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Food and travel writer Liz Edwards is the former features editor of Sunday Times Travel. On a recent trip to Hong Kong she found a tranquil world beyond the city's frenetic work-hard-play-hard culture

When is a stopover not a stopover? I’d always had HK down as the perfect journey-breaker – touch down, 20-odd minutes into town for a spree of dim sum, shopping, city sights and neon nights, then off again. But an old pal’s move to the former colony prompted me to stay longer, look closer, explore further. And what do you know? Just beyond the centre I found a low-rise world of beaches, monasteries and open countryside. Turns out this stopover is also a terrific stay-put.

The beach village

First impressions of Hong Kong Island make it hard to believe there’s a square-inch undeveloped; towers troop down from peaks to water’s edge. In the southeast corner, though – just 15 minutes’ bus ride from the tube station – biscuit-crumb beaches match Thailand’s finest. At Shek O, the sand curves with a flourish between leaf-shaded, barefoot cafes and craggy, shrubby slopes. Barbecue pits and shower blocks make beach-life easy for city-based weekenders, but I love it for the weekday hush. Men clack mah jong tiles in the village, while by the sea, kids furrow brows over elaborate sand sculptures. Paragliders wheel overhead with sea eagles, and around barnacled rocks is all the splashing room I could wish for.

The monastery

The presence of some of the world’s biggest brands means much of central HK feels global first, Chinese second. But a few mainland tube stops north, up near Sha Tin’s racecourse at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, the Middle Kingdom feels a touch nearer. Making up the Buddha count, man-size statues spill down the hillside path; flesh-and-blood nuns and camera-toting civilians puff upwards past Buddhas of every shade – fat, thin, jolly, fierce, serene – female, even. At the top, pagodas and pavilions thrum with fortune-telling and the rattle of devotional sticks. Homage paid, worshippers throng the canteen with its wonderfully carnivore-friendly, meat-free menu – ‘veggie spareribs’, ‘deep-fried taro (in fish shape)’, ‘veggie chicken and veggie fin soup’. Not so global now…

The seaside town

The old pal who pointed me beyond the skyscrapers was preaching what she practises; home is among baize-upholstered hills on the clean, green, eastern coast. HK families seeking Sunday R&R come out this way, especially to Sai Kung, a seaside town and prime strolling territory. Fishermen sell their net-fresh catch pierside, and the seafront is chocka with restaurants where bubbling fish tanks are the menu; extend an index finger and you’ve placed your order. In the iron-balconied Old Town, women sit wrapping pork dumplings; a shrine wisps the air with incense; old men preside from shop doorways. The trad sell dried fish or paper money, the mod, poodle costumes or designer tablemats. And not a building over four storeys high.

Photo by Getty Images

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