We had a special occasion to celebrate last weekend, and I thought that a staycation was just the ticket! After reading an article on Le Figaro online that mentioned the Tai O Heritage Hotel, PB suggested that this place was worth a visit. Tai O is on the western side of Lantau Island, closer to the airport and Tung Chung than it is to Mui Wo. It seems like such a long way away, and by Hong Kong standards, it does take some effort to get there, but boy oh boy is it worth the trip!
Tai O is Hong Kong’s oldest fishing village, and is commonly referred to as the “Venice of the Orient”. The houses are built on stilts above water, so I can see where the reference comes from – but that is where the similarities stop. It is home to the Tanka people, a community who have lived here for generations. Tai O is local beauty in and of itself, and needs not this reference to my favorite city in Italy. Admittedly, you can’t exactly call these stilt houses beautiful – they are built seemingly haphazardly with any materials the villagers can get their hands on. Somehow, each ‘house’ is different, and the residents have added their personal touches, some colourful potted plants, structures of different sizes and shapes, ornate door decorations, and yes, even some familiar looking knomes.
I was really struck by how much character this village has, and how they have maintained much of it’s heritage and industry. We witnessed villagers collecting sea moss for drying, and stirring huge vats of purple goop (shrimp sauce) that will be jarred and sold, fish drying on racks outside houses. There is a real community feel about the area, from the closely built houses, the large gathering areas, and the crash crash of mahjong tiles in the evenings. We enjoyed walking across the bridges and gangways to explore different parts of the village. The locals must be quite annoyed by all the tourists wondering into their backyards!
We took an easy hour-long walk along the Fu Shan Hiking Trail, starting just to the left of the Shaolin Wushu Cultural Center. From the pagoda, you can see ocean as far as the eye can see, and watch planes descending towards the airport on the right. Apparently you might catch a white dolphin or two from this vantage point, but I think you’d have to be extremely lucky to!
A walk through the Tai O market is lots of fun, there are umpteen shops selling all sorts of things: seashell and pearl jewellery, dried decorative blowfish (!), hats, toys for the kiddies etc. If you grew up in Hong Kong, you’ll remember those little tubes of goo, a little of which you place on the end of a stick and blow to create a big plastic bubble. Remember? Hours of endless fun!
There are, of course, all the vendors selling a myriad choice of dried fish and seafood, as well as shrimp paste, the smell of which permeates the air, but you get used to it after a while!
Most of all, I loved stopping by all the street food vendors and trying all snacks on offer (especially after not being able to during my recent trip to New Delhi!)! Our favorite was the Pandan Egg Ball Waffle Lady, she was situated right at the end of Market Street. For HK$14 she made us these egg balls delicately flavoured with pandan, on an old manual waffle maker.
There is another egg ball waffle vendor at 59 Kat Hing Back Street, where the majority of the vendors are. He seems to be quite famous, and there was a queue stretching down the street for his charcoal grilled egg waffles.
Well that about says it all! The are similar to the ¥3 Beijing Jian Bing (fried savoury crepe) that were so unkind to my hips yet I so loved when I lived in Beijing! Comparatively, these ‘Chinese Pizzas’ just had too much stuff for my liking, and way too generous on the spring onions. The ladies who served them were super nice and friendly, and I still recommend going to check them out and ordering a pizza.
We stayed at the fabulous Tai O Heritage Hotel on a Saturday evening. Formerly housing the Tai O Police Station, this grade II listed building was beautifully restored by the Hong Kong Conservation Foundation and very tastefully converted in to a 9 room boutique hotel, which opened in 2010. It is a (I’m running out of suitable adjectives) outstanding example of colonial architecture, with it’s arched facade and French windows. They’ve kept many original features (such as the holding cell which is now used for left luggage), and placards outside the doors inform us what our room was once used for (ours was the Barrack Office). This is one example of how Hong Kong has gotten it RIGHT – preserving a beautiful building, rich in history, for us and visitors to enjoy.
The rooms were very well-appointed and tastefully decorated, with all the amenities of a 5 Star hotel. If you are a city visitor, just bring a change of clothes and a camera! We loved the two original fire places, and I particularly enjoyed (don’t think I’m weird) the Devon & Devon bathroom fixtures.
This (small) hotel is extremely popular, and rooms book out for months in advance. They have double rooms, what they call ‘double double’ rooms (twin rooms), and suites. It is now April – I booked in February and all I could get was a suite. Upon checking out of the hotel, we asked when was the next available Saturday booking for a standard double room, and they said … September! You’ll have better luck with booking a suite. The motto of the story is, if you would like to stay there, book well in advance! Check the website for rates and availability.
Breakfast was included in the price, and served in the restaurant on the roof of the building, a beautifully constructed conservatory-style dining area.
I was not too impressed with the breakfast service, considering the calibre of everything else in the hotel. Perhaps I expected as much because I had read earlier in reviews that the food at dinner is appalling. I wasn’t ready to guinea-pig myself on this occasion, so apart from the breakfast, we stuck to eating in the local restaurants.
For dinner we ate at Lin Heung, a small local seafood restaurant that was recommended by both Pandan Egg Ball Waffle Lady and the Hotel Reception Desk Lady. You can’t go wrong with two recommendations! Be forewarned, the restaurants in Tai O close early. We were told that they closed at 8pm, so we went over at around 7.30pm. By the time we had finished our meal at 8.30pm there were still a few stragglers, and the larger restaurant Fook Moon Lam was still pretty kickin’, so I guess 8pm is a guideline. Here, we ate the usual seafood restaurant fare, the service was super attentive and friendly, we felt very welcomed there! The lady kindly washed our crockery in hot tea for us, opened our moist towelettes and even served our fish.
Espace Elastique – we stopped by for a coffee only and noticed that there is also a guesthouse there. It’s more reasonable than the Heritage Hotel, but the rates aren’t exactly as cheerful as you would hope from a guest house in Tai O.
How to get there:
The diagram provided by the Tai O Heritage Hotel shows it best:
We took the ferry to Mui Wo and then Bus #1 on the way there , then returned by ferry to Tung Chung and took the MTR from there. Arriving at the Airport Express in Central, it really did feel like we were arriving back in Hong Kong after a weekend break! Note, if you are taking the ferry from Tai O to Tung Chung on a Saturday or Sunday, tickets (HK$30) have to be bought first at the Tai O Cultural Center (close to the Tai O Promenade Pier) prior to boarding.
♥♥♥ We enjoyed our staycation, and I hope you check it out too! ♥♥♥
Address: 52 Kat Hing Street, Tai O (大澳吉慶街52號)
Tel: +852 2985 7313
Address: 57 Kat Hing St, Tai O
Tel: +852 2985 7002
Tai O Heritage Hotel