Glamour & Granite in Hong Kong

I remember the first time I came to Hong Kong 10 years ago: I fell in love with the lights and that iconic skyline, the relentless energy, and it’s contrasting yet-oh-so-complementary mix of spectacular glamour and gritty character. My last trip to HK in June was exactly that pairing: a multifaceted weekend of city cool and sinking my tips into some brilliant granite sport climbing, albeit in the rain.

City slick, natural wonder and historical soul

The former British colony is a melting pot of international dynamics and Chinese historical culture: It’s unique blend transformed it into the financial powerhouse city of not just Asia, but the world. It brought business and people from across the globe and showcased a modern culture that has been comparatively free and progressive amongst its Asian counterparts, without losing it’s traditional, rich, Chinese heritage. And yet, it is also unlike any “western city”: it manages to be seriously sexy and vibrant, drawing in mass investment under a progressive low tax system, while cherishing it’s historical soul. It is a 24 hour city that is clean and safe with a cheap and efficient transportation system. Yes, rent is astronomical for compact space, but you can eat exceptionally well at a Michelin starred for both big bucks and equally minimal dollars at local boltholes (yes, check the HK Michelin listings), plus ride a ferry across the incomparable harbour for essentially peanuts. Which begs the question: Britain, why did you not think to implement some of this successful structure, instead of the never ending rise in taxes…for another discussion).

A key draw for me about Hong Kong is it’s immediate proximity to nature: Imagine the brilliance of London or New York but with mountains and lush hiking trails right in the middle of the city, beaches and islands within half an hour ride - and some seriously good rock climbing on your doorstep. This is why I love Hong Kong. It pretty much has everything you could want…if you’re that amalgamation of city bunny and rock climbing fiend.

I almost moved to Hong Kong twice in this last decade: once, when I was still working at a global FinTech & media firm in London for an overseas placement, but due to severe illness of my sibling, I couldn’t be on the other side of the world. I proposed a colleague and friend of mine as an alternative solution who ended up moving out there - and still hasn’t come back. The second time was again for work at an entrepreneurship who pulled the job just a couple of weeks before I was due to go - this was the real height of the financial crisis, of businesses going bust, redundancies left and right, and a nations worth of well educated, experienced young professionals not being able to find work. Alas, with these near misses, life led me onto other great paths and I’ve been happy to make do with multiple trips to visit.

 Late night lobby musing at J Plus Hotel by Yoo

Late night lobby musing at J Plus Hotel by Yoo

J Plus Hotel by Yoo - an eclectic colourful scene

It was indeed a wet weekend, but a welcome relief from months of the intense heat and humidity that never ends in Singapore. Rain doesn’t make Hong Kong any less awesome. Moreover, when you get to stay in a Philippe Starck inspired boutique residence, namely the J Plus Hotel by Yoo. Originally designed by Starck himself, the hotel recently had a makeover, in full testament to his style. Lovers of Starck design will appreciate the eclectic and dramatic features of this kooky bolthole right in the buzz of Causeway Bay: think opulent furnishings with a sleek twist, silvers and golds with daring colour popping off white and black, chic lighting arrangements and tongue-in-cheek contemporary artworks. The lobby lounge is an ode to a modern Lewis Carroll imaginarium which doubles as an art gallery showcasing up and coming artists. 

It also makes for a quirky continental breakfast setting each morning. I am not sure my Thai-Chinese-Buddhist ancestors would approve of me dining while sitting on a stool fashioned as Buddha’s head, though he makes for a cool centrepiece of furniture. Fresh juices, fruit, tea and coffee are available all day and a much appreciated complimentary wine hour every evening for in house guests. The team here are also top calibre: attentive, accommodating, friendly and full of helpful knowledge for every query you might have.

 Quirky arts in Philippe Starck style

Quirky arts in Philippe Starck style

Our top floor one bedroom suite was a white and tangerine dream: Contemporary white furniture and marble, complemented by vibrant alcoves, carpets and showcase pieces. The place was about twice as large as any Hong Kong apartment (or four times as large as any hotel room!) I have stayed in previously, so that’s saying something about the ample room. We had a fully usable kitchen - apparently the hotel gets its fair share of long stay guests. The living area held a dining table - decorated with a bottle of cabernet and chocolates (thank you J Plus!) - sofa, two chaise longues and a secluded alcove. You could spend your whole stay getting lost in your most inspired and animated thoughts around this kaleidoscope den without much need to step outside. But that’s not the point of Hong Kong. It calls. Quite literally from the outdoor terrace of the hotel. If you’re wary of getting lost about the city, an awesome J Plus perk is the handy smartphone available to guests: that’s right - data, wifi, and even international phone calls -  all for free. How’s that for service?

Vertical mazes where rock faces hide

Hong Kong Island is a dynamic heaving mass, rain or shine. The world is very much “up" here too. With limited ground space at the foothills of the central island peaks, the majority of buildings are high rise mazes of offices, restaurants and bars, fitness studios and entertainment centres. I love the winding streets and alleys that lend charm to the chaos. Some of the gradients rival San Francisco’s hills, where stairways carve the hillsides between streets, and I always marvel at the double decker buses that meander through these roads, even all the way up to the famous Peak. There are hidden gems around nearly every corner and overhead walkway, from darling cafes and hidden courtyards to underground bars and ancient trees spilling over brick walls. 

 Ancient tree roots spilling through the old brickwork throughout the city mezzanines 

Ancient tree roots spilling through the old brickwork throughout the city mezzanines 

Unlike most concrete jungles, the city quickly merges with real lush jungle and countryside which means with little effort you can immerse in greenery and break out a good sweat on a hike or run. What’s more, layered between the towers and mezzanines, is high quality granite and volcanic climbing rock. While this isn’t the epic granite of Yosemite, it’s quality of stone is here: it’s sharp and sticky even in high heat and humidity. Unfortunately, there was flood-like rain on the first day that made it impossible to venture out onto these walls. So, we had to settle for cafe hopping, a lot of eating and drinking in some sassy venues, and enjoying the comfy glamour of the J Plus suite. You can find some lovely suggestions for easy hangouts at the end of this piece.

