Sitting on the eastern finger of Hong Kong Island, Shek O is a place that many local residents try to keep quiet about. Within easy reach of the city centre, this smog-free sanctuary is draped in rugged peaks and washed by rolling surf: it's not somewhere you'd want overrun by tourists. Luckily, when I visited in April, I stayed with expat friends who couldn't resist sharing their favourite afternoon escapes with me.
Getting there from Hong Kong Central is easy. A taxi takes as little as 20-minutes, and plenty of buses ply the route. Once you arrive, choose between outdoor adventure or pure relaxation.
Kick-back on Shek O Beach
Lying back on my beach-towel, I closed my eyes and listened to the tide as it tickled the shore and sucked back out to the sea. The sun warmed my skin, birdsong rippled in the trees and my friend Mel slurped loudly as she sucked at a fresh coconut with a straw.
Having lived in Hong Kong for four years, Mel had insisted we spend an afternoon on Shek O Beach. "It gets packed-out on sunny weekends but midweek you can have it almost to yourself," she explained, gesturing at the quiet bay.
A popular spot for families, the summer lifeguards (April-October), public loos and changing rooms make it convenient for little ones. There were just a handful of other beachgoers on the Thursday I visited, including a couple of mums who were smothering their toddlers in sun-cream.
Velvety green headlands border the beach, melting into the sea on either side of the small bay. To the left, the lowest headland is topped with luxury homes, the biggest belonging to some of the wealthiest families on the South China coast.
Out in the bay, a beaded swim area contained a solitary swimmer who bobbed in the aqua-green shallows. Beyond this, the water turned to turquoise and navy as it deepened out to sea, foaming a little as it passed the rocky islet of Ng Fan Chau, which sits just beyond the bay's protective green arms.
"Feeling peckish?" Mel asked, wedging her empty coconut into the sand. "Sure," I answered, scraping myself off my towel.
We wandered into Shek O Village – a quaint settlement established more than two centuries ago by fishing clans. There are no high-rise buildings here and, with its laid-back vibe, it was unfathomable to think that Hong Kong's skyscrapers and neon lights were a half hour bus ride away.
Shek O's cafes and restaurants serve everything from Thai curries and noodle soups to chips and hot chocolate but, with the beach beckoning us back, we opted for takeaway meat sticks and more fresh coconuts, returning to our base where we gazed back out over the bay, munching meat and slurping noisily.
Surf the breaks at Big Wave Bay
One mile north of Shek O Beach, Big Wave Bay is Hong Kong's best-known surf spot. Backed by low green hills, this deep cove was sought-out in the ‘70s by expats who were determined to find a surf break within easy reach of the city.
"We used to surf here all the time when we were learning but, as we got better, we realised that the waves aren't always that big!" Mel's husband Mark told me. "It can get really good after a typhoon though, which is when you see the best surfers out."
While the waves may not always live up to their name, the locals rarely complain when their offices in Central are a half hour hop from the bay's sleepy sands. There's board hire, showers and a beachfront cafe too, making it popular with surfers and spectators alike.
My friend Helen, another Hong Kong local, took me to Big Wave Bay on a rainy Sunday morning when a handful of hardy surfers were bobbing over the crests, waiting for a set to roll in.
All geared up to give it a go, we backed out at the last minute, dissuaded by the dark clouds shielding the sun rays – putting a bikini on in the rain is never appealing.
Helen suggested hitting the hiking trails instead.
Hike the Dragon's Back
In 1979, more than 700-hectares of lush forests, exposed peaks and subtropical shrubbery were given protected status and christened "Shek O Country Park." Today, this emerald expanse provides a welcome retreat from the city's urban jungle.
Three waymarked tracks thread through the park, linking up with longer-distance routes, which extend beyond Shek O. The final stage of the Hong Kong Trail (a 31-mile pathway which weaves across Hong Kong Island) the Dragon's Back (5-miles) follows an undulating ridge through Shek O Country Park to Big Wave Bay. Seeing as we were already at the end, we followed the route in reverse.
Setting off in tropical drizzle, we had the path all to ourselves. Following the trail beneath a canopy of green, we passed gurgling streams and bursts of pink flowers.
Unlike Hong Kong's other waymarked routes, The Dragon's Back isn't completely paved: watermelon-coloured boulders mark the track in parts and twisting roots claw at the path as it winds towards the park's highest point.
Scrambling out of the forest, we tracked across an exposed ridge to Shek O Peak (284m), fierce gusts whipping at our wet hair. "The view's usually stunning," Helen yelled over the wind, waving a hand at the thick cloud ahead. "Panoramas over Shek O Beach and Big Wave Bay." But for now, her verbal view would have to suffice.
Our walk concluded back on Shek O Beach, where Mel and I had sat in the sun three days before. By the time we reached the village we were wet through, so made a beeline for a beach cafe serving hot tea and fresh waffles.
As I took my first sip, the sun burst through the clouds, filling the monochrome bay with colour and painting a sparkling rainbow over the Dragon's Back. Even in spring's fickle weather, Shek O is a special place to be and, if I lived in Hong Kong, I'd be tempted to keep quiet about it too.