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February 10, 2011

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                    Hong Kong

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Happy Chinese New Year! In case you missed it, last week I flew 15 hours (and 13 minutes) from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. This week I will tell you all about my 36 hours in one of my favorite cities, which included staying at the famous Mandarin Oriental, getting an exclusive preview tour of the new Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong (which in two months will be the highest hotel in the world), and of course eating some darn good Chinese food.

Hong Kong (HKG) Airport is my favorite airport in the world. The Chinese really know how to give a good first impression because their facilities and operations run ever so smoothly (at least they have every time I've flown in and out).

HKG is not only beautifully designed with lots of light and open spaces, it's also clean, and you'll find everything you need including every kind of store and eatery. It's like being in a mall but better because there's plane spotting and free Wi-Fi. For those who are afraid they won't find anything to eat, they even have a Popeye's Chicken, McDonald's, Starbucks, and Ben & Jerry's. Of course, I bypassed all of those chains and head to one of the authentic Chinese restaurants.

The one thing that freaks me out about HKG is that they have an infrared temperature check that every person arriving into Hong Kong goes through. Most passengers don't even realize they are being monitored for high fevers. They do it to prevent the spread of S.A.R.S. and other illnesses. I would hate to find out what they do with those who are sick.

I wasn't in the airport long since the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong provided me with their meet and greet service (288 HKD = $37 USD). I thought that I would catch up with the person in baggage claim like most meet and greet services, so I was caught off guard when the moment I stepped off the jetway from the plane there was an airport representative holding a sign with my name on it. If it weren't for the hotel's name above it I would've thought I was in big trouble. The greeter escorted me to the shortest line at passport control (it took about 10 minutes) and then met me on the other side where she handed me off to Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong's official airport worker. He immediately grabbed my bags and walked me to the waiting car. I hit the loo nearby, and when I returned a couple minutes later my bags were in the back of a brand-new black Mercedes with the trunk still open so I could see all my belongings were in there and nothing was left behind.

By the way, the last time I went from the airport to Central Hong Kong I took the Airport Express Train. It was super easy, took only 30 minutes, and cost HKD100 (US$12.82). But obviously this time I was going in style. It was so easy I didn't even have to think, which is nice after a 15-hour flight. I wouldn't pay for it since I pack light (carry-on only), am not afraid to take public transportation, and know my way around Hong Kong, but for someone who doesn't fall in this category it's ideal. The white-gloved driver offered me a choice of music (it was all easy listening, which put me in a trance) for the 35-minute drive (without traffic, and there wasn't any). FYI: A regular taxi costs around HKD380 (US$48) while arranging a Mercedes pickup will set you back HK890 ($114).

If you haven't brushed up on your geography, Hong Kong is located on the southeast coast of China at the mouth of the Pearl River. With an area of 1,104 square kilometers and a population of seven million (according to the 2010 census), Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The name Hong Kong translates to "fragrant harbor" because fragrant wood products and incense were once traded here. Hong Kong is made up of three main territories: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories, which includes 234 outlying islands. The heart is Hong Kong Island, which is where the British originally settled. It's also where all of those impressive skyscrapers are, filled with the players that support the "Wall Street" of Asia and which make up one of the world's most spectacular skylines. Kowloon, another major territory, is across Victoria Harbour.

DID YOU KNOW? In Cantonese, the name Kowloon means "Nine Dragons." It's so named because of all the hilly and mountainous peaks that rise in the distance.

The first time I was in Hong Kong was back in 1993. It was my first trip overseas, and I spent a month there with my college girlfriend and her British parents. Back then, the Brits still ruled the colony, but in 1997 they handed it back to China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). The Portuguese did the same with Macau in 1999. I'm happy to report that the same Hong Kong I fell in love with back then is much the same (at least on the outside), and that the British influence is still evident everywhere: It's a free-market economy, the school system is much the same, and you'll find pubs, afternoon tea, rugby, and double-decker buses. The biggest changes seem to be there aren't as many expats; the Union Jack flag has been replaced by the red starred flag of China and the new red Hong Kong flag (the emblem is of the bauhinia flower); and the official languages changed from English and Cantonese to English and "Chinese." Chinese is actually many languages and most Hong Kong Chinese speak Cantonese, but in China's capital of Beijing they don't. The official language there is Mandarin (Putonghua), which is now being taught in Hong Kong schools. FYI: Cantonese and Mandarin are completely different but they use the same characters for writing.

CRIME: In terms of crime and personal safety, Hong Kong is one of the safest large cities in the world. However, like everywhere, visitors need to be on the lookout for petty theft. The one time I felt slightly unsafe was walking down Nathan Road very late on a weeknight.

At the time of publication, US$1 (USD) = Hong Kong Dollars (HKD) $7.78. To keep conversion simple and reasonably accurate, divide prices by eight.

