The hilly season is here
Hong Kong has a remarkable amount of countryside for a place that bills itself as Asia's World City. Its 23 country parks make up some 40 per cent of the total land area. This is a result of government initiatives begun in the mid-1970s to give the city some green lungs, and - as the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department's website (www.afcd.gov.hk/eindex.html) puts it - to provide 'essential outlets for frustrated urban youth'.
Of course, many regular visitors to the country parks have long passed their teens. As autumn approaches, enthusiasts will be out to make the most of the cooler weather and explore the extensive network of hiking and walking trails. Some stretches may not be suitable for young children, but parents keen for some fresh air and exercise with their toddlers have plenty of options.
Wu Chung-fai and his 11-year-old son, Chun-fu, are well-known in local hiking circles. An avid hiker and single parent, Wu began taking his son on excursions when the boy was just four, sometimes in largely adult company such as Roz's Hiking Group (www.hkcrystal.com/hiking).
Parents have to be prepared when going hiking with children, Wu says. But the hiking tips he gives for children also apply to adults. Some key pointers: make sure you bring along a first aid kit, map, food and enough water, and don't rely on mobile phones to call for help.
Tai Po resident Philip Edward Kenny also reckons that having sufficient water can be critical on excursions. Parents who take their children out for countryside walks and hikes should take extra bottles of water, says the father of three.
'Kids don't really know how to ration, and will just guzzle until sated,' says Kenny, whose Hong Kong (and Macau) Stuff blog (orientalsweetlips.wordpress.com) testifies to his passion for 'walking in the hills and diving in the water'.
'My kids are currently eight, six and two, but we've been taking them on walks since they were all young - we even took a pushchair almost to the top of Devil's Peak once,' Kenny says. 'As long as your kids don't mind walking for an hour or so, there is actually a good choice of hiking routes in Hong Kong.
'The youngest one likes walking around, anyway, but it's the older ones who moan. The promise of an ice cream at the end is always a great motivator when it comes to my eldest two. So make sure that your walk ends at somewhere near a shop with a freezer!'
Some family-friendly options:
At just two kilometres long, and with start and end points a stone's throw away from the Wong Shek Pier terminus (bus routes 94 from Sai Kung town, the 96R from Diamond Hill, and the 698R from Siu Sai Wan's Island Resort), the Wong Shek Family Walk is a good option for beginners. The added bonus is that the scenic bus rides that go deep into the Sai Kung Peninsula are enjoyable, too.
Those tall enough to see over the bushes growing on the side of the path overlooking the waters of Ko Tong Hau will enjoy panoramic views of Long Hill (aka Tung Sam Kei Shan) and neighbouring sections of Sai Kung East Country Park. You can sometimes spot colourful windsurfers, too.
Those who find this walk too short can take one of the officially designated 'Tree Walks'. Information about various trees and plants can be found along the way. One end of the 400-metre Wong Shek Tree Walk is near the starting and end points of the Wong Shek Family Walk. The other is close to the start of the 230-metre Tai Tan Tree Walk on the other side of the road leading to Wong Shek Pier.
There's a longer but still achievable excursion from Wong Shek Pier. Start along the Wong Shek Family Walk. At the point the trail turns back to Wong Shek Pier, follow the signs pointing to To Kwa Peng and eventually Chek Keng. Those taking this longer hike will come across a small stone bridge over a stream that is home to tiny crabs and dragonflies. But the biggest pay-off comes in the form of the cool kaito (private ferry) ride from the ferry pier located near Bradbury Hall youth hostel back to Wong Shek Pier. (It operates on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays - with 5.20pm being the 'do not miss' last departure time from Chek Keng.)
Tai Mei Tuk
As it is merely one kilometre long, the Tai Mei Tuk Family Walk might be brushed aside, especially for people who don't live in the northern New Territories. But the trail (which can be reached by bus 75K or green minibus 20C from the terminus at the Tai Po Market MTR station) is not without its attractions. It leads up a 46-metre-high hillock that offers 360-degree views of the surrounding area, including the Plover Cove Reservoir, Tolo Harbour and Pat Sin Leng.
As at Wong Shek, there are convenient options to extend the walk, this time by venturing along the Plover Cove Reservoir's two-kilometre main dam. Those intent on going all the way to the other side from Tai Mei Tuk should remember the return trip is four kilometres. It's better to rent bicycles to ride along that smooth stretch of the trip.
Since the Plover Cove Reservoir's main dam is flat and paved the entire way, it's a good route for baby strollers and prams. Tai Mei Tuk is home to various restaurants and shops with freezers that stock ice creams and other thirst-quenching treats to reward the whole family at the end.
Mount Parker Road
On Hong Kong Island, families are spoiled for choices of green walks and hikes. The paved Peak Circuit and Bowen Road Fitness Trail are justly popular routes. Although it involves climbing hundreds of metres, the paved Mount Parker Road walk, which intersects at one end with King's Road between Quarry Bay and Taikoo Shing MTR stations, is not too steep. It's fine for reasonably fit children and adults.
One of the longest hikes involves climbing from sea level up to Quarry Gap (aka Tai Fung Au), then going down it into the photogenic Tai Tam Country Park area. The view is dominated by the Tai Tam reservoirs. When Mount Parker Road turns into the paved Tai Tam Reservoir Road, keep walking along the path until you get to Tai Tam Road. This is where buses and green minibuses stop, and public toilets are conveniently located there.
Many Quarry Bay and Tai Koo Shing area residents seem content to just walk up to Quarry Gap along Mount Parker Road from King's Road and then back down again. But several of the marked trails that branch off from it are worth exploring - including the 1.1-kilometre Quarry Bay Tree Walk, which can be accessed after walking 800 metres up Mount Parker Road from King's Road.
For parents whose children like more of a challenge, the 3.3-kilometre Hong Pak Country Trail can be found about two kilometres uphill from King's Road. This may prove the most satisfying walk of all. Largely unpaved, it involves crossing over streams and clambering over small boulders. It's an appetite-whetting taste of nature that offers views of many high-density, high-rise buildings. These are the kinds of trails that dispel the notion that Asia's World City is just a concrete jungle.