03 June 2014

HK Day 8: Headed home

On our last partial day (which is kind of today), we woke up at 4:30am.  This wasn't intentional, but it suited us well because we had a lot of packing to do!  By 10:00am, all our bags were expertly packed full and we headed down to the lobby to check out.  We went to the Front Desk to confirm that we would be able to use the pool changing room/shower facilities before leaving for the airport.  The nice gentleman at the desk suggested that we come to the Front Desk and ask for a "hospitality room" instead.  This sounded like an even better idea, so we happily left our luggage with the bell services team and headed off for our last trip into Central. 

The day's plan was to finally locate a wonton place recommended to us by my Uncle Jong and then meet up with Liz, one of my friends from high school.  Both activities had been on our to do list all week, but just never actually got done, and this was our last chance. 

Turns out that the wonton restaurant is quite close to (just a few blocks from) the Peak Tram stop in Central.  It is also right across the street from another famous (at least on the blogosphere) restaurant called "Mak Noodle."  As we approached the entry (places here often leave their doors open, spilling loads of ac out into the world or else have "doors" made of large strips of clear vinyl to keep from wasting too much ac), a woman standing in the doorway saw our questioning faces and told us that though she didn't work there, she knew the wontons were good.  Not being able to read the Chinese characters on the sign outside, we took this comment to mean we were in the right spot - Tsim Chai Kee.  We had been warned that the restaurant would be very busy, with shared tables, but arriving at 11am appears to be really the right time to visit because they were open and mostly empty!

--The rest of this post was written several days later, after returning home...--

After our delicious lunch of king prawn wonton noodle soup and chilled sweetened soy milk, we walked around Central, taking in the sights and sounds of Hong Kong.  We visited the IFC Mall, home to some high end fashion stores and a fun looking tea house with lots of macaroons on display!  Too bad we didn't have time to stay for an afternoon tea set there.

We met Liz at the Starbucks in her building, which was great because it had nice comfy chairs and cold drinks.  It was lovely to finish off our trip catching up with an old friend!

After our little meetup, T and I went back to the Hollywood Hotel to pick up our luggage and have a shower.  Like at the Langham Place, the Hollywood is accustomed to guests wishing to shower and change after checking out.  We simply asked for a "courtesy room" at the front desk and were given keys to a hotel room.  I don't know how long we could have had the room, because I told her we'd be out in 45 minutes or less.

Our flights home were the reverse of our flights to HK, with each leg somewhat longer this time.  Knowing what to expect, I think we were both slightly more comfortable on the first flight from HKG to Dubai.  Again, we flew the Airbus A380, which does offer slightly more comfort than the Boeing 777.  If nothing else, the aircraft are newer which means they are cleaner and have more functional features.  This time, we managed to take off precisely on time and even made up time in flight which allowed us to land at Dubai almost half an hour earlier than expected. 

Giant fresh flower arrangement
Because we were flying business class for our super long haul flight from Dubai back to Dulles, we were given passes for the Emirates Business Class Lounge.  This was definitely the largest airport lounge we've ever seen.  Taking up almost the whole floor of the terminal, this lounge had 4 separate hot food areas and several other full bars and cold food/snack areas.  In addition to nice, clean bathrooms (heated toilet seats and proper towels for drying your hands/washing your face), there were also separate bathrooms for showering.  Each shower room was equipped with towels, shower slippers, terry slippers and a fluffy bathrobe.  The shower room attendant cleaned the shower rooms after each use.  If we hadn't been so sleepy, we might have indulged in a shower. 

Even our travel mascots were too tired to finish blogging
After scoping out the whole place twice, we settled on a cluster of comfy chairs that could be pulled together to make sort of bed pods (think University library chairs).  We settled in to write these last two posts, but having been awake for more than 24 hours, I fell asleep after the first 3 paragraphs.  Fifteen minutes later, T was waking me up telling me we'd have to get going soon.

