Exploring Hong Kong: Ocean Park

Day 2 of our Hong Kong exploration led us to Ocean Park. Why Ocean Park instead of Disneyland? Because I said so 😛 But seriously. Aids wasn’t interested in going (he’s not much for thrill rides) and I’d already been to Disneyworld twice and Disneyland California once (plus Universal StudiosIslands of Adventure, Universal Studios California, and Universal Studios Singapore :P).

Going to and from Ocean Park is a breeze. Just take the MTR to Admiralty station then take the Citybus 629 Express Bus to Ocean Park (HK$10.60 per way for the bus ride). The bus also picks up from Central station but check the schedule. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes and drops you off right in front of Ocean Park.

Ocean Park tip #1: it’s best to be there by the time the park opens at 10:00 am. We left TST late so we got there by 11:30. We’d missed the first animal shows already so that threw off our entire schedule – we were hoping to leave by 3 or 4 pm to visit the markets in Stanley.

I loved Ocean Park, although me being my ocean-lover self may have contributed to that. The animals looked well-cared for, the exhibits were both beautifully designed and functional, and the written interpretation and displays were superb. I can’t say anything about the verbal interpretation as it was mostly in Cantonese. The dolphin show had a pre-recorded narration in alternating Cantonese and English while the bird show was in Cantonese with only sprinklings of English here and there. If you’re set on watching all of the shows and seeing all of the exhibits, check out Ocean Park’s website for the show schedules on the specific date you’ll be going to better plan your day. I did this but silly me forgot to print it out.

Ocean Park tip #2: buy your tickets in advance. The lines at the gate for admission tickets can get very long and waste your time when you could be exploring the park already. See my earlier entry for where you can get discounted tickets.

While each exhibit was great, my absolute favorites were the Giant Aquarium, Amazing Asian Animals, Giant Panda Habitat, and the Sea Jelly Spectacular.

The Giant Aquarium deserves its name as you have to take an escalator up – you start from the top of the building then work your way down. Each section is themed according to the ocean depth the animals live in – intertidal, coral reefs, and deep sea. The intertidal section also had a touch pool with starfish and sea cucumbers – something sure to appeal to the kids. The section on coral reefs has several tanks full of colorful reef fish, including one chockfull of “Nemos” – false clown anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris). However, the giant viewing window at the end of your tour is sure to become a highlight. The window is 68 cm thick plexiglass, holding back hawksbill sea turtles, sharks, a Napoleon wrasse, groupers, tuna, and thousands of gallons of seawater.

The Amazing Asian Animals exhibit lived up to its name. They showcased giant pandas, red pandas, and goldfish. A giant panda had his ass pointed in our direction as he did his business. As expected, panda poop is green from the food that it eats. Another one was eating, easily breaking the bamboo in half before ripping it apart to get to the soft inner parts. This was my first time to see a giant panda eat and its sheer brute strength surprised me. I’d temporarily forgotten that despite its sluggish movement, it’s a bear and a hunter at heart.

The goldfish exhibit was also really interesting, something I did not expect at all 😀 They had diagrams showing the different features of each particular variety of goldfish and the proper terms to describe them. I kept wondering though if the goldfish were comfortable with the modified body parts they sported. Bubble eyes aren’t hydrodynamic after all.

The dedicated giant panda habitat (separate from the Asian Animals exhibit) was also really cool (both literally and figuratively). Giant pandas are mountain creatures so Ocean Park takes care to bump up the AC to make them comfortable. There was virtually no line to get into the exhibit, something we appreciated. Everyone was crowded against the glass and snapping photos continuously.

The Sea Jelly Spectacular was truly spectacular. Jellies are mostly translucent white and pretty enough, but Ocean Park designed the jellyfish exhibit to show them off to their best advantage and then some (basically like women wearing makeup :P). Aids and I stood in front of one jellyfish tank for about 10 minutes, just taking photos. Hopefully we didn’t disturb the other visitors who wanted to take photos as well. I also took some video of the moon jelly (Aurelia aurita) tank as the tank lights (so also the jellies) changed color from green to red. It was pretty awesome.

