Tai O Heritage Hotel – a piece of historic heaven
Anna Healy Fenton
It’s a holiday. Where can you go for lunch in Hong Kong that’s interesting, out of town and doesn’t require a mortgage? After years of trying steakhouses in Tseng Kwan O, seafood places on Lamma and obscure eateries with names like 131, I have the answer: Tai O. No, not Tai Po, be careful with spellcheck or you could end up heading for the New Territories, instead of Lantau, where you should be.
The Tai O Heritage Hotel has been opened for a while, but like many things on your doorstep, it gets talked about more than actually patronised. So today it was time to actually board the no.1 bus in Mui Wo and take the 40 minute trip along the South Lantau Road. From Tai O bus station it’s either a two-minute speed boat across the bay to the hotel, or a leisurely 20-minute stroll. I’m not sure how you get your suitcase there but I am sure they have thought of that.
The HK$10 boat ride is well worth whatever they spent upgrading from the old sampan and before you know it, you’re halfway up the short path to the former colonial police station. The mountain and sea view would be spectacular if not shrouded in orange-brown smog--yes the pollution is as bad here as Causeway Bay. No surprise really, since Tai O cops for first blast of the Pearl River Delta airborne sludge.
Heaven in Hong Kong
It’s an idyllic spot nonetheless, and the old police station is a perfectly preserved example of British colonial architecture. Built in 1902 on the small hill next to Tai O Ferry Pier, it bolstered the community police presence on Lantau Island as they valiantly dealt with pirates, helped defuse family disputes and sorted out arguments between villagers. Officers of the Old Tai O Police Station were under the marine police and patrolled by sampan. Vehicle access was clearly not a priority then and is still not an option today. Due to the declining crime rates--that must be a first--the police station shut up shop in 2002.
It somehow avoided the wrecker’s ball, the fate of so many of Hong Kong’s lovely old buildings, and restoration started in 2009, by Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation, the ones chosen to do the conversion to a nine-room boutique hotel. They did a marvelous job – why can’t other historic buildings also be saved in the same way? In 2010, it got a Grade II historic building listing from the Antiquities Advisory Board, which hopefully secures its future.
The rooms are simple – timber floors, everything from curtains to linen white, with shuttered windows. It’s divine. I’m a convert, I admit it, but where else can you find this in Hong Kong? It’s not outrageously pricey either, with a mid-week room rate of about Hk$1400 online, including breakfast and free wi-fi. Its main problem is it’s usually full, having only nine rooms. It’s also already caught the eye of the corporate hospitality crowd, with Cathay Pacific booking it out for Diamond Card member junkets. So if you want to stay there, plan well in advance.
But if you just fancy lunch or tea, that’s easier. Surprisingly, today, we were the only people in the lofty Peak Lookout-meets-Chinese-teahouse style dining room at noon, though it filled up a bit towards one o’clock. Seating is indoors or out on the terrace. The menu is sensible, not fancy: fish and chips, burgers, steak and Asian staples like nasi goring, chicken satay sticks and fried rice.
Some people have whinged it’s not upmarket enough, but with a clientele ranging from culture vulture westerners to mainland Chinese tourists, it’s spot on, with something for everyone. Set lunch is HK$138. Service is smooth, but not in your face. It’s the kind of place to write off an afternoon as you gaze out across the bay, reminiscent of the old days in the Bella Vista in Macau, if any of you remember back that far. But if you plan dinner, book in for the night. It’s a hassle, but not impossible, to get home afterwards.
A taxi from Tai O to the Mui Wo ferry or Tung Chung MTR is HK$180. A taxi all the way from Central would set you back HK$500 – that’s $300 by red cab to Tung Chung, change there to a blue Lantau cab and it’s $180 on to Tai O, plus speedboat at $10 each. Driving from Central to Tai O takes about an hour and a half. Only residents can use private cars on Lantau. So sneak off to Tai O one lazy day and wind the clock back.