Not pictured: the comfy mattress laid on top of the chair for better snoozing
Our 4th and final flight was in business class on the Boeing 777.  The seats were almost lie flat, and not quite as private pod-ish as on Air Canada or British.  Our seats were in the center cluster of 3, and by magic, the third seat was not taken.  Apart from the hot towels before take off and landing, the only major difference we noted was that on Emirates, we were given 3" mattresses to put over our seats.  T declined his, but I very much enjoyed that extra layer of fluff.  It helped make the seat much more like a bed and I think I managed about 5 hours' sleep.  The food was good, though I would say not far and away better than on other airlines' business class.  In fact, by the time the steward reached us to take our dinner order, they were already out of my first choice (again).  I ended up having seafood biryani rice or something, which was good, but a little spicy.  All in all, we were glad to be in b-class for that last 14 hour flight and maybe it helped with our jet lag.

Next time: HK in the rearview

HK Day 7: Last full day

On Thursday, we woke up at 6:30 AM as usual - still not fully adjusted to HK time!  However, we made good use of the time by catching up on a couple days' worth of the travel blog and uploading photos to Flickr.  In addition, Gwen got super creative in securing an upgrade to business class for our return flight (woo hoo!).  To make a long story short, we received an offer to upgrade to business class for what struck us as a reasonable increase in fare.  However, for various reasons, we were unable either to pay the fare increase online with our credit card or make an international call from either our cell phones or hotel room to secure the upgrade via phone.  Ultimately, Gwen was able to call our credit card customer service via Google Talk, and they were able to push the transaction through.  It'll be nice having business class for the 14 hour leg from Dubai to DC!

Around 10:30, we headed out to dim sum at Maxim's Palace at the Hong Kong city hall, which was highly recommended to Todd by a partner at his firm.  After walking around the block a bit, we finally located city hall and Maxim's Palace (which is one of a handful of restaurants in city hall, another of which confusingly is called Maxim's Cafe). 

Maxim's Palace is a large, beautifully appointed ballroom / banquet hall.  Though it appeared totally packed, we were seated in just a few minutes and quickly were brought piping hot tea.  Shortly after that, we had chosen almost too many items to eat from the numerous carts that came by frequently.  

Items we tried included char siu bao (three different kinds), bai tan gao, dan tat, sweet bean soup, shu mai, and zhong zi, all of which were super.  Also great were the carts themselves, which were state of the art.  Each cart listed each item for sale in English and Chinese and provided the price of each item, and some carts even included screens showing videos of the items!  Overall, this restaurant was a huge hit with us -- we were stuffed until 9pm.
Afterwards, we visited a series of stores in Mong Kok that qualified as ... interesting, but unfortunately some of them were not as cool as we had hoped.  We did get some good souvenirs out of the excursion, however.  We checked out a $12 dollar store (where we picked up a couple cut strawberry-shaped dishes), a place called Sim City contained floor after floor of electronics items (where we picked up a couple lighting cables that appear not to work due to Apple's greediness), a shopping mall, and an outdoor market that we think was the Ladies Market (which seemed quite a bit larger than Temple Street).  We declined to buy anything at the Ladies Market, though many vendors were quick to drop their asking prices after the slightest bit of haggling, because we just weren't sure whether was could place any faith in the items there.  If you buy a watch, for example, how can you know if it will work two weeks later?

After wandering around for hours and racking up 14,000 steps on Gwen's FitBit, we decided to give our sore feet a rest at a noodle place in the Langham Place mall, where we grabbed a quick late dinner.

As our last act for the day, we decided to buy Gwen a dress to wear for the next day's adventures.  Sadly, this task proved much harder than expected!  We had read a blog post claiming that Mong Kok has a giant and excellent Esprit outlet.  However, the outlet was quite challenging to locate, as it is underground and only marked with fairly modest on the street (modest signage really doesn't cut it in Mong Kok, where there are so many lights at night that it feels like day on most streets). After many trips around the block, we did eventually find the outlet, but found it very underwhelming and would not recommend that others make the trip.  We decided to go back to the real Esprit just a few blocks away, buy Gwen's dress at a fairly reasonable non-outlet price, and call it a day.

28 May 2014

HK Day 6: Disneyland day!

