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A soupçon of Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s skyline is seen from Kowloon.

Why stick around the airport when you've got an overnight layover? Catherine Dawson March goes exploring instead

Instead of whining about a 12-hour layover at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), I chose to make the most of it.

Multihour pauses in flights to the other side of the world are common, especially at HKG. Close to 60 per cent of all Canadians flying into Asia pass through here, many on layovers that average between four and 12 hours. The airport is one of the 10 busiest in the world, with more than 70 million passengers passing through last year. To help the jet-lagged masses pass the time, it offers a lot of impressive shopping, local entertainment, cute playgrounds and art displays, such as the vitrines I marvelled over, full of historical and artistic tea sets. And if you can snag entry into Cathay Pacific's business-class lounges – there are five – you may not want to leave. The Pier, its largest lounge and most recently refurbished, offers large day beds in a quiet, darkened area, five-star shower suites, a calming tea house with tea sommelier, lively noodle bar and food hall and dozens of quiet nooks to curl up in.

But even if you only have five hours, you can get out and make it back in time to get through security. We had 12 overnight hours between flights – more than enough for a late-night taste of the famous city.

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(Daytime explorers can choose between sights on Lantau Island – just south of where the airport is located – or hop on the airport express train to zip downtown in about 25 minutes.)

Take time to explore Kowloon, which is filled with markets.

Here's how we spent our eye-popping night, with additional tips for daytime layovers:

10 p.m.

Drop our carry-on bags in airport hotel room; brew quick caffeinated pick-me-up; realize that heading out even at this hour is preferable to spending time in a room that smells of stale cigarettes with a parking-garage view.

10:15 p.m.

Prolific English signage makes it easy to find Airport Express station, a 10-minute walk; discover trains stop running in a few hours, so plan on $270 HKD ($44 Canadian) taxi-ride back; purchase one-way ticket for about $115 (HKD) each to Hong Kong Central station – the last stop – on Hong Kong Island. Note how similar this airport train is to Toronto's Union Pearson Express, right down to the free WiFi; note on tourist map picked up in airport that we could get off a stop earlier – Kowloon Station – to spend more time at the Ritz-Carlton's more-than-100-storey-high Ozone bar; note how travel companion rolls her eyes, "Where's your sense of adventure?" Sigh. In for a penny, in for a pound.

10:40 p.m.

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Make our way out of Central station, following well-marked English signs for Star Ferry terminal at Central Pier – a 15- to 20-minute walk, much of it on a covered open bridge offering our first views of skyscrapers and the ginormous, glittering Hong Kong Observation Wheel; walk also offers wave after wave of 90 per cent humidity and 30 C heat common in summer. Notice on walk through Central station that airlines offer airport check-in and bag-drop downtown, freeing up travellers for a day in the city without luggage. Wish that happened in my own big city.

11 p.m.

The Star Ferry crosses Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong.

Eager to board the historic Star Ferry, taking passengers across Victoria Harbour since 1888. Purchase tokens ($2.70 HKD each) from machine to take us from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon; admire the two-storey, green-and-white wooden boat and its sailor-uniformed staff as we board; head for the open-top deck for cheap and scenic 10-minute voyage; wish we'd been able to get here earlier for city's light show, held nightly at 8 p.m. to show off the skyline. Breeze through open windows is rare relief from heat.

11:10 p.m.

Reluctantly pull our heads back into the boat, put cameras away and disembark; make a right coming out of the dock, see crowds of young people (is that karaoke?) and wander onto Kowloon Public Pier; crane our necks looking up at panoramic view of buildings and lights and boats, pull out cameras again and selfie ourselves. "You're lucky," a bystander points out. "The sky is so clear you can see stars!" Look up, see just two celestial twinkles.

11:30 p.m.

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The lobby of the historic Peninsula Hotel.

Wander into the busyness of Kowloon; wish that we had more time, and daylight, to explore the goldfish market or bird market or rifle through chinoiseries at the Temple Street market. Wander past streams of people starting or ending their evenings; dodge past double-decker buses; turn right along Salisbury Road to take in Victorian colonial architecture of 1881 Heritage building, a onetime marine police centre, now shops, that overlooks harbour; keep strolling east to admire the historic Peninsula hotel, wander into lobby, soak in its elegance and marvel at its colonial and wartime history; too late to order drinks on a weeknight but vow to return one day for its legendary lobby high tea.

