BEYOND THE BEAR ESSENTIALS
Creature comforts are an essential part of a stay in this neighbourhood
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.
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