About the author
Amy Koller, 32, is a finance coordinator who lives in Yucaipa, Calif., with her husband, Robert, 39, a special-education teacher, and their two kids, Christian and Cassidy. "My husband and I have been blessed with two children who are willing to eat more than chicken nuggets, and we're wasting that by not discovering new places. We've cruised in Mexico, and we're on a first-name basis with Shamu in San Diego, but it's time for these would-be world travelers to see the world. We'll go anywhere, and we'll try anything."
Once we hear we'll be going to Hong Kong, we scream and high-five. Then we rush to the Internet to learn more about the city.
The center of Hong Kong is Hong Kong Island; to the north are Victoria Harbour and the mainland, where Kowloon and the New Territories are located. We decide to stay in Kowloon.
I look for air/hotel packages on Expedia, double-check on Kayak, and scour TripAdvisor for feedback on the hotels. Then I visit the airline and hotel websites to make sure I have a deal. Our package, with L.A.–Hong Kong flights on United and five nights' hotel, is $5,905. We'd have to pay about $1,400 per ticket if booking the flights separately—so this way, it's like getting the hotel for free.
Days One and Two
For the 15-hour flight, Robert and I enlist an army of video games and other shiny objects to hold the attention of our 9-year-old son, Christian, and our 8-year-old daughter, Cassidy. Our imaginations help, too. We gape at frozen rivers that resemble albino snakes and look for polar bears sitting on icebergs.
Ten AA batteries, four movies, and one change of clothes later—don't ask—we land. We take the Airport Express train to Kowloon and the free shuttle to Harbour Plaza Metropolis, overlooking Victoria Harbour. We drift off, dreaming of dim sum.
I'm nervous about getting everyone out the door by 8 a.m. for the Jetway Express half-day tour of Hong Kong Island that I booked on Expedia, but we're all up early. We hop on the hotel shuttle to Tsim Sha Tsui, the heart of Kowloon. We're happy to learn that only a few other people are on our tour.
The first stop is Victoria Peak, where we survey our temporary domain and vow to conquer it. Next, we board a water taxi that putts around Aberdeen, the floating "island" in Aberdeen Harbour. Enormous yachts are docked within feet of the disintegrating shelters that "boat people" have made out of old fishing boats. I look at my daughter, curious about how the inequality is affecting her. "Mom," she says, "did you see the dead ducks at that restaurant? I think they're going to eat them!"
Around 1 p.m., we find our way to the open-air Ladies' Market in Kowloon. When we're a few feet in, the clouds part and a ray of sun pokes through. I follow the light and the faint sound of angels' voices. It's then I see them—LeSportsac knockoffs. I drooled over one of the bags at LAX, but couldn't justify the $100 price. Unable to stop myself, I buy six for $60.
At Jade Garden Restaurant, we're overrun by small baskets filled with rolls, cakes, and dumplings. It's like Christmas, and each dumpling is like a present, its contents a mystery. Our favorite is the char siu bau, a delicious steamed barbecued-pork bun.
We planned on visiting the Hong Kong Science Museum, since Christian is all about the hands-on experiences (and Wednesdays are free). But there are hundreds of schoolkids at the museum's entrance. Our hearts sink, as we know each exhibit will be packed. So we walk over to the Hong Kong Museum of History, where there are only a few visitors. Amazing life-size displays represent different periods of Hong Kong history. The museum even corrects some of our misconceptions. I, for one, was shocked to learn that opium was an English import to China (and not the other way around).
The mall attached to our hotel has a food court with all types of inexpensive Asian food. After a few laps, we decide on a buffet of Thai noodles, sashimi, Korean fried pork, Japanese udon noodles, and boba milk tea. Christian masters chopsticks pretty quickly, but we grab extra plastic forks whenever we see them (as not all restaurants have forks).
Then we go to the Goldfish Market—blocks and blocks of small stores selling pets of all kinds: fish, reptiles, puppies, and kittens. Instead of tanks of fish, they have walls of fish, hanging in bags on hooks. Not just small fish—big ones, too! And there are buckets of baby turtles. (We're glad we didn't buy one when we later spot a "No turtles" sign at the airport.)
That night, we come upon a ping-pong tournament on TV. At that moment, we know we're in China.
