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Hong Kong – ‘Fragrant Harbour’ – was Britain’s first toe-hold on the Chinese coast and, as one of the world’s leading financial centres, remains firmly at the interface of East and West: an economic powerhouse, a cultural melting pot and an enthralling city to explore, whether as part of a longer tour or as a destination in its own right.
Gazing across Victoria Harbour at the famous cityscape today, with its ranks of skyscrapers receding into misty the hills behind and junks bobbing around the choppy grey-green bay in the foreground, it’s hard to comprehend that a little over a century-and-a half ago, this most recognizable of waterfronts was merely a ‘barren rock’ off China’s south coast. Having been ceded by the Qing Dynasty to Britain after the First Opium War, however, it quickly established itself as one of East Asia’s pre-eminent ports – a role it has retained since being incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
Boats are still very much part of the Hong Kong scene, especially the green-and-white Star Ferries that chug across the harbour – a great way to savour the spectacular panoramas. Cable cars and a white-knuckle funicular railway are two other means to reach vantage points over the city. But there’s a lot more to Hong Kong than its skyline.
With its well organized public transport system, the city is above all a place to experiment and explore at ground level – where little pockets of traditional Cantonese life appear unexpectedly amid the modern mêlée. Follow the aroma of incense to discover a Taoist temple; duck out of the rain into a steaming noodle canteen or dim sum restaurant for an unforgettably delicious meal. Or jump on a ferry to the settlement of Aberdeen, where sampans dodge among the trawlers in the harbour, and fishermen in conical hats preside over piles of exotic seafood, from jellyfish tentacles to crabs the size of tennis rackets.
Macau occupies 26 square kilometres of a peninsula and two islands (Taipa and Coloane) on the opposite side of the mouth of the Pearl River from Hong Kong. Numerous vestiges of its days as a Portuguese colony still stand in the old quarter, between the Largo de Senado and Guia hilltop, including the spectacular façade of the Church of St Paul, which in its day ranked among the world’s largest Baroque cathedrals. Join the old folk each morning in leafy Camoes Park for a Thai Chi workout, or hunt amid the lofty tenements for the 1821 cemetery founded by the British East India Company.
Macau has for more than a century been eclipsed by its more prosperous cousin across the water. But this former Lusitanian enclave is making a comeback thanks to its liberal gambling laws. Punters from mainland China (where gambling is banned) nowadays flock here in droves, particularly on weekends, for a flutter in one of the Vegas-style mega casinos springing up across the city.
The other popular pastime in Macau is eating. Several renowned local restaurants serve top-notch Portuguese cuisine, and its delightfully hybrid ‘Macanese’ equivalent, where pork and salt fish collide with Chinese spices and rice.