The largest of the islands, Lantau, offers travellers their very first taste of the country. As the plane begins its descent, passengers peering through porthole windows – assuming visibility is good - will be able to spot the local Disneyland’s take on “Sleeping Beauty Castle” followed by a Buddha perched on top of a mountain surrounded by lush, wild vegetation. The very observant will also catch a glimpse of some rather strange-looking stilt houses standing in the water of an inlet not far from the runway. Lantau is one of Asia’s symbolic sites dedicated to Buddhism, symbolised by the world’s largest sitting Buddha statue. Crafted from bronze and standing a staggering 34 metres high, this "Big Buddha" has been watching over the Chinese people since 1993, attracting daily crowds of pilgrims who readily clamber up the 268 steps that allow them to worship at his feet and take in the stunning views over the surrounding mountains and beaches. Just opposite, a stroll through the fragrant gardens of the Po Lin monastery, where the aroma of plants and incense permeates the air, instils an all-encompassing sense of serenity. Monks are on hand to welcome guests, inviting them to indulge in the tasty vegetarian fare served in the monastery restaurant. On the hills surrounding Ngong Ping, the Wisdom Path (a walkway lined with 38 timber columns engraved with texts from the Heart Sutra, a famous Confucian prayer) invites you to meditate whilst contemplating the South China Sea.
More picturesque still is the stilt house village belonging to the Tanka fishing community. This is a community that perpetuates the traditions of Hong Kong’s indigenous population and is doing everything it can to resist local urban development projects, such as plans to extend the airport and to build a bridge linking Hong Kong to Macao and Zuhai. To the east of Lantau sit the islands of Cheung Chau and Peng Chau. They may be significantly smaller, but what they lack in size they easily make up for in charm and authenticity. Cheung Chau is a place where life revolves around fishing, the signs of which are everywhere you look from the moment the ferry docks – fishing boats, fish drying on crates outside fishermen’s houses or strung up in front of shops, and of course the stretch of inviting seafood restaurants lining the sea front.
The island is a car-free zone, enabling visitors to take a carefree stroll along the narrow streets. Those feeling slightly more energetic can visit temples, hop on a bike or head to the beach to watch the sun go down. Every spring, Cheung Chau also hosts the traditional "Bun Festival", which locals spend all year preparing. Peng Chau inspires visitors to chill out and relax. Shrouded with an air of secrecy, this is a place that feels like a traditional village should. A place where the pace of life is dictated by the docking of ferries and punctuated by noisy games of Mahjong played out in the backrooms of tiny shops whilst the older generation, a twinkle in their eye, sit outside reminiscing about their island’s once thriving industrial past…
ISLANDS ARE A CAR-FREE ZONE, ENABLING
VISITORS TO TAKE A CAREFREE STROLL ALONG THE NARROW
Further southeast and originally a traditional Chinese fishing village, Lamma is now a refuge for those desperate to escape the urban cacophony of the centre of Hong Kong and surround themselves with vegetable patches, cosy jazz bars, beaches and underground artists’ workshops.
The island exudes an overtly hippie vibe, with the multicultural population more than happy to chat with visitors about the bygone “Woodstock” years. Discover Hong Kong by venturing out to its islands and you’ll be rewarded with a surprise around every corner.
Land art on Lantau island.
The Wisdom Path, by Jao Tsung-i, the oldest living calligrapher in China.
Dried fishes in a little shop at the ferrys landing.
A landscape far from the usual Hong Kong.