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!!

27 May 2014

HK Day 4: Real Hong Kong

Monday, T and I decided to try breakfasting like the locals.  Various blogs and other info on the interwebs pointed us to a place in Central called Lin Heung Tea House.  Known for delicious congee (xi fan for Mandarin speakers, jok for Cantonese), we were excited to be able to order our breakfast off of carts (like Dim Sum).

Even though we were up super early (about 4:30am), our internet perusings kept us from getting underway until 7:00am, which we felt was a more suitable time to actually get going.  Being on the MTR at that early hour meant that we got to experience the HK morning commute.  Lots of tired looking people, as to be expected, and being out here in the "suburbs" on Lantau Island, we saw a higher ratio of expats.  We did not envy the men's full suits in the HK heat and humidity, but figure at least they won't freeze in their offices which are likely air conditioned to near-tundra temperatures (as are most of the shops).

Thanking the Google Gods for designing such amazing maps (the directional arrow, showing which way you're facing is particularly handy), we had little difficulty finding our breakfasting location.  The greater difficulty was in communicating and wondering about how sanitary the place might be.  [Vi, you would not have gone in.]  As an answer to my concerns about the cleanliness of the dishes (clean ones are stacked on the floor, for quick resetting of tables), a server/bus boy set a bowl of steaming hot water on the table in front of us.  He also threw down a little card listing the types of tea available.  I chose Jasmine and quickly looked around, looking at how others were using the water bowl.  Not seeing any other new diners, I assumed it was for washing our dishes.  As I swirled our little bowls and cups in the piping hot water, we noticed someone else pouring their tea over the ends of their chopsticks, also into the bowl.  We did that too.  Dishes "sanitized," we started looking around at the few carts, searching for recognizable foods.

No need to wait patiently for the carts to come to your table!  When a new cart came out, people would get up from their tables to check out the steaming items.

Unfortunately, they didn't actually have xi fan, which was disappointing.  Maybe we missed it, or maybe the people just couldn't understand what we were saying.  We did sample a variety of other things, none of which we'd ever had before.  The zhong zi (sticky rice with some kind of meaty filling, wrapped in leaves) was the closest item to anything we recognized.  About halfway through our dining experience, a nice couple sat at our table (shared tables appears common here) and the man offered us a variety of helpful tips - in English!  He taught us how to pour from a teapot properly (2 fingers inside the handle, thumb pressing down on top to keep it steady), told us what some of the more interesting looking foods were (another pair at our table ordered a LARGE helping of steamed pork liver...), and generally gave us advice about how and what to see in the city.

Tummies full, and hoping the hot water/tea dish washing was sufficient, we headed off in search of the Peak Tram.  Again, following the guidance of Google maps, we found the Peak Tram fairly easily.  We were expecting something somewhat more elaborate, especially after having been on the cable cars.  The tram is literally one tram vehicle with two cars that goes up and down a single, very steep track.  It has the feel of an old trolley from some place like Louisiana, but the track is so steep, you also kind of feel like you're on a roller coaster, and thus keep waiting for a stomach turning drop (which thankfully never happens).

There's the tram!
At the top of Victoria Peak, the main attraction is the Peak Tower, which has undergone several total make-overs - there are many photos showing previous iterations.  Inside the tower is a sort of mini-mall, with a random sampling of stores.  At the top level, next to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (yes, themed after Forrest Gump...) is TonyMoly, a Korean cosmetics company that makes some of the cutest packaging.  We made a quick pit stop.

View from the coffee shop
Thirsty and hot, as usual, our next stop was a little coffee shop with fantastic views out over the city.  T tried a blended iced coffee, but I stuck with bottled water.  Re-hydrated, we explored the rest of the establishments on Victoria Peak before joining the queue for the return trip.  As I mentioned earlier, it's one vehicle that goes up and down the track.  There's no turning around.  So on the way down the mountain, you're sitting backwards.  This really feels like a roller coaster, but fortunately the ride is just slow and smooth enough to prevent any freak-outs.  Still, I think there were some who were glad when the tram ground to a stop.

