To most of our city dwellers, the thought of taking young children camping, along with all the planning and luggage it entails, might seem somewhat laughable and only for hardy, outdoor types. But that hasn't been my experience at all.
Hong Kong offers many camping opportunities through purpose-built sites at its beaches and country parks. And some of the most family friendly options can be found along the beaches of South Lantau. The adventurous can pitch tents, but you could plump for the more luxurious option of staying in a large safari tent complete with wooden floor and air conditioning.
So a night or even two in a tent with a family requires no more packing and paraphernalia than a day at the beach does - swimsuits, plenty of sunblock, a towel or two if they will fit in the bag, spare clothes and a stockpile of snacks. Throw in some pyjamas, sheets and an air bed if you have one, and you are ready to turn a day trip into an overnight stay.
But for a more down-to-earth experience, it's worth heading to the public campsite on Pui O beach. You will need to take your own tent, which can be bought, rented or borrowed.
On a recent outing, our children slept as soundly in the tent as they did at home, probably because they hogged the air bed, forcing my husband and I onto the sand. The sound of waves crashing against the shore also helped lull them to sleep. And they were breathing slightly fresher, cleaner air.
There is something wonderful about being able to spend most of the weekend outside in nature. Everything we ate came from the barbecue, and the tastiest morsels, hands down, were the fresh clams that our party spent several happy hours plucking from the seabed.
There is no need to take the iPad. Between swimming, digging for clams, chasing hermit crabs and building sandcastles, the children had plenty to amuse themselves.
It is a great opportunity for some quality family time. My husband and I threw our phones into our bags, and they stayed there, ignored for the entire time we were camped on the beach. We got away from it all: no televisions, no laptops, no computer games. And we did away with set bedtimes, mealtimes and routines. To say such a weekend is relaxing does not do the experience justice; it is liberating. Children have a chance to engage in the kind of unstructured, imagination-fuelled play in a natural environment that so many seem to miss out on in Hong Kong as they dash from tutorials to extracurricular classes.
It's a treat to be able to pull back the tent flap at six in the morning and see the kids running across the beach in pyjamas as the sun rises over the sea.
Terence Chan, manager of the YMCA's Camping and Community Programme, reckons that camping allows children to explore the environment and make their own decisions. And whatever challenges camps might initially pose for children, that so many youngsters come back year after year suggests that they sometimes enjoy being taken out of their comfort zones.
Our beaches on Lantau are an overlooked asset and on an autumn day they easily rival beaches at many of the popular destinations in Asia.
The campsites are generally quiet, their serenity broken only by the shouts of children as they spy herds of wild buffalo lumbering down the beach early in the morning or at dusk. It's a rare opportunity for children here to get close to animals living in the wild, even if they are domesticated beasts that have been left to their own devices.
The children will have greater appreciation of the direct impact that pollution or dumping would have on their favourite camping spot, and it provides them with an incentive to protect at least this little part of their world. Lantau resident Paul Angwin says camping is a good way to give his two children the kind of exposure to nature that he enjoyed growing up in Australia.
Here are some of the family camping options on Lantau:
- At Pui O beach, you can head for the
- public campsite which runs the entire left flank of the beach
lcsd.gov.hk/camp/en/p_ng_po.php  The site is well maintained and quiet, and there are benches and barbecue pits for almost every pitching space.
Camping is free - you just need to register at the entrance on arrival. And remember to bring your tent.
There is no advance booking, so turn up early on public holidays and weekends to secure a spot. Camping is only allowed within the designated site, and tents cannot be pitched on the beach.
Toilets and showers are open 24 hours, but there is no hot water. The private kiosk, which sells snacks, drinks and other camping needs, from beach toys to charcoal, usually stays opens past 10pm.
- Another option at Pui O is
- Treasure Island
treasureislandhk.com  which has its own private campsite and offers camping experiences for families and schools.
The operator will provide tents, sleeping bags, mats as well as everything required to get cooking on the barbecue. However, the family package is available only over the spring and summer months.
- For something a little more luxurious, head to
- Long Cross Seasports
longcoast.hk  at Cheung Sha beach. Besides ordinary rooms, the activity centre offers four- and six-person tents, as well as deluxe safari tents. The latter come with mattresses and air conditioning, which is a lifesaver during the sweltering summer months.
Guests make use of the tents by buying vouchers through its Play 'N Stay package. Activity vouchers, which are for two people, cover one night's accommodation and give access to equipment for a range of sea sports, from windsurfing to kayaking. Camp vouchers are sold on a per person basis, but you will need at least three vouchers to use a tent and six for a safari tent.
- At the next beach is the
- Palm Beach Watersports Centre
palmbeach.com.hk  where you can spend the night in one of its Native American teepees or camp out in its herb garden. The operators also offer a wide variety of water sports.
ymcahk.org.hk/camping  runs a series of residential and overnight camps for children aged seven to 13. The camps run during the main school holidays and are open to children of all faiths.