The vessel comes sedately towards the wharf. A bamboo pole with a steel hook stretches out from the pier, a thick hawser is tossed with casual ease, and the rope hauled up and dropped over a sturdy bollard. The engines reverse, a crewman tautens the hawser aboard. The rope takes the strain with a protesting squeak. The Celestial Star swings into the berth. There's a bump, a whistle blows, the gangplank drops down with a clang. There's a rush to get off. A Star Ferry has made another journey. It happens hundreds of times every day. It's a routine part of Hong Kong; the city would not be the same without it. Last year, 28,677,273 people walked over the gangplanks to ride the Star Ferry, named by National Geographic of Travellers as one of the 50 experiences of a lifetime. The Hong Kong Tourism Board calls it one of our 10 superlatives. Every day, those sturdy boats make 710 trips. Last year, they sailed 321,382 kilometers between the piers in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai. I arrived in Hong Kong by ship on a misty spring morning. It berthed in Kowloon and somehow I found my way, kitbag over my shoulder, to the Star Ferry concourse. I had no Hong Kong money. Using a mixture of Australian and Filipino coins, I got aboard. I was on the lower deck and that's where I travel still; I think after thousands of trips, I've been in first class once. Over she goes, rolling in waves, lifting on swells, the stupendous sight of the Peak and Central's skyline approaching like magic. It's the best $1.70 journey in the world. Sometimes if I am in Central or Tsim Sha Tsui with nothing particular to do, I board the ferry and ride across and then come back. It's the best rejuvenation I can think of. The Star ferries have been plying that precious kilometre since 1888. Our old photograph (top) shows people getting off on Hong Kong side in 1904. Today, the service is more regular and faster. It's also more reliable; the boats don't have to take two days off a week to load coal. Created originally by Parsee entrepreneur Dorabjee Nowrojee, it was called the Kowloon Ferry Company. By the turn of the 20th century, it had the present name. Even then, the roster of vessels included familiar names. There was a Night Star and a Morning Star. There still is today, but that's several vessels later. Seventy years ago, management acted well before its time using the latest technology and launching vessels with diesel engines; appropriately, the first was the Electric Star. Fares were five cents a trip in 1903, the year the South China Morning Post was launched. The great storm of 1906 sunk two boats and totally destroyed the Kowloon pier. Star Ferry's finest hour came in December, 1941. As the British forces retreated in front of the Japanese, people were desperate to escape to Hong Kong Island. The military helped the company keep ships running until December 12, under direct artillery shelling and machinegun fire. Troops and refugees packed the vessels seeking the dubious safety of the Hong Kong shore. The Star Ferry didn't run during the occupation. Providing utilities and logistical support to keep the city working was not the prime concern of the military government. Rebuilding after the war was slow, with a steady increase in the number of vessels. In 1966, to the bafflement of the government and most of the population, a solitary protestor demonstrating against planned increase in first class ferry fares sparked a series of riots. Despite vastly improved cross-harbour transport with competition from road tunnels and the super-efficient MTR, the Star Ferry sails on. It's a much-used as well as much-loved way of crossing the water, and a must-do experience for tourists. The two latest vessels, the 750-seaters Golden Star and World Star, were added in 1989. All ferries have been refurbished so the upper deck first class cabins are air-conditioned; not that I would know. On my trips over the harbour, I look at the boats coming the other way. They're all old friends; I particularly like the 33-metre Twinkling Star. Don't ask me why, because the 40-year-old boat has the same design as nine other Star Ferries. Maybe it's the name.