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Hong Kong high life
7:00am Saturday 9th February 2013 in Travel
It may be 15 years since the Chinese handover, but Hong Kong remains an exciting mix of east meets west, as Hannah Stephenson discovers.
By Hannah Stephenson Sitting in a battered old armchair in a dated therapy area, a heated lavender-scented pillow around my neck, and my feet plunged in a barrel of warm soapy water, it's hard to believe I'm in the heart of the thriving metropolis that is Hong Kong.
As I listen to the piped bird music and sip a rose-petal tea, the masseuse sets to work on my tired tootsies. I may only be 15 floors up Century Square, an unremarkable skyscraper in the heart of the financial district and a stone's throw from designer shops including Prada, Armani and Louis Vuitton, but up here in Gao's, away from the buzz of traffic, crowds and money-makers, I could be a million miles away in some backwater of rural China.
Foot massage places like Gao's have become a haven for stressed-out businessmen and women both on Hong Kong island and in Kowloon, across Victoria Harbour. For around £15 you can enjoy 50 minutes of rest and relaxation, although some customers never switch off, texting furiously throughout the pampering.
And indeed it is hard to switch off in 'Asia's World City', as the Hong Kong Tourism Board calls it, situated on the south-eastern coast of China and covering an area of 425 square miles comprising Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories, which includes 262 outlying islands.
Little has changed since I visited the island before the British handed it back to the Chinese in 1997. There's a new airport which is, frankly, much less worrying for passengers than the old one, where the plane had to fly between mile-high blocks of flats to find the runway. Cathay Pacific has also launched a new premium economy class on its Hong Kong route with more leg room, so you can get there in comfort too.
There are certainly more skyscrapers than I recall, but with a population of 7 million, space remains at a premium and the only way is up. While locals say there can be no further reclamation of the harbour to enable more building to take place - after all, the many cruise ships which deposit the spending tourists need room to dock - in Hong Kong you can really never say never.
Some things remain the same: the Star Ferry's still transporting passengers from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, but more luxurious junks are offering trips to see the Symphony of Lights, the nightly light show involving more than 40 buildings on either side of the harbour.
The Chinese government hasn't quashed the entrepreneurial spirit which remains in Hong Kong, designated a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. It's visible everywhere, from the market traders in Mong Kok and Stanley selling fake designer handbags and 'cashmere' scarves, to the myriad gourmet restaurants and chi-chi shops which seem to increase on a weekly basis.
Dai pai dongs (Chinese street cafes serving cheap food including noodles, tofu and fried rice) live happily alongside trendy eateries and bars in the Hollywood Road, while Michelin-starred cosmopolitan restaurants compete with private dining rooms run by Chinese families who grow their own food organically on small farms in the New Territories.
There is a constant feeling of optimism, that nothing is impossible, and from a customer service point of view that's certainly true, judging by the terrific standards I experience in the Mandarin Oriental, the jewel in the crown of Hong Kong Island's top-class hotels, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.
It's not just the hotel's supreme elegance and three Michelin-starred restaurants which set its apart from the rest - it's that quiet efficiency and meticulous attention to detail. Even my makeshift bookmark is replaced with a Mandarin Oriental equivalent in a well-thumbed novel which I leave by my bedside.
John Chan, the Captain's Bar manager at the hotel since 1974, reflects: "Not much has changed since 1997. More mainland Chinese people come over here. They are surprised by Hong Kong's sophistication. In China they haven't got the restaurant, bar and shopping culture in such a compact area."
While new constantly replaces old, some of Hong Kong's heritage remains, including temples, Buddhist monasteries and other religious edifices. On Lantau Island to the west, I feel a surreal sense of peace on catching the cable car 5.7km (3.5 miles) to see Big Buddha, at 112ft tall the largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world.
There are fishermen in the water below me hauling in their catches and then I see the statue, rising above the trees in the hills above Ngong Ping. The statue, located near Po Lin Monastery, symbolises the harmonious relationship between man and nature, people and religion.
While the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong will inevitably increase, there will always be places to balance your yin and yang - and I can already feel a return visit to Gao's on the cards.
Where to stay :: Mandarin Oriental: This excellent hotel has 10 restaurants, three of which are Michelin-starred, 24-hour technology butlers on site in case anyone has trouble working the hi-fi and electronic gizmos in the rooms, a state-of-the-art spa and other luxurious facilities.
The hotel is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and has a clutch of celebratory events planned, including golden anniversary spa treatments and fine dining experiences, such as a quirky retro menu of 1960s dishes in the exclusive Krug Room using molecular gastronomy to give it a 21st century twist. Visit www.mandarinoriental.com/hongkong Where to shop :: Star Street: Historically the site of Hong Kong's first power station, today this district in the back streets of Wan Chai is lined with boutique restaurants, bijou shops and small, stylish galleries, florists and chic home design stores.
:: Ladies Market: A stone's throw from Mong Kok MTR station, this market in Tung Choi Street, Kowloon, comes alive by lunchtime with vendors selling everything from fake Louis Vuitton bags to dodgy Beats by Dr Dre headphones, wigs and feather boas.
Where to eat :: Nanhai No. 1: Frequented by Chinese, this Michelin-starred but moderately priced Cantonese restaurant serves dim sum to die for and fresh seafood caught in the South China Sea. The spacious setting is adorned with historical maritime artefacts, such as ancient trading route maps. Visit www.elite-concepts.com :: Pierre: If posh French takes your fancy and tasting menus are your bag, this two Michelin-starred restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental is acclaimed French chef and restaurateur Pierre Gagnaire's pied a terre in Hong Kong. Visit www.mandarinoriental.com/hongkong Travel facts: :: A Golden Celebration Stay (available from February 1 to December 31, 2013) starts at £354 (plus tax) per night, including a bottle of wine, spa credit and special anniversary gift. Visit mandarinoriental.com/hongkong :: Cathay Pacific flies four times a day to Hong Kong from £1,009 Premium Economy. Visit cathaypacific.co.uk or call 020 8834 8800.