Dharma Weekend

Attending a conference outside one’s own professional field is always a humbling experience, but never more so than one expounding on the finer points of an ancient religion whose ultimate goal is the cessation of views.  Such was my experience last weekend at the Buddhist Meditative Praxis:  traditional teachings & modern application conference at Hong Kong University’s Centre of Buddhist Studies.  In my opinion, the conference divided into three distinct groups: those who meditate, those who study those who meditate, and those who study what those who meditate study.  The room was filled with monks, scientists and scholars.

Knowing next to nothing about Buddhism, my interest fell squarely in the middle camp, neuroscience, which turned out to be a bit of a pariah at this conference.  Buddhists and scholars expressed the opinion that measuring the meditating brain was entirely missing the point, but it was the reason I wanted to attend.  The presence on the speaker line-up of two of my favorite thinkers in the mindfulness space, Mark Williams and Rick Hanson, was the initial draw of the conference for me.  Oxford Professor Mark Williams was instrumental in developing Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and getting the British government to recognize it as an NHS-approved treatment for depression and suicide prevention.  Rick Hanson of the Wellspring Institute in California moderated an impressive on-line series “Compassion and the Brain” I watched last year and has recently published a new book, so I was eager to hear them both speak again.  Beyond these two I did not recognize any of the speakers on the roster.

My learning curve on the first day was beyond steep.  Kicking off with “On the curriculum in the monastic universities in the 10th century,” a talk given by a European scholar of Buddhism, all I understood was that existent bad luck causes the black cat to cross our path, not the other way around.  That one was comprehensible compared to the next paper on the canonical anapauassatisutta and the sources of the 16 stages in four tetrads, or something of the sort.   I think he concluded that whether the first breath is a long one in, or a short one out, is indeterminable, but don’t quote me on that.  From the next distinguished speaker, I simply wrote “No freakin’ idea what he’s talking about” in my notebook.  Though his English was fluent, he might as well have been speaking his native German for all I understood of this paper on The Case of the Four Applications of Mindfulness in Vajrayana. Likewise, when Professor Yao read his paper on whether or not meditative objects exist and I read along, I could only grasp that the existence of blue is debatable, and I’m not even sure about that.  The ontological status of meditative objects had me reflecting on the ontological status of my presence in the same room with these people.  This was not going well for me.  I jest with all due respect and recognition that my ignorance is the problem here, not the presentations.

Just as I was about to throw in the towel and hit the latest coffee shop in Sai Ying Pun, a scientist hit the stage.  Phew.   Now this was language I could begin to wrap my brain around (never thought I’d say that!).   She described careful studies comparing the differing effects of Focused Attention Meditation versus Loving Kindness Meditation and their associations with changes in the attention regions of the brain and cognitive empathy in the dorsal affective system respectively.  See… plain and simple.

Dr. Mark Williams described depression, the high likelihood of relapse and the successful use of MBCT to treat it.  Depression is a highly recurrent illness that starts early in life and affects an alarming number of people. Roughly 20% of the population is at risk of suffering depression at some point in life, and the most common age of onset is between 13-15 years old. This is an epidemic that needs attention, and MBCT is one of the most promising treatments available.  Dr. Williams’ research has shown that MBCT, which combines ancient Buddhist praxis with psycho-education about depression, is as effective as antidepressants in treating traumatic cases of depression.

Dr. Rick Hanson’s presentation was philosophical and much more rooted in the Buddhist tradition, as he bridges the two realms as a practitioner and a scientist. He teaches us to “Use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.”  Of most interest in his speech to me was a discussion of the negativity bias that has been trained into humans.  Because sticks are more consequential than carrots, we learned evolutionarily to avoid sticks more fervently than to remember carrots.  Therefore, we imprint negative experiences and forget positive ones.  So, taking time to reflect on positive experiences to ensure that they, too, get transferred to long-term memory is important.  This was not the deepest message of his talk, but it was the one that resonated most with me.