When we pulled up at the hotel my car was attacked, like everyone else's, by two sharply dressed bellman. I didn't even have to touch my bags since I knew they were in good hands. Not many people know that the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong holds a special place in my heart because it was my introduction to a real five-star hotel. When I was here in 1993, the Scottish parents of Sally (my college girlfriend) lived in the Mid-levels (a fancy part of Hong Kong). They introduced me to the good life--and I mean the good life. For Sally's mom's birthday we all dressed up (they rented me a tuxedo) and we had dinner at the fanciest place in town…a restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. Of course, I had never heard of the hotel before, but I quickly learned it's the flagship of their now 42 properties around the world and service is what it's all about. I just remember that when I excused myself from dinner that night I was escorted to the washrooms, and when I returned there were three employees to help put me back in place--one pushed in my chair, the other put a napkin on my lap, and I don't even remember what the third did. I was just in awe. They are not as in-your-face like that anymore, but they still don't mess around.

With the meet and greet service you don't even need to stop at the front desk. Instead you are met car-side by an agent who then whisks you up in the elevator. There are 25 floors and my room was on the 20th (room 2020). In the elevator I asked how long it would take for my bags to arrive, as I needed to take a quick shower before dinner. He didn't even have to answer: when the elevator doors opened I spotted the bellman walking down the hall with my bags. They did in-room check-in and a few minutes later, after learning all of the room's amenities, I was in the hot shower.

The hotel has 501 rooms. Many of them have different interiors, and mine was one of the more masculine interiors with its dark Thai teak wood. I absolutely loved it and all if its little touches like the Chinese ice bucket, bottled water discreetly positioned around the room (four bottles), a technology kit, multi-plug outlets so I didn't need an adapter, central control system by the bed, a huge flat-screen TV, and solid walls/windows so you can only hear the slightest sound of traffic horns from below. Oh and did I mention a view and bed that's so comfortable it makes you lazy?

The bathroom might have been my favorite part. First of all, there's a separate room for the toilet. The sink area has a mini flat-screen TV built into the wall and first-rate amenities. Then there's what they call a wetroom, where the shower and tub are. The water pressure is amazing and they had Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries.

For dinner I was meeting Nina Colls, the hotel's new PR person. I know Nina from the Brown's Hotel in London but she just made the big move. We had a lot to chat about over dinner on the 25th floor in Man Wah. It has to be the city's most exquisite Chinese restaurant. The place was filled with Chinese elite and young Americans who were most likely financial guys spending their hefty wages on some of the best Chinese food around. I wasn't that hungry so Nina and I passed on the favorite Peking duck but ordered a few dishes to split. We had honey barbecue pork (138 HKD = US$17) to start, then Kung Po chicken (148 HKD = US$19), Wagyu beef in black pepper sauce (288 HKD = US$37), and Wok-fried vermicelli with duck (288 HKD = US$37). They were all so good, and in China they bring each order separately so dinner is stretched out. Also, they didn't just serve us a big plate of food. Instead they put the dish on the table and then carefully dished out small portions. Usually each dish required two servings and they give you clean plates each time. FYI: The chopsticks are so fine that they are difficult for a foreigner to use to pick up small bites. For dessert we had the restaurant's signature treat--chilled mango pudding (48HKD = US$6). I wasn't really into that or the noodles, but the other three dishes were unreal. And so was the service.

The Mandarin Oriental has 10 restaurants. Obviously I didn't have time to try even a third of them because I wanted to eat outside the hotel as well. However, I couldn't pass up having the breakfast buffet in the Clipper Lounge. It's normally 283 HKD (US$36) but I got it included in my rate like most guests try to. Of course, they had all the usual American breakfast offerings like made-to-order eggs, omelets, bacon, sausage, hash browns, cereal, oatmeal, and scrumptious pastries, but I skipped most of them and hit the Asian food stations. I loaded up my plate (s) with pork dumplings, fried noodles, an assortment of dim sum, and my favorite BBQ pork buns. I also had the sweetest mango, pineapple, and fresh fruit juices like watermelon, honeydew, and of course orange juice, which was actually the best of the three I tried. I sipped my tea while overlooking the Statue Square and the Former Supreme Court Building. I love the contrast of the classical architecture with Hong Kong's modern future in the background. Oh and I couldn't help notice a lady in the park waving around a shiny two-foot-long metal sword while she practiced Tai Chi (I think). No one even looked twice but me.

After breakfast I had an appointment at the spa, which is located on the 24th floor. If staying at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong is out of your budget, then at least try and arrange for a spa appointment. It's fairly newly decorated with dark woods and is divine. Guests are presented with signature ginger tea upon arrival and given slippers and a fancy amenity kit. I was escorted into the men's locker room that had fresh fruit, tea, a hot tub, cold plunge pool, and one of the coolest steam rooms around. Last time in the middle of it was a top-secret blend of Chinese herbs. Sitting in the dark, hot, fragrant room (my nose detected cinnamon and orange), I couldn't but help notice the steam went on full blast and a bright green light shone on the herbs and the centerpiece spun out of control; it was like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. I didn't know if I should just relax and savor the experience or run for my life. A few minutes later, a pretty Chinese therapist fetched me for my 90-minute massage treatment. My vocabulary isn't advanced enough to describe how incredible the experience was, so my best advice is to sign up and experience it for yourself. Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, 5 Connaught Road, Central, Hong Kong, Tel: +852 2820 4202. Rack room rates at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong begin at 4,800 HKD = US$616, but who pays rack rate? You can get much better rates through a package deal.