Ocean Park tip #3: visit on a non-holiday weekday to avoid the crowds. We went on a Friday so it was already somewhat crowded. The lines for the rides weren’t too bad, though the animal shows were definitely full.

We got to the Amazing Bird Theater with 5 minutes to spare and took seats on the left side of the performance space. The bird show itself was nice and okay but not as great as the show in the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. The highlight for me was the scarlet macaw taking donations from the crowd for the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF). The volunteer holds out a folded bill (preferably at least HK$20 :D) and the macaw lands on his arm, takes the donation in its beak, then flies towards the donation box and drops it in.

Coming in for a landing
Getting the goodies (photo by Aids)
Turning around
Takeoff!

I was seriously impressed with how Ocean Park gets its visitors to donate to OPCF. First, they make a great heartfelt appeal. Second, they make giving fun. Having a macaw collect donations was a genius move. And third, they make it easy. The giant panda and Chinese sturgeon exhibits had stations where you could donate via Octopus card. Just swipe your Octopus card and *ting!* you’ve donated HK$10 towards saving the planet. I donated at the Chinese sturgeon exhibit while Aids swiped his card for the pandas.

How can you resist that cuddly panda?!

Buildable space in Hong Kong is a premium and Ocean Park is no exception. It expanded up the mountainside so tip #4 is to wear your most comfortable shoes or flip-flops and be prepared for a lot of walking. You will have to go up and down several hilly areas during the day, especially if you didn’t plan your route out beforehand. On the other hand, the need to break the park up in two resulted in Ocean Park’s cable car system. There are four cable lines (two going in each direction) running continuously so the waiting time isn’t so bad. Your wait is rewarded with a 10-minute cable car ride that gives you astonishing views of Hong Kong’s mountains, coastline, and surrounding waters.

Lastly, Ocean Park is famous for its Halloween parties! The park builds special “haunted houses” and 4D theaters full of spooky stuff and is open until way past the regular 7 pm closing. This requires a separate ticket and these tickets go very fast. According to my friend Eric, tickets for Ocean Park’s Halloween extravaganza were sold out months ago.

We left the park before the 7 pm Symbio closing show to meet up with our friend Chris in TST. If you have no early evening plans, I highly recommend that you stay for Symbio. It’s a show on conservation and symbiotic relationships featuring fire, water, lights, pyrotechnics, music, and animation. Eric said it’s really good 🙂

The next day’s itinerary: an unexpected-yet-totally-worth-it stop in Peng Chau, Tai O, Po Lin monastery, Ngong Ping village, and Central 😀

Victoria Harbor after the failed meetup with Chris

Exploring Hong Kong: getting there and our first meal in HK

Aids and I arrived in Hong Kong at 7:30 am. There was a line for immigration but the wait was bearable. Our baggage was waiting to be claimed by the time we got the coveted stamp in our passports (I love HKIA!). First order of business was finding out where the airport buses were. After that, I got in line for the information counter (there was only one lady fielding questions) to find out where the China Travel Service (HK) booth was (it’s booth A10 in the arrivals hall), as they offer discounted admission tickets to some of Hong Kong’s attractions.

The tickets we bought:

  • Ocean Park – HK$240 instead of HK$280
  • Round-trip Peak Tram + Sky Terrace – HK$56 instead of HK$65
  • One-way Airport Express ticket (Kowloon) – HK$72 instead of HK$90
  • One-way Ngong Ping cable car ride – HK$80 (no discount. Boo!)

Edit: we found out later that Ngong Ping is one of several attractions (including Ocean Park and the Peak Tram) that participates in a promo wherein you can get 10% off the admission ticket if you present a recently used ticket from one of the other attractions. So if you’re going to Ngong Ping during the later part of your trip, you can save the Ocean Park or Peak Tram ticket (which you already got at a discount :D) and present it when you buy your cable car tickets onsite. Ten percent off for minimal effort sounds good to me! Promo runs until January 2012.

