Tai O village on the far western shore of Lantau Island, Hong Kong, is fast becoming the hot mini-break for ex-pats and tourists based in downtown Hong Kong.
This small, traditional fishing village is a jumble of stilt houses huddled in a bay protected by soaring mountains and the vast South China Sea stretched out in front. It’s spectacular, but a world away from the dazzling skyscrapers and glamorous designer stores typically dominating Hong Kong skylines.
Tai O is home to 3000, mostly elderly, citizens who live in tiny stilt houses fashioned out of scraps of metal and hardwood. Most young people move to the city areas in search of education and work. Those who stay remain working in the fishing industry, or have taken jobs to service the estimated 60,000 tourists who stream in hoping for a glimpse of an old-style Chinese village.
Tai O isn’t vast, and it is possible to wander all the streets in a couple of hours. I chose to book a guided cultural tour via the Tai O Heritage Hotel and my host happily points out temples and explains the local rituals and history as I eat my way around the streets.
A stroll along the waterfront from the Tai O Heritage Hotel takes us past the pungent Sing Lee shrimp paste factory, where the blocks of paste lie drying out in the sunshine taunting hungry cats and hovering flies. I quickly decide fried rice with shrimp paste is an acquired taste (and smell!). Our route passes street stalls selling freshly fried egg balls, assortments of dried and fresh fish, and wide round baskets drying the half-moons of lime peel used in a refreshing salted lime drink. My guide also points out that the same wide baskets are also used to make salted and dried egg yolks – a practical snack in fishing villages where the egg whites are used daily to repair fishing nets.
The tour finishes with a visit to a family living in a tiny old metal stilt house. At 175 cms tall, I really have to stoop over to get inside the door. My kind host shows me the miniscule, immaculate working kitchen that feeds four extended families and invites me to share a drink and enjoy the deck overlooking the water.
Adventure-seekers should join a boat tour that takes you out of the bay into the South China Sea in search of the rare pink dolphin. For something more romantic, a boat can be chartered for about $HK 100 per person at sunset to see the magical red hues of the setting sun over the South China Sea. Whatever your fancy, Tai O will force you to slow down.
Cathay Pacific has a fare to Hong Kong from Sydney and Melbourne (about 9hr) for about $1512 return including tax.
A taxi to Tai O from Hong Kong airport is about $HK 400. Tai O Heritage Hotel can arrange a limousine transfer for $HK 700. The trip takes about an hour.
If you are transferring from Central, Hong Kong Island, enjoy the 35-minute ride by fast ferry from Central Ferry Pier 6 to Maui Wo and a 30-minute ride by bus route 1 from Mui Wo Bus Terminus to Tai O.
The best place to stay is a ten-minute walk (or 2 min jet-boat ride) from the main village at the boutique Tai O Heritage Hotel. Built in 1902, the hotel is the Old Tai O police station refurbished in colonial luxe style. It’s busy, for privacy book one of the balcony rooms. Room 2111, ‘Sea Tiger’, is the smallest yet most popular as it has a magnificent views across the South China Sea, starting at $HK 1480. Prices go up to $HK 2480 for the ground-floor suites.
The food at the Hotel is pretty ordinary. Tai O has a small market and a handful of traditional seafood restaurants in the main strip where most of the villagers eat. Expect to pay $HK 30 per dish, tops. Most eateries are shut by 8 pm.
Try Fook Moon Lam for the best breakfast dim sum, open from about 5.30 am as the locals eat their breakfast before heading to work.
Solo café makes a mean espresso and serves a range of Western and traditional Chinese cakes. The traditional salted lime juice is worth a try.
See my article in Sydney Morning Herald (and other Fairfax publications) on where to eat out in Hong Kong.
Luxury Travel magazine
The article featured on this page is an edited version of a piece originally commissioned for Fairfax. All text and pics copyright Kirsty Manning-Wilcox.
I travelled business class to Hong Kong courtesy of Cathay Pacific, as part of a series of freelance Hong Kong food and travel articles for Fairfax newspapers and online, SBS and Luxury Travel magazine. All opinions are my own.