A Hong Kong island adventure can be a bucolic experience

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Ponder a possible island vacation, and Hong Kong most likely will not be the first destination to leap to mind. Although the islands of Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Maldives or the Seychelles would seem more obvious choices, Hong Kong is a subtropical archipelago comprising 262 verdant and scenic islands packed with attractions both natural and man-made.

Granted, Hong Kong is short on beach resorts and other features of sun-and-fun island tourism. Even its businesslike name under mainland Chinese rule, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,  sounds like all work and no play.

But as far as major global conurbations go, Hong Kong, on the whole, is surprisingly green and undeveloped, even though it's home to nearly 7 million residents and one of its islands, Ap Lei Chau (chau means "island" in Cantonese), is the most densely populated in the world.

Less than a quarter of Hong Kong's 425 square miles of landmass is developed, and some 40% of the region is set aside as parkland or nature preserve. In fact, one of the SAR's newest attractions is the 148-acre Hong Kong Wetland Park in the New Territories, which sits on a peninsula attached to mainland China.

Natural attractions and activities on or just off Hong Kong's islands include bays and harbors -- such as Victoria Harbor, one of the world's deepest ports -- and nature walks, like the Family Trail route across the island of Lamma.

There are caves, among them Cheung Po Tsai on Cheung Chau, and beaches, including Tung Wan on Cheung Chau, Hap Mun Bay on Kiu Tsui Island and at Deep Water Bay on Hong Kong proper.

The archipelago is also home to sprawling amusement parks such as Hong Kong Disneyland on Lantau and Ocean Park on Hong Kong. Two small-scale, cultural installations are the Lamma Fisherfolk's Village on Lamma and the Shaolin Wushu martial arts center on Lantau.

Sailing Hong Kong's seas

Most visitors, venturing from city center hotels in the Central district or Kowloon, access the territory's islands by automobile, rail or boat on day trips.

Hong Kong, Tsing Yi and Lantau are connected by bridge or tunnel to each other and/or the mainland.

Each is also served by ferry, junk or kaido, an independently owned and operated water taxi that's also known as a sampan. Kaidos can be hired for private jaunts in several locations, such as Aberdeen, Stanley and Causeway Bay on Hong Kong or in Sai Kung village on the pristine Sai Kung Peninsula in the New Territories.

Kaidos, available for rent from one hour to one day, are particularly popular for visiting the many islets off Sai Kung, including Kiu Tsui (Sharp), Pak Sha (White Sand), Cham Tau (Pillow) and Yim Tin Tsai (Little Salt Field) islands.

Most of the larger, more heavily populated or more frequently visited islands are served by scheduled ferry. The most well-known is the cross-harbor, double-decker Star Ferry service to and from Hong Kong island. The skyline views make at least one ride a must for any visitor.

Star Ferry now operates from the new  Central Ferry Piers in Hong Kong Central. There, visitors will find ferries to the main outlying islands of Peng Chau, Cheung Chau, Lamma and Lantau.

Two types of ferries, standard and fast, operate on most routes; fast ferries are a bit more expensive.

Other leisurely pursuits on local waters include 45-minute cocktail cruises on the sleek Aqualuna, a 21st century version of a traditional Chinese junk, and hydrofoil day trips to Macau.

Idling on idyllic islands

Many visitors to Hong Kong end up making at least one visit to Lantau, site of the city's international airport.

One new must-do is Ngong Ping 360, a hair-rising, 3.5-mile cable-car journey from the suburb of Tung Ching to mountaintop Ngong Ping Village, a small cultural theme park near the famed Tian Tan Buddha statue and the Po Lin Monastery. The scenic 25-minute ride cuts the journey to the statue in half.

Other sights on Lantau include Tai O, a fishing village with stilt houses; the 40-mile Lantau Trail; Cheung Sha Beach; and boat tours departing Tung Ching to view Hong Kong's famous pink dolphins.

Smaller island destinations worth a visit across Hong Kong include tiny and car-free (but heavily populated) Peng Chau, packed with traditional Chinese wet markets; Cheung Chau, a former pirate haven that's strung with beaches and is now a popular redoubt for windsurfers, spelunkers and sun worshippers; and the Po Toi Islands, a cluster of islets that are notable for their natural rock formations, mysterious rock carvings and open-air seafood restaurants.

Another popular island for seafood dining is Lamma, a half-hour ferry ride from the Central Ferry Piers. The most common day trip to Lamma from Hong Kong starts with a ferry ride to Yung Shue Wan village, at the island's northern tip. Visitors then hike along the Family Trail, with stops at the Chinese Pavilion, Tin Hau temples and Kamikaze Caves.

Then they head to Sok Kwu Wan, a fishing village with an array of seafood eateries. Rainbow Seafood offer diners private yacht shuttles back to Central and Kowloon.

Sok Kwu Wan also is home to the Lamma Fisherfolk's Village, a floating, outdoor ethnographic park dedicated to the lives and livelihoods of local fishermen.

Reached by kaido from the town's Pier No. 2, Fisherfolk's Village features traditional vessels such as dragon boats; fishing rafts and junks; and exhibits on folklore, fishing tools and fish preservation methods such as salting and drying.

There are also demonstrations of net throwing and sail raising, and visitors can try their hand at angle, net and hookless fishing as well as feeding an array of sea creatures. Two-hour tickets are priced at about $5 for adults and $4 for children.

For more on Lamma Fisherfolk's Village, visit www.fisherfolks.com.hk. For information on touring Hong Kong's myriad islands, visit the Hong Kong Tourism Board at www.discoverhongkong.com/usa.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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