About 20 years ago I was in Hong Kong (population almost 7 million) during a 6-week journey in Asia. I bought a “fake Rolex” that cost me $5 US and lasted 16 years. It was time for a new “fake” (buyers and sellers of fake goods are now subject to arrest) so off I went to Hong Kong and added Macau to my trip. The good news for US citizens is that you do not need a visa to visit either place, which is not true in the rest of China.
Continental Airlines worked with me on a Business/First ticket that wasn’t much more than the cost of a coach seat (plus mileage). Fifteen hours in coach would never have worked for my old bones. I actually slept around five hours, ate very well, watched one lousy movie, listened to jazz and read five magazines. The people at the Hong Kong airport were very helpful and plentiful. Maybe it was the pre-Olympic pride but they were of great help in getting me directed to the correct shuttle bus to the brand new Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, my home for three nights.
Open less than two months the Marriott sits overlooking the harbor in a developing part of Hong Kong Island (translation- not much to do around the hotel). Many of the taxi drivers weren’t sure where it was located. But, taxis are very inexpensive and the hotel even provided a shuttle bus to the very upscale Pacific Place Shopping Center (100 shops- The JW Marriott Hotel is also connected to the center) which abutted the Island Shangri La Hotel, the site of the Acker, Merrall & Condit wine auction and one of the main reasons I came to Hong Kong. My oldest nephew John Kapon runs the $60 million US (2006 & 2007) AMC Auction Company. His father, my younger brother Michael, is the semi-retired CEO of the company.
Early in 2008 Hong Kong abolished its 40% duty on wine and subsequently saw a 78% increase in volume with a 215% increase in wine values. The room was packed with Chinese and foreign bidders with tons of press coverage. The auction brought record prices for: a case of 1982 Le Pin- $106,000 USD; a Jeroboam (3 liters) of Dom Perignon Rose 1996- $31,600 USD; 6 Magnums of Mouton Rothschild 1945- $167,4566 USD and a case of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti 1990- $242,300. AMC donated the buyer’s premium ($42,000) to Habitat For Humanity, which is rebuilding houses destroyed by the recent China earthquake. The 926 lots fetched $8.2 million, considerably above the pre-auction estimate and were 92% sold.
The post auction BYOB dinner was at Cru Wine & Grill in the SoHo section of town. It was Saturday night and the narrow streets were packed with mainly young people filling the many bars and restaurants. Think Havana in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s; South Beach, Florida and NYC’s Greenwich Village. Now, close your eyes and you could be anywhere in the world. It is a melting pot of languages, cultures and people.
It was Sunday morning and Rita Leung, the Hong Kong Tourism Board Media FAM Facilitator (translation- free-lance guide), picked me up at my hotel. We started out in a sampan so I could see the Aberdeen Floating Community where 6,000 people live (over 6.8 million people live in HK) and work on junks (mainly in the fishing industry). The community is becoming dinosaurs somewhat as their numbers diminish. The famous giant floating Jumbo Kingdom Chinese restaurants complex now includes a conference center and cooking academy. Even though it was not a clear day we took the Peak Tram ride to the top of Victoria Peak with a panoramic (360 degree) yet foggy view of the city. I was told the local Dragon Boat Races were taking place and since I would miss both the International final in Hong Kong and the races in Macau I asked Rita to add them to our itinerary. I had my first experience on the subway with a senior citizen rate of 60 cents. They are clean, bright and all the signs below and above ground are also in English. The maps even blink as the train pulls into a station. Everything is done in an orderly fashion as the people are allowed off the train first before others enter the train. (Try that in the NYC subway system and you will get left at the station). Lunch was at Faye’s Nouvelle Chinois Restaurant, interestingly enough located in an office building.
The Best of Hong Kong:
Avenue of Stars- In front of the Intercontinental Hong Kong with hand and footprints of HK stars. Check out the statue of Bruce Lee. A great place to watch the nightly 8- 8:20 PM Symphony of Lights. A spectacular multimedia show- World’s largest permanent light and sound show according to the Guinness World Records. Since 2/3 of the 40-lighted building are on Hong Kong Island this is the place to see the show.
Big Buddha- On Lantau Island reachable by the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car. It is 268 steps from the statue to Po Lin Monastery (I counted them). It is the tallest, seated, outdoors bronze Buddha on earth.
Peak Tram- World’s steepest funicular railway. At the top is the Peak Tower, Madame Tussauds, gardens, restaurants, walks and that view.
Victoria Harbor- “Fragrant Harbor” is the heart of Hong Kong. It divides Hong Kong Island from Kowloon Peninsula. Many of the new buildings used reclaimed land. Take the Star Ferry for the six-minute ride between the two. Last year 26.7 million people did just that.
SoHo- Bars, restaurants, clubs (means South of Hollywood Road). Take the longest covered escalator in the world from the Central business district to the Mid-level residential area. SoHo is between the two.
