 although the cars have been replaced and the systems modernised. It is still a good value ride at HK$40 return using Octopus but attracts large numbers of tourists. We decided not to join the long queue early afternoon but returned the next day in the early morning. Flashing your Octopus card also avoids the queue for tickets.
At the top station they have built the horrendous Peak Tower structure, quite out of keeping with the beautiful surroundings. You climb up several floors selling tat to a viewing platform for which they require an admission fee. It is best to ignore this and walk a few yards along the Old Peak Road to the Lions temple (the photo at the top of this page is taken from there) where you get much the same view for free.
It was freezing cold when we were up there with a icy wind blowing so we warmed up with a Starbucks coffee in the shopping complex opposite the Peak Tower, abandoning our plans for a walk and returning back down on the tram.
We revisited Kowloon as Sue wanted to visit the Ladies Market in Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok. It sells everything, not just ladies things and I struck a deal with a stall holder to buy four grundies for HK$100. Recognising that oriental sizes may be slightly smaller I bought XL size but when I eventually tried them on in New Zealand they nearly cut me in two and I gave them to a charity shop. For XL read S in our sizes!
On our final day in HK we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi down to central station where we checked in our bags for the Air New Zealand flight we were taking that evening to Auckland. We then had the day to continue our wandering baggage free, a great facility and more cities should do it.
We sat in the sunshine next to the big wheel, looking up at the Two International Finance Centre, the second highest building in HK at 415m (1362 feet). We walked along the Wan Chai Waterfront, land that was reclaimed just in time for the Brits to hand HK over to the Chinese in 1997. You eventually come to Tamar Park around which are the HK legislative buildings. The Chief Executive has a fine view across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon and the International Commerce centre, Hong Kongs tallest building completed in 2010. It is 484 m (1,588 ft) high and is the 10th tallest in the world.
Back at the airport we cashed in our Octopus cards for HK$45 meaning our total transport costs for three days was about £17 plus Airport Express which was £21 so some things on HK are cheap. Not beer though as two small bottles of Tsingtao while we were waiting for our flight cost about £14!
New Zealand here we come.