We couldn't stay at the Disneyland Resort without visiting Disneyland at least once!  So, we designated Wednesday as our day for checking out the park.  This was fortunate, as Wednesday's weather was the best yet -- still very hot and sunny, but less humid than on prior days.

Unlike WDW, which opens first thing in the morning and stays open long after the fireworks end, Disneyland Hong Kong doesn't open until 10:00am and closes promptly after the fireworks show (which ends around 8:30pm).  These hours suited us fine -- we spent the morning catching up on this blog (on which we were two days behind, with our memories of HK Day 4 already starting to get fuzzy).  We eventually made our way to the park around 10:30am.

Monstro fountain outside the park with surfing Mickey (who actually went up and down)!
Park gates - so empty!
One thing we noticed immediately upon arriving at the park was the size of the crowds -- virtually nonexistent by WDW standards!  On pretty much any day at WDW, you can expect big crowds and significant wait times for popular attractions.  Here, by contrast, we breezed right through the security checkpoints into the park, and from then on could essentially walk right on to any ride we liked.  We've read that Disneyland Hong Kong has only recently started operating at a profit, and if Wednesday's crowd is any indication, we can see why!  From our perspective, however, it sure was nice to be able to casually walk our way around the park without ducking and weaving though throngs of people.

Right off the bat, we also noticed that HK is much smaller in several respects than the Magic Kingdom in WDW. Each "land" in the HK park has only a couple attractions and restaurants, with considerably more unused space between each one.  At WDW, in contrast, each "land" feels packed with attractions and add-ons (such as Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom) that make use of otherwise dead space.  We think / hope this means that the park simply has lots of internal room to grow.  Several structures also are much shorter than their WDW counterparts.  Most obviously, the castle is very short, which makes it look more like a set piece than an actual building, but the trend of short structures holds true throughout the park (e.g., the gate to Tomorrowland).  Overall, however, we thought that the theming and attention to detail around the park was very nicely done.  Mystic Point in particular was a highlight where theming is concerned.

That's not perspective - the castle is very short!
Mystic Manor attraction
Our main goals for the day were: (1) check out the areas of the park that are unique to HK Disneyland, (2) sample HK Disneyland's take on park food and (3) see the fireworks show.  Starting with goal number one, we decided to head over first to Toy Story Land, Mystic Point and Grizzly Gulch.  Toy Story Land is an area aimed at younger age groups that is themed (very nicely) like the Toy Story Midway Mania ride in Hollywood Studios, WDW. 

After working on her for a bit, Todd convinced Gwen to try the Green Army Men's Parachute Drop Training ride, which  lifts you up and drops you down a few times (think Tower of Terror, but much less scary / appropriate for little children).  We liked this ride, in particular because it afforded some great views of the HK skyline and surrounding mountains.  

Howdy, partner!

Mystic Point is an interesting area themed around the travels of Dr. Mystic and his monkey, Albert, who have brought treasures from around the world back to their mansion.  The mansion is the main attraction -- an animatronic ride, somewhat like the Haunted House in WDW, in which Dr. Mystic's treasures come to life.  We thought that this ride was one of most well-done and technologically advanced animatronic rides we've seen.  Really, very cool!  Finally, we walked through Grizzly Gulch quickly before deciding to search for food (Todd was threatening to get hangry).

Light up cotton candy!
Yangzhou fried rice, pickled veggies and watermelon juice
BBQ pork with rice and veggies
The food options are strikingly different in HK Disneyland in comparison to WDW.  As is to be expected, there is a much greater emphasis on Asian foods (including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Indian), and many fewer spots for burgers and the like.  There also are some very interesting snack options (including dried fish and squid at the popcorn carts).  After checking out some options, we settled on Festival of Food, which showcases various Chinese dishes.  Todd got the pork (complete with little bones as you might get in a Chinese restaurant), and Gwen got the fried rice.  At this point, it was around 2:00pm.  As we were feeling way overheated and also had made reservations for afternoon tea at Walt's Cafe, we decided to head back to base.