11:55 p.m.

The historic Peninsula Hotel.

Ask Peninsula pageboy to hail a cab – jet-lag is kicking in but the night is still young; learn that Hong Kong hotels hand you the cab number as you get in, ensuring if you leave anything behind in said cab, you know which of the thousands you rode in; wish, again, that happened in my own big city.

Direct cabbie to Ritz-Carlton's Ozone Bar – about a 15-minute drive to West Kowloon.

12:10 a.m.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel fills 16 floors of the 484-metre-high (1,588 feet) International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong; anyone can visit the Ozone Bar but prelobby, ground-floor staff prescreen suitability and push the elevator button.

12:15 a.m.

Exit elevator into plush 102nd-floor lobby of the Ritz; more inquiries from sincere staff and we're escorted to another, skinnier elevator; before doors close, half a dozen tipsy businessmen squeeze in on their way up, too.

12:18 a.m.

Elevator dings at 118th floor.

The Ritz-Carlton’s Ozone Bar, located on the 118th floor.

Step out into room filled with glass and black lights; a reservation (not actually necessary) rescues us from further scrutiny; escorted around loud office workers; whisked to table-side seat on the outdoor patio with bird's eye, panoramic views of Victoria Harbour. Speechless. Eventually note outdoor patio is virtually a name only – no roof but multilevel soaring windows surround us; eye-popping view only matched by eye-watering prices; pass on $80 (Canadian) glasses of Champagne (bottles more than $1,000) for colourful cocktails, $30 apiece instead; last-night-of-vacation indulgence has us ordering fish-taco nibbles to catch second wind.

12:55 a.m.

Begin descent from the world's highest bar for late-night dim sum. Flag another cab; direct it to nearby Hau Fook Street, an unassuming laneway packed with cheap Asian restaurants and our best chance of finding a kitchen still open.

1:10 a.m.

Chewy, greasy, succulent, crunchy, Caterking Dim Sum hits all the late-night meal requirements.

Slide into a booth at Caterking Dim Sum just in time; with help from the staff and menu pictures, order dizzying mixture of shrimp and pork dumplings, shrimp spring rolls, Shanghai Xiao Long Bao, deep-fried bean curd sheets stuffed with shrimp, and pot after pot of jasmine tea.

Chewy, greasy, succulent, crunchy, it hits all the late-night meal requirements; so punch-drunk with jet-lag, our chopstick skills embarrass us, but we're beyond caring.

2 a.m.

Time to call it a night; a 30-minute cab ride from West Kowloon to the airport crosses Tsing Ma suspension bridge, passing dozens of container ships bobbing in the bay and thousands of stacked containers in the 24-hour port. We force ourselves to stay awake a bit longer to take it all in.

The writer's tour guide was paid for by Hong Kong Tourism Board.

If you go

In-transit passengers don't need a visa and don't need to collect checked bags, so bring a fresh shirt in a carry-on to get started.

Hong Kong harbour, looking at Causeway Bay.

Lantau Island: Just south of HKG, and home to the Po Lin Monastery and the 34-metre-high bronze Tian Tan Buddha. Take the Airport Express one stop, and check local bus routes on the city's MTR website. Private tours can also be booked and found online.;;

Victoria Peak: Take the Airport Express to its last stop, Hong Kong Central, and it's a short walk to the historic tram's starting point. Here you can board wooden cars and slide up 552 metres to breezy views of the city, just as visitors and locals have been doing since 1888. Open 7 a.m. till midnight.

Hong Kong Island: Take the Airport Expess to Hong Kong Central. Follow signs to city trams, which run east-west through shopping districts and scenic neighbourhoods (exact change $2.30 HKD required).

Return to Hong Kong Central on the tram and take the Star Ferry across the harbour to Kowloon and back ($2.70 HKD one way), harbour cruises also available.

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