We took the Cityflyer airport bus going to Tsim Sha Tsui as it was much cheaper compared to the Airport Express train ($33 versus $72) and the room we got was only some steps away from the bus stop. You get a free sightseeing tour too! However, we decided to take the Airport Express going back as we had an early flight. The bus route starts at 5:30 am and takes about an hour, so we could have missed our flight back if we’d taken it. And besides, taking the AE was an added experience 🙂

Note: if you’re taking the Cityflyer bus from and to the airport, Citybus offer a round-trip bus ticket + Ocean Park ticket for only $295 😀

We arrived in TST by 9:30.Instead of a hotel or hostel room, we rented a private room via Airbnb. Why Airbnb? First, hotel rooms in Hong Kong are extremely expensive in October (think 3x the usual rate) because of the trade fairs that bring hundreds of business people into town. Case in point: we just missed the HK Electronics Fair and could have gone to the China Sourcing Fair (I forget for what products). Second, we didn’t want to get a hostel room because this was a special occasion and we wanted something nicer than the usual clean but tiny room. We ended up staying in Cory’s apartment. He and his girlfriend Carla were such great hosts – very friendly and accommodating. They left for a business+leisure trip two nights after we got there so we had the place to ourselves for the rest of our stay.

The guest before us was still in the apartment by the time we got there so we just dumped our bags and got some brunch. Carla recommended a barbeque place along Hankow Road and we did look out for it, but we missed it somehow and ended up in a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop. It was more than a little intimidating at first, as it was full of locals and the owner spoke limited English. Good thing the menu had photos and English labels so the tried-and-tested pointing method worked 😀 One bowl of shrimp wonton noodle soup was HK$33.

We went back to the apartment to rest a bit and unpack some stuff. The day’s itinerary: the museums along the harbor front, the Avenue of Stars, and the Mong Kok night markets!

Hong Kong trip planning references and craziness

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Aids and I are going to Hong Kong this October for our 5th anniversary (OMG 5 years?!) – it’ll be my 2nd trip (though the first time I went was way back in high school) and his first overseas trip ever. So yes, being the sort-of travel veteran compared to him, the trip planning was mostly done by me 😛

Some of the references I used:

“Hong Kong (Step by Step)” by Ruth Williams (Insight Guides)

Some of you may be asking “why buy a guidebook when everything is online for free?”. Three reasons: 1) I wanted something I could carry around, 2) this guide organized the interesting places into self-guided walking tours (I love walking tours – I try to walk everywhere whenever practical), and 3) this one includes a full-color map. I love maps. My sense of direction isn’t the greatest so having a map on-hand is important. Bonus: it has lots of pretty pictures that inspire me to take my own pretty pictures 🙂

Airbnb.com

Hotels in Hong Kong are super expensive in October owing to the trade fairs that bring lots of people to town but we didn’t want to stay in a hostel either. (Hey, it’s our anniversary. We wanted something nicer than the standard hostel.) The answer – getting a room via Airbnb! I’ll post photos of the room we booked when we get back. Location’s great (right in the middle of Tsim Sha Tsui), free use of the Wi-Fi, linens, kitchen, and roof deck, and reasonably priced (US$85 per night plus Airbnb’s $34 processing fee).

Hong Kong International Airport’s transportation page

Everything to need to know on how to travel to/from the airport is right here 😀

MTR travel planner

Most places you’re likely to visit on a short trip to Hong Kong can be reached via MTR. This website calculates the fare and approximate travel time between stations. Tip: get an Octopus card. It’s a reloadable card that you can use to pay for the MTR, Star Ferry, public buses, groceries, and fast-food. Aside from the convenience, you get a discount on the MTR if you pay via Octopus card 🙂 Mark P is lending us his Octopus cards while Jovan is lending us her HK SIM card. This reminds me: I must do a proper post on the “Brotherhood of the Traveling Octopus Cards”.

Whee I’m excited 😀 I’m even getting a new bag for the trip – will write about it soon. All I can say is that good things come to those who are persistent!