The Peak Tram stop is at the edge of Honk Kong Park, a large, outdoor, somewhat jungly place with paved walkways and lots of stairs.  We saw a somewhat extreme looking work out group that made us think of Fit Camp (except perhaps less safe).  In the 93F heat, with 100% humidity (really, it was raining), weather.com told us it felt like 106F.  This group was running up and down the stairs, interspersed with burpees, and sprinting/grapevining/high-knee-ing up the slope of the mountain.  We were tired just watching them.  So we continued on our way through the park.  We walked past gardens, a large koi pond, and fountains before arriving at the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware.

The museum showcases all types of Chinese tea ware and even had a room for viewing a short video showing how teapots are traditionally made by hand.  Using the Museum as a welcome respite from the heat and giving our feet a change to relax, we spent the majority of our time in the children's playroom watching the videos about tea customs and how tea is made (from picking to packaging with Mr. Black Tea Leaf).  I'm pretty sure the playroom attendant thought we were quite odd.

Our last stop for the day was tea at the Upper House.  This is a hotel that is somehow attached to/on top of the JW Marriott.  A very stylish hotel in a stylish part of the city, our reservation was at 4:30, not for another 3 hours!  We were able to move it up to 3:30pm, but still needed to bide some time.  We looked around both the JW and Upper House for a place to sit and relax, but large hotel lobbies (with comfy couches and chairs for lounging) are not really a thing here.  Instead, we settled for just being out of the heat and walked around the large mall across the street.

Full of high end brands like Cartier, Hermes, and Burberry, we made one $5USD purchase at a pharmacy for throat lozenges.  The over-helpful shop attendants wanted me to buy a large glass bottle of Chinese medicine, whose main ingredient appeared to be bee propolis.  Interestingly, we got 3 flavors of lozenges - blackberry, plum, and green tea - and they all have bee propolis also.  They do have a medicine-y flavour, but much better than the medicated ones at home.

Mini sliders!
Tea at the Upper House is at Cafe Gray Deluxe on the 49th floor, providing more fantastic views of Hong Kong.  T chose Chinese oolong and I had lemon ginger.  The tea set itself was comparable in taste and quality to the Peninsula, we thought.  Cafe Gray was less expensive, but the ability to make reservations and thus not having to wait really earned Cafe Gray a lot of points.  The tea itself was definitely better at the Peninsula - both mine (green tea based) and T's (black tea based) were bitter on the second cup, thanks to their use of 3 tea bags in 2 cup teapots.  But, did we mention the view?

After a leisurely tea, with tummies full, we headed back to Disneyland, where we showered and promptly fell asleep.

Next time:  Enchanted Garden and Sham Shui Po!

25 May 2014

HK Day 3: The Big Buddha

After finishing last night's post around 3:00am, we were surprised to wake up at 7:30am.  So we're either not on HK time yet or our bodies have decided 4hr sleeps are good enough.  Also, the sun rises earlier here - 5:40am today, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Anyway, we were up, so we got ready for breakfast (#9 - forgot to mention a couple showers yesterday).  Just as we were leaving our room, a Mousekeeping woman came to our door to ask whether we'd like new towels and bed sheets and when we'd like her to tidy our room.  We told her we were on our way to breakfast, and she could come in now.

Downstairs, Chef Mickey's was very busy.  The energy is different, and more frenetic here than in either the Chef Mickey's in WDW or Tokyo.  T described it as a more "Chuck E. Cheese" feel, which is pretty accurate.  The restaurant is louder, the only character to "meet" is Chef Mickey, and (possibly because of the craziness) he only poses for photos by the entrance to the restaurant.  We were seated right away, at a table set with yellow paper place mats and red napkins.  As she left us at our table, the hostess handed me a laminated card (obviously done by hand...) telling us that we could queue up for a photo with Chef Mickey any time between 8:00 and 10:45am.  Realizing we'd forgotten to bring both phone and camera for taking pictures, T went back to the room for them, giving me a chance to observe the surroundings.

I'd say 80% of the clientele were Chinese, speaking either Cantonese or Mandarin (seemed mostly Mandarin, actually), 10% were Indian, and the remaining 10% comprised everyone else (a deer-in-headlights American family of 3, a German speaking family, and various other types of Asians).  I also noticed that while the Mandarin speaking small children were clearly very excited to be there, they were surprisingly well behaved.  Upon arrival, many were pointing out the not-so-hidden Mickeys omnipresent in the theming, but as soon as they were seated, they sat fairly quietly and patiently waiting for their parents to bring back plates of food from the buffet.  This meant that few children actually went to the buffet area, which is probably a good thing.

