Sit at a wintery desk and dream of diving into a mountain pool, or get through the evening commute by picturing a warm sea somewhere far away. We all need a little escapism, but in these fantasies, adrenaline-inducing Hong Kong isn’t normally the first place that springs to mind. Although given that 80% of the sub-tropical territory is filled with fertile jungles and undeveloped islands, it probably should. Because as well as feng shui and financial markets, this is a city of hidden lakes, tumbling waterfalls and untouched beaches. Here’s how to escape big-city life, in a big city.
With its pristine white sand and crystal-clear water, Tai Long Wan feels like a slice of rural Thailand has been dropped on to one of the world’s most densely populated urban hubs – body-surf in the clean, rolling waves, and you’ll question whether frenetic Central is even in the same time-zone. Like many astonishingly beautiful places, Tai Long Wan isn’t easy to get to. Helicopters and private boats from Central are on offer, but for mere mortals, the MTR train to Sai Kung, followed by the 94 bus and an hour-long hike are the best option – hopefully adding to the Robinson Crusoe effect of it all. Make a day trip of it, and eat in one of the small noodle bars in the jungle behind the beach.
Unlike most major city beaches, South Bay doesn’t come with a stack of skyscrapers or a waterfront of heaving bars. Instead, there is one rickety cafe selling coconut water and sandwiches, fringed by thick, seemingly impenetrable jungle reaching all the way up to the Peak. Now, this “deserted island” aesthetic is an illusion, as South Bay beach is actually in the heart of Hong Kong – a mere stroll from teeming Repulse Bay and a 20-minute drive from Central. But inaccessible by public transport (take a taxi from the nearest bus stop) and bordered by national parkland, it is the ideal way to close the door on city life for an hour; crack open a coconut and relax.
In the heart of Hong Kong’s Unesco-accredited Global Geopark is a sight worth getting on a plane for. For a few spectacular miles, the coastline is flanked by a series of pale rose and whiskey-coloured rocks that plunge into the churning sea. These honeycomb-like walls are the result of a massive volcanic eruption about 140m years ago, during which lava and ash solidified into dramatic columns. And in small coves cut into the rocks, you can swim out to sea and watch the rocks turn from pink to deep honey and back again, as the sunlight flickers in and out from behind the clouds.
In the many compilations of “Hong Kong’s best pools”, Man Cheung Po consistently outdoes even the most lavish manmade incarnations on the Peak. Why? Because this natural infinity pool is hidden in the rocks near the historic Tai O village, and even comes complete with a tumbling waterfall or two. Built on rickety stilts under which wooden boats manned by wrinkled locals glide by, Tai O has been the heart of Lantau island’s fishing trade for centuries, and wandering around it for an hour or two allows you to momentarily wipe off 100 years of Hong Kong’s speedy evolution. Afterwards, take the number 11 bus back to Tung Chung MTR or spend the night at the Tai O Heritage Hotel, with its century-old cannons and corner turrets.
Hong Kong is a city that pulsates with energy – sometimes the only way to step back and recharge is by finding a slice of solitude to escape to. And Tai Tam’s thick jungle and rocky hikes provide the perfect opportunity for a little contemplation. Follow the trail to the tai Tam Tuk Reservoir where, hidden amid dense vegetation above the lake, is a small, sign-less path leading to the delightful Tai Tam Mound Waterfall. Impossible to find if you don’t know it’s there, savvy hikers often bask in the pleasure of having this clean stream and tranquil pool entirely to themselves.
The easiest way to persuade reluctant hikers to tackle the rocky ascents and dazzling sun at plover Cove Conutry Park is by mentioning the storybook-like pools that dot the landscape. Pretty all year round, these pools are particularly spectacular in the rainy summer months, when the rivers swell and threaten to burst out of their banks as they plunge into dark blue pools. To experience this idyllic scene for yourself, hike north from the Plover Cove Reservoir, cross the bridge and emerge in front of the picture-perfect Mirror Pool. Or, for a tad more drama, try the nearby Dragon Ball Pool, which is set around a waterfall that plunges 35 metres in two main drops. It does require some scrambling through rapids to access – but hopefully that adds to the pleasure of the cool swim waiting for you at the end.