Check out the capers & onion smiley face!
Walt's Cafe, a restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel, did a nice job overall with tea.  While the quality and presentation certainly weren't at the level of the Peninsula or Cafe Gray, the cost was less than half of the Peninsula's and lower than Cafe Gray as well, and great views out the back of the hotel were free!  For HK $385, we received a single set of tea cakes to share, and we each received a tea pot and a small hot dish (such as assorted dim sum items).

We're actually standing right in front of the castle...
A bit later on, we made our way back to the park for the fireworks show.  Before the show began, however, we were able to walk right into Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters (a somewhat updated version of Space Ranger Spin at WDW).  Again, this ride typically has 25-30 minute wait times at WDW, but essentially no wait here, making it a great deal!  We enjoyed the nifty modifications made to the ride.  Somehow, due to cheating for sure, Gwen's score was nearly double Todd's.


Disney in the Stars fireworks show
The fireworks show was truly spectacular, drawing loads of audible oooohs from the crowd.  The show included several cool firework effects not used in WDW, such as giant spinning sparklers mounted to polls extended from the castle. While there may be several aspects of Disneyland HK that feel a bit small, the fireworks show definitely is not one of them.
As mentioned, the park closes promptly after the fireworks show ends, resulting in a bit of a rush to the exits.  Our efforts to take refuge in a gift shop worked fairly well, however.  After spending some time examining a very cool Disney-themed miniature house display (see below), we found that much of the crowd had dissipated.

With our last ounces of energy for the day, we decided to check out the grocery store at Tung Chung, one stop past Sunny Bay along the orange line on Lantau Island.  Here, we loaded up on interesting candies to bring home as gifts (this is for you, Matt) and procured breakfast for the next day.  The store also included some wild, never-in-the-USA aisles, such as one full entirely of boxes of various kinds of dried mushrooms!  Lugging our grocery store loot home on the train, we got home around 10:30 pm and called it a day.

Dried mushroom gift packages: who wants one?!

Next time: More Mong Kok

HK Day 5: Enchanting breakfast and fabric jackpot!

Tuesday, we thought we should start our day off right with a Disney breakfast buffet.  Having already tried Chef Mickey in our hotel, we took the shuttle bus (like a charter/tour bus in the States) over to the Disneyland Hotel.  There, we went downstairs to the Enchanted Garden, where we saw a sign saying the "next breakfast seating" would be at 9:30am.  Being only 8:30am, we asked a lovely Cast Member, Tam (apparently people here often pick their own English names, and we have seen some interesting ones - "Windy," "Chicsi," and "Yancy" to name a few) how the seatings work.  She took our room number and told us to come back around 9:20.

Mini version of the main lobby of the Grand Floridian in the Disneyland Hotel.
Hedge labyrinth behind the Disneyland Hotel.

The Hong Kong Disneyland park doesn't open until 10:00am, so at 8:30am, the Disneyland Hotel (DH) was still pretty sleepy and empty.  We took this opportunity to explore the hotel and enjoy the views in the super bright morning sunshine.  We'd also read on the interwebs that the DH provides different complimentary toiletries, themed after the seven dwarfs, so we went in search of a maid cart to verify.  [Anyone who knows me well knows I love the cute little "goodies" from hotels... one of the little things to love about traveling I learned from Mom.]

Back at Enchanted Garden  at 9:25am, the foyer outside the restaurant was starting to fill up with the haphazard queuing we've started to get used to (the result of quantities of pushy/eager/excited/barely-able-to-communicate Asians of all types).  As we approached the hostess counter, Tam saw us and quickly recited our room number from memory (! and we realized that we hadn't even left our names), and graciously set us up with an usher (the 9th or 10th "Matthew" we'd met) who led us to our table.  Following Matthew through the beautifully themed restaurant, we finally understood the "seatings."  They had completely re-set the restaurant so it seemed we were the first to enter for the day.  All the buffet offerings were freshly laid out and the restaurant empty, waiting for a new round of excited diners.  Because we were among the first into the restaurant, I quickly took some photos of the huge breakfast spread:


