BE­YOND THE BEAR ES­SEN­TIALS

Crea­ture com­forts are an es­sen­tial part of a stay in this neigh­bour­hood

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION HONG KONG - JOHN HUX­LEY

This fine, fresh Hong Kong morn­ing Matt Le­ung, se­nior panda trainer at the city’s fa­mous Ocean Park, is a trou­bled man. His old­est male panda, An An, aged 38 (110 years in hu­man terms) has high blood pres­sure, ter­ri­ble toothache and, worst of all, is still off his food. That’s not good. Healthy pan­das must put away up to 35kg of fresh green bam­boo ev­ery day.

The world’s old­est male gi­ant panda un­der hu­man care, An An is un­der around-the-clock ob­ser­va­tion, ex­plains Mr Le­ung, whose of­fi­cial park ti­tle is ter­res­trial life sciences su­per­vi­sor. “I’m con­fi­dent he’ll re­cover with some ten­der love and care,” he says as An An’s com­pan­ions emerge from the long grass for a sit­down lunch. The an­i­mals – which also in­clude smaller red pan­das, golden snub-nosed mon­keys, Chi­nese gi­ant sala­man­ders and notso-gi­ant small-clawed ot­ters – are just a se­lec­tion of the an­i­mal at­trac­tions of Ocean Park. Opened in 1977, the self­styled “amuse­ment park” is a not-for­profit at­trac­tion that aims at “pro­vid­ing ex­cel­lent guest ex­pe­ri­ences through the thrill of dis­cov­ery, while con­nect­ing peo­ple of all ages to na­ture”.

To­day the hi-tech park of­fers an end­less list of at­trac­tions, enough to keep vis­i­tors of all ages and in­ter­ests happy for sev­eral hours, if not days.

They in­clude: a Grand Aquar­ium, which takes guests on a multi-sen­sory jour­ney “from the shore to the dark­est depths of the ocean”; an Em­per­ors of the Sky bird show; North and South po­lar ad­ven­tures; a Shark Mys­tique ex­hibit fea­tur­ing sev­eral species, plus sawfish and other beau­ti­ful an­i­mals of the deep.

Back on dry land, there is a rain­for­est walk, up-close en­coun­ters with vul­tures and other big birds, and a Great En­ter­tain­ment Theatre walk­ing tour fea­tur­ing – among many things – Aus­tralian favourites such as kook­abur­ras, koalas, and red-necked and rare al­bino wallabies.

Away from the an­i­mals, there are many man-made at­trac­tions, re­mark­able ma­chines, things old and new, to see and do. Nearby, the “Old Hong Kong” streetscape takes vis­i­tors to the mid-1970s where they can en­joy more than 80 street foods and drinks.

Then there are the tra­di­tional, true “fair­ground” at­trac­tions, of­fer­ing thrills and spills on af­ford­able bills. They in­clude the Arc­tic Blast, a snows­cape-themed roller­coaster; the twist­ing and turn­ing 678m-long Mine Train ride; and the Rag­ing River, a 60km/hour dash through a se­ries of trop­i­cal wa­ter­falls.

And, in an unashamedly “car­ni­valthemed” area, lit by colour­ful flash­ing lights and driven by heavy mu­sic, there is Thrill Moun­tain.

Ma­jor at­trac­tions here in­clude Hair Raiser, an el­e­vated roller­coaster ride of­fer­ing 88km/hour views across the South China Sea; Whirly Bird, fea­tur­ing the “magic of fly­ing on vin­tage air­planes”; the Rev Booster (“three sen­sa­tional lev­els of or­bital mo­tion”), and the Bumper Blaster, which prom­ises “bumps and jolts and ex­hil­a­rat­ing speed”.

It’s lit­tle wonder the in­ter­na­tional Mar­riott group has cho­sen a site next to Ocean Park for its lat­est Asi­aPa­cific ho­tel, due to open in the next few months. It of­fers po­si­tion, po­si­tion, po­si­tion, and in part tar­gets fun-seek­ers who want to spend a cou­ple of days or more in the park.

PO­SI­TION, PO­SI­TION

The 471-room Hong Kong Ocean Park Mar­riott Ho­tel, to give its full name, prom­ises to be “a new icon”, a “city oa­sis in the city that will in­spire you to travel bril­liantly”, with its na­turethemed decor and a 16m high aquar­ium in the main lobby.