To get to Ocean Park, Hong Kong's answer to SeaWorld, we figure we'll use the metro. But when the train arrives, well.... We're from California. We don't have many opportunities to practice our subway skills. When the next train pulls in, we get into linebacker positions at the front of the line. The doors open, and we surge, motivated by fear of failure and by other riders pushing from behind. It's clear that the locals find us amusing, but we don't mind.
Ocean Park straddles a hill on Hong Kong Island. It doesn't hold a candle to SeaWorld—except in one area: giant pandas! The San Diego Zoo has a panda exhibit, but we've never actually seen it. The lines have always been ridiculous. But at Ocean Park, we see four pandas up close. Cassidy declares pandas to be her new favorite animal. Christian is less impressed until one yawns. "It has real teeth!" he says.
We hail a (surprisingly cheap) cab and speed off to Stanley Market on Hong Kong Island. In the first hour, we buy so much that we begin to get jelly arms from having to carry it all. Two hours later, we exit the market with two new suitcases laden with clothes, books, purses, jewelry, and anything else we can justify buying. Minutes after leaving the market, I begin to miss it like a long-lost friend.
We hop on a double-decker bus back to the hotel. Robert and I follow the kids up top to the front row. The bus goes all over the island before passing through the tunnel to the mainland. It's like a crazy IMAX adventure that lasts almost an hour. I can't believe the ride is only $5 for all four of us. I'll never forget the kids' wide-eyed faces.
On the bus, Robert talks to a college student, who lets us know which stop is most convenient for us and even offers to get off and assist us with our loot. We're skeptical, but it turns out he's just a friendly guy who wants to help. We tell him that he has a place to stay if he's ever in California.
That night, we go to the Avenue of Stars (Hong Kong's "walk of fame") to watch "A Symphony of Lights," the nightly show along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. The fog that has rolled in adds a bit of drama to the light beams shooting through the sky and the neon swirls on the buildings.
As we walk to the Tsim Sha Tsui terminal to catch the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, we come upon kids in matching tracksuits clustered around people who are obviously tourists. The kids are students practicing their English. After we answer their questions, they give us a handmade pamphlet about Hong Kong and their teacher snaps a picture. Our kids love it (which means we help out three groups of students).
For less than $1 total, all four of us take the nearly 10-minute ferry ride. The old boats have a vintage feel: The benches are wooden, with a shared metal backrest that can be moved to face either direction.
In the Central district, we poke into the nearest mall for picnic fare. Then we jump on the ferry back to Kowloon and eat as we watch cruise liners and fishing boats sharing the harbor.
The open-air Jade Market, in the Yau Ma Tei district, is spread out across two blocks, and we're amazed to discover how much cheaper the jade is there than elsewhere. The kids pick out carvings representing their animals from the Chinese 12-year calendar and tie them to their jackets. Christian is then free to shop for a gift for a friend. Vendors present trinkets to him, and he ponders them for a moment before waving them off. Soon he and Cassidy are bartering just like smaller versions of Robert and me.
We decide to spend the rest of the day revisiting the places we loved the most. For the kids, that means returning to the buckets of turtles they wish they could smuggle home. Robert has us go back to the food court for more udon noodles and Korean pork. And that night, I go up to the hotel lounge for one last look at the skyline. The trip is already over? There's still so much to see and do. I steel myself for the brutal flight home. This time I have no plan, just a head full of new memories—and three more pieces of luggage.
011-852/2336-6916, jetwayexpress.com, half-day Hong Kong Island tour $22
Harbour Plaza Metropolis
7 Metropolis Dr., Hunghom, Kowloon, 011-852/3160-6888, harbour-plaza.com
Jade Garden Restaurant
3 Salisbury Rd., Star House, 4th Fl., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, 011-852/2730-6888
Hong Kong Museum of History
100 Chatham Rd. S., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, 011-852/2724-9042, lcsd.gov.hk/hkmh, $1
Aberdeen, Hong Kong Island, 011-852/2552-0291, oceanpark.com.hk, $27, kids $13
Tung Choi St. bet. Argyle and Dundas Sts., Kowloon
Tung Choi St. bet. Mongkok and Nullah Rds., Kowloon
Kansu and Battery Sts., Kowloon