HONG KONG - The former British colony of Hong Kong has become an increasingly popular destination for wealthy visitors from mainland China, many of whom come just to shop. In Hong Kong's main tourist districts, Louis Vuitton and Gucci boutiques have crowded out middle-of-the-road retailers to cater to the big spenders. Trendy, expensive restaurants and bars have replaced mom-and-pop shops. One could be forgiven for thinking there's nothing else to do in the Asian capital of commerce but spend money.
But Hong Kong still has a wealth of non-retail activities for visitors, and many are free.
With its bustling harbor and glittering, neon-drenched skyscrapers set against a backdrop of verdant, towering peaks, Hong Kong is one of the world's most scenic cities. Start at Tsim Sha Tsui on the tip of the Kowloon waterfront. Join other sightseers snapping shots of Hong Kong Island's legendary skyline.
While the views are free, the ferry to Hong Kong Island and a tram ride will cost you, but not much: Tickets at most are about 44 U.S. cents. Walk along the promenade toward the clock tower to reach the pier, where you can catch the cross-harbor Star Ferry, a Hong Kong icon that has been running for more than a century. Once on Hong Kong Island, take the footbridge to the tramway. Hop aboard the century-old tram system for an old-fashioned ride through neighborhoods along the island's northern edge. Grab an upper deck seat to watch streetscapes slide by, from the ultramodern financial district of Central to the crowded Causeway Bay shopping district to less glamorous neighborhoods. Some trams fork off to the Happy Valley horse racing track.
Martial arts legend Bruce Lee died in 1973 at age 32. Forty years later he arguably remains Hong Kong's most famous movie star, yet there are only a few landmarks for his fans. A bronze statue of the actor was erected in 2005 on the Kowloon waterfront promenade, showing Lee in one of his characteristic fighting stances: knees bent, leaning back on one leg, hands at chest level, ready to strike. The statue is on Hong Kong's Avenue of Stars, the city's version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where Lee and other Chinese stars are memorialized with plaques.
Fans have been pushing for Lee's childhood home in Kowloon Tong to be turned into a museum but talks with the businessman who owns the property, which has been used as an hourly love hotel, have dragged on for years. The intrepid can still pay a visit to the residence at 41 Cumberland Road. The truly devoted can hunt out even more obscure Bruce Lee sites by following walking tours developed by fans, like this one: http://orientalsweetlips.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/bruce-lees-hong-kong.
Hong Kong's hyper-urban highlights might not be everyone's cup of tea. But it's easy to get away from the crowds. Numerous parks offer hiking trails, many with scenic panoramas. One favorite is the Dragon's Back on eastern Hong Kong Island. The trail starts in a shady, quiet bamboo grove before emerging onto a hillside leading to the Dragon's Back, a winding ridge with sweeping views of the South China Sea.
Victoria Peak is a must, but don't stick just to the kitschy Peak Tram terminal and tourist complex. Instead, take the Hong Kong Trail that circles the mountaintop. Look for signs pointing to the path, which follows Lugard and Harlech roads. The hour-long walk is gentle and flat, providing a bird's-eye view of upscale homes nestled amid the lush green flanks of the mountain and the city's skyscrapers beyond. Watch out for the occasional car trying to squeeze past to get to one of the posh homes along the route. Details at thepeak.com.hk/en/1_3.asp.
If you visit Hong Kong at any time except winter, you'll likely encounter sweltering weather. To cool down, head to the beach. Hong Kong Island has several, including Big Wave Bay in Shek O or the beach at tony Repulse Bay, but they do get crowded on weekends. You can escape the masses — though you'll have to pay for transportation — by taking the ferry to Mui Wo on Lantau Island and then bus or taxi to Cheung Sha beach. The stretch of broad white sand is one of Hong Kong's longest beaches. At one end, there's a public changing room, lifeguard station and two restaurants serving Thai and South African food. Watch out for feral cattle and water buffalo roaming rural and sparsely populated Lantau Island.
In the past decade, Hong Kong's art scene has mushroomed thanks to soaring numbers of wealthy mainland Chinese and other Asians who have developed a taste for collecting. Big names like London's White Cube and Larry Gagosian of the U.S. have opened local outposts of their art dealing empires while numerous lesser-known galleries have also sprouted up over the past decade. Many are located on or near Hollywood Road in the Mid-Levels neighborhood.
If you get tired of looking at art, you can also watch people spend lots of money buying it. Hong Kong has become one of the biggest auctions hubs worldwide and is one of the biggest markets for the Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses. In spring and autumn, you can watch their twice-yearly sales of art as well as jewelry, watches, wine and furniture held in a cavernous exhibition center in Wan Chai. Dress nicely and the security guards may let you past the velvet rope to take a seat in the bidding room. Watch the British-accented auctioneer call out bids in both English and Chinese as nouveau riche mainland Chinese and others bid up prices of coveted works into the stratosphere.