As the 2013 Cheung Chau Island Bun Festival approaches, from May 12-18, thousands will make their way over on the ferries (timetable here) to enjoy in the fun while battling the crowds. The island however is full of charm all year round and deserves a visit. Jo James, author of the Little Yak blog, and local island resident, shares with our readers her top five tips for visiting Cheung Chau, by many considered Hong Kong’s most charming island.
Cheung Chau is a small island about an hour away from Hong Kong’s Central district, making it a popular day-trip from Central. Take one of the half-hourly ferries (ferry timetable here), and you’ll be rewarded with a holiday atmosphere, more fishballs than is probably healthy, a choice of beaches, a pirate’s cave and a seafood dinner on the waterfront. Here are my tips for what to do and what not to do while you’re here:
1) Ring my bell: Don’t hire a Tricycle… But do get out of the village
Cheung Chau has a lovely seaside cycling path that runs along the western coast of the island. If you’re happy to pootle up and down this path, then please do so – by tricycle or bike – as you wish. However, if you have dreams of completing a Tour de Cheung Chau, or if you feel like some alley cycling, then stick to a regular bike. There are steep hills and some steps involved in doing a circuit of the island, and the tricycles are so heavy that you’re liable to end up either unpleasantly sweaty pushing them or whizzing out of control down a 1:4 slope. The tricycles are also so wide that they block the smaller alleyways and lanes, causing much gnashing of teeth from the locals.
That said, do make sure you get out of the main village – head to Kwun Yam Wan Beach and the ‘Little Great Wall’ hiking path, or towards the southwest side of the island around Cheung Po Tsai’s cave (see below). The southern half of the island has a beautiful coastline, with great views out into the South China Sea on a clear day.
2) Don’t get too excited about the pirate’s cave, me hearties… But do check out Cheung Chau’s South Coast
Hong Kong’s most famous pirate, Cheung Po Tsai, was an island boy and purportedly had one of his many hideaways on Cheung Chau’s rocky coast. Today, this is Cheung Chau’s premier tourist destination: Cheung Po Tsai’s Cave. The cave itself is more of a crevice than a cave, slightly smelly, and generally underwhelming. The coastal path between the cave and deserted Pak Tso Wan Beach, however, is lovely – hilly, but pretty. If you’re feeling adventurous, head down here at high tide and shimmy across rocky ledges over the lapping waves, and up steps carved into the boulders.
3) Attention beach bunnies! Forget Dong Wan Beach – try Kwun Yam Wan Beach instead
Cheung Chau is formed from two rocky outcrops linked by a sandbar that the fishermen used to pull their boats up onto at the end of the day. One side of the sandbar has since been concreted over and turned into San Hing Praya Street, where the ferry pier is. The other side of the sandbar remains sandy – and home to Dong Wan Beach, the largest and most popular on the island. On summer weekends, the crowds descend onto the beach and the water turns into murky people soup – ick.
Far better to head to Kwun Yam Wan Beach, just a few hundred metres further south – smaller, quieter and much more attractive. While Dong Wan is surrounded by apartments and holiday homes, Kwun Yam Wan’s backdrop is lush jungle. Where Dong Wan’s entertainment is limited to inflatable toys and people-watching, Kwun Yam Wan offers kayak and windsurfer rental, two separate bars, and a small Kwun Yam Temple on the hill overlooking the beach, and from which it takes its name.
4) Hungry? Don’t just try the seafood… Go to Popo’s for old-school waffles
Cheung Chau is home to a wide range of snacks, from the satisfyingly greasy (ultra-large fishballs on sticks, deep-fried coils of potato on sticks, plus various other fried and stick-based foods), to the refreshing (frozen pineapple rings, piles of flavoured ice shavings, mango mochi). All delicious, but they’re also mostly gimmicky imports, rather than traditional local foods.
For a proper meal, you can’t beat the waterfront restaurants (although Cheung Chauers also love a good hotpot). However, for a little taste of a more traditional side of the island, see if you can find Popo’s (‘Grandma’s’) – an unmarked shop sellinggai daan tsai (Hong Kong-style egg waffles) and bo beng (pancakes topped with peanut butter and condensed milk) near Pak Tai Temple. Popo has been serving waffles for decades now, and still uses an old-fashioned, hand-held waffle maker – none of your modern automation here, thank you very much. Popo’s is on the right-hand side of the temple as you look at it, next door to a small convenience store.
5) Have a bun! But don’t join the Bun Festival crowds… Come the night before
Cheung Chau’s Bun Festival each May is the biggest event in the island calendar. The four-day festival is held in honour of Pak Tai, a Taoist deity whose statue helped to rid Cheung Chau of both plague and pirates in the 18th century. The highlight of the festival is a parade through the island – think lion- and dragon-dancing, lots of music to scare away evil spirits and, more unusually, young children elaborately dressed as gods – and a competition to climb to the top of a tower of buns in front of the island’s Pak Tai Temple.
In 2013 main day of the festival will be held on Friday, May 17 – which coincides with the public holiday for the Buddha’s birthday. It’s worth trying to make it along for the main event, but if you can’t face the crowds (in some years it’s almost impossible to leave the ferry because the waterfront is so crowded), then come along the night before instead. By then, all of the preparations will be in full swing at Pak Tai Temple, with Cantonese opera performances, bun shops doing roaring trade, and a wonderful sense of anticipation for the next day…
That’s it! I hope this helps you to get more out of your next trip to Cheung Chau – probably the best island in Hong Kong!