As someone who travels for a living, I have favorite destinations on every continent. But if you asked me which place out of all that I have seen is at the top of my list, I would have to say Hong Kong.
It’s been 23 years since I’ve visited Hong Kong … an eternity! But it stands out in my memory as an incredible place that opened my eyes to how wonderfully food can be prepared, presented and, most of all, enjoyed. Hong Kong — Chinese but with a blend of British influence, that thrilling mix of East and West – offers the full spectrum of experiences. It encompasses the highest levels of luxury and the simplest basics of life, all in a small space about the size of Rhode Island in the U.S.
I first traveled to Hong Kong in 1988 on the original Sea Princess, one of my favorite ships. At the time, I was 29, the youngest head waiter on board. I already had worked in the sophisticated restaurants of London and been with Princess for six years.
I thought I was a seasoned traveler, but the approach to Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor was so breathtaking, so stunning and unique, I immediately realized that the world still had surprises in store for me. The view of towering skyscrapers above and simple houseboats below, the high and the low, had my head nodding up and down, just trying to take it all in.
I was lucky. Sea Princess was going into dry dock in Hong Kong for 10 days of refurbishment and renovations. This would give me the time to carefully explore this wonder before me.
I looked around the harbor. It was crowded with small houseboats, where people actually lived. You could see them, peeling vegetables, washing clothes, eating rice and fish. Where I am from in Acqui Terme in Italy, and in every other waterside place that I had been, people lived along the river not on it. In Hong Kong, people lived and worked on the water itself.
In addition to houseboats and cruise ships, the waterfront was crowded with container ships, tankers, ferries and yachts, plus water taxis zipping all around. It was a busy place.
I couldn’t wait to go ashore and start exploring. I walked off the gangway and turned around. I could barely see Sea Princess anymore; she was now completely covered by boiler-suited workers, who were hanging by ropes, industrious as ants, cleaning and repainting the vessel. It was unbelievable.
On a typical cruise, crew don’t have much time to spend ashore. We are lucky if we can take a few hours to sightsee during the day and at night we are typically at sea. I think for that reason, experiencing Hong Kong at night was particularly special to me.
The first dinner I had in Hong Kong was on November 8, my birthday. A passenger, an older woman who had sailed with Sea Princess for almost two months and remained with us during dry dock, invited me and two other crew members out for my birthday at a lovely restaurant at the Sheraton Hotel. She was quite wealthy and enjoyed the good life – I remember she had two cabins, one for her and another for her wardrobe. She wanted to order the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1959, in honor of the year of my birth, but we had to settle for the 1965 vintage. What a great wine!
The next evening, the ship’s maître d’ invited me and the two other head waiters out for dinner. He wanted us to experience the level of service he remembered from a previous visit. We went to Hugo, a French restaurant legendary for table-side preparations. It’s still there today. Caesar salad is one thing, but I had never before seen lobster bisque prepared at table. Nor have I since, I should add. I couldn’t take my eyes off the waiter as he sautéed the onions, then added the lobster stock, lobster meat, cream and cognac.
From Hugo, we rented a taxi boat and took a tour of the bay of Hong Kong. What a magnificent sight it was to see the lighted skyline of Hong Kong reflected upon the dark water, to sail alongside houseboats and see families stop to wave as they cooked their dinners and put their children to bed.
I had another great meal at the floating restaurant, Jumbo. The restaurant took up several decks of a huge boat. One deck seemed to be entirely reserved for glass tanks filled with live fish, shellfish and crustaceans. It was heaven for a fish lover like me — choose what you desire and it comes back cooked to perfection. We wound up calling the establishment “Jumbo Shrimp” because the shrimp they served were enormous.
As wonderful as these meals were, nothing compared to the unique exploration of the senses that is a Hong Kong street market. There were many to explore—the Stanley Market, Temple Street Night Market, Ladies Market and Jade Market, selling clothing, electronics, fabric and gems. Of course, my favorites were the food markets. Ordinary citizens crowded by the stalls for fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. The smell of spices, tropical fruit and flowers lingered in the humid air.
Then there were the street vendors at their carts selling delicious treats of dim sum, grilled seafood, rice dishes, fried tofu and more. Hardly anyone spoke English, so my crewmates and I communicated by pointing and gesticulating … you know, the way Italians speak. People were screaming and yelling, all different kinds of food were cooking in the open air. Hong Kong markets are a feast for every sense.
Hong Kong goes from high to low at a turn of a corner. I went from the cacophony of the market to the next street, where luxury skyscrapers stood. I will never forget sitting in a coffee shop at 3 a.m. I counted more Rolls Royces on the streets of Hong Kong at that early hour than I ever did in London.
In addition to amazing meals, no trip to Hong Kong is complete without a custom-made suit. The maître d’ took me to a tailor and a shoemaker he knew of, where I purchased a bespoke cashmere jacket, trousers, shirt and shoes. The speed of the process, taking just a few days from selecting fabrics and measurements to fittings to completion, was impressive. Months later, when I showed my friends at home my new tailored apparel, they could not believe the quality and the inexpensive cost. The craftsmanship was on par with anything I could find in Italy. I still have the cashmere jacket from that visit more than two decades ago. It has held up beautifully over time.
In addition to my wardrobe additions, I have another memento of Hong Kong. It is a little statuette of a wild boar, my Chinese zodiac sign, which the maître d’ bought at an antique store for my birthday. I keep it on my desk at home as a reminder of this amazing place.
Before we knew it, the industrious Chinese workers had Sea Princess refurbished and ready to sail. They had given me enough time to fall in love with the place. I had seen Hong Kong by day and early dawn. I had seen five-star luxury as well as everyday family life at the street markets and on the houseboats. While I have been all over Asia, I can honestly say I have never seen anything as incredible as Hong Kong.
But of course the memories that linger most from my time in Hong Kong are the flavors and aromas that opened my senses to the wonderful ways in which a meal can enhance the travel experience – something I try to remember every day.