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Travel: Hong Kong

It's two o'clock in the morning and I'm standing among massive banks of bright neon lights of every hue, towering skyscrapers and garishly-coloured signs.

The city of Hong Kong sits on one of 263 islands that make up the region. Photograph: Iakov Kalinin/Shutterstock
The city of Hong Kong sits on one of 263 islands that make up the region. Photograph: Iakov Kalinin/Shutterstock

All-night foodhalls, lurid, bustling markets and electrical stores compete with dense trails of pedestrians scuttling about like ants, double-decker trams, fluorescent walkways and Hong Kong's bright red taxis conspiring to create an ever-changing landscape of vivid colour and cacophony.

The San Francisco-style steep urban hills, the juxtaposition of colourful old temples and towering modern skyscrapers further the exhilaration. A number of times I stop to ask myself whether I am in the most exciting place on earth. There's a good few pulsating cities around the globe but there can't be many that beat Hong Kong for its energy and excitement.

However, my first impression of Hong Kong, as my plane descended towards the international airport away from the city, was very different. I felt that I was entering rural Scotland. All I could see was lush greenery lashed by heavy rains and overcast hills beyond.

More than two thirds of Hong Kong is made up of countryside, and its 263 islands, a number quickly and cheaply accessible by ferry, have sleepy fishing villages, restful beaches and tranquil hikes.

One little island, Cheung Chau, is car-free and just a 60-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong Central. Take this ferry, and the skyline of the megacity is rapidly replaced by the salty sea breeze and approaching rocky mounds of greenery.

Cheung Chau is known for its fish restaurants, which line the harbour and look out to rows of junks. Follow the path and you come to a little deserted beach, with Macau-bound ferries in the distance. Walk further and you come to dense shrubbery and trees. It could not be more of a contrast from the city centre, yet few tourists make the journey.

If you haven't the time for a hike around one of the rural islands, the 10-minute ferry across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon peninsula is likely be the best 25p you'll spend. The views of densely-packed futuristic towers are breathtaking.

Kowloon's Night Market is fun to stroll around, even though it is full of tourist tat. If you want to buy a trinket, haggling is the norm here: you'll get 25% off just by walking away.

There are numerous little open-air restaurants around here. I opted for Tong Tai Sea Food Restaurant on the junction of Ning Po and Temple Streets and had a bowl of delicious fried noodles and watched the world go by.

The atmosphere was priceless. I was surrounded by what seemed like more neon lighting than Piccadilly Circus, youths hustling the crowds selling cheap watches, Buddhist monks begging, and a group of suited businessmen enjoying large TsingTao beers and plates of pig leg and fried frog. At the next table two lovers stared into each others eyes while enjoying what I'm pretty sure was a plate of deep-fried pork intestine. Prostitutes blatantly and persistently plied their trade next to them.

For a spectacular view of the region, take the Peak Tram up the steep, 27-degree slopes behind Central. The tram has been operating since 1888 and the first five minutes are unexceptional, but suddenly and dramatically the densely packed buildings give way to lush, green hills, with the skyscrapers below. At the top you can easily leave the crowds and enjoy a tranquil walk around the Peak through shady forest, to enjoy more stunning panoramas.

I was staying at the famous Mandarin Oriental Hotel. As I arrive an army of immaculately-liveried doormen and porters, sporting either deep, bright red, yellow or black tunics and caps, scuttle to retrieve my luggage. The entrance lobby is awash with rich fabrics, polished marble and ornate chandeliers. Around the corner are swish boutique shops and restaurants and cafes, where some of Hong Kong's biggest deals are thrashed out.

Little touches that propel this hotel from the ordinary are everywhere: the centrepiece cake sculpture at the dinky little cake shop takes a whole three months to make, for example, and even the shoe shine here is five-star, the chair covered in Hermes leather and created by exclusive shoemakers John Lobb.

The Mandarin Oriental has had its fair share of distinguished guests over its 50 years: anyone from assorted royalty to Beyonce, and from Elizabeth Taylor to Barry Humphries, Sigourney Weaver and Vanessa Mae. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government stayed here when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese by the British in 1997.

Located in the heart of Central district, overlooking glittering Victoria Harbour and the city skyline, it is a short walk from the main shopping, entertainment and business areas.

As well as 501 spacious rooms and suites - designed in conjunction with a Feng Shui master - the hotel has 10 bars and eateries including the Michelin-starred Pierre and the Terence Conran-designed Mandarin Grill and Bar restaurants.

At the latter, head chef Uwe Opocensky wows guests with his wild imagination. Cooking becomes theatre as he merges art with cuisine. I try a flower pot decked in edible flowers, broccoli and cauliflower florets and lettuce leaves underneath mushy pea, crumbled breadcrumb, nut and pesto 'earth'. The dessert is a brioche reconstruction of a section of Berlin Wall, complete with grafitti, followed by a very convincing chocolate cigar in an ashtray, the ash made from coconut and chocolate.

Behind me oysters rest upon a bed of ice, among them specimens from Whitstable, Galway Bay, Belon in France and Blue Point in America. This is truly a place that takes its food seriously.

It was quite an experience having a 40-minute wet shave by expert barber Limba Kumar. Using a combination of shaving oils, warm and then very cold towels, he worked my face millimetre by millimetre. It was strangely relaxing - whenever I could forget that a sharp razor was skimming past my jugular vein every few seconds.

Concierge Giovanni Valenti is another hotel employee who has worked at the hotel for many years. He's 69, but fit, glowing and immaculate, he looks years younger.

"I came to the Mandarin 34 years ago," he says. "My strength is that I love people. I was very shy as a child but as an adult I feel very comfortable, whether talking to a princess or a shoeshine boy."

Giovanni speaks English, Italian, French, Spanish and Cantonese, which must be invaluable in an international hotel like this. He has seen lots of heads of state, celebrities and royalty go through the doors of the Mandarin.

"This hotel is my home, it's something special. It's like a virus, I can't get rid of it," he says, with a glint in his eye.

Getting there

Finnair (finnair.com) flies from London Heathrow to Hong Kong via Helsinki from £541 return. British Airways (ba.com) has return flights from Glasgow to Heathrow from £132.

Where to stay

The Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Road, Central, has double rooms from £320 per night. Visit mandarinoriental.com/hongkong.

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