An island retreat on the periphery of a city

Ferrying away from the bustle of Hong Kong over to Lamma Island

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first impression of Hong Kong in 2007. I’d expected the sight of towering offices and dense housing almost instantaneously, but instead a high-speed train whisked me away at dawn along an expansive bay on one side and lush forest climbing the hills on another. The scenery flipped past through both sides of the train car as if I were in an immersive nature film. I didn’t even bother to use my clunky digital camera; I just stared.

When I returned with Cathlin nine years later, I worried I may have over-promised what she should expect. We’d flown from JFK Airport in New York, so her frame of reference for public transportation meant the irregular loop of the AirTrain to one of two transfer points before switching to the A or E line for several stops before needing to transfer to the F the rest of our way home. In Hong Kong, a clearly labeled rail line ran every few minutes directly from the airport into the city center. She was impressed before she even saw the views.

Now, Hong Kong has no lack of towering offices and dense housing, but the views of the Tung Wan bays and the landscape of Lantau Island on your way in from the airport should serve the same purpose as a billboard: there’s plenty of stunning nature for you to explore outdoors.

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Hong Kong tends to conjure images of the city and its vastness

When we returned to Hong Kong again for a few days between Seoul and Singapore, we were glad to coordinate our timing with our friends Tanya and Magnus who had recently moved there from Berlin. They came our way the first night, meeting up in the busy, central district of Wan Chai, but we planned to meet again the following afternoon at their new home on Lamma Island.

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After a night and morning with heavy storms, Cathlin, Eliza, and I scurried over to Hong Kong’s Central Ferry Piers. Although the ferry transported us a mere 30 minutes away, we couldn’t have felt more distant from the hustle and bustle we’d left behind.

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Eliza and Mommy look out at Kowloon from the ferry

(If you’re intending to visit, the ferry schedule as of August 2018 links Central to Lamma Island (Sok Kwu Wan) 32 times per day, beginning at 6:30 a.m., with frequent crossings during the morning and afternoon commutes and late-night ferries departing at 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m.)

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Tanya and Magnus greeted us at the ferry terminal at Sok Kwu Wan, the main town where there are no cars, numerous bicycles, ample seafood restaurants, and a record shop, which unfortunately was closed during our visit—although Cathlin reminded me if I were to buy any vinyl, we didn’t have space remaining in our carry-on luggage to, you know, carry them.

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Our arrival was a little later than we expected due to a certain baby’s naptime, so we ended up with only a few hours on Lamma Island, but that still allowed us time to wander together. Tanya and Magnus were new to the area themselves, but shared what they’d learned. Known as a bohemian and hippie enclave for years, it still retains an artistic feel and a greater sense of peace and calm, removed yet with an easy commute and connection to the rest of Hong Kong.

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Lamma Island is the birthplace of actor Chow Yun-fat. Japanese soldiers dug tunnels throughout the island during World War II. Endangered turtles nest in a restricted area every year. Chimneys from a power plant loom over the northwestern side (with an adjacent Lamma Power Station Beach, if you’re so inclined), whose presence some credit with deflating housing prices and discouraging residency as well as a 2012 ferry collision that claimed 39 lives. But Tanya and Magnus indicated there’s also ongoing concerns about the effect of development and overdevelopment on the local environment, given discussions over increasing the housing stockand the housing height.

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A leisurely “family walk” weaved its way from Sok Kwu Wan to Lo So Shing Beach, and we chatted away together with the humidity slowing our pace. We followed our beach visit with a pitcher of Tsingtao and a snack of samosas at an outdoor cafe and an even slower amble back for our ferry into the busyness of the city again.

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Visiting Lamma Island made me realize that besides a high-school service project on Boston’s Long Island, I’d never considered seeing any of the Boston Harbor Islands that are accessible by ferry. (Seriously, I’m sorry to say, having grown up in Massachusetts, I don’t think I knew anybody who’d visited Georges Island, Lovells Island, Peddocks Island, Spectacle Island, or Thompson Island!) Are you in Auckland? Go to its islands. Seattle? That’s right, islands. All over Ireland? No lack of them either. In Michigan? Set off into the Great Lakes. We could keep going.

As for Lamma Island, we’re already looking forward to finding a chance to see Tanya and Magnus again and to set aside even more time to hike the longer pathways leading to the island’s villages further northward and eastward. We were surprised to learn that Lamma Island is only one of 250 islands in Hong Kong, so we’ll be tempted to hop around to a few others too.

But even if you’re not planning to be in Hong Kong any time soon, there’s still a lesson to be learned: you might find a similar kind of day-trip island getaway hiding much closer to home.

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