Hong Kong specialist Laura Woo at the top of Victoria Peak // © 2014 Laura Woo
Feature image (above): The Hong Kong skyline is one of the financial capital’s most well-known features. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Laura Woo has worked in the travel industry for 30 years and is currently a home-based travel agent with West University Travel in Houston, Texas, a member of Ensemble Travel Group. Raised in Hong Kong, Woo tries to return to the bustling Asian metropolis at least once a year. She knows Hong Kong well, and she insists that the global financial center is not only for high-end business travelers, but for individual leisure travelers and families as well.
What makes Hong Kong so compelling?
It really is one of the most beautiful and sought after destinations in the world because it is so unique. The top draw for Hong Kong is the skyline. The glittering view of towering skyscrapers above Victoria Harbor and the ferryboats in the harbor below would actually impress even the most seasoned traveler. I really think even the most seasoned traveler will want to see Hong Kong again and again.
What do you like to do when you go back?
What I miss the most is the Western District because it’s really a mix of Hong Kong then and now. It’s a very historic place, and when I lived there I received a British education, so I miss that British flavor. When I go back, I still see the British influence, but it’s not quite the same as when I was there during my childhood. Even though I’m Chinese, that influence really gets to you. This is a part of Hong Kong many travel agents and tour operators don’t include, but it’s a great place to see the old streets, where there is wonderful food, many markets, old bakeries, temples and shops that sell everything — even coffins.
Do you have a favorite off-the-beaten-track discovery you like to recommend to clients?
Hong Kong is renowned for its variety of food, and my off-the-beaten-track discovery is a vegetarian restaurant named Chi Lin Vegetarian, located in the Chi Lin Nunnery, which is a stunning Buddhist temple complex in a place called Diamond Hill on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong.
For people who don’t know, Hong Kong is divided into two parts: Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula. This temple complex includes the nunnery, a temple hall, a hostel for visitors where you can spend the night, a scenic garden, a teahouse and, of course, the vegetarian restaurant. The Buddhist nunnery has a long history with vegetarian food culture, and started providing wholesome vegetarian meals to the needy in post-war Hong Kong more than 60 years ago.
Over the years, the kitchen has developed a unique school of contemporary vegetarian food culture and serves really awesome dishes for dinner. You can also get great Cantonese vegetarian dim sum and cuisine all day, and the restaurant overlooks a famous waterfall call the Silver Strand and a beautiful garden. You’re not going to find anything like this elsewhere.
What’s the best time of year to visit Hong Kong?
I prefer to send people in the spring or fall, but not in the winter. Winter can be kind of cold and people do need to pack heavy jackets, even though it’s Southeast Asia. You won’t see snow in Hong Kong, but you might see frost, especially in the mountains. I would avoid January and February.
Is it important for visitors to speak Mandarin or Cantonese?
English is still like a second language. Most of the high school kids, especially the younger ones, do speak English. All the street signs are in English — English first and then in Chinese in small characters underneath. At the hotel, you shouldn’t have any problem. In the local street markets, it could be a different story. There will likely be some elderly folks working in the street markets or food markets, and with them, you really have to use your body language. But they are quick to recognize what you want. Before you even point with your finger they will hand something to you, which will probably be exactly what you want.
How do advise families heading to Hong Kong?
First, I’d put them in a family-friendly hotel. One I like is the Sheraton, which is very family friendly. The InterContinental is good for families as well. Some of the hotels in Hong Kong cater more to business travelers. I wouldn’t send kids to the Four Seasons, for example. It’s a very serious hotel. Places like the Mandarin Oriental or the Peninsula are also traditional business luxury hotels. But hotels like the Sheraton pay special attention to kids and are really family-friendly.
I would also be sure to suggest they do some island touring. This is probably the most important activity. Every person that goes to Hong Kong has got to see this. The island tour includes taking a sampan ride in Aberdeen to see the floating village; a visit to Repulse Bay and Stanley Bay, which is on the south side of Hong Kong Island; and also Stanley Market, which is a shopping Mecca for souvenirs. And then you ride up the historic Peak Tram to the summit of Victoria Peak for the most spectacular views over Hong Kong Central, Victoria Harbor and beyond.
What’s your favorite Hong Kong hotel?
My favorite, believe it or not, is the JW Marriott. I have stayed there many, many times because it gives you a home-away-from-home environment with really personalized services, and it is in a very nice location on top of an upscale shopping center and has very easy access to a MTR [metro] station. The second hotel I like is the InterContinental Hong Kong on the Victoria Harbor waterfront in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s great for clients traveling to Hong Kong as a family or for someone who wants a luxury room with high-tech features, unadulterated views of Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong Island and extraordinary service.