Sai Kung East Country Park was established in 1978, and protects some of the finest scenery in Hong Kong. You can enjoy vistas and tranquillity that seem far from the madding city. Spend a day here, and you can forget the pressures of work, whether you’re hiking, swimming, surfing, stream scrambling or simply chilling by the beach.
And yet … there are battlegrounds here, too. Not with bullets and bombs flying (so far!), 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 items about whether the village of Sai Wan will be included in the country park, and on permission sought for a surge of house building at Hoi Ha. Perhaps developers will succeed with plans that will transform these and other places. But today, they are still rural gems. Here are four of the best for you to explore. If you go, perhaps support local businesses.
Tai Long Wan (north)
Appeals to: Hikers, strolling families, photographers, surf dudes.
Why: With two glorious beaches backed by hills, and facing the South China Sea, this is perhaps the most beautiful area in Hong Kong. When easterly winds blow, it lives up to its name meaning “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. They serve simple fare, but the views alone make them among the best places you can eat out in Hong Kong. Fried rice never tasted better than when you’re gazing out across the expansive sand, to waves rolling in, 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 1km stretch of sand without a building in sight, hills rising above. Ah, bliss!
On sunny days with azure water, swimming is tempting, though be cautious lest rip tides might be pulling out to sea. For adventure on land, maybe head up Sharp Peak – noting that the steep upper slopes are tough, especially because a myriad tiny stones make the rough paths skiddy.
Getting there: Bus 94 from Sai Kung or (on Sundays and public holidays) 96R from Diamond Hill to Pak Tam Au. Then hike along the Maclehose Trail, for around 1.5hrs.
Sai Wan, south Tai Long Wan
Appeals to: Hikers, seasports beginnes 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 seems separate from Ham Tin and Tai Wan.
The village itself is a jumble of ramshackle old houses, fenced patches of ground, a surf school, and seafront cafes serving hikers. It’s just above a beach between rugged headlands.
Walk north from the village a little, and inland from the beach you’ll find the house that Simon Lo built. Lo, a businessman, was behind construction work that drew widespread ire in 2010. Though his final plans were perhaps not realised, a country lodge now sits amidst 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. Especially in hot weather, this is a popular place for thrill seekers who like to leap from a cliff, into the pool.
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 vantages.
Getting there: Taxi or infrequent minibus 29R from Sai Kung to Sai Wan Ting. Then around 45mins walk down to Sai Wan. Allow at least 5hrs for the hike from Sai Wan Ting through Tai Long Wan to Pak Tam Au. 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.
Appeals to: Strollers, snorkellers, naturalists
Why: As well as being a country park enclave, Hoi Ha is beside 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 walking to it you pass old kilns, where corals and shells were formerly baked to make lime. Just before them, a short track leads to a pleasant beach.
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 nearby – more than twice as many as in Hoi Ha at present.
Getting there: Minibus 7 from Sai Kung.
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 reflect its Hakka origins.
Yet no indigenous villagers live here. Most left in the 1970s, as farming became uneconomic, with some heading to Tai Po, others emigrating. Several outsiders – mostly westerners – have since rented houses here, drawn by the laidback 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. The entire village cries out for protection, for cherishing.
Yet developer Lau Ming-shum has bought some of the land. Not known for inspired, sensitive architecture, he has plans including demolishing one of the best maintained houses and replacing it with a three storey structure. Wildlife rich wetland has been cleared and replaced with farming, maybe as a prelude to construction of a new village that might prove profitable in dollar terms, but bereft of the human soul and the abundance of plants and animals that make Pak Sha O special.
See it while you can! And, maybe support efforts to protect this, and other threatened beauty spots.
Getting there: Walk south from Hoi Ha for around 20mins, or Minibus 7 from Sai Kung, and look for a signposted footpath. From the road, it’s around 10mins easy walk to Pak Sha O.
Written for South China Morning Post 48hrs magazine.