6 Awesome Outlying Islands in Hong Kong
Many people, when thinking about Hong Kong, will conjure up images of the photogenic skyline around Hong Kong Island or the concrete jungle of the Kowloon peninsula. Less well known but no less interesting are the 6 awesome outlying islands in Hong Kong. The New Territories, of course, were leased for a 99 year period by the British from China in 1898. The expiry of the lease led to the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The purpose of the lease was to gain land for farming.
As well as the swathe of the mainland, which abuts Kowloon and extends to the Chinese border, the New Territories comprises more than 250 islands. Many of the islands are small, sparsely populated or uninhabited. However, there are several important islands which are easily accessible and well worth a visit. The first four are easily accessible by ferry from the Outlying Islands Ferry Piers adjacent to the Star Ferry terminus at Central on Hong Kong Island.
6 Awesome Outlying Islands in Hong Kong
Lantau is the only island which exceeds Hong Kong Island in terms of size. Twenty-five years ago it was quiet throughout, but the construction of Chek Lap Kok Airport – which opened in 1998 – has changed North Lantau unrecognizably. The South Lantau villages and beaches remain sleepy and best accessible by ferry. The airport is linked to East Kowloon by a four-lane highway and the iconic Tsing Ma Bridge. This is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.
All along the west shore of the island, the land has been reclaimed for the Hong Kong Express railway. Take advantage of the railway to get from the airport to Central in a little over thirty minutes. The construction of HK Disneyland (opened in 2005), and Tung Chung New Town are additional large developments on Lantau. The MTR line ends at Tung Chung while a Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car provides excellent views over the Lantau hills on its way to the Big Buddha.
Central Lantau has a mountainous terrain and apart from hikers and visitors to the Po Lin Monastery, it is largely left to nature. There is one windy road which crosses the island and another which follows the south coast. This links the ferry terminal at Mui Wo (Silvermine Bay) to the old village of Tai O, with its stilt houses, makers of prawn paste and history of smuggling.
At Mui Wo, there is a hotel, a few boarding houses, some shops and a supermarket. Pleasant outdoor restaurants double as bicycle hiring depots and there is a small low rise housing settlement and a clean beach nearby. A slow bus or taxi will take you along the southern road to places such as Cheng Sha or Tong Fuk, which still retain a sleepy village atmosphere with a few shops and restaurants. In my opinion, Cheng Sha Beach is one of the best in the whole territory.
Lamma Island is just a 20-minute ferry trip from Central and about 6000 people live on the island. It is clearly visible from the south side of Hong Kong. Lamma is a popular day trip destination for lovers of seafood and hikers. There are no motor vehicles on the island. There is an excellent linear 4 km walk along the coast and conveniently there are two ferry termini.
You can catch the ferry to Sok Kwu Wan, hike to Yung Shue Wan and have a swim en-route. You can eat in one of the outdoor seafood restaurants and catch a return ferry without the need to retrace your steps. Lamma does have a rather ugly power station, but it is also the site of Hong Kong’s first (and so far only) wind turbine. Sok Kwu Wan is a working fishing village.
Cheung Chau is a bone-shaped island about 10 kilometers long. It is one hour from Central by normal ferry and 30 minutes by fast (hover) ferry. It is much more densely populated than Lamma and is home to about 23,000 permanent residents. Many people travel for the day or stay overnight in one of the numerous holiday rooms for rent. There is also one three star hotel (The Warwick).
Cheung Chau is a favored destination for school camps and there are several seminaries and religious retreats on the island. Like Lamma, there are no cars, but slim ‘tuk-tuk’ trucks ply the narrow lanes carrying goods, baggage and building materials. There is also a mini-sized ambulance and fire truck. The harbor around the ferry pier is abuzz with activity. You can find many working fishing boats and well-regarded seafood restaurants.
Just a ten-minute walk from here across to the other side of the island you can find several beaches with changing rooms and lifeguards in the summer months. The Kwun Yam or the “Afternoon” Beach was named by the colonials as one of the best locations to watch the sun go down. There are some excellent walks to the extremities and viewpoints of the island and it has an interesting history connected with smuggling and piracy.
For a week during May, the island becomes very crowded as visitors flock for the week-long Cheung Chau Bun Festival. This is a unique festival which includes lion dances, parades, drum beating and culminates with the bun scramble where young men race to climb bamboo towers to retrieve Chinese buns. The festival dates back several hundreds of years and was originally created as a thank you to the god of the sea (Pak Tai) for sparing the islanders from a virulent plague. The towers are constructed outside the ancient Pak Tai temple.
One of the best ways to get around the island is to hire a bicycle. There are several bike hiring establishments a short walk from the ferry pier. They are inexpensive and you can hire them by the hour or day.
Cheung Chau was the birthplace and provided the training waters for Hong Kong’s only Olympic gold medalist Lee Lai-Shan who won the windsurfing competition at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996
Peng Chau is the fourth island destination linked by ferry to Central and is the smallest and quietest. It is home to about 5000 people and is visited for its temples, seafood restaurants, and pleasant beach. There is a hiking trail to the island’s highest point (Finger Hill).
Sai Kung Islands
In the east of the New Territories lies the town of Sai Kung, which also gives its name to an extensive country park. Historically Sai Kung was an important fishing village, and some small fishing boats are still based there.
Tourist groups – often from Mainland China – regularly visit and the town becomes very busy at weekends. Many of the sampans and kai-tos previously used for fishing. Now you can notice them involved in the more lucrative business of ferrying visitors to and from some of the islands that lie within Sai Kung waters.
Several islands are accessible from Sai Kung Pier including Yim Tin Tsai (Salt Island). On Yim Tin Tsai you will be surprised to see a Catholic church – St Joseph’s which was founded in the 1880s by an Austrian missionary. You can also see the ancient salt pans which are remnants of the once thriving industry which gave the island its name. There is a circular island walk of just over two kilometers.
Also, just a few kilometers from Sai Kung Pier is Kui Tsui Chau or Sharp Island. Kui Tsui Chau has several sandy beaches and comparatively clear waters. Hap Mun (Half Moon) Bay lies about fifteen minutes from the Pier and is named for the shape of its popular sandy beach.
Just along the waterfront from the ferry pier you will see fast hover ferries frequently coming and going. These are the Kau Sai Chau shuttle ferries which transport golfers to and from Hong Kong’s only public golf courses. The island is Hong Kong’s sixth largest and the first of the three golf courses constructed there was opened in 1995. The courses were financed and are administered by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, as part of its community outreach program. Its aim was making golf more accessible to the wider population. Non-golfers are welcome and there is a very good restaurant there.
Tap Mun Chau
One of my personal favorite islands is Tap Mun Chau (or Grass Island). It is situated in the North East of the New Territories and not far from the Chinese border. The island is reached by a small kai-to service from Ma Lui Shui pier near the Chinese University at Tai Po. Tap Mun is a serene place where you will totally forget you are in Hong Kong. There are pleasant walks, kite flyers, and even feral cattle. Travelling on the ancient boat is a pleasure in itself.
There are many other islands in Hong Kong, which are worthy of exploring. But hopefully, I have given you a taster of the main ones. Clearly, Hong Kong has a lot to offer the discerning traveler and there is so much to see and do. This is even truer if you are prepared to wander off the beaten track.