Hong Kong - When faced with deciding where to go on holiday, there isn’t a more difficult choice than having to pick between a relaxing island “do nothing” break and exploring a buzzing city (which leaves one more in need of time out on one’s return than before!)
Both have their pros and cons, and I never seem to get the balance right – I get bored spending day after day on a beach chair, but am equally exhausted after spending endless hours on foot, touring a city.
Thankfully, Club Med makes that choice quite easy, with its new City Stopover offering, which allows travellers to experience the buzz and excitement of a metropolis combined with the luxury of a resort holiday. Long haul, multi-destination flights are particularly taxing, so I opted to stop over in Hong Kong (accessible direct from Johannesburg), before visiting Club Med Bali. Other enticing stopover packages include time in shopping paradises Dubai or Abu Dhabi before travelling to the relaxing Kani resort in the Maldives, or combine a visit to Miami or New York with a stay at the Club Med Mexico Cancun resort.
If you detest red tape and admin, this arrangement works perfectly. No need to navigate your way through the airport to find a taxi – your transfers and accommodation in Hong Kong are sorted out for you as part of your package, as is your entire Bali experience.
They say that Hong Kong is the “New York of Asia”. Yes, the skyscrapers are jaw-dropping, the subway is incredibly efficient (you’ll seldom have to wait more than five minutes for a train in the city centre), but beneath all the glitz lies a grittiness, an authenticity that the city exudes.
It is split into two islands, with residents thinking of Hong Kong Island as Manhattan, and Kowloon Island as Brooklyn. We stayed on the latter, and while we spent most of our time wining and dining in the fancier shopping and financial district of Hong Kong Island, we quite enjoyed the cultural experience Kowloon offered.
Here there is a market for everything – you can refurnish your house, watch a snake charmer, or shop for a new pair of sneakers – one street at a time. The South China practice of grouping similar businesses in one street makes for great exploring, if it’s worth shopping – it will have a dedicated market.
My favourite? The Bird Garden on Yuen Po Street. While I would have loved to have taken a songbird home, I settled for browsing the dozens of stalls showcasing exotic birds, beautifully crafted bamboo cages and porcelain water cases, all while listening to grey-bearded men feeding their beloved feathered companions in exchange for a song.
Unfortunately, during my two days in Hong Kong, the city had more rain than it had in the past five years, making further exploration out of doors virtually impossible. Not one to be disheartened, I opted to (fine) dine my way through Hong Kong Island, starting at the 2 Michelin starred French-themed Amber restaurant.
I walked into the ultra-glamorous Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel, was escorted into the restaurant and had to compose myself for a moment, as my eyes immediately swung upwards, attracted by the uniquely dramatic suspended chandelier of 4 320 bronze rods.
The menu was as striking as the interior. Starting at HKD828 (about R1 700) a head, you can feast on a wine-paired lunch, including dishes like Hokkaido sea urchin in a lobster jelly with cauliflower, caviar and crispy seaweed waffles to start, and duck foie gras in ravioli, with wild mushrooms and black tea consommé with black truffle butter for mains. Naturally, I was most excited about dessert – dulcey chocolate spheres coated in Manjari 64 percent chocolate with salted and caramelised macadamia nuts and cocoa sorbet.
Keeping with the French theme (which appears to be a popular choice for fine dining in Hong Kong), we visited another 2 Michelin starred restaurant, Pierre, at the nearby sister Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The interior was equally breathtaking, although very different from Amber, with floor-to-ceiling views over Victoria Harbour.
Chef Pierre Gagnaire, is somewhat of a fusion cuisine legend, juxtaposing flavours, tastes and textures. At Pierre, each dish is an experience, made up of multiple elements, with plating being concluded at the table. For example, signature dish “Perfume of the Earth” is four separate dishes that combine to create a flavour explosion. A white tart and red pepper pulp complete the French garden pea soup and mozzarella ice cream, preceded by a smoked cocotte of stuffed lettuce with snails and sorrel.
We managed to fit quite a bit of eating into just two days in Hong Kong, and ended off our fine dining feast at 3 Michelin starred Bo Innovation. Moving away from the French theme, this intimate 24-seater spot focuses on extreme Chinese cuisine, breaking down traditional Chinese food into its original elements and using this to create new interpretations in modern forms.
The head chef, Alvin Leung, is a trained engineer – apparent in the precision of each dish. Being ashamedly conservative with food, I got into the holiday spirit and excitedly prepared to eat everything on the 16-course menu, most of which I couldn’t pronounce. We sat at the chef’s table, and watched in awe as chefs piped tiny morsels of food on to the plate and used tweezers to garnish this with micro herbs. My most adventurous dish? “Mulhoe” – foie gras, spicy Korean miso, pear, sea urchin, sea bladder, smoked squid, sea bream and yacon.
Our wine glasses were refilled throughout the night and let’s just say that, after four hours, I was glad the subway was just a few metres away, making my hobbled commute a bit easier.
After two jam-packed days in an electric city, we were more than pleased to settle into the island paradise that is Bali. Having been to Mauritius, Mozambique and Seychelles, I imagined that Bali would be more of the same. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The island is modern and developed, while retaining its natural beauty. Rice paddies stretch for hectares, and houses take the form of temples. The architecture will have you staring out of the taxi window for the duration of your journey.
Club Med Bali is 15 minutes’ drive from the airport, which was mollifying after having to wait two hours in the “visas on arrival” queue at immigration (tip: pay the $25 (about R270) for an “express visa” – it’s well worth it). Situated in the Nusa Dua enclave, Club Med neighbours a host of other luxury properties – all of which share a 500m stretch of beach, perfect for a sunset stroll.
