I’ve now had the good fortune of visiting Hong Kong two different times and experiencing it two very different ways. The first was during my ‘round the world’ trip as a ‘flashpacker’ of sorts. I was on a budget since I was traveling for a few years and not making much income. I recently returned to the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ as a guest of Cathay Pacific Airlines and Shangri-La Hotels, and oh, was it quite a different experience.
So what’s better – traveling on a budget ‘lower’ to the ground or living the ‘high’ life of luxury?
Let me break it down for you here.
Budget LL: I arrived at Hong Kong International Airport and after schlepping my luggage through customs, I found the public, double-decker city bus into the city. I was dropped off somewhere along busy, crowded Nathan Road in Kowloon. Sweaty and tired, I walked around and found my tiny, somewhat inconspicuous hotel.
Lux LL: I arrived at Hong Kong International, grabbed my bag off of the luggage carousel and was greeted by ‘happy men in red coats’ from the Shangri-La hotel with warm smiles and…a luggage cart. The rest of my small group and I were whisked into plush, air-conditioned Mercedes cars and chauffeured to the Shangri-La Hotel on Hong Kong Island. I don’t think I ever picked up my luggage again the entire time there.
Budget LL: My quasi-hotel, the Sealand House, was on a side street just off of Nathan Road. And I use the term ‘hotel’ loosely. There was a sign out front, but it was just one of many businesses in a large cement building (no, it wasn’t in the Chunking Mansion – I would say it was, at least, a step up from there). I took a small, dark, somewhat rickety 3-person elevator (3 thin people) up to my hotel’s floor. Then I head into a door that was more like going into someone’s apartment. Once inside, there was a small desk crammed into a corner and a young girl took my passport and gave me my room key. There seemed to only be a handful of rooms. My room itself was just big enough for my bed and my bag on the floor. And the bathroom was so tiny that it was just one toilet/shower in one. It was small, but very clean and did me just fine at the time for a mere $38/night…in Hong Kong!
Lux LL: We were greeted at the plush and fabulous Island Shangri-La Hong Kong by more ‘red coats’ and a staff of no less than five including the manager of the hotel. We were immediately whisked into a sparkly, glass elevator (in which the carpeting was changed every day because it had the day of the week embroidered on it literally, to remind weary business travelers what day it actually was).
We were escorted to the Horizon Club Lounge where we toasted with a glass of bubbly. Then it was on to our deluxe rooms. Ornate is a word that comes to mind. Plush is another. A chandelier hung over my huge king-sized bed. Fresh fruit, hot tea, and chocolates were ready to be savored. A plush bathrobe hung in the closet and white slippers were aligned bedside. But none of that really mattered. It was the view that stole the show. I was on the 55th floor with huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking much of Hong Kong Island and the harbor. Wow. But wait…there was also a pillow menu. Yes, that’s right, a menu for pillows. Soft and flat for the stomach sleepers like me or thick and bouncy for a back sleeper – they’ve got your head-cushion needs covered.
Budget LL: Since I was on a budget, there were no fancy meals for me – just lots of snacks and tasty street food. Hong Kong is an international city so I also was able to mix it up with a cheap Indian Thali dinner and some sushi. To be honest, being a budget eater is often times the tastiest way to go about eating around the world. I did indulge in an amazing plethora of dim sum with a local – the best way to go!
Lux LL: I will go into this in greater detail in an upcoming post dedicated to food (natch). Suffice it to say, we were treated like royalty and I think I gained a good five pounds on this trip. Unlike my budget trips on which I tend to lose weight, not only from eating less and smaller meals, but from all the walking I do, this one consisted of back-to-back multi-course feasts – extremely hard for me to be ‘good’ or use moderation when such succulent morsels are placed in front of me (and my drooling chops). We had some seriously epic meals at the Shangri-La itself, but I have to admit, too much of a good thing is…too much. I missed some cheap-street-eats and rubbing elbows with the masses like when I was a budget traveler. My favorite meal was at a local dim sum spot in Stanley.
Budget LL: I tramped around Hong Kong for a week…dodging and weaving my way around all different markets, parks, escalators, shopping malls, and food stalls. I was able to feel and see the grit of the city as real people flowed around me. And when I needed a ‘break’ from all this fast-paced ‘realness’ I even ducked into the Hotel Intercontinental for a half-hour civility break.
Lux LL: Here is where I have to admit more enjoying being a budget solo traveler. I was very glad I’d been to Hong Kong previously for a few reasons. On this trip, we simply did not have a whole lot of time to get to know the city. We dipped our toe in here and there – visiting Man Mo Temple, jumping into some dried fish shops, taking a quick stroll through a fish market, and taking a ride on the famous people mover escalators that climb the mid-levels area of the island. We did have some free time when I could get out of our mini tour bus and dive underground into the subway and mass of humanity to get the feel of the real pulse of the city that I craved. But, as I’ve often said, being a luxury traveler can isolate you from real life and the energy of the city. Don’t get me wrong, staying in a fancy hotel chain is wonderful and comfortable and plush and I did thoroughly enjoy it. But it also keeps you at a great distance from the locals around you – literally and figuratively.