Header image courtesy of @dvoevnore (via Shutterstock)
It’s a race against time. The device on your arm says you are seconds away from losing. It’s hot and it’s humid, but if you sprint, you might just make it. With determination and a little faith, you make it to the final stretch. You tap your Octopus card, grateful that you’ve just topped it up, and make it past the gates into an oasis of calm, suspended by sea.
That’s the unwitting charm of coastal living in Hong Kong. Should you desire a ride, there will always be a boat ready to take you away within minutes, to either the dots of outlying islands, near-abandoned fishing villages, or simply just to the other side of the peninsula. Because Hong Kong is composed of endless inlets and coves, water routes are plentiful here; some are a landmark in their own right, others hidden in plain sight.
Those having voyaged the Victoria Harbour an insurmountable number of times may find themselves in search of even more nautical trips to take around the city. There are urban routes, seemingly absent from public consciousness, that deserve to be re-introduced, while other boat rides on sampans or kaitos service your trip with a bit of long-lasting heritage on the side. Here are the forgotten boat routes of Hong Kong that you should check out.
The ferry lines of Hong Kong have weathered storms, endured seismic shifts, and through it all, they remain one of National Geographic’s “places of a lifetime.” These ferries were once a sign that urban connectivity was on the rise, replacing sampans as cross-harbour transport. Nowadays, you are more likely to spot tourists than frequent commuters.
With main boat routes shuttling back and forth between Central, Wan Chai, and Tsim Sha Tsui, the ferry may feel like an archaic relic of the past—especially the historic Star Ferry—but surprisingly, it’s still the quickest way to get across the harbour. Choose to cruise and you bypass the dreadful traffic of rush hours, all while sitting back to admire the skyline.
Scattered around the city, too, however, are lesser-known ferry routes that take passengers to where Hong Kong’s first airport and ferry pier were built, amongst others. Read on to find out where you can find these forgotten ferry routes.
A 15-minute ferry ride will connect you to Kowloon City Ferry Pier, Hong Kong’s first pier built during the Second World War. Previously also servicing rides to Wan Chai and Tai Koo, these boat routes were eventually discontinued, leaving North Point to Kowloon City ($.85) as the only remaining active route running from the Kowloon City Ferry Pier.
On the other end of the ride, North Point Ferry Pier is a surprising contrast to the almost phantasmal Kowloon City. Here, you can venture off for delicious fresh seafood or take a gander at what hawker stalls nearby have to offer. You can also get to the old airport terminal, Kai Tak, as well as Kwun Tong ($7). However, the North Point Ferry Pier’s best-kept secret is probably its special ferry service to Joss House Bay.
Joss House Bay—also known as Tai Mui Wan—houses Hong Kong’s oldest and most reputable Tin Hau temple. Operating only the days around the annual Tin Hau Festival, the ferry will take passengers to be blessed by Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. To learn more about this yearly tradition, read about the heritage behind Hong Kong temples here.
For a leisurely boat ride, the peaceful ferry route from Sai Wan Ho to Lei Yue Mun ($9) transposes you to an archaic version of Hong Kong, wherein the area’s early history is coloured by fantastical stories of pirates and sea bandits. Look for evidence of this in left-behind remnants of bunkers, explosive magazines, and gun emplacements.
In the present day, this fishing village is more renowned for its seafood and classic Cantonese fare than its seafaring villains. Once you’ve experienced the waterfront views by way of water, make your way back to the urban jungle by hiking Devil’s Peak.
Hong Kong’s coastal outline means most of its islands have to be reached by kaito (街渡; a small motorised ferry). Once a common mode of transport, these wooden water taxis have since reduced in number, with many operating unlicensed and infrequently. Still, for many of Hong Kong’s more remote destinations, hiking will only get you so far. Luckily, a few kaito routes are still in operation to get us to those hard-to-reach places.
Famed for rock climbing (not the indoor sort), cliff diving, and cave exploring, you may think that in order to participate in these exotic activities on Tung Lung Chau, you must first face a treacherous and complicated journey. In reality, getting to the crescent-shaped island is just a boat ride away! From the Shau Kei Wan Typhoon Shelter (confusingly located in Sai Wan Ho), simply hop on a kaito for a 40-minute ride ($55). Plan ahead, as this boat route only operates infrequently on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays.
For two juxtaposed experiences of Hong Kong, there is a convenient kaito boat that will swiftly take you to either side. On one hand, you will find Peng Chau, an off-beat island with easy trails, temples, and eccentric stores selling local and handmade crafts. 20 minutes away by kaito will drop you off in Discovery Bay ($7.5), the easy-breezy, resort-like neighbourhood. Wedged in-between and reachable only on select departures is the Trappist Monastery, the Lantau monastery most known for its... branded dairy products?
Sampans are traditional, flat-bottomed wooden boats used historically by the Tanka tribe. Where living space, livelihood, and travel meet on one rickety water-bound vessel, sampans are a beautiful reminder of Hong Kong’s firm roots as a fishing community.
Sampans, luxury yachts, and cargo vessels co-exist in the Aberdeen neighbourhood in a reflection of Hong Kong as we know it. Sampan rides will take you on a 30-minute jaunt through the Aberdeen Harbour and thread you under the Ap Lei Chau Bridge, before eventually moseying past all sorts of water vessels also docked in the area. Step back on land after your water excursion and explore the rest of the Aberdeen neighbourhood guide to see what else you can get up to in this historic fishing village.
Dotted all along the Sai Kung Promenade, the sampans that line the water are a common sight and readily await day-trippers for charter. Sai Kung sampans typically will take you to the archipelagos of nearby outlying islands, including routes such as Sharp Island, Yim Tin Tsai, and Kau Sai Chau. It’s best to ask around different sampan services to see what destinations they ferry to, as well ascertain the cost before you get on, as prices can vary.