Wong Tai Sin Temple- On Kowloon, it serves Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Famous for its fortune-teller booths.
Markets- On Kowloon visit: Jade, Electronic, flower, goldfish, ladies, bird, Stanley (clothes- on HK Island) and the Temple Street Night Market.
Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware- Asian teaware collection
Hong Kong Maritime Museum- History of the growth of HK as a world port.
Hong Kong Museum of Art- Ancient Chinese art. There is a giant Olympic Ring on the wall. Great photo op.
Hong Kong Museum of History- 6,000 years of HK history with lots of videos (my favorite museum).
Hong Kong Science Museum- Great for kids with over 400 interactive exhibits.
Police Museum- 600 artifacts relating to police from 1844 to today.
Spoon by Alain Ducasse- Intercontinental Hong Kong- 450 wines and adding more. It is the sommelier matching food and wine with the chef’s offerings that make this a must visit. They’re also cooking and wine appreciation seminars (I attended a private class). The wine choices are unusual but right on. Check out the 550 Murano glass spoons. The Steak House Winebar features almost 300 wines and 30 by the glass.
Petrus- Island Shangri La Hotel- Spectacular view from 56th Floor- almost 1,000 wines.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon- 1,150 wines
Caprice- Four Seasons Hotel- over 700 wines.
The Chinnery- Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong- 100 Single Malt Scotches
Tokio Joe- Large Sake list
Aqua Spirit- Named one of the 100 best new restaurants worldwide by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine.
J.W. Marriott Hotel- Riedel Room- First of its kind with over 100 different Reidel glasses. Part of Q88 Wine Bar with 40 wines by the glass. Had a fabulous brunch at JW’s California and Sushi Bar.
Krug Room- Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong- Large Krug Champagne selection.
V13 Vodka Bar- 100 different vodkas
Bocas- Tapas and wine bar
Yun Fu- Cocktails
Vintage Wine Bar
Weinstube Wine Bar
Juliette’s Wine Bar
Divino Wine Bar
Crown Wine Cellars- Part of Worldwide Group. Handling and storage in six underground cellars and a private clubhouse.
Berry Bros & Rudd HK- Over 3,000 wines from their UK cellars. Also a fine wine school.
SoHo Wine & Spirits
Rare & Fine Wines- Kowloon
Omtis Fine Wine & Spirits- Stands for Overseas Marketing, Trading & Investment Services.
Compare Macau Island
I was on my way to Macau (population 553,000), now the number one gaming venue capital of the world, surpassing Las Vegas with its 140 casinos (Macau has 29). Gaming taxes form 70% of Macau’s government income. In 1962 the then Portuguese government granted a company headed by Stanley Ho (now 87 years old) a monopoly on all gambling operations on Macau. That monopoly ended in 2002. In 1999 Macau was returned to China after four centuries of Portuguese rule. The name Macau comes from A-Ma Gao, which means Bay of A-Ma. Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 after having been a British Colony since the middle of the 19th century. They are both referred to as SAR or Special Administration Regions (translation- no soldiers or people afraid to talk to foreigners). The one-hour ferry trip (70 miles from Hong Kong) cost only $20 with my senior discount. All the casino hotels had free shuttle buses waiting for the arriving ferry passengers. They have gained UNESCO world heritage status for “The Historic Centre of Macau.”
In a few minutes I was at the newly opened (December 2007) MGM Grand Macau with its 600 rooms and suites. It is a partnership between the MGM Mirage group and Pansy Ho Chiu-king, the daughter of Stanley Ho. I was given a private tour of the VIP Tower, the spa, the outdoor pool, restaurants and public areas. They have 42 colorful Dale Chihuly glass works in display cases. The center of the lobby is a high glass-ceiling conservatory surrounded by restaurants, a musical quartet and a Portuguese inspired façade of the Lisbon train station. I sat on one of the benches every morning after breakfast and read the local paper.
My room was large, very modern with an extra large bathroom, TV and storage area. The PR manager and food and beverage director joined me for dinner at Imperial Court. I was introduced to Bob Moon, the CEO who had previously worked for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. We ran into each other several more times during my stay. Their wine list has approximately 800 labels and the wine cellar in the Aux Beaux Arts Restaurant can accommodate 12,000 bottles. There is another underground cellar that can hold up to 23,500 bottles. Their oldest wine on the list is Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1870. They were awaiting a direct shipment from the cellars of Chateau d’Yquem with vintages including: 1934, 1935, 1937, 1939 right through 1982. All will be delivered in individual wooden boxes. There is also a two story private wine cellar dining area for up to 12 guests. I was told over 30 “Wine Ambassadors” work the various restaurants.