There’s plenty to do at the resort itself – we chatted to a honeymoon couple who didn’t venture out for the entire 7 days of their trip.
The resort has 14 hectares of gardens, featuring bougainvillea, hibiscus and banyan trees, complementing the Balinese architecture.
The only let-down for me were the rooms, which were extremely basic and somehow did not live up to the rest of the resort.
Catering equally well for families and couples, the resort has a “connecting” room option – two interleading rooms, each with its own entrance – so your kids have their own space, but are also close by.
You can use the “adults only” pool or take your children to the busier main pool where aqua aerobics are held every day.
If you’d prefer some time out, head to the Mandara spa and let Club Med entertain your kids – the resort has activities throughout the day, supervised by passionate staff, for young ones between the ages of 2 and 17.
My favourite was the Flying Trapeze Academy, also available for adults. This – along with a host of other activities, such as snorkelling, windsurfing, tennis, golf and kayaking – all come included in your package.
All Club Med resorts work on an “all inclusive” basis, meaning that after you’ve paid for your trip, all your resort expenses are covered, including all meals, unlimited drinks, plus entertainment and activities. It was great not having to calculate exchange rates while on holiday and to feast to our hearts’ content.
The main restaurant, Agung, offers the most expansive selection of food I’ve seen at a buffet. The combination of international cuisine, local specialities, health food and live stations, with chefs preparing fresh salads while you wait, ensures there is food to anyone’s taste.
If you prefer a sit-down meal with waiter service, Batur is an a la carte speciality restaurant, which also comes included in your all-inclusive package. I was initially concerned about eating lunch and dinner at one of just two restaurants for a week, but the menu changes daily so there was no opportunity to grow tired of the cuisine.
The resort is quite well organised, so you won’t be left bored for long. Immediately after dinner, you are invited to proceed to the theatre, where there’s a different show each night.
I was surprised on my first night when, during the circus show, I recognised several of the reception staff, whose talents extend to the stage. I was soon to find out that most of the staff get involved in the shows after dark, and collectively have a multitude of talents, ranging from gymnastics to singing and dancing.
Once the evening entertainment is over, the party moves to the Kintamani bar, where you can dance the night away. It became clear quite quickly that the resort promotes a fun, exciting atmosphere, with staff who love what they do – their infectious energy easily passes on to guests.
As easy as it would have been to stay at the resort, Bali has far too much to offer not to explore.
While Club Med has many organised tours available, we opted to walk outside the resort and bargain with one of the many awaiting taxi drivers. With Nusa Dua situated in the extreme south, and unless you’re okay with a 2-hour drive each way, it’s difficult to go up to the north of the island in a day.
We decided to focus our exploring on central Bali and to spend a lot of time in Ubud, the cultural epicentre of the island, made famous by Ketut the medicine man, featured in the book Eat Pray Love – who now has an endless queue of people waiting to pay him $25 for a 20-minute palm-reading session.
If it’s spiritual enlightenment you’re after, there’s no better place to seek this than Ubud. Dating back to the 8th century, the area is scattered with temples. Goa Gajah, or the “Elephant Cave”, dates from the 9th century, and the entrance to it is an ornately carved demon’s mouth. Puri Saren Agung was the palace of the kings of Ubud until the 1940s, and remains home to a number of royal descendants.
Gently rolling, luminous green rice paddies characterise the area around Ubud. Too intrigued simply to drive by, we decided to go on a walking tour, watching women in wide-brimmed hats at work in the fields and learning about the “Subak” irrigation system – which is Bali’s time-honoured way of growing rice.
The views are majestic. We sat at the edge of the paddy and munched on banana fritters, made by our tour guide’s wife, while watching a farmer climb up the top of a coconut tree to gather the swollen green fruits.
Being a prime tourist destination, I imagined that Bali would have a few good restaurants, but, given that it is a small island, I expected these to be rustic and simple. I was soon to find out that I was wrong.
In Seminyak, the high-end shopping district of Bali, you’ll find the concept of a “Beach Club”. Imagine toned blondes in bikinis weaving through the crowd with exotic cocktails. An infinity pool, framed by day beds and deckchairs, appears to flow into the ocean ahead. Food and drinks are flowing and the music is pumping.
I visited two such places, the Potato Head Beach Club and KU DE TA. At both, I initially felt like I wasn’t hip enough to be there, but before I knew it, I had a raspberry and lemon grass martini in my hand and a crispy softshell crab salad on my plate, and I watched the sunset along with the rest of the cool kids, blending right in.
One has to be careful not to allow one’s time in Bali to be centred on touristy activities only. With the all-too-convenient guided tours, and markets and restaurants designed just for foreigners (with prices to match), to have a complete Bali experience you need consciously to seek out the unspoilt beauty of the island. Spend time exploring interesting areas, like Ubud, on foot. This way you’ll fully immerse yourself in the island. - Sunday Independent
l Hasmita Nair was a guest of Club Med on its City Stopover Package to Hong Kong and Bali.
Club Med is offering readers a special discounted rate of R24 640 a person sharing for a 7-night stay at 4 Trident Club Med Bali, including all meals and drinks, entertainment and a 2-night stopover at the 5-star Royal Plaza Hotel in Hong Kong with daily breakfast.
The rate offers a saving of up to 15 percent and applies to bookings made by July 30 for travel booked between November 1 and December 6. Terms and conditions apply. For more information on this package and to book, visit www.clubmed.co.za or call 0860 109 428.