Two hands on my bag, I was ready to make a quick exit to get home to my family before dinner, but then Venerable Sik Hin Hung took the stage.  Dressed in a grey robe with wire spectacles and a shaved head, the venerable was engaging, informative and thought-provoking in his presentation that brought it all together for me.  His theory was that many mindfulness programs have shown positive results in cognitive improvement, but that they have secularized teachings of Buddhism in order to make them palatable to wider audiences.  In so doing, he theorized, they have removed the essence of the teachings and lost something.  He and his colleagues set out to carefully design a study to determine if Sense Of Coherence (SOC) — comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness — a measure of well-being developed by Aaron Antonovsky, could be positively impacted by the study of meditation AND the tenants of Buddhism.   Working with teenage students about to take a rigorous standardized test, his study demonstrated that, in fact, those who studied Buddhism along with meditation techniques and then went on to pass the Buddhism exam showed positively better SOT than both those who did just mediation and those who did no meditation or Buddhist teaching.   This presentation was the biggest teaching point of the conference for me.  Welcoming the new, the measurable, the scientific, but cautioning that mindfulness uncoupled from the original tenants of Buddhism might have unintended consequences.

Buddha said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick at least we didn’t die; so, let us be thankful.”   Reflecting on the conference, I am thankful for the opportunity to witness the coming together of earnest faith, thought, reflection and hard work in a search for greater understanding by some and a reminder by others that understanding might not be the point.

The Driver’s Seat

Sometimes sitting in traffic on Gloucester Road, inching my way toward the Aberdeen Tunnel, I fantasize about becoming a taxi driver in Hong Kong.  It hasn’t always been this way.  When I first arrived in Hong Kong I swore I would never, ever drive in this city.   This is a city where driving is in large part left to the professionals, relegating the faint of heart to hiring drivers or taking public transportation.

Winding, single lane roads with sprayed concrete on one side and precipitous cliffs on the other are treated like speedways by aggressive trucks and mini buses, double-decker city buses and confident professional drivers careening around hairpin turns only to find a lycra-clad cyclist on a training ride, or unexpected slope maintenance underway.  There’s no margin for error on these slick streets.

Nonetheless, a few months after we arrived, we bought a car from a departing expatriate.  One quiet afternoon, in need of milk, I reluctantly took the keys and white knuckle drove to Stanley, a five-minute trip to an easy outdoor parking lot.  That became a regular route.  Later I drove to Redhill Plaza to see a friend and to Repulse Bay to a big indoor lot.  Within a month I was a relatively confident “South-side driver,” never intending to venture to the other side of the island.

But one day my son had a tennis lesson at Wong Nai Chung Gap up the hill.  I gripped the wheel and made my way up the windy Stubbs Road to the top, turned into the lot and parked.  I was sweating, but I made it.  Later I reasoned that if I could get to the top of the hill, I could probably venture down over the other side.  That sparked the next automotive milestone when I committed the route to Pacific Place to heart and drove to Wan Chai.  For some time I would park there, run errands around town via MTR, trolley and taxi then return to Pacific Place.   I’d spend just enough money at Great supermarket to get three hours of free parking and head home.   This was good enough in my book.  After all, I had heard stories of people making one wrong turn and ending up in China.

One fortuitous social day changed my perspective.  A friend who lived in Pokfulam invited me to go for a hike.  I drove from my house in Tai Tam to meet her at the horse stables in Pokfulam.  We parked there, hiked up to the PEAK and looped Lugard Road on foot, then headed back to our cars.  She suggested we have lunch at the yacht club in Aberdeen, so I followed her in my car, around Kennedy Town, through Central to the club in Causeway Bay and we had a great lunch.  I left there and took the Chai Wan route back to Tai Tam.  I made it there in time to meet the school bus.   I realized that I had gone all the way around Hong Kong Island (with a hike and lunch too) in less than an hour’s driving time.  So, I reasoned, as long as I am driving on HK Island, I’ll eventually come to a place I recognize.   If I mistakenly end up in a tunnel and find myself on the TST side?  No problem.  All signs lead back to HK Island, and then refer to rule number one.