The food offerings sort of mirrored the breakdown of the clientele, though 50% was traditional Western breakfast fare (lots of pastries, scrambled and over easy eggs, pancakes, Mickey Waffles, etc.).  Interestingly, the Mickey Waffles and banana cakes (above) were the only specifically Disney food items.  Where WDW has Mickey shaped pancakes, Waffles, sprinkles and breakfast pizza, Japan had lots of Mickey-shaped things; yolks of soft boiled eggs, hash browns, pastries...  Both those restaurants have food areas (and probably seating areas too) that are twice the size of Chef Mickey's here in HK.  Thus, the individual food sections were also smaller, with less variety; made-to-order noodle soup, Indian (dal, rice with ghee & cumin seeds, curry), Japanese (various types of pickles, lox), dim sum.  Also, there was kind of an "every person for themselves" vibe.  Once seated, we had to flag down servers to get (terrible) hot tea and coffee.  They did do a quick job of clearing used dishes, however.  At the food stations, there was no order or flow to how people moved through the buffet.  Instead, people literally pushed through at any point.  I even had several people reach over me!  But, there were 2 types of delicious xiao long tang bao on offer (and only 4/steamer basket), so perhaps some of the pushing was warranted.  Overall, we felt that breakfast at the Langham Place was better, and comparable in price.

After our delicious breakfast, we collected our adventure bag (stocked with sunscreen, bottled water, wipes, and hand sanitizer) and headed off to find our way to the Big Buddha!

Aboard the Mickey train!
The MTR station is quite easy to get to; the Disney Resort Station is just outside the entrance to the park.  There is a special "Mickey train" which took us to the Sunny Bay stop, where we changed to the orange line to Tung Chung.  There, we were surprised to see an outlet mall right off of the MTR station.  Just past the mall is the entrance to the cable car station.

We bought round trip tickets in a standard cabin (as opposed to glass bottom, which seemed like it would be pretty terrifying) for $300HKD.  Another option was a one way ticket, but it appeared that to get back, you'd have to walk across several mountains (and swim across a bay) if you didn't have some other transport waiting for you at the top.  As an aside, there are actually 2 queues - one for the glass bottomed Crystal Cabins, and one for the standard cabins.  Not noticing any signage, we chose the wrong line and after waiting half an hour, were sent to the back of the proper line when we made it to the ticket taker...  Luckily there are at least twice (maybe 3x) as many standard cabins, so this line was shorter.

I was a little dubious about the cable car ride, not being a huge fan of heights.  But the ride is very smooth and not so fast that you feel like your car might fall at any moment.  In fact, the cabins are "naturally air conditioned" by vents, so we could feel and hear the wind gusts as welcome cool breezes, but did not feel any sway in the cabin.  Being a (scorchingly hot at 91F, but felt like 101F according to weather.com) clear day, the views were wonderful.

At the top, the cable cars drop you in a "village" called Ngong Ping.  This is pretty much a tourist village of shops selling all types of refreshment and souvenirs.  We walked through the village, stopping for a grapefruit juice at Starbucks (check out our Flickr for photos of some other intriguing Chinese options!), and made our way to the Big Buddha and temple.

After walking around the temple area, we bought some ice pops and headed up the stairs to the Big Buddha.  Definitely not for the faint of heart on this sweltering day, we got our workout for the day and were rewarded with more fantastic views.


Leaving the Big Buddha, we stopped in some of the stores in the "village," more to cool off than to really shop.  At the very end of the line of shops was a little tea shop, where we decided to stop for tea.  It was 2:30, and tea time after all.  The shop had a cute little seating area where we enjoyed a traditional tea ceremony and relaxed in the air conditioning whilst drinking 95C hot tea.

After tea, we re-boarded a cable car and headed back to Tung Chung.  We spent a few hours exploring the outlet mall, but didn't find anything particularly enticing.  By the time we returned to the hotel, I'd developed a sore throat and we were both a little hungry, so we went back to Hollywood and Dine.  We got a nice dinner of noodle soup for me and cha-siu-bao and fruit cup for T.  We got our food to go so we could eat it in our room after much needed showers (#10).  Well fed, we've been napping since about 7:00pm and now it's midnight.  I woke us up to soothe my throat with some more tea, but now it's back to bed!

Tomorrow:  Central and wontons