I needed to force myself to leave the hotel. Getting around Hong Kong is easy, as there are plenty of signs in English and footbridges (sidewalks above the streets). The first place I walked to was Pier 7 in Central to jump on the historic Star Ferry. It goes back and forth between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon (Tsim Sha Tsui) every six minutes or so. The upper deck is supposedly first class, and the weekend/holiday price, which is the most expensive, costs a whopping HKD3 (US$0.38) compared to the lower deck's HKD2.40 (US$0.30). Both decks are pretty much the same except that the lower deck doesn't require climbing as many stairs and is a bit more crowded at peak times. The ferry terminal on Hong Kong Island has moved and been remodeled, so the Kowloon side has all the charm. To get a ticket (plastic token), use the automated machines--they take coins only and are self-explanatory in English.

I had a few minutes to kill before my first (and only) appointment so I walked a few blocks to Nathan Road. It's the shopping mecca of Kowloon and is packed with people, shops, and restaurants. It's over two miles long, and I'll bet anyone that they can't walk down the street in the middle of the day without being approached by an Indian salesman asking if you want a "tailored suit" or a "copy watch." Seriously, I was asked 30 times, so I ended up walking down the street and when they approached me I would pull out my hotel map and ask them if they wanted to buy it. They were confused, smiled, and let me go on my merry way.

Although taxis are expensive by Southeast Asian standards, it's still way cheaper than the U.S. and Europe. I took one a good mile or two and it cost 22HKD (US$3). What's interesting is that my first taxi driver was a woman. That's the first time I've ever seen one in China, let alone ridden with one. She was cool and spoke very little English. TAXI TIP: Even though English is an official language, don't expect everyone to speak it, especially the taxi drivers. All hotels provide taxi cards with their address written in both English and Chinese. Some even have points of interest labeled so you can just point or check that the driver knows where to take you.

UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE TIP: No matter where I am in the world, when I need language assistance I seek out people in their late teens or twenties and thirties because they have most likely studied English in school.

I was fortunate to get one of the few preview tours of the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. It's in Kowloon in the new International Commerce Centre (ICC) building, which is 490 meters high (1,608 feet). It's the fourth-largest building in the world, and when the hotel opens on March 29th it will be the tallest hotel in the world. The hotel floors are at the top of the building between the 102nd floor and the 118th floor. It's going to have 312 guest rooms, six restaurants, and the highest pool in the world. You can see my 90-second video of my tour including the 52-second elevator ride up and the panoramic views of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island.

On the way home I walked around Hong Kong Island near my hotel. I made my way through all the Filipino workers who take over the streets of Central on Sundays. Then I took the escalators up toward the Mid-levels and got off at Hollywood Road to see some of the antique shops. I then purposely got lost walking down some of the stone side streets as I made my way back to the hotel. My favorite part was finding a local outdoor market and seeing all of their offerings.

I was lucky this trip because Chinese New Year was about to begin in a couple days so everyone was in a great mood and setting up incredible decorations for the festivities. This year is the Year of the Rabbit, which is associated with home, family, artistic pursuits, diplomacy, and peace. Even the plush malls near the hotel had elaborate decorations and all kinds of fun planned. Next time I will stick around for the good times.

Here's a quick video of my 36 hours at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong.

Next week we travel to one of my favorite countries in the world. It's just a two-hour flight from Hong Kong. If you can't wait you can get a preview on Twitter (@JohnnyJet).

*PLEASE tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Mandarin Oriental

Copyright 2011 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • I seriously doubt that you'll be reimbursed for your ticket. However, I would not be surprised if they take you up on the suggestion to better mark the street's no parking areas (which will probably take at least 6 months to bring the subject up to the proper authorities, get it approved, and signed). Still, a good letter on your part. (You WILL let us know if you do indeed get reimbursed?). MN Mary

  • I seriously doubt that you'll be reimbursed for your ticket. However, I would not be surprised if they take you up on the suggestion to better mark the street's no parking areas (which will probably take at least 6 months to bring the subject up to the proper authorities, get it approved, and signed). Still, a good letter on your part. (You WILL let us know if you do indeed get reimbursed?). MN Mary

  • Enjoyed reading both your and Georgie's articles. I felt as though I was with you both. I don't think you'll hear from L.A. about the parking ticket. If you are up to it, you can get a billboard with an enlargement of your ticket and volunteers to picket them. Sophie-DE

  • I think it was very informative. My husband and I went on the Trafalgar "Best of Italy" tour, we had never been on a bus tour before, and found that it was one of the best trips we had ever taken. We definitely would do this again. It was very informative and so inexpensive for what we saw. Teresa S- Hinsdale IL

  • What a talented family - people can travel but they can't all write about it. Loved the story about Michaelangelo and I'd love to try the informal Trafalgar tours. Hope you will continue adding to your brother's site. Sophie - Wilmington DE

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