With Hong Kong Island less of a mystery, I made it my business to identify parking lots all over the city.  Learning to park at IFC gave me Central, and Centrium Building, a tricky spiral of a lot with a one-way section, gave me LKF.  I found a lot in Sheung Wan and that mostly covered the places I needed to go on the island.

But what about Kowloon side?   Early in my driving tenure, my friend Debi told me there was an ice skating rink and a Bed Bath and Beyond type store in Megabox; an easy trip through the Eastern tunnel.  I decided to try it one day, but unfortunately missed the exit.  I spent the next forty-five minutes driving through neighborhoods on the Kowloon side I could never identify.   I actually laughed out loud when my haphazard impulsive turns eventually took me right to Megabox.  That time being lost in the city was fundamental to my learning curve.  I could drive to Kowloon side.

I learned to drive to King’s Park and KGV School thanks to a brief foray into the world of soccer mom.  My kid gave up the sport, but left me with two more parking lots under my belt.  Mongolian BBQ with long-time HK resident friends gave me Nathan Road, the need for a new cotillion suit for my growing teenager opened the door to Shenzhen, and my determined hiking quest gave me Sai Kung.  Now we’re getting somewhere!

But there are places even the most seasoned drivers take a deep breath before tackling.  One of these for me was the elevator parking lot.  My friend Eunei drove me in her little Prius for lunch at Din Tai Fung in Causeway Bay one afternoon.  We entered the lot and she drove into an elevator, turned off the car and the door closed behind us.  We were taken up to a floor with available spaces and she backed out and parked.  I was amazed, but planned never to attempt it myself.  Certainly my Volvo station wagon would be too big.  But then, several months later another woman who had lived in Hong Kong for a year less than I had, pulled in her mirrors and drove the exact same car as mine expertly into the car lift.  I went back that same week to do it myself.

My husband drives just enough in Hong Kong to be dangerous (or at least that was the case at first).  After casually rolling out into a busy intersection in front of a minibus, forgetting that a right hand turn is across traffic, and being one lane off for the tricky Wong Chuck Hang to Repulse Bay Road cut off that sent him unnecessarily through the clogged Aberdeen Tunnel on a busy Saturday afternoon, he relinquished the keys and left the driving to me.  My driving in Hong Kong is the “talent” he singles out for the most amount of praise.

As time passed, my grip on the steering wheel loosened.  I began to turn on the radio or plug in my podcasts.  I delighted in a new route, parking garage or street discovered.   And, returning to Hong Kong for our fifth year, I am thrilled getting back in my car and venturing out into the city.  Driving in Hong Kong is more than transportation to me.  It is a daily recognition that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to “teach an old dog new tricks.”  Just don’t try to convince me that the same logic might apply to learning to speak Cantonese.

Michelins and MacLehose

Forget visas, flights, Airport Express and all the other hassles of international travel and instead hop a taxi through the tunnel and you’re set for a fantastic “staycation” right in your own HK backyard.  Here’s my suggested itinerary for 3 days of hiking the first half of the MacLehose trail, dining at Michelin starred restaurants and staying in style.

The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong is a great resource.  I recommend photographing each page of the stage you’re doing on your i-phone for frequent reference rather than lugging the book.  Also, we loaded up on almonds, dried mango and a Snickers bar.  Food is not always available along the trails, so take your own.

Day 1:  Kiss the kiddies goodbye, drop your bags at the W Hong Kong on Kowloon side and head to Mong Kok for the first of your incredibly inexpensive and delicious Michelin starred meals at Tim Ho Wun (2 Kowong Wa St).  You may wait an hour to get a seat in this cramped, no atmosphere, world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant dim sum place, but it’s worth it.  Put your name in, get a number and an order form and go wander the local markets until it’s your turn.  Don’t miss the char siu bao.  For roughly a dozen dishes our bill for two people came to a whopping $111HK.