My main problem in Macau was the humidity, which seemed to be 100% every day. The fact that this was also the rainy season didn’t help. I met with the sommelier who walked me through the restaurants, wine room and the extensive wine list. Early the second day I went to the very large Six Sense Spa to try all their various pools. It was too cold and damp for the outdoor pool but try the snow room (yes, real snow) after one of the heated pools, including one filled with salt. They limit you to two minutes in the snow room (I lasted about 1 1/2). After my massage I was ready for my five-hour city tour. I again took the shuttle bus to the Maritime Ferry Terminal to join the group. It covered all the high points of the city.
Right outside the ferry terminal is Fisherman’s wharf a theme park, divided into different port towns. There is an active volcano and Roman amphitheater and almost no business. The A-Ma Temple is Macau’s oldest Chinese Temple with parts of it dating back 600 years. The Ruins of St. Paul’s were built in 1602 and gutted in 1835, with only the façade remaining. It is Macau’s symbol and most famous World heritage Site. The Museum of Sacred Art was installed in the original crypt of the church and contains silver alter pieces, gilded statues and paintings. Behind that is Na Tcha Temple and sections of the old city wall. Also in the Historic Centre is Mount Fortress which houses the Macau Museum, which is small but covers all aspects of life from the Portuguese to the Chinese. It was built in the 16th century to protect the properties of the Jesuits.
We did a bit of walking around the main city square, Senado Square with cafes, coffee houses and lots of shops. The Macau Tower Convention & Entertainment Center will whisk you to the top in a glass elevator for breathtaking views of the city. It is the 10th highest freestanding tower in the world. If you are an adventurer try the bungee jump or sky walk. Just don’t look down. For sports fans there is the Macau Jockey Club (horseracing); Macau Stadium (soccer); Canindrome (greyhound racing) and the Macau Dome (East Asian Games). I never had time to get to the Wine Museum, which uses maps, texts, photos and videos to trace the history of wine. There are 1115 Portuguese and 28 Chinese different wine brands on display with a Porto 1815 being the oldest.
A bridge took us to the Rua Do Cunha of Taipa or Food Street where Portuguese, Indian, African and Macanese restaurants and specialty shops abound. Taipa Houses is a Museum of five small houses duplicating life on Macau for the Portuguese. Asia’s largest hotel is also on Taipa Island- The Venetian Resort Hotel with replicas of St. Marks Square and the obligatory gondola rides. It was a bit overwhelming with crowds that reminded me of Times Square. Next door they are building an Intercontinental, Hyatt and Ritz Carlton hotels. The island was accessible only by ferry until 1974 when the Macau-Taipa Bridge was built.
Macau’s two best restaurants for wine are both on Stanley Ho’s property. Robuchon a Galera is located at the older (30 years old but completely renovated) Hotel Lisboa. It is a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner (the first in China) with 3,350 wines on its list. Don Alfonso 1890 at the Grand Lisboa is hopeful of achieving the Grand Award soon. There are 3,500 wines with Chateau d’Yquem 1847 the most expensive, as well as the oldest, at $60,000 US. A Ramonet Le Montrachet 1983 is $8,500. I spent my last night at the Grand Lisboa; the 300-room hotel was still in its soft opening phase. Stanley Ho has a huge collection of artwork displayed at both hotels. There also are jade, golden Buddha’s, vases etc. After a tour of both properties I had a dim sun lunch at Noite e Dia Café with its open kitchen and view of the casino floor.
The 600 room Wynn Hotel Casino is two blocks from The Grand Lisboa and one from the MGM but the PR director insisted one of their cars take me there for dinner at Okada Japanese restaurant. I was there to interview Sachii Imamura, the Sake Sommelier (35 different Sakes carried) whose husband is the restaurant’s chef. They both came from Okada Wynn Las Vegas. The hotels PR team joined me. After dinner I watched the Performance Lake with its plumes of water and fire dance to music. The next morning another Grand Lisboa car took me to the ferry terminal for my return trip to Hong Kong, this time to the Kowloon side.
My last two days in Hong Kong produced “Black Rain” with damaging storms and flooding. Much of China had this alert, which tells people not to go to work and to stay inside. I paid no attention except to cancel the cable car/Giant Buddha visit (located on Lantau Island which also houses the airport & HK Disneyland) and delay my Intercontinental Hotel luncheon. I did add the HK History Museum and skip my nighttime activities, getting lots of sleep. I stayed at the 465 room Eaton Hotel on Nathan Road, at the heart of Kowloon’s shopping and commercial district. I was able to walk to all the street markets, subway station and was given access to the E Club Lounge where breakfast, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served. Best of all there were three free computers. It got so bad on Landau Island that the airport road was closed for 8 hours and therefore the airport. By Sunday it had cleared and my return flight took off on time.
No sooner did I learn to say- Ni Hao(knee how) which means hello than I was saying Zai Jian(zay je-an)- goodby.