SAI KUNG EAST Country Park protects some of the finest scenery in Hong Kong. Spend a day here, and you might forget the pressures of work, whether you're hiking, swimming, surfing, stream scrambling or chilling by the beach. Yet, there are battlegrounds here, too. Not with bullets and bombs flying, but with developers, villagers, green groups and government embroiled in arguments over whether, and how, to protect enclaves - areas of land surrounded by but excluded from the country parks.
You may have seen recent news about whether the village of Sai Wan will be included in the country park, or on permission sought for a surge of house building in Hoi Ha. Perhaps developers will succeed with plans to transform these places. But for now, they remain rural gems. Here are four of the best for you to explore. If you go, support local businesses.
Sai Wan, Tai Long Wan (south)
Appeals to: hikers, sea sports beginners and enthusiasts, stream scramblers
Why: Sai Wan is a small village by a marvellous bay of the same name, which is set within the larger Tai Long Wan but somehow seems separate from Ham Tin and Tai Wan. The village itself is a jumble of old houses, fenced patches of ground, a surf school and seafront cafes.
Walk north from the village and inland from the beach you'll see the house that Simon Lo built. The businessman was behind construction work that drew widespread ire in 2010. Though his final plans were not realised, a country lodge now sits among manicured land within high fences.
Sheung Luk stream flows past these private grounds. Here, it may be calm as a millpond. But if you walk up along the southern bank, you will soon find a series of cascades. With a little scrambling up and along slopes of bare rock, you can pass small falls, and arrive at a plunge pool below a longer fall.
Further up are more waterfalls, but passing them is more challenging. So perhaps it's better to return to the stream mouth. Then, you could hike up the winding path to the north, leaving Sai Wan behind. After cresting the ridge, the path drops down towards the northern bays of Tai Long Wan, which you can admire from splendid vantage points.
Getting there: take a taxi or the 29R minibus from Sai Kung to Sai Wan Ting. From there it's about a 45-minute walk down to Sai Wan. If you head back to Sai Wan Ting, remember minibuses are infrequent; you could try calling for a taxi, or walk down the road to near Pak Tam Chung, where there are relatively frequent buses.
Alternatively, if you decide to walk north to visit Ham Tin, allow at least five hours for the hike from Sai Wan Ting through Tai Long Wan to Pak Tam Au. Speedboats to and from Sai Kung are an option, but they are expensive (around HK$1,200 per boat) and may not do the trip if seas are rough.
Pak Sha O
Appeals to: hikers, shutterbugs, history buffs
Why: this is surely the most wonderful of Hong Kong's still-inhabited villages. With all traditional style buildings, Pak Sha O clearly reflects its Hakka origins.
Yet no indigenous villagers live here. Most left in the 1970s, as farming became uneconomical, with some heading to Tai Po, others emigrating.
Several outsiders - mostly Westerners - have since rented houses here, drawn by the laid-back atmosphere and serene surroundings. This led to houses being lovingly maintained, with bucolic picture postcard scenes.
Walk around here - quietly - and you can find the Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel, built before the British began administering the New Territories. There's a cluster of buildings ranked Grade 1 by Hong Kong's Antiquities and Monuments Office, including a watchtower and ancestral hall.
Yet developer Lau Ming-shum has bought some of the land. He has plans to demolish one of the best maintained houses and replace it with a three storey structure.
See it while you can. Or, consider supporting efforts to protect this, and other threatened beauty spots.
Getting there: walk south from Hoi Ha for around 20 minutes, or the number 7 minibus from Sai Kung, and look for a signposted footpath. From the road, it's 10 minutes easy walk to Pak Sha O.
Tai Long Wan (north)
Appeals to: hikers, families, photographers, surfers
Why: with two glorious beaches backed by hills, this is perhaps the most beautiful area in Hong Kong. When the northeast winds blow, it lives up to its name: "Big Wave Bay".
Ham Tin, a hamlet by the sea, was a key country park enclave where concerns were first raised about potential developments. During the 1990s, green groups rallied in a call for protection, leading to zoning that designates much of the area for conservation.
There are two restaurants just above the tideline. The views alone make them among the best places to eat in Hong Kong. Fried rice never tastes better than when you're gazing out across the sand, to the waves rolling in and the surf pounding rocky promontories.
A rickety bridge leads to the beach, which might be the furthest many people reach. But try going north a little, passing a restaurant to scramble up a headland, and you'll find Tai Wan - where there's a one kilometre stretch of sand without a building in sight.
On sunny days with azure water, swimming is tempting. Those who aren't strong swimmers should treat the seas there with caution, there are quite a few strong rips.
For an adventure on land, head up Sharp Peak - the steep upper slopes are tough, especially because a myriad tiny stones make the rough paths slippery.
Getting there: number 94 bus from Sai Kung or (on Sundays and public holidays) the 96R from Diamond Hill to Pak Tam Au. Then it's a 90-minute hike along the MacLehose Trail.
Appeals to: strollers, snorkellers, naturalists
Why: as well as being a country park enclave, Hoi Ha is next to Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park. This is the only one of Hong Kong's four marine parks that's accessible by road, and has 64 species of hard corals, compared to 65 for the entire Caribbean.
The village is small and of little interest in itself. Thanks to the road making it attractive to commuters combining city jobs and rural solitude, old buildings have largely been replaced by three-storey "Spanish-style" houses typical of the New Territories. A simple restaurant is a pleasant place to sit, but on a busy day may boast the grumpiest service in rural Hong Kong.
Snorkelling gear is for hire, and though the best coral areas are a short boat ride across the bay, there are also hard corals near a small old pier. This lies to the east of the village, and on the way to it you pass old kilns, where coral and shells were formerly baked to make lime.
There's another beach west of the village, across a stream flowing through woodland and past mangroves. Developers have bought plots of land near the stream mouth, and conservationists are trying to counter plans for building up to 84 houses here and more than twice as many nearby.
Getting there: take the number 7 minibus from Sai Kung.