After wandering around Hong Kong willy-nilly for several days, Steph and I decided it was time for a little change of scenery. We had read that Stanley was a worthy diversion from the city, with a market and a beach-front promenade, and we knew that the mini bus station outside the door to our hostel went there, so we decided that was provenance enough and jumped on a bus one morning. Armed with a woefully inadequate map and little to no information about where we were going, we were off on an adventure!
The bus ride takes about 45 minutes, and if you ride all the way to the end of the line (don’t do this) you get dropped off near some sort of prison (really) and the road simply ends, with no signs or indications of where to go. There is an earlier stop that looks a bit like a highway rest station with a McDonalds and a parking lot in front of a small glass and metal tower. This is the stop you want, as it is above the main area with all the attractions. Speaking of stops, the Hong Kong minibuses may or may not have them, as we could divine no pattern in where and when they stopped along the way, and the posted signs at many of the stops were always for buses other than our own and people seemed to frequently flag down buses like they were taxis when no stop whatsoever was in sight.
After being dumped in the middle of nowhere and some fumbling around, we managed to find our way to the market and wandered through the stalls. As we had discovered earlier, Hong Kong street market stalls all tend to trade in the same items, and the only reason to shop around might be to find a better price on the same thing with another vendor. The Stanley market is no exception, and we saw essentially the exact same things we had seen in the Ladies’ and Mens’ markets. The market is a small warren of covered alleys and takes little time to explore, so we decided to head to the boardwalk and see what else Stanley had to offer.
As we stepped into the blazing sun, we had to give our eyes a chance to adjust, as we were certain we had stumbled through some wormhole to a western coastal city, perhaps Destin, Florida or what we imagine a small beachfront city in Australia might look like. All hints of Kanji were gone, only to be replaced with English advertisements for pizza and chicken wings. Flocks of sunburned westerners were parading up and down the boardwalk and signs flogging shockingly expensive burgers and fish and chips were everywhere. Fancy a $7US pint of English bitter and an $18US burger and fries at a raucous Irish pub? Head to Stanley!
Slightly disarmed by the feeling that we were almost certainly no longer in Hong Kong, despite merely being on the other side of the island, we wandered around the boardwalk, desperately hungry and amazed that it could be so much hotter here than in the city. We found a promising Hong Kong style restaurant with slightly less outrageous prices than the western joints everywhere else and decided to take the plunge. We were treated to a delicious lunch at a price that was much easier to swallow (zing!) and left happy and full. If you’re on a budget and want a good meal, it seems the local fare is almost always the way to go.
After lunch we headed to the pier to see what else Stanley had in store for us. It seems that this side of the island is as popular with the locals as it is with the tourists pretending they never left home. I guess everyone loves a beach. Not only do they love the beach, but the Maritime Museum as well, as we saw a steady stream of locals getting their photo taken in front of some random flower pot in front of the museum. Not to mention the couple enthusiastically posing for their wedding photos at the other end of the museum. What the draw was we can’t say; it’s certainly a nice building, but nothing to write home about (although enough to write a paragraph on our blog about…).
We moved off to the end of the pier that juts out in front of Stanley proper for a view of the small harbor. Under the shade of the pavilion, a sea breeze made the heat briefly bearable and we were greeted with a rather nice view of the surrounding area and some rather photogenic tour boats. The landscape surrounding Stanley is really scenic and lovely, so it’s easy to see why it has become a popular weekend destination. It’s just such a shame that rather than maintaining more of the character of Hong Kong, a visit to Stanley feels like a trip to wee Britain or something similar.
We were beginning to feel thoroughly overwhelmed by the heat and rather underwhelmed by Stanley, so we decided to cut our losses and hop another minibus back to our hostel. On the bus ride home we met a very friendly young Asian man who we discovered was staying at the same hostel after he spent several minutes politely but insistently interrogating us about our country of origin and all the other usual questions. When we asked where he was from, he simply said “Korea.” When I asked where in Korea (confused that he didn’t even say “north” or “south”), all he would say was “You wouldn’t like to know.” Okay. The wild conclusions in my head were probably far more interesting than the truth anyway.
Deciding to let this odd man (wearing two layers, long pants and a light jacket on a scorchingly hot and humid summer day) have a pass, we rode the rest of the way to our hostel in silence, this bemusing encounter ranking as far more interesting than anything we saw in Stanley. Fun fact: the next day I ran into him on the elevator in the hostel at 11 p.m., me wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a sleep shirt and he in tight jeans and an alarmingly unbuttoned dress shirt. He says: “Hello again! Would you like to come with me to a club for dancing?” Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing my dancing flannels, so I had to decline.
So, Stanley. The bottom line is that we didn’t really enjoy it. There isn’t anything wrong with the place, it just isn’t what we were expecting. It’s nothing like Hong Kong and feels very much like an escape for Western tourists and expats who just can’t take another minute of the city and need to be somewhere that reminds them of home. While this is an understandable impulse for foreigners living here longterm, for the traveler who is in Hong Kong for a limited amount of time, spending the day somewhere that seems like you never left home feels like a bit of a waste. If you are really jonesing for a burger or a pub song and a football match on the telly head to Stanley, but if – like us – you are enjoying Hong Kong, you’ll be better off going almost anywhere else in the city, as Stanley feels more like an amusement park than a worthy day trip.