It’s the end of April here in Hong Kong. The weather is now decidedly sunnier – balmy breezes intersperse with damp air and gently cool nights. People laugh in small groups in front of restaurant shop fronts and share bottles of white wine, plunked in buckets of ice, al fresco.
It’s an idyllic picture of spring in the city – so, not exactly the breezy warm days that countries in the four-season hemispheres get, but not quite the swampy Hades’ hell that we know Hong Kong to be from May to September. The kind where you shower three times a day and sweat collects sexily into puddles under your arms, and when days with hefty cloud cover bless you with pink-red shoulders and peeling skin on your nose the morning after.
You would think that it’s an idyllic picture of spring in Hong Kong – except, of course, that it’s hard to ignore that COVID-19 is still ravaging the world’s health, its economy, and that no one – not our governments, not conspiracy theorists, not Donald Trump – knows what’s going to happen next.
But you wouldn’t really know that, walking around Hong Kong. Yes, there are travel restrictions. Yes, the general populace is heavily encouraged/all but completely mandated to wear masks in public. Yes, the cinemas and bars and schools are closed. But the deserted piazzas of Italy and the lonely traffic lights in Manhattan aren’t scenes that are seen here in Hong Kong right now – as people stay aware and vigilant but the city’s comings and goings tentatively, cautiously, warily – chug on with subdued optimism.
And it’s during this Hong Kong that I visited Tap Mun – known as “Grass Island” colloquially, one of Hong Kong’s most far-flung of outlying islands from Hong Kong Island.
Getting to Tap Mun Island (Grass Island)
I tried to get to Tap Mun Island one other time and failed. For science, of course. Because “you can’t succeed without failure,” and all that.
It was because of this miraculous failure that I know that there are two popular ways to get to Tap Mun Island – so let’s start with the one that I know works, but that I didn’t personally complete.
Take the Kaito Ferry from Ma Liu Shui Ferry Pier to Tap Mun Island
Here’s the location of Ma Liu Shui ferry pier on a map.
You can get to Ma Liu Shui by taking the MTR to University Station stop, the station that lands you right in the center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. If you decide to go this way, you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of a real live campus – one with wide roads and green sports field and wire fences. Oh, and backpacks. More backpacks than you’ll ever have seen, especially if you’ve spent most of your time on Hong Kong Island. I’ve lived in Hong Kong for three years by this point and have never seen any version of a campus here that bore even a shallow resemblance to the wide lawns of the classic American college quad.
Ma Liu Shui ferry pier can be reached by a 10-15 minute walk from Exit A of University Station. It’s a lonely pier. On a weekday, you won’t come across many other people, but there will be several families fishing and milling about at the ferry pier.
On a weekend, though? Or a public holiday? An entirely different story.
Ferries run less often on the weekdays than on the weekends (like, every 2-3 hours!), so if you’ve only just missed the last boat, you better make yourself damn comfortable while waiting for the next one.
How do I know this, you ask? Just a hunch. No, I definitely didn’t just only miss the ferry, walk for 30 minutes under the sweltering sun in search for a Starbucks, and then slink home.
But say you want to avoid doing that. You’d better check the official timetable.
Take the Kaito Ferry from Wong Shek Pier in Sai Kung (黃石碼頭)
The alternative (and altogether more pleasant way, in my opinion), is to take the ferry from Wong Shek Pier in Sai Kung. Please note that the pier is not actually in Sai Kung town.
It’s all the way on the other side of Sai Kung Country Park. Here’s a map.
There are multiple ways to get to Sai Kung town from Central, most of which involve taking the MTR, and then grabbing a bus to take you there.
Once you get to Sai Kung town, take either the 94 or 96R double-decker bus from the Sai Kung bus terminus. Between the two bus time tables, you can expect there to be 15 minutes between each bus, so the wait isn’t likely to be very intimidating. If you have time to kill, stock up on water/juice/bubbletea/delicious Oreo ice creams/all of the above from the many, many small food shops and convenience stores in the area.
