Big City Personality in Hong Kong

I’ve always had a thing for the character and temperament of a big city.

Personified – they’re slick and glamorous, young and hungry financial consultants, the suits who party as hard as they work. They’re committed to modernity and connectivity in many ways, yet fiercely conventional in others. Their new acquaintances wilfully rush into dead-end flings with them, throwing their money and hearts at the affair in a heady gamble, while their old friends introduce them with a disclaimer ‘Have you met Bangkok? Sure, sometimes he’s messy, crude, and unreliable, but if you knew him as well as I do, you’d know he’s actually amazing…’ There’s also a counter-culture resting just below the surface, yet another facet of their appeal, waiting around the next corner, and ready to dance.

Hong Kong was no exception.

Part of the romance was undoubtedly the time I spent within The Island Shangri-La – a powerhouse of a hotel which has struck a pleasant balance between old-world glamour, indulgence, and experienced, yet effortless, hospitality.

Everything about the hotel was simply jaw-dropping. Rooms on either side of the building offer expansive views of Victoria Harbour or the Peak, and the building’s purpose-built, oval-shaped floorplan means that there are no rooms at the end of a corridor on any level (relevant for feng shui, and the positive flow of chi). In the centre of the oval is a large open space, where a 51 metre handpainted silk scene of pastoral China runs down the length of the wall, to a picturesque synthetic garden at the bottom. Glass elevators are available so guests can view the beautiful painting in motion.

11 Island Shangrila Poolside

On the top floor are the Horizon Club facilities. Let me preface my gushing enthusiasm for the Horizon Club by saying that generally, I think that paying for swanky exclusivity is, more often than not, a scam. However, if you’re in the price range for a hotel like this in the first place or happen to get some time there on business perhaps, then I can absolutely recommend paying the additional fee for an upgrade to a Horizon Club room. There’s a difference between value and cost when it comes to travel expenses, and, sometimes, it’s just worth it.

The included breakfast, for example, at the Michelin-starred French bistro Restaurant Petrus, is just fantastic. Nothing can really beat the feeling of reading a fancy international newspaper – Wellington’s The Dominion Post wasn’t readily available, but I supposed The New York Times would do – tucking into my favourite brunch, with my shiny silver tea set, overlooking world-class views of Victoria Harbour on a cloudless morning late in Hong Kong’s summer. And then, there was, “The Honeycomb Buffet”, capitalised as it will forever be remembered in my mind. Words cannot describe. Have a picture:

05 Honeycomb Buffet (2)

Then there’s the included cocktails and canapes every evening in the lounge adjoining Restaurant Petrus (so same view, and naturally, absolutely stunning at night also) with unlimited savoury canapes, sweet desserts from the Island Shangri-la’s beautiful patisserie, cheeseboards, and drinks!

And of course, the Horizon Club includes everything else that one would expect from a hotel of this calibre – the constant servicing of your room, gratis late checkout if required, patisserie chocolates (which were replenished) next to my jasmine tea on arrival, access to everything one could need business-wise, including snacks and drinks throughout the day in the Club lounge.

Even if you aren’t eating courtesy of the Horizon Club, there are some extremely good foodie opportunities within the hotel – I didn’t have time to eat at all of them, but I thoroughly enjoyed lunch with some Hong Kong locals at Summer Palace, the hotel’s signature Cantonese restaurant. Styled traditionally with red chairs, dark wood and gold detailing I felt just as at home here as I do in my favourite dumpling spot back home, just a lot more splendid. The menu is extensive, particularly at lunchtime, which offers an array of dim sum options. The retention of two Michelin stars for yet another year in October 2014 just goes to show the craft, consistency and experience of Master Chef Ip Chi Cheung.

Dim sum - Steamed fresh shrimp dumplings

The lunchtime dim sum was mouth-wateringly good. So good, in fact, I suffered a mini-existential crisis I experienced eating Summer Palace’s fresh steamed shrimp dumplings, a Cantonese classic. It was light and dense at the same time; moist and soft, textured yet cohesive, with some bite to it; perfectly sized down to the shrimp inside for a satisfying, but not ambitious, mouthful; the flavour was subtly intense, the high standard of ingredients singing quietly on my palate; it was steamed and served at exactly the right temperature for immediate consumption. Eating that particular dish – although there were so many others that were just as immaculately balanced – I had to accept, with bittersweet realisation, that I would probably never have dumplings this perfect again anytime soon (even just the thought of them makes me want to pack up and move immediately to Hong Kong!)

Right in the heart of the financial quarter in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district, the Island Shangri-La caters mainly for business clientele, however the location was absolutely perfect for getting under the skin of the central city, or indeed a relaxing holiday making use of the health spa and picturesque pool facilities. It was a great vantage point to explore so many intriguing aspects of Hong Kong’s character – most immediately, there’s Pacific Place, which has direct access to the hotel, and is an incredibly beautiful modern mall – I could (and did) spend hours people/wardrobe-watching in that place!

Two stops on the MTR (less than $1USD, or a quick taxi ride in Hong Kong’s incredibly cheap vintage cabs) you have the bar scene, quirky restaurants, and design-chic shopping precincts. One of my favourites was the historic Police Married Quarters’ building which now hosts halls of pop-up stores. It was a great way to observe and support emerging Hong Kong designers and businesses as well as step away from the big-brand label bashing that can be prevalent throughout the rest of the city. There is plenty to find around the Hollywood Road precinct – for example, vintage collection shops selling everything from costume jewellery to couture gowns; hidden restaurants which appear, Harry Potter style, behind solid walls; cheap, busy eateries where friends meet to dim sum their hearts out over brunch every weekend; and little lane ways which shake off their day jobs, just like the ex-pats who populate them after hours, emerging as an off-beat bar scene in the streets surrounding Lan Kwai Fong from late evening until the early hours of the morning.

15 Hong Kong street wanderings - Lan Kwai Fong bar scene (3)

After my three nights there, I was head-over-heels for Hong Kong. Unquestionably, it was my experience at the Island Shangri-La that made all the difference – I’d recommend as a splash of splendour at the tail-end of a longer trip given Hong Kong’s tendency to be a stopover city. At the very least, book a lunch at the Summer Palace while you’re passing through – if you’re disappointed with the dumplings, I’d be siding with Hong Kong when he tells me he won’t be taking you on a second date.