As Xue Ying Mei, Mar­riott loy­alty mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor for the Asi­aPa­cific re­gion ex­plains, a rush of re­cent ac­qui­si­tions means Mar­riott In­ter­na­tional now boasts a port­fo­lio of 6500 ho­tels glob­ally, in­clud­ing 640 ho­tels in 24 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries across Asia-Pa­cific; more than 20 brands in the area, 30 glob­ally.

That, says Mike Fulkerson, vice pres­i­dent for brand mar­ket­ing in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, rep­re­sents “an amaz­ing rate of growth”. Nowhere is that more no­tice­able than in Hong Kong, where the new Mar­riott Ho­tel Ocean Park Hong Kong will be the 13th on the is­lands. Our four-night stay at the 11-storey, 658-room Hong Kong SkyCity Mar­riott nes­tled on the edge of nearby Lan­tau Island of­fers an all-too-brief op­por­tu­nity to see what he means.

One of the nicest sur­prises, for first­timers at least, is that the air­port must be one of the fastest and friendli­est in the world. Cus­toms and bag­gage col­lec­tion were cleared in a mat­ter of min­utes, about 15, and a shut­tle bus had us at the ho­tel check-in within an­other 15 min­utes. Eat your heart out, Los An­ge­les.

The sur­round­ing land­scape may still be a work in progress and non­stop mo­tion, but there’s shop­ping at nearby Ci­ty­gate. The Asi­aWorld Expo is a one-minute walk away, and there’s an eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble cinema in the air­port.

Nearby Lan­tau at­trac­tions in­clude Hong Kong Dis­ney­land, the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car and, fur­ther away, there are Bud­dhist tem­ples, beaches, walk­ing tracks and fish­ing vil­lages. Fur­ther afield, “down­town” taxi trips can take up to an hour and could eas­ily cost any­thing up to $75.

Fu­ture Aus­tralian trav­ellers may pre­fer to try the new Ocean Park ho­tel, es­pe­cially if they have chil­dren or down­town busi­ness, but the SkyCity is very con­ve­nient, es­pe­cially for air trav­ellers – it’s com­fort­able, classy and over­whelm­ingly cheer­ful.

All rooms fea­ture the lat­est in­house tech­nol­ogy and each has unique ocean and sky­line views. Guests can watch – once-in-ev­ery minute – planes com­ing in to land and, be­neath them, antlike male and fe­male con­struc­tion teams crawl­ing across the land­scape. Sur­pris­ingly, it’s all re­mark­ably hyp­notic.

Back in the sound­proof ho­tel – pro­moted as of­fer­ing “a re­fresh­ing es­cape from the bustling city” – there’s much to do apart from watch­ing the out­side world go by.

Dine at one of sev­eral top-class res­tau­rants, such as the world­fa­mous Man Ho Chi­nese Restau­rant. Make up for all that fine din­ing by tak­ing a swim in the in­door pool, re­lax­ing in the Quan Spa, or work­ing off all that good liv­ing (till the next day) in the 24-hour gym­na­sium.

This way, there need be no dull mo­ments – es­pe­cially when, as hap­pened to us, your visit co­in­cides with one of their most pop­u­lar an­nual fes­ti­vals, the world-fa­mous Hong Kong Sev­ens, con­sid­ered the pre­mier tour­na­ment on the World Rugby Sev­ens Se­ries. The crowds are colour­ful; the en­thu­si­as­tic teams pulled from the ends of the world, and the fans and sup­port­ers are still on their best be­hav­iour as they cheer, chomp, cross-dress, drink and soak up the friendly at­mos­phere.

The or­gan­is­ers had even set up a con­cert; a crazy pre-tour­na­ment con­cert fea­tur­ing the band UB40. The lads are Bri­tish, hail­ing from Birm­ing­ham, Eng­land. And, be­lieve it or not, many years ago, I ac­tu­ally played foot­ball with – well, against – them as a boy.

Just one high­light in a short trip packed with mem­o­rable mo­ments.

SHARK MYS­TIQUE FEA­TURES SEV­ERAL SPECIES, PLUS SAWFISH AND OTHER BEAU­TI­FUL AN­I­MALS OF THE DEEP

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