Tung Ping Chau (東平洲)
One of the more ridiculous Hong Kong Government announcements had a conversation between a wife and her stressed husband; she suggesting he take "a holiday to the Internet". Far better - assuming they're staying within Hong Kong - would be to head to the islet of Tung Ping Chau (東平洲), which is pretty much the furthest you can get from the city without needing your passport.
Tung Ping Chau is set in the east of Mirs Bay, too distant for most Hong Kong maps to show it properly (it may appear in an inset box, off the northeast New Territories). Unless you own or rent a boat, the journey there is by a 1.5-hour ferry ride, with ferries only on weekends and public holidays.
Though only 2km long, and relatively flat (rising to just 48 metres), Tung Ping Chau makes for a cracking - and relaxing - day out, or even overnight stay. There's a fine beach, with coral heads just offshore; hamlets dot the island, some of them intact, others in ruins; trails wind through the hamlets and old woods and fields, and skirt the top of cliffs.
Tung Ping Chau (the "Tung" - "East" - helping distinguish it from Peng Chau near Lantau, western HK) is shaped like a crescent moon, cradling a sandy beach along the east coast, and with low cliffs to the west and south. Unaffected by the Pearl River that muddies the waters off west Hong Kong, the sea here is relatively clean - it's typically tropical blue.
This is one of Hong Kong's premier sites for coral, and coral heads grow in the shallow waters; the sea here is typically tropical blue, and especially if the tide is low, you may see coral heads as you walk along the ferry pier, maybe with shoals of small fish in attendance.
Trails on Tung Ping Chau
There are several trails, the main one making a circuit of Tung Ping Chau, with small side trails you can explore - these don't always really go anywhere, but you can find yourself in small woods that are partly hiding ruined hamlets.
If you've arrived on a busy day, you may find these trails useful for avoiding the crowds (most will leave late morning, or by early afternoon); and if you're a birdwatcher, these woods are well worth searching for migrants: especially in spring, when they can hold spectacular flycatchers like Narcissus, Japanese paradise, and blue-and-white.
Only few houses are still maintained on Tung Ping Chau, chiefly in hamlets just north and south of the ferry pier. They're not for people who stay year-round: most residents moved out some years ago, but may return to open their old homes as hostels and restaurants that cater to holidaymakers from urban Hong Kong.
When I first went to Tung Ping Chau, in the early 90s I think, it seemed to be a place that relatively few people visited. But lately, with the boom in "eco-tourism" in Hong Kong (spurred by SARS, which prompted people to head out for fresh air), it's become a hot destination for Hongkongers. To my eyes, the boom is pretty chaotic, but it does seem good that the restaurants are thriving, and now have boards up with pictures of fish and other marine life - providing, that is, there isn't an onslaught on these creatures.
Walking anti-clockwise around the island, you'll soon pass a sign just above the tideline, noting that the area just offshore is a coral protection zone, with marker buoys indicating where mooring is banned. The Tung Ping Chau Marine Park surrounds the island; though with recreational fishing permitted in some areas, and (when I've been) perhaps no control on people collecting creatures in rock pools, it's surely far from perfect.
The land, too, is protected in the Plover Cove Extension Country Park, and as you continue on round, you'll find that the old fields where crops were once raised, cattle reared, are thoroughly overgrown, with scrub soon to give rise to young woods.
Part-way down the west coast is Cham Keng Chau, a dollop of land which the sea has almost sliced away from Ping Chau.
Also, Lung Lok Shui - Dragon Descending to the Water, formed from a hard band of chert that resists erosion more than the layers of mudstone above and below it. The island's mudstone is unique in Hong Kong, and is the youngest local rock formation - leading to Tung Ping Chau being included in the Hong Kong Geopark.
The cliffs rise as you head south, though hardly enough to make you dizzy. Then, the trail drops down, to the southeast tip of Tung Ping Chau. Here, a couple of house-sized stacks preside over rock pools amidst layers of mudstone.
This is a popular place with visitors - I guess best avoided soon after the morning flotilla of ferries arrives - and though you can find fish and other life in the rock pools, it could be that there's way too much uncontrolled collecting of crabs, urchins and so on.
Once when I visited, there were five rather splendid, green nudibranchs (sea slugs) grazing in one pool. Another pool held three fabulously colourful fish, which someone had caught, and released there (they'd be freed by the high tide).
But we also found no urchins, and no crabs - just seeing fragments of crab shells in a pool.
It was, though, real pleasant being there in the late afternoon, when all but a handful of people had gone.
And, it was time to dash off - as our return ferry was set to depart shortly.
The Tsui Wah Ferry Service operates ferries to Tung Ping Chau, departing Ma Liu Shui (near University KCR station) on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays: see "Ferries" on this site for more info.
Be warned that, especially with "eco-tours" (hmm....) for Hongkongers booming, the two small piers at Ma Liu Shui can be festooned with people before the morning ferry departure times - it seems all boats aim to leave around 9am.
You may even find you have to spend some time queuing for your ticket (or buy in advance?); I reckon it's well worth putting up with the hassle.