If you’re up for it, start your hiking adventure that very day with Stage 3 of the MacLehose trail (we did stage 5 and part of the Wilson trail, but I think this plan works better).  Taxi to Pak Tam Au (or 94/96R bus toward Wong Shek Pier) with plenty of water, as there’s no place to buy it along the way.  This stage will take you roughly three hours at a steady hiking pace and alights at Kei Ling Ha where it’s easy to hail a cab back to the W.  That night we chose to eat in the hotel, but you could probably find a better meal if you venture out.

Day 2:  Start with a swim at the W’s gorgeous rooftop pool, then a hearty breakfast at the clever and stylish Kitchen. Tank up for a fabulous day of hiking stages 1 & 2.  If you’re in it for the exercise or bragging rights, take a taxi to the Country Park Visitor Centre at Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung and start your hiking adventure just past the gate.  This first stage is largely flat, entirely on road surface and rings the enormous man-made reservoir created by damming a narrow inlet on both sides.  This stage took us about two hours at a walking pace, but I would recommend either running this phase or skipping it altogether by taking a green taxi to the end of Sai Wan Road and meeting up with the trail just before the start of stage 2.

Stage 2 of the MacLehose is indescribably beautiful and should be a must-do for anyone with a Hong Kong ID card.  We completed this stage in about four hours, but would have spent more time enjoying the beautiful series of beaches along the way had we not walked the first stage too.  The first of several amazing beaches is Long Ke.  This beach has white sugar sand and a perfect pine grove for camping. Interestingly, the only development located there is a rehab facility; most definitely the finest located one in the world! If you can drag yourself away from this paradise, the trail continues with a steep ascent over Sai Wan Shan, but one is royally rewarded with the descent into Sai Wan for a gorgeous beach filled with starfish and a funny “Oriental Restaurant” where you can stock up on water and sometimes food.  Up and over again and you get to Tai Long Wan, Big Wave Bay, with a perfect little rest spot beckoning from the far side of the beach across a rickety little wooden bridge.  This is a perfect, grab-a-beer-and-ponder-the-view spot, not to be rushed.

From here the trail turns inland and goes through several abandoned villages.  It’s slightly creepy with many stray dogs and no people along the 8K tree-canopied path, but it eventually opens up at a place where some catch a ferry, or continue on to the end of the trail at Pak Tam Au.  The 94 bus leads directly back to Sai Kung town.

Reward your considerable efforts by making a beeline for Michelin starred Loaf On (49 Market St.) in downtown Sai Kung.  Famous for abalone, crispy chicken, fried tofu & salt & pepper squid, this place knows how to fry!  While Rod would argue that fried food is not the best hiking fuel, I stand by my recommendation that this is too good to miss and you deserve it after all that work!

Day 3:  After another Kitchen breakfast (we switched to the new Ritz Carlton in ICC after one night, but I much preferred the W.  Learn from my mistakes!), take a taxi to the start of stage 4 at Kei Ling Ha Lo Wai for a solid day of hiking 4 and 5.  Stage 4 is a relatively rigorous climb up Man on Shan (the second highest peak), Pyramid Hill and Delta Pass.  Hopefully you will be rewarded with stunning views on either side of this exposed trail.  Unfortunately the day we did it was shrouded in fog, so it was a bit tedious and slippery for us, but still a great workout.  The second half of Stage 4 goes through woods along the Gin Drinker’s line with several emplacements from WWII still visible.  The end of stage 4, by Gilwell Camp, is a hard place to get a taxi, so definitely plan to continue on through stage 5 that leads up and over Tate’s Cairn, Shatin Pass and Lion Rock.  The views of Kowloon along this trail are stunning.   Since you’ve spent the day hiking back towards your hotel, a quick cab ride from Tai Po road will have you back at the W in no time, ready to celebrate!

We opted for a foot massage at the no frills but authentic Tai Pan on Nathan Road in TST then an al fresco meal at BLT Steak, but if you want to continue with the Michelin theme, there is no shortage of options within a few minutes of the hotel.

Day 4:  Sleep in, read the whole paper over a leisurely breakfast, check out and head back in time to pick up your little one from preschool.  Congratulations! You’ve just completed, in three days, one-half of what some crazy people do in roughly 24 hours at the Oxfam Trailwalker 100K.  But, you’ve actually had a relaxing vacation in the process and enjoyed the sites along the way.

