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June 18, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 Hong Kong
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Cheers from Hong Kong! I can't tell you how excited I am to be back here after 15 years. This city holds a special place in my heart as it was my first international destination and helped mold my career. Of most interest to me was seeing how much Hong Kong had changed, now that it's been handed back to the Chinese. Would it be all that I remembered? Less than I remembered? Or more? To find out all about this place and to get a rundown of two fine hotels, then log on and join me for part one of my journey to Hong Kong. Looking for something a bit different? Join Lorraine Williams on the other side of the world, as she reports on Quebec's 400-year anniversary. Plus, this week get some valuable tips on dealing with jet lag, provided by the experts at Medjet.

MACAU TO HONG KONG
Last week, we left on in Macau, China, one of the world's up-and-coming destinations, one that's giving Vegas a run for its money. The MGM Grand Macau, like the other major casinos here, provides free shuttles to the ferry terminal. The bus ride takes 10 minutes and runs as frequently as the ferries (practically every 15 minutes) to and from Central Hong Kong (HK$134 = $17USD). Even if you reserve your ferry ticket in advance, get there at least 30 minutes early as the Macau customs line might be long (it took me seven minutes to clear it). If you don't want to schlep your bag(s) on board, there's a separate check-in line if you want to check your luggage (cost: HK$30 = $3.84USD apiece). I brought both my medium-sized bags on board free of charge but there's no overhead space so I had to leave them in the rear with the other bags. Passengers aren't allowed on the boat's decks (must be for immigration or insurance reasons) but the 40-mile ride was smooth and took just under an hour. Once in Hong Kong, we needed to go through passport control, which added another 10 minutes. I still don't completely understand why all visitors to and from Macau, Hong Kong and mainland China need to go through each bureaucrat's controls but I'm not complaining as now, my passport is just bursting with fresh stamps.

1993 to 2008
The last 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, you'll find pubs, afternoon tea, rugby and double-decker buses. The biggest changes seem to be: there aren't as many ex-pats; 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 went from English and Cantonese to English and "Chinese". Chinese has 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 however they use the same characters for writing.

RELIGION: Every major religion is practiced freely in Hong Kong and about 43% participate in some form of religious practice. About 9.6% of the population are practicing Christians.

HONG KONG
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 6.92 million (according to the 2007 census) Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The name Hong Kong translates to "fragrant harbor" as fragrant wood products and incense were once traded here. Hong Kong is made up primarily 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.

CRIME: In terms of crime and personal safety, Hong Kong is one of the safest large international 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.

EXCHANGE RATE
At the time of publication, $1 United States Dollar (USD) = Hong Kong Dollars (HK$) $7.80. To keep conversion simple and reasonably accurate, divide prices by eight.



GETTING AROUND BY TAXI
It couldn't be any easier or cheaper for Americans to get around. All the signs are in English and although taxis are expensive by Southeast Asian standards, it's still way cheaper than the U.S. and Europe. To get from Central to the top of Victoria Peak by taxi (a 20-minute drive) cost me HK$47 ($6USD). And this is the most expensive mode of transportation besides chauffeured car service or helicopter.

TAXI TIP: Even though English is an official language, don't expect everyone to speak it especially the taxi drivers. All hotels have 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.

MTR
If you are coming from the Hong Kong Airport (which is my favorite and one of the world's best) take the Airport Express Train. It takes 30 minutes and costs HK$100 ($12.81USD). A taxi on the other hand costs around HK$380 and takes 35 minutes (without traffic). Airport Express is part of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) and is one of the world's best and cleanest subways around. I love everything about it; it's so easy to buy tickets, figure out the schedule, they provide up-to-the-minute information and cell phones work ... why can't they do this in NYC? It's so advanced that they even have the world's first "contactless" tickets, which can be waved over a scanner without even taking them out of your purse or pocket.

WHEN TO GO: Hong Kong has a tropical climate. It's cool and humid in the winter, hot and rainy from spring through summer, warm and sunny in fall. Here's the 10-day weather forecast.

STAR FERRY
The first thing I did after dropping my bags off was jump on the historic Star Ferry. It goes back and forth between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon every few minutes. The upper deck is supposedly first class and costs a whopping 50 cents extra (HK$2.20 = $0.28USD) than the lower deck (HK$1.70 = $0.21USD). Both decks are pretty much the same except that the lower deck doesn't require 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, which take coins only and are self-explanatory in English.

TROLLEY CAR
The narrow old rickety double-decker trolley cars have become an icon of Hong Kong. They cost just HK$2 ($0.25USD) and I could have rode one from my hotel in the western district all the way to Causeway Bay. They may be slow but sit in the front row upstairs for the cheapest sightseeing tour around.

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Pictures From

The Trip

 

Macau to Hong Kong

Onboard

 

My Seatmates

 

Arriving In HK!

 

Hong Kong Seal

 

Hong Kong Island

 

Hong Kong Skyline At Night

 

Hong Kong Dollars

 

Hong Kong Taxi

 

Chauffeured Car

 

Victoria Peak

 

Star Ferry Token

 

Star Ferry

 

Upper Deck

 

Lower Deck

 

MTR Ticket Machine

 

MTR

 

Hong Kong Trolley

 

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