The ride through the country park is one of the most pleasant bus rides that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing in Hong Kong, especially if you make a beeline for the upper deck front seats. Greenery on both sides for miles and miles, punctuated by wide expanse of cerulean water on a clear day, boats bobbing merrily on gentle waves.
Once you get to the pier, you have two choices. Take the scheduled ferry or get into one of the tiny motorboats shuttling passengers 20 or so at a time. You’ll know because there will be a frazzled but very busy looking man or woman pointing to you, barking, “Tap Mun? Tap Mun?” to which you can only nod until you snap out of your daze and find yourself in a small boat with a handful of strangers in a wet boat, bobbing up and down.
Should you take the latter option, it’ll cost you about 20 HKD a head and will get you to Tap Mun amidst lots of sea spray and foam and within 15 minutes.
What to Do on Tap Mun Island
Once you get to Tap Mun, the only thing to do is to start walking. The best way is to do a loop along the bottom half of the island, which will take you less than an hour – more if you, like me, feel the inexplicable urge to take scores of photos of smooth stones and the fascinating ubiquitous urinating cows.
These harmless and adorable bovines are bafflingly referred to as “feral cows” on all over the internet, which made me question the way I’ve been understanding the word “feral” up til now. Is “feral” not synonymous to “rabid”? I have questions.
Tap Mun New Fisherman’s Village
The population of Tap Mun is tiny (Wikipedia claims it’s about 100!) and made up of Hakka and Tanka people. Its last school closed in 2003 due to a declining population, and you’ll see evidence of this decline in its abandoned school building, deserted basketball courts, and run-down stone houses. It’s altogether not unlike islands of similar sort in Hong Kong, where once-inhabited homes are abandoned for more glittery occupations in the city.
Once a decade, the people of the island put together a Taoist celebration giving thanks to their fishing heritage.
But it’s still not without its charms – Tap Mun, like most of the outlying islands in Hong Kong, has its own Tin Hau temple, at a dignified elevation from sea-level, and several narrow alleyways with locals sitting behind great spreads of seafood, drying slowly in the sun.
Ask anyone who lives anywhere, and invariably there will be some geological wonder that supposedly looks life-like enough to be given a sage and wise-sounding name, like the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, or the Queen’s Head in Yehliu, Taiwan. Or Bloody Dick Peak in Montana, USA. Sage. Wise.
This rock in Tap Mun is kind of like that, only it doesn’t resemble an animal or a queen or a bloody dick – it’s named “balanced rock,” because, well, it looks like it’s balancing pretty damn well. It angles towards the sea at justtt a perilous enough angle that an enormous boulder shouldn’t be stacked so neatly on top of it and manage to hold its weight…but it does.
Beyond the rock is the expansive view of blue, blue, sea, which will hold your gaze for a lot longer than a couple of stones ever will.
Dragon’s View Pavilion (Lung Keng Kan)
5 or 10 minutes’ walk from Balanced Rock and a short ascent up a hill will bring you to this glorious vista – where crashing salty waves meet a stony shore, and a hill peaks gracefully in the distance.
The outlying islands in Hong Kong sort of all look the same after a while – the same gently tamed jungle-like wilderness, abandoned houses with ivy crawling up their walls, branches crunching softly underfoot.
But the view from Dragon’s View Pavilion, especially if you can get lucky with day with sunny skies and wispy white clouds instead of grim fog and gloom, is sweepingly beautiful. For a moment (okay, like a fourth of a second), I could have sworn that I had just ascended one of the many sloping hills on the Italian island of Capri.
On this particular April afternoon, tents dotted the gently undulating hills on soft grass (ha ha, Grass Island – you get it now), from the smallest mini-Pikachu tent to intimidating four-person family structures.
I’m generally not a camping person, as I typically find that I make a particularly delicious feast for critters of all kinds, and possess none of the natural know-how that some of my more outdoorsy acquaintances do. You’ll find me anxiously “trying to be helpful” by flitting around better-abled people and handing them water bottles while they set up tents and inadvertently trodding on someone’s carefully crafted turkey sandwich lunch.
Regardless, if you did want to go camping in Hong Kong and are secure in your ability to be helpful in the great outdoors, Tap Mun (Grass Island) would be the perfect place to do it.