Hong Kong Tips

Here are some Hong Kong tips. I created this list for a friend visiting from London and have kept it as the foundation of my recommendations since then. I’ll try to keep it updated as I find new gems, and as things close as they inevitably do in HK. The turnover is higher than ever here…

Stay: Four Seasons – You can’t go wrong at a Four Seasons, and Hong Kong’s doesn’t disappoint. This is where we stayed on our “look see” when we wanted to convince the kids that HK was the best place in the world to live. It worked. The hotel is gorgeous, with amazing view of busy Victoria Harbor where you can watch junks, cruise ships and the Star Ferry from your floor-to-ceiling window. The hotel has a great infinity pool and a nice spa, and is located right above the IFC luxury shopping mall with many solid restaurants (Isola being my personal favorite). It’s well located for adventurous exploration of Central too.

Upper-House – All the luxury of a 5-star with a twist. It’s cool…not corporate!  Upper House has a great restaurant, Café Gray Deluxe (Chef Gray Kunz), with arguably the best views on Hong Kong side. Upper house has a sister-hotel in Beijing called “Opposite House.”

The Peninsula — Located across the harbor on Kowloon side, the Peninsula is so historic you feel like you’ve stepped back into graceful timeless luxury. First opened in 1928, the Peninsula has been the site of everything from the Hong Kong Governor’s surrender to the Japanese in 1941 to a regular location for films from James Bond (I think) to Batman. The hotel also boasts a few top restaurants including Philippe Starck-designed Felix with awesome views of Hong Kong island. W Hotel – Located on the Kowloon side, the W Hotel is as you would expect. Great views, nice contemporary rooms, beautiful bar, pool & spa.

The LKF Hotel (on Aberdeen Street) – I haven’t been here, but Sonya swears it’s a fantastic value and in a great location. Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) is the Soho of Hong Kong — party central — with bars, restaurants and foot massages all night long.

Eat:

If you’re feeling homesick, Hong Kong has many of your London and New York favorites including Roka, Nobu, Alain Ducasse (Spoon), BLT Steak, Joel Robuchon… shall I go on? They are all great and most have gorgeous décor and some great views, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try our Hong Kong one-of-a-kind places. I’m giving you safe bets as well as hole-in-the-wall places. You decide how intrepid you want to be.

China Club – It’s the closest thing to an art-gallery in HK and offers a memorable Chinese food experience. Technically a private club, a good maitre d’ (or an AMEX black card) can arrange a reservation. Designed like an old Shanghai’nese home, the ambiance and art is spectacular. Each evening there is a little show for out-of-towners. It’s an experience and a great meal all in one.

Hutong – Not only is the ambiance something out of 18th century china, (not an easy feat on the 28th floor of a skyscraper) but it has the best views of the city. You can make an evening of it, enjoying a cocktail on the red-sailed Aqua Luna junk boat across the harbor from central and then getting off on the Kowloon side near Hutong. Each dish is a work of art, some more delicious than others, but all photo-worthy!

Jumbo Floating Restaurant – This has popped up in many Hollywood movies. It’s an amazing site to see – five floors of restaurants on a giant, ornately decorated, floating “junk.” It’s more of an experience than a culinary destination, but actually I was surprised how good the food really was. The most fun part is the short sampan ride from Aberdeen to get there. Top Deck is the best place to go for brunch on Sunday.

Life Café – This is more of a lunch place, but my favorite spot in town for the Life salad, complete with flax seed crackers! The garden roof terrace is an absolute oasis in the busy city. It’s h-e-a-v-e-n for anyone who is vegetarian or vegan. And being a vegetarian is no easy task in a town where eating chicken’s-feet is normal.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab – Arguably the best soft-shelled crab in SE Asia., it’s all about the food. Located off Jaffe road in Wan Chai district (about five minutes from Central), Under Bridge is not fancy, but the crab is amazing. You’ll have to do a lot of pointing to order and you’ll be seated at an oil cloth covered table with an endless supply of tea from a pitcher (stick to beer!), but when they bring out the live crabs for you to select and minutes later bring the same smothered in garlic, you’ll be thrilled. Yum!