Granite magic

The following day we were greeted by looming clouds but we had unwavering determination to get out onto the rock. We were off to Tung Lung Chau, an island a short 30 minute ferry ride away, where we had visited previously, with some local friends (see my previous write up on our trip to China from last November). The climbing scene here is strong in community and committed: we were a ferry full of avid climbers ready to take on the rock, rain or not. As you pass the Hong Kong skyline and soak up some sea air, you are soon met by the rocky island topped with green jungle. There are well maintained pathways for easy hiking across the island as well as campsites for city dwellers seeking some immediate outdoor experience, without venturing too far from home. 

 Wafer Wavers captured by Alex Reshikov

Wafer Wavers captured by Alex Reshikov

With strong waves and a spitting sky, our friends suggested we make way to the Sea Gully as opposed to the Technical Wall, which would be flooded at the base of the routes. By the time we got set up in our gear, the rain was coming in a little more wilfully but we weren't giving up. The worst it could be like is sweaty limestone on a really hot day (or so we told ourselves!) It was warm enough to take off your sweater while climbing but there were some slick streams on the rock and edges that felt more like challenging slopers. Overall, the granite still provided a decent amount of friction for some satisfying climbing against a dark sky and a dramatic sea crashing below. 

I was kindly sandbagged on my first route: I felt strained and mildly stressed two thirds of the way up by some precarious footwork and damp edges and some good but stretchy moves. Of course the self expectation set in - I clearly had fallen way off my own wagon with too many breaks in climbing - and I was horribly pumped by the time I got to the top. Needless to say it turned out to be a 6c+ route, and more like a 7a in the rain. Apparently the grade was negligible in this case. Thanks Team! The space does get busy with strong climbers taking up every line on the wall so, it was slow moving. We did some lovely and slightly hairy lengths towards the edge of the gully where it was less protected from the rain - but very worthwhile for some awesome knee-bar jams against chunky edges. It felt good to be moving. It always feels good to be moving and spirits were very high amongst everyone at the crag in spite of the less than ideal weather. For me, given how rarely I'm getting to touch real rock at the moment, it was a blessing to be outdoors in a beautiful space. 

Time was ticking so we descended to the bottom of the gully to tackle a beautiful face called Wafer Wavers (7a) that was drier than the upper cliffs. I loved this climb: starting with trusty footwork traversing the slab and moving upwards through long moves onto thin flakes with arête assistance, before hitting the crux towards the top of the route. This part required some big and blind moves around the overlapping bulge (unless you are Thom Arnold, who's arms are so long that these manoeuvres were very comfortable) which definitely got my nerves fired up and my disco legs on. It was excellent climbing to make for a fulfilling end the day. Grades were not on the agenda this time but gratitude for spirited movement outdoors was. We had to make a pack and dash to catch the last ferry back to Sai Wan Ho ferry pier on Hong Kong island. The ride back was refreshingly breezy and made for a nice opportunity to do some warming down and stretching off the ferry rails - which was clearly a normal practice given the number of resistance bands that came out.

The High Life in all aspects

Windswept and well-weathered from the day, it was a welcome pleasure to return to the comforts of our hotel - in time for wine hour too! Sipping on some red vino, it was a day out and weekend I was feeling very thankful for: I was getting the best of two contrasting - but necessary - worlds that feed my body and my spirit. The proximity of the city to the crag means you can switch from your La Sportivas to your Kirkwoods in moments, sporting your finest footwear for any situation. It made for a great night to be celebrating our great fortune of human experience: Hong Kong is a stage to experience being alive, highlighting the enormity of both what nature has given us and also the great things human beings can do and create. 

 J Plus by Yoo Lounging: a few hours prior I was still working my way up the cliff faces at Sea Gully, Tung Lung Chau

J Plus by Yoo Lounging: a few hours prior I was still working my way up the cliff faces at Sea Gully, Tung Lung Chau

A night on the town means to go and, at the very least, soak up the array of colourful lights across the city. Absolutely, do dance till dawn in the Central maze if the energy possesses you. It made returning to my colourful and cool enclave back at J Plus for some much needed recovery all the more worthwhile. Staying here was definitely a treat: It offers an unusual, quirky glamour that sparks a musing mood with the added plus of being in a very convenient location.

If you too are looking for one of the most dynamic and diverse cities in the world, with the ease of accessing glorious nature, outdoor activities, and exceptionally good rock climbing, then really do come to Hong Kong. I’m waiting for my next chance to go back in order to scale some more challenging grades, eat a lot of delicious food, and absorb more of that life-boosting energy that radiates from the city. 

J Plus by Yoo Hotel, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Island http://www.jplushongkong.com 

For quality coffee inspiration try Elephant Grounds, various locations around the island http://www.elephantgrounds.com 

If you’re needing your eat clean kick of good foods and drinks in a green and stylish setting, check out a favourite of mine Grassroots Pantry, 108 Hollywood Road, http://www.grassrootspantry.com

Easy, delicious, affordable contemporary Chinese dinne,r, I love Social Place, The L. Place, 139 Queen's Road Central http://www.socialplace.hk 

The Hong Kong climbing site is full of free topos and info https://hongkongclimbing.com 

Tung Lung Chau Ferry runs weekends and public holidays only http://blueseaferry.com.hk/en/skw6/ 

© Copyright photos by Tiffany Soi, Thom Arnold. Climbing shots by the talented Alex Reshikov Hong Kong