I wish everyone I care about could be here with me. I’m on the deck of the Aqua Luna, a traditional junk that sails Victoria Harbor, the famous body of water that separates Hong Kong Island from Kowloon Island. The butler has given me some kind of rum punch, but the feeling of standing on the wooden deck as the boat gently bobs up and down is intoxication enough.
Luckily, depending on the itinerary, a Holland America Line guest can begin or end their cruise in Hong Kong, so all kinds of evening events are on offer. You can certainly sail on the Aqua Luna during the day, but I prefer the night. The junk has brilliant yellow sails rippling against the black sky, and when we cross paths with a similar tour boat, but with dramatic orange sails, visually, it’s almost too much to bear. This is one of those hyper-sensory moments I will vividly remember all my life. It’s extraordinary.
The ride is smooth and I barely have to position myself to keep balanced. But Hong Kong keeps me on my toes in other ways. To appreciate it, I have to look up and down as well as side to side. And I keep rising and falling. My Hong Kong friend Ian Fong, founder of the Cuffs tailor brand, likes to remind me that seven million people share these 427 square miles, “most of which is too steep to develop.”
I note that an unusually steep cosmopolitan city means a lot of human movement, a lot of vertical movement. Fong agrees. He knows. His boutique is located in a place that is as much vertical as horizontal: Mid-Levels. Mid-Levels is both a neighborhood as well as the way of getting around that neighborhood: via the longest escalator in the world. It’s a bizarre experience and a fantastic solution to the problem of moving people in this surpassingly vertical city. In the morning, the escalator (really a continuous—seemingly endless—series of escalators) ferries people down to work; at the end of the day, it delivers them back home from Central (the central business district). As I ascend — or for that matter, descend — I can spot the modest and traditional, as well as the chic markers of expat life. There are acupuncturists, food stalls, and places to have your tired feet massaged, but also sleek gyms, glittery bars, and hedonistic cafes to enjoy Western-style waffles and desserts. To really explore the streets that cross under the escalator, I just hop on and off.
To people who live in Hong Kong, the Mid-Levels escalator is perhaps no more unusual than subways, bus stops and parking garages, but it always gives me a sense of wonder — and the feeling that I’m mastering the city. Something else that gives me that sense of mastery is being able to identify Hong Kong’s most important skyscrapers from its futuristic skyline. The Bank of China Tower, easy to spot because of its elegant asymmetry and two masts, was designed by I.M Pei, the legendary architect who died this year at 102. No other building in the world looks like this, with its glass skin overlaid with triangles, diamonds and X shapes.
There are also two supertall buildings with similar names, Central Plaza and The Center. Central Plaza looks to be triangular, but the corners are cut off for practicality’s sake. Its ornate crown contains an exterior clock — it is fitted with neon bars that light up at 15-minute intervals, like something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Center also has a pointy crown — but with three steps, it’s more decorative than Central Plaza’s. That’s how I tell them apart, though The Center also boasts its own techno-beautiful display of neon bars.
Then there’s the International Commerce Centre (ICC), across Victoria Harbor in Kowloon. This is the city’s tallest building, a minimalist blade of light that bulges ever so slightly at its center. The ICC contains OZONE, the world’s tallest cocktail bar, and when I have drinks there with a friend, it seems as if anything is possible. The tower nods to Two International Finance Centre (2ICF) across the harbor — that’s another minimalist tower, Hong Kong’s second tallest building — that had cameos in several action movies; it shared the screen with Batman and Lara Croft.
But tonight I stay on the Kowloon side — that’s because at eight o’clock, a spectacle like no other happens. A Symphony of Lights is a nightly light show in which more than 40 buildings dazzle the eye. When I talk about Hong Kong, I keep reverting to that phrase, nothing like this in the world (and phrases like the highest this, and the tallest that), but here I have to use it again, because A Symphony of Lights is the world’s largest permanent light show. It’s incredible: The buildings seem to talk to each other, even dance with each other, through their searchlights, piercing lasers and LED screens.
THAT MOMENT IN HONG KONG WHEN…
… I find the viewing spot that everyone talks about.
It’s because of Hong Kong’s steepness that the views keep coming, in all directions. Every year, around four million people hop on the Peak Tram, a funicular that rises 400 feet — on an incline as steep as 48 percent — to Victoria Peak. It’s the signature way to snag a prime viewing spot. One early morning, I observe the silent ritual of locals practicing tai chi up here. But at nighttime, from my vantage point of 1,800 up, I take in the electric majesty of the city — the colorful skyscraper forest and the equally colorful pleasure craft on Victoria Harbor creating their own hypnotic show.
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.