City Hall – For an authentic Sunday dim-sum experience, go where you’ll be the only Gweilo in the place. It’s a grand ballroom style room with big round tables and waiters pushing carts of dim sum up and down the aisles. Point and enjoy!

Po-Toi Seafood Restaurant – If you have time for an adventure, you’ll get a completely fresh steamed fish with ginger and spring onions or, my personal favorite, salt & pepper chili lime squid at Po-Toi Seafood. It’s located in a little fishing village and you need to take a ferry or private Junk to get there. Don’t expect glamour, but it is authentic seafood dining in HK.

Din Tai Fung – I know it’s a chain (in fact, I think there’s even one in California now), but I absolutely love the soup dumplings here. It’s spotless, efficient, friendly and so, so good! My kids, who require encouragement to eat veggies sometimes, can’t get enough of the sautéed kale and dumplings here. There’s one in Causeway Bay and another in Tsim Tsa Tsui (TST) across the harbor.

Lung King Heen – This restaurant gets three Michelin stars for Cantonese food, so it must be good, and it has a view. I must say I haven’t tried it, but if you’re looking for the best of Cantonese food, Michelin usually doesn’t disappoint.

The Pigeon Restaurant (Lamma Island) –Yep, pigeon. It’s a local favorite and is apparently delicious minced and served in lettuce leaves. I have to admit, this is one of Sonya’s recommendations. I have not had the guts to try it yet!

Lucy’s – Tucked away in Stanley Market, Lucy’s is the go-to ladies lunch spot on the south side of the island. Always fresh, tasty and healthy, Lucy’s is the closest to California dining I have found.

Mozarella Bar – Located in the hip Star Street area of Wan Chai, and one of the few street-level places, the Mozarella Bar reminds me a bit of the Fromagerie off Marylebone High Street in London. Wood common tables, floor to ceiling wine and delicious cheese and charcuterie plates to sample; you can sip a delicious glass of wine and people watch before a great dinner nearby.

Posto Pubblico – I think you’d really like this place. It’s in Soho on Elgin Street, known for restaurants, but at the moment Posto Pubblico is the anchor. Started by a team of two with a vision to bring Italian osteria style dining combined with fresh local ingredients, they offer pizzas and simple Italian food like you like it. I’m thrilled because they have recently begun home delivery of locally grown organic vegetables from their own farm in the new territories. Now I’m enjoying amaranth, choi sum, wild mushrooms and pink dragon fruit picked within hours of arrival on my counter.

Drink -Most of the hotels have great bars with views and quiet ambiance, but if you’re looking to venture out on the town, here are a few recommendations. Again, some local adventure if you’re up for it and some reminiscent of the Sunset Boulevard scene.

Sevva – there’s no bigger (or better) terrace in the city. It is the happy hour place to see and be seen by Hong Kong’s finance crowd. It’s the place to be on a clear night in the city. If you fancy dessert, the Sevvaa crunch cake is out of this world!

Sugar – Tucked away in off-the-beaten-path neighborhood of Taikoo Shing on the 32nd floor of Hong Kong’s EAST hotel, Sugar’s huge outdoor patio, bar and lounge is the club-du-jour.

Dragon-I – for dinner, drinks or late-night…Dragon-I has been the HK hot-spot for the cool-crowd for years. It’s a bit disco style and has huge cages of live birds on the patio. Apparently the scene is completely different depending on what time of day you’re there. They also have an all-you-can-eat dim sum brunch that’s a favorite among the lunching set.

Alfie’s Bar – the upstairs of the Alfred Dunhill store – ”suitably” cool for after-work drinks RACKS – the best billiards/bar in town. Book your table in advance….it gets busy.

The Pawn – Located in Wan Chai, The Pawn is a colonial-era institution with an updated look. Moving fans on the ceiling, you can sit on the small second-story patio and watch the street trams go by, picturing a Hong Kong of a few decades ago.