Round 1: Plate clockwise from bottom: Zhongzi, samosa, tea egg, teriyaki glass noodles, coconut milk rice, spring roll, cha siu in flaky pastry & 2 xiao long tang bao; accompanied by blueberry Mickey muffin, Nutella filled doughnut, gluten free blueberry pound cake, grapefruit juice, vegetable juice (possibly containing papaya), sweet potato and pork xi fan, museli with blueberry yoghurt and apricot yoghurt.
Much more like Chef Mickey at WDW, at the Enchanted Garden, there were several characters roaming around, interacting with guests.  And by interact, I mean really interact - as much as they can without making sounds.  Unlike in WDW, after making their first pass around the restaurant, the characters wandered around playing with children and "talking" (?) to adults, without handlers.  It was amazing to watch how a mute Pluto gently freed himself from the death-grip clutches of a little girl so that he could pose animatedly with another family and then return his attention to the little girl.  These characters really have skills!  Equally talented are the photographers who speak at least 4 languages plus baby-attention-grabbing (a surprising and sometimes loud language of entertaining sounds).  I tried (but failed - didn't want to be TOO much of a creeper) to get a video of one particularly exuberant photog (also named Matthew) who was animatedly teaching a little girl how to be a princess, including the walk, poses, fixing her hair, and wiping her face.

Absolutely stuffed (in more ways than one, see photo below...) from too much breakfast, we lounged a bit in the lobby before waddling back to our room.  There we re-grouped, packed the adventure bag and headed off into the city.

Breakfast haul: 6 little jars of jam, "Sleepy" cotton swabs & pads, comb, razors, shampoo, conditioner, bodywash, Asian pear, emmanthaler cheese, tea spoons
First stop was Sham Shui Po, a mecca for all things sewing related.  Streets FULL of wholesale fabric shops sold every type of fabric imaginable.  We even saw branded fabrics - polo shirt fabric with little embroidered Abercrombie mooses, satin-y fabric printed with golf tees and balls that I swear was for Vineyard Vines ties and others.
Beads galore!
Fabric stalls on the street
Fabric swatch cards for wholesale purchasers
Halfway through our perusal of one block of street fabric vendors, all the vendors suddenly began hauling their giant (read: probably 300lb) fabric carts closer in towards their tents/booths.  A few minutes later, we saw a police-like person a little way up the street and decided they must get fined if they have their carts too far out into the street.  Maybe another 5 minutes later, all the carts were right back out whee they were.  Fantastic!

Wending our way back to the MTR station, we stopped in lots of little shops selling all sorts of bits and bobs.  One shop was the size of a small apartment and packed FULL of all kinds of plastic beads.  So full that though the walls were lined with tiny drawers, some of them were pulled out to make shelves for jars of still more beads!  Similar stores sold all types of strings, ribbons, elastic, lace, sequins (including giant 3"+ diameter ones for making curtains - like the sort you might have for a party), buckles, and rhinestones.

Having completely exhausted T's (very generous) patience for looking at all things shiny and crafty, we headed off in search of Granville Road and the promise of up-and-coming designers, discounted clothing, and interesting Hong Kong shopping.  Emerging from the MTR, right away we could tell that this was indeed a place for shopping.  It was starting to get dark, so neon lights were on advertising all types of wares, including a particularly large sign above the center of the road that read "UNDER WEAR."  Sadly, looks like we didn't get a photo.  Already somewhat laden with my haul from Sham Shui Po, we spent another several hours perusing the stores and malls on Granville Road, making a few more purchases to add to our load.  At Uniqlo, we were entertained by the variety of American/American-inspired t-shirt designs and also Moomin, a new favourite "cute thing" to add to our list.
Street vendor selling all types of zhongzi
Something (very popular - there was a long line) called egg yolk ball... looked like a crunchy sort of pastry/baked item
Heading back to the hotel around 10:00pm, we realized we hadn't eaten dinner... or lunch... and one of us was becoming somewhat hangry.  So we made a quick stop at an ever present 7-11 for sandwiches, sparkling orange juice and a strawberry banana juice (sorry, too tired to take photos).  By the time we reached our room, we had just enough energy to shower (we've lost track what number we're on now, but I think we're averaging 2.5/day), eat, and fall into bed.

Next time: Disneyland!!