Hiking on Tap Mun Island
If you have a few hours to spare, you should find the time to explore the island. All of the island’s “attractions” are on the southern part of the map, but I discovered that there’s a way to hike your way to the northern part, too. Here’s a good page with the directions, if you decide that you want a bit more than pissing cows and mountains-to-sea views.
On the day that my friend and I visited, we were distracted by the beauty of the crashing waves against the rocks, and so didn’t go all the way around.
Instead, we trod through dirt pathways and waded through barely-covered trails until we reached what seemingly looked like the end of a cliff. Until we spotted the thick white rope snaking around the branch of a tree.
It looked secure enough.
As I’m not presented with many opportunities to show off my outdoors-prowess (see my mention of the extent of my camping skills above), we pressed on. I gingerly and gently held onto the rope, and began the descent.
I was only a few large strides in when the cute ring that I’d bought a few weeks earlier caught against the rope and smoothly slid off my index finger. Helplessly, I watched it disappear completely from my sight, every clink and clank in slow motion. I then became hyper-aware of a small crowd of onlookers, of the local, umbrella-toting, visor-wearing, head-to-toe jumpsuit-in-blistering-heat-wearing variety looking on. Taking that as my cue to continue on, I mourned the loss of the ring that was almost certainly giving me a skin allergy, tried to remind myself that it hadn’t even cost that much, and finally, my feet met smooth rock.
I only had very slight rope burn. I hadn’t allowed the rope to violently meet my groin in the middle in an unlucky moment of lost balance. Save for a lost accessory, I was basically Indiana Jones.
A few minutes behind me and my friend, I watched the crew of nine, with their fluorescent coats and vibrant umbrellas and flapping hats descent, with much squawking, after us.
The bottom boasts rocky coastline and views of the ocean stretching as far as the eye can see.
Here Are the Things You Should Eat in Tap Mun
Near the Tap Mun pier, you’ll find a small handful of local restaurants by the water. Not all of them have a wide-open outdoor terrace where you can enjoy bright sunshine and views of bobbing boats (like on Lamma Island), but they all serve classic Cantonese seafood dishes and local Hong Kong fare.
The most popular restaurant here is Sun Hon Kee, but after taking a turn around the narrowly packed seafood restaurants in the vicinity, we’d discovered that the menus of all of them were pretty similar. We were turned away at Sun Hon Kee (or New Hon Kee) 塔門新漢記海鮮酒家 at around 4:30pm in the afternoon, and the next door 新有記 carries a similar menu with identical specialties.
After having lived in Hong Kong for several years and rarely needing to pick a restaurant on feel alone and not by the mighty power of Google Reviews, you come to realize that sometimes, there’s not that much variation in quality if they all sort of serve the same thing. Unless, of course, there are plaques upon plaques of “Michelin Guide” signs propped proudly on the outside. Which you shouldn’t worry about missing, because they will let you know.
Whichever of these restaurants you end up sidling uncertainly into, be sure to order the sea urchin fried rice, which is a specialty in this area. It doesn’t bear much difference from a standard Yang Chow fried rice (which, for the uninitiated, has bits of egg, scallion, and finely chopped vegetables like peas and carrots), and the characteristic savory briney flavour from urchin is all but very faint, but it’s still a must order at between 95 – 100 HKD per plate.
Another popular order is the ice-less iced milk tea. I saw it being served in bottles here, which is decidedly less glamourous but no less delicious. A cold ice-free milk tea has all of the floral herbaceous bite and slightly-sweet creaminess of condensed milk as a regular milk tea, only amplified. And ever-so-slightly-thicker. The best thing about it is if you can’t finish it (like me!) you can just replace the cap and take it home and refrigerate the bottle, at no compromise of its flavour.
Make Sure You Catch the Ferry Back from Tap Mun Pier
Make sure you don’t miss the last ferry back at 6:05pm in the evening. I don’t actually know what happens when you miss a ferry back to the mainland, but I hope you’ll have made good friends with some of the locals when you were chowing down on fried rice earlier in the day, so you can beg a one-night stay from there.