Feather Boa – it’s what old “speak-easies” used to be like. Dark, small and hard to find, it’s a great late-night drinking-spot with fantastic chocolate martinis! This place is a trip and the grouchy yet efficient female bar tenders keep the place in order.

Do — Most tourists don’t get beyond the Star Ferry and the Peak Tram, both fabulous introductions to Hong Kong, but not the only thing in town. With a little bit of research and some creativity, Hong Kong is so much more than shopping and food.

Hiking – most people don’t’ know that Hong Kong Island is more than 50% parkland. Yes, that’s green open space, but unfortunately mostly vertical, so a lot of stairs! Only 10-mins from downtown, you can be on a trail that feels a million miles from anywhere. Go over to the Kowloon side/New Territories for some of the most spectacular hikes, beaches and waterfalls, and a few wild-monkeys on the trails!

Water sports – Hong Kong is a city of islands…and that means water. You can do just about every water sport out there. Wake-Boarding is hugely popular along with kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing and surfing. Don a wet suit and grab a board and head to Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong’s version of Topanga Canyon, complete with a surf shack that serves pancakes, breakfast burritos and steaming cups of coffee for those early morning surfs. I can almost transport myself back to Malibu!

Junking – A junk is an old antique Chinese fishing boat that has been remodeled for leisure adventures and can be rented out for the day. It’s an amazing way to get out on the water and see parts of HK you would never be able to see on land. You can also hire a speedboat to come along for all the water sports mentioned above!

Helicopter Ride of the City – organized through the Peninsula Hotel, there’s no better way to see this town of contrasts; from stunning parkland, to Disneyland. From gleaming sky-scrapers to crystal white beaches, you can see it all from the sky in less than an hour.

Horse Racing – No visit to HK is complete without a day at the races in Happy Valley. Horse-racing (more specifically gambling on horse races) is a favorite HK past-time. I am told that more money is bet in a single race-day in HK then all the casinos in Vegas.

Foot Massage – No visit to Hong Kong is complete without taking advantage of the opportunity to try out a little reflexology treatment on those feet. There seem to be foot massage places on every corner, but one in particular I can recommend is called FOOT. It’s located on Queen’s Road Central just minutes from IFC and it combines a soothing zen-like environment with a relaxing foot massage for as long as you want.

Shop — I have to admit, this is an area I have not mastered in HK. I usually wait until I return to the U.S. on a visit to do my shopping, but there are a few places I know and go in a pinch.

Ap Lei Chau, Horizon Plaza — 27 floors of furniture, clothes, home goods and specialty culinary stores, Horizon Plaza has become a one stop shop. When I first arrived in HK 4 years ago I was warned to take my own water bottle, snacks and toilet paper when I went, but it has since been renovated and upgraded and is a nice experience.

Pacific Place, Times Square, Landmark, Harbour City & IFC — Somewhat indistinguishable, these are the high-end shopping malls that combine luxury shopping and gourmet food, coffee and more. They are shopping experiences, usually decorated to the hilt, especially at the holidays. The prices go up with the floors at some of them.

Lane Crawford — This reminds me of Fred Segal in Santa Monica. A gallery of hip boutiques divided by designer. When I want something special, I might splurge here.

Sonjia Norman – hidden down an adorable old alley, her store is one-of-a-kind. In a city that is label-obsessed this is a rare-treat. You won’t find designs like this anywhere else in HK, and best of all, everyone else on the street won’t be wearing it!

Faux – there’s nothing fake about Faux Home-wear. It’s amazingly original. At their show-room, lunch-time is a proper sit-down affair. If you happen to be there then expect to stay for a few hours. They take dining as seriously as they take designing!

Sofia Suarez – the most in-the-know private shopper you could ever want. She grew up here and knows …well…everything! Clothes, Ming-ceramics, kitchy Chinese art…etc. she’s gorgeous, stylish and will have you fully-outfitted in Hong Kong’s finest in record time.