Most tourists leave Hong Kong with an impression of a fascinating but overcrowded and hectic metropolis. While this is true of some districts — Mong Kok is one of the most densely populated places in the world, for example — that’s just one side of the city. Venture a little bit off the beaten track and you’ll discover a whole other Hong Kong: untouched nature, paradise beaches and authentic culture.
One of the local favourites for a laid back getaway is Lantau Island. Criss-crossed with hiking trails, the island offers a welcomed break from the hustle and bustle of the city. This is also where you’ll find one of the last strongholds of Hong Kong’s traditional way of living. Tai O is a picturesque fishing village that quite literally retained its authentic flavour — the villagers still make a living selling seafood products, including the famous dried shrimp paste.
Between the hiking, visiting the Tian Tan Buddha monument and wandering the narrow streets of Tai O, it’s impossible to fully experience Lantau Island in just one day. If you want to truly discover this part of Hong Kong, you’ll find a peaceful base at Tai O Heritage Hotel.
Set in a former British police station built in 1902 to protect the shore from pirates, the hotel is an impressive conservation effort between the Development Bureau of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation Limited. With help from researchers and conservation specialists, the historic building was turned into a luxury hotel while retaining most of the original features, such as floor tiles, fireplaces and the wooden doors. The hotel lobby is particularly curious for visitors: housed in the former detention center it still features two original cells. Make sure to join one of the daily guided tours to learn all about the former police station and the conservation process.
With only nine rooms, Tai O Heritage Hotel is a truly tranquil spot. Each suite is named after a place, person or object that are connected to the building’s history. If you want to know the function of your room, simply read the sign outside the door — you might be staying in a former office or an officers’ bar.
The hotel restaurant is also deeply rooted in history. The glass-roofed Tai O Lookout takes it name from the original watchtower of the police station and is furnished with antique furniture salvaged from a historic Hong Kong tea house. If you don’t have time to stay at the hotel overnight, drop in for an afternoon tea to sample some of the excellent cuisine and admire the panoramic views. A Western-Chinese fusion tea set takes inspiration from local flavours: from savoury bites made with shrimp paste and dried fish to mountain begonia desserts, everything is delicious.
Despite the peaceful location, there’s plenty to see in the area. Tai O is known as “Venice of the Orient” for a reason — houses built on stilts and the idyllic backdrop of green hills make it particularly picturesque. Take a boat cruise to admire it from the water and continue on foot through the narrow alleys lined with food stalls. Visit the shrimp paste factory if you’re curious how this famous condiment is made and follow one of the many hiking trails to get lost in the lush nature. To experience Tai O’s culture at its most vibrant, visit during the Dragon Boat Festival, a holiday celebrated with great pride.
While staying at Tai O Heritage Hotel, don’t hesitate to ask staff about the area. Many of the people working here are local villagers who will happily share their stories. Tai O used to have a population of 30,000 but the number dwindled to just 3,000 as many young people left. The hotel is part of the efforts to conserve the intangible heritage of the Tai O community by providing jobs, promoting local culture and improving the lives of the villagers.