Rick Stein’s Long Weekend is undoubtedly my favourite television show. Bar none. The ever-affable Cornishman bumbles around European lovely cities in his pink gingham shirt eating grilled sardines and getting deliciously squiffy.
I share Stein’s love of pink shirts and pottering round newly discovered cities.
My most recent foray was to Hong Kong; once a jewel in the British Empire, it is now a glorious outpost of capitalism and multiculturalism. Despite a decade of Chinese rule there is still a delightful Englishness to the place – road names on the main island are all named for English places and I never needed to utter a syllable of Cantonese.
It is, of course, a 12-hour mission to hop continents. Thankfully I like flying, especially alone, and long haul is that little bit more opulent: I enjoy the champers and gin, the funny little meals and the opportunity to wear an eye mask – where else is it acceptable to do such a thing?
I missed Thursday’s day. Departing Heathrow on Wednesday, I landed in HK during the following evening. Before my departure I had been warned that the city’s atmosphere is a humid mess with a side order of smog. However, in February only the latter rings true. A pleasant 20 degrees with a sea breeze was made for comfortable clothing of stone trousers, pompous horse-bit loafers and a light silk-linen blazer.
I was in Hong Kong for the Longines Masters show jumping – a three day celebration of all things equestrian. The venue was on the island of Chek Lap Kok, near my hotel and the airport – all were linked by giant air-conditioned hamster tubes. So, for my first evening, I lived more akin to Alan Partridge than Rick. Deep in a discombobulated and jet lagged fug I took supper in the hotel bar and pottered amongst the nearby shopping mall, delighting myself with the unique flavours of crisps and nuts.
The next morning I awoke tired but excited by a day of watching elegant horses jumping over impossible obstacles and, of course, the breakfast buffet.
As the refined reader amongst you will know, a European breakfast buffet is commonly a hogwash of cured meats, peculiar cereals, croissants and urns of weak coffee. Now, find oneself in an Emirate or Asia and the offerings are plenty and more multicultural than a United Colours of Benetton advert.
Throughout my trip I took three courses of buffet each morning. I would open up with smoked salmon, three different cured hams, walnut bread, a boiled egg and around four Chinese beef dumplings. In addition, a pineapple juice and a milky Nespresso with slug of sugar syrup.
Round two was always a mammoth selection of warm pastries and cold butter. Finally, I would stack my plate with a global feast of fried rice, Japanese roast chicken, crispy bacon, hash browns and a light Chinese vegetable curry.
Following a feast that the Prince Regent would have admired I would swim a few cursory lengths of the pool before sweating out the bacon in sauna, often sat next to a paunchy Chinese chap in the smallest of small speedos.
Like a lady of leisure I would watch horses and loaf lazily between plates of food and glasses of beer. I did, nevertheless, manage to get in some good old fashioned sightseeing in.
Hong Kong is a strange combination of lush harbours, verdant mountains and sharp edged modern sky scrapers. Its small city centre – which surrounds the renowned Victoria Harbour – is sloshing with money and the large glass fronted shops are all set beneath the famous names of luxury global brands. Needless to say, the charm of the place comes alive when ones slips down a side ally to find a festering hothouse of a noodle bar or a wizened old chap offering to translate your name – for a small fee of course.
Despite, the hurly burly of a busy metropolis the streets are immaculately clean. There is a great sense of activity, assuming one doesn’t end up in the one of the many shopping malls with their somnolent music and silent young lovers. Unlike London, each corner of this gem of a city threw up an interesting sight – singing ladies picnicking, yapping men, rattling trams, plenty of weddings, endless deans of butterflies and a bay-side yoga class, which I would have joined if not for the chinos and blazer!
I pottered through a park that initially appeared small but was actually built upwards, rather like a botanical skyscraper. Large ponds of carp and swollen goldfish were fed by a pair of gushing waterfalls and the rocks jutting from the water were, on closer inspections, covered with turtles snapping boisterously at the air.
The horses continued to prance and leap, whilst my jet lag subsided and I became really taken with the city and the people.
On my final day I arranged to meet a chap, Stuart Wolfendale, who had worked in Hong Kong with my grandfather when the Major was posted on the island 35-odd years ago. We met in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club – a sort of last bastion of colonialism – a place where cold beer before noon was a necessary ointment and the nouveau riche were hidden.
It was fascinating to hear tales of what the place was like in the late 1970s, interesting further to realise that my grandfather had trodden the same pavements of this city – and also to think what it had been like in the late 1940s when my grandfather and grandmother had been there as a newly married couple, worrying desperately about Chinese invasion.
I bid farewell to Stuart, who was off to star in some amateur dramatics at the local Catholic church and I repaired for a quick sauna and an afternoon of high quality show jumping.
Following that, time seemed to stretch as my long wait for a midnight chariot ensued, so I returned to Victoria Harbour. The city certainly comes alive at night, the neon lights illuminate the packed streets and the aroma of local cuisine permeates the nostrils. Off-duty Philippine maids congregate on the streets – enjoying their solitary day of rest – and create small parties and rather well polished ensemble dance troupes.
Like a seasoned bloodhound – or should I say boozehound – I found a cluster of bars at the top of a shopping mall and chose the one with the most panoramic view of the bay. I supped on a final beer and talked to an ageing American trader, who told me that he came here every Sunday “to hide from his wife but mostly for the view”.
My flight to Blighty was serene but a chorus of angry children and laissez-fair parents made sleep difficult. Oh for a lovely Tramadol, I thought! Alas red wine and movies partnered me home and as Branson airlines deposited me onto the tarmac under a grey sheet of our great city’s sky. I could already taste that distinct lack of optimism of London that is drunk up so readily by its inhabitants.