Think of Hong Kong and you might naturally – or unnaturally – start with high-rise towers and high-end shopping malls. But the paradox of Hong Kong is that this seemingly most urban of Asian destinations is also a place of immense natural beauty and a thriving outdoors spirit.
Hong Kong is composed of about 250 islands and more than 300 hills. Beaches ring its shores, and walking and cycling trails roam along coasts and deep into the hills.
Step outside the streets and stores and you'll quickly discover Hong Kong's surprisingly wild side.
Hap Mun Bay Beach, Sharp Island. Photo: Hong Kong Discovery
You don't need to travel far from central Hong Kong to find enticing beaches. On Hong Kong Island, just a short bus ride from the city centre, popular Shek O and Big Wave Bay sit at the foot of the Dragon's Back Ridge, which provides a dramatic backdrop. Shek O's two beaches are wrapped around a narrow headland, while surf-patrolled Big Wave Bay is also home to an ancient rock carving discovered only in 1970.
In the New Territories, the Sai Kung Peninsula provides a wealth of beach options, including the perfect crescent of Half Moon Bay, one of Hong Kong's most famous beaches, on Sharp Island. Water-quality tests often rank this beach as the cleanest in Hong Kong.
Half Moon Bay can be reached by boat from Sai Kung town, and you can continue by boat from here to wide Tai Long Wan, a bay regarded by many as Hong Kong's most naturally beautiful place.
Wrapped around the bay, which is inaccessible by road, are four gorgeous white-sand beaches – if one is crowded, which is unlikely, stroll on to another. The higgledy-piggledy wooden bridge over the inlet at Ham Tin beach is a visual icon in its own right.
On Lantau Island, beside the seaside holiday centre of Pui O, you'll find Hong Kong's longest beach, Cheung Sha.
The MacLehose Trail crosses the hilly New Territories. Photo: Hong Kong Discovery
The perfect way to earn your Hong Kong beach time is to walk, with the territory's many great trails accessing some of the finest beaches, and far beyond. Running along a sharp-tipped ridge on Hong Kong Island, the Dragon's Back was once named Asia's best urban hike by Time magazine.
It's a spectacular eight-kilometre walk overlooking Shek O and finishing on the sands of Big Wave Bay. It's one of the most popular trails in Hong Kong, but is also just one section of the longer Hong Kong Trail, a 50-kilometre trail that almost traverses the entirety of Hong Kong Island.
The Hong Kong Trail is one of four multi-day trails across Hong Kong. The 70-kilometre Lantau Trail traverses Lantau Island, while the Wilson Trail covers 78 kilometres and eight country parks through Hong Kong Island and the New Territories.
The greatest hiking challenge is the 100-kilometre MacLehose Trail, crossing the hilly New Territories. Section two of the trail ambles along the beaches of Tai Long Wan, but you needn't plan a multi-day epic just to get here. If you want to walk to these bay beaches, the beautiful Tai Long Wan Hiking Trail begins at Sai Wan Pavilion (reachable by bus or taxi from Sai Kung town); you should hit the beaches after about an hour of walking.
Greatest hiking challenge: The MacLehose Trail. Photo: Hong Kong Discovery
A place of islands means a place of water, and there are plenty of opportunities to make a splash in Hong Kong. Kwun Yam Beach, on the small island of Cheung Chau, is famed as the spot where Hong Kong's first Olympic gold medallist, windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, learned her trade. Hire a board from the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre if you want to try emulating her deeds.
You can also hire kayaks on Cheung Chau, where you can explore some unusual coastal rock features. Perhaps the most exciting kayaking destination in Hong Kong is the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark, where sea arches and caves along the coast and islands invite exploration; kayak hire and tours are available from Sai Kung.
As the name suggests, Big Wave Bay is the centre of the local surf scene. Lessons can be arranged here if you want the rare opportunity of saying that you learned to surf in Hong Kong. Tai Long Wan (which also translates as Big Wave Bay) also has consistently good surf, and a surf shop.
Sai Kung offers stunning cycling.
In recent years, mountain biking has taken off in Hong Kong, with its terrain almost custom-made for the sport. The most popular mountain-biking trails, and the most extensive trail network, are on Hong Kong's highest mountain, Tai Mo Shan. The Tai Mo Shan downhill trail is the premier ride here (be warned, it's technical), while the loop around Tai Lam Reservoir provides a less demanding ride.
The Dragon's Back is Hong Kong Island's only designated mountain-bike route. The route is shared with hikers and is challenging, but the airy sense of riding atop a sharp ridge is exhilarating.
The town of Sha Tin, in the New Territories, is the starting point for an easy cycle north along the Shing Mun River, linking into a coastal bike path along Tolo Harbour. There are several bike-rental places in Sha Tin.
The article brought to you by the Hong Kong Tourism Board. The writer travelled courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board and Cathay Pacific.
For more inspiration on Hong Kong's islands, beaches and outdoor activities see: discoverhongkong.com/au
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