Visiting your college kid in Hong Kong is a real education

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 21, 2010

A few details to remember when you visit your child abroad: You'll eat a lot. You'll shop a lot (after all, Mom or Dad is paying). Your attempts to snap family photos will be treated warily. And taxis? Forget about them.

At least, that's what I learned when I recently visited my daughter in Hong Kong, where, as a junior at Syracuse University, she was taking a semester abroad to experience life as it's lived halfway around the world. My mother and I arrived in November with a duffel bag full of warm clothes for Sarah's upcoming mountain-climbing trip to Malaysia and boxes of her favorite granola bars. And for five days, she acted as our tour guide in one of the world's most crowded cities.

Having your child be your guide is an odd mixture of going native and going tourist class. Sort of like Lonely Planet meets Fodor's. You do what your child wants to do. Your desires are treated with detached amusement and, more often than not, ignored. After all, your child is the expert. For maybe the first time in her life, she's the leader, and you're the follower.

Several weeks before my mother and I arrived, my well-organized daughter e-mailed us an hour-by-hour itinerary of our trip. It gave us a wide-ranging look at Hong Kong's exuberant urban environment.

Hong Kong consists of the Kowloon Peninsula, Hong Kong Island to the south, the New Territories to the north and 235 outlying islands. Its steep, mountainous terrain sprawls over 430 square miles, but its 7 million inhabitants are squeezed into small pockets of that land, so it has one of the densest population centers in the world, featuring a thick forest of skyscrapers, gleaming shopping malls, teeming sidewalks and narrow alleyways where laundry hangs out windows.

I booked a family suite at the Salisbury YMCA, which turned out to be the deal of the century. The 109-year-old Y in the Tsim Sha Tsui section -- the tip of Kowloon -- runs a pleasant, well-appointed hotel close to the waterfront and across the street from the luxury Peninsula Hotel, where rooms go for multiple times what we paid. We had two generously sized (for Hong Kong) rooms, with two single beds, a fold-out sofa, a small office and a stunning view of the harbor for the absurdly low price of $195 per night.

We started our stay, of course, with dim sum, the Asian breakfast of champions, at the Lin Heung ("Fragrant Lotus") Tea House in the Central section of Hong Kong Island. Opened in the 1920s, it's one of the last of the old-style Hong Kong teahouses. Old men read newspapers in the scruffy second-floor restaurant, and local families gather there to gossip and eat.

Following Sarah's lead, we rinsed our dishware in a bowl of hot tea on the table, then pointed as the waitresses rumbled by with their wheeled carts laden with baskets and tin pots. Massive steaming pork buns, lotus-leaf-wrapped rice with minced meat, and shrimp balls were among the rustic-tasting delicacies that soon covered our table.

Afterward, it was on to a more tourist-focused location: Victoria Peak, which rises 1,810 feet above sea level on Hong Kong Island. We rode to the top on a tram (actually a funicular railway). Sarah had been up before but had taken the city bus to save money. However you get there, the view from the summit, with the city's skyscrapers and the distant mountains of Kowloon, is worth the heart-stopping climb. We dodged the forgettable souvenir stands and Madame Tussauds and hiked along the Peak Circle Walk, a wooded 2.2-mile paved trail that offers soaring vistas along the way.

Then it was back to eating. (We were, after all, with a student.) This time, it was high tea in the grand lobby of the Peninsula Hotel. The 82-year-old ultra-luxury "Pen" harks back to Hong Kong's colonial past, and Sarah had been saving this one for our visit; it didn't quite fit into her own $15-a-day budget.

We beat the long wait by showing up a half-hour before the 2 p.m. start time and having drinks, including the hotel's famed fresh mango juice, while listening to a string quartet play from a balcony overlooking the lobby. Tea -- scones, finger sandwiches and pastries -- was served on a three-tiered cake stand of silver and china by white-gloved waiters.

Over the next several days, even though Hong Kong taxis are relatively cheap, we traveled on the city's extensive mass-transit system, the MTR. Sarah had us buy an Octopus card, which is sort of like a Metro Farecard except that it's good not only on the MTR but also at stores around town. The MTR is clean, well marked and efficient; on the subway, a flashing arrow lights up on the maps above the doors so you know which stop you're at and, just as important, whether you're traveling in the right direction. Aboveground, skinny double-decker buses ply a multitude of routes, and Hong Kong Harbor is crisscrossed by the century-old Star Ferry system. We never waited anywhere for more than a few minutes.

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