In a city known for its preference to raze rather than save, finding an old building among Hong Kong’s gleaming skyscrapers is a challenge. Marvel then at the Tai O Heritage Hotel: housed in a 110-year-old police station by an army headquarters on Lantau Island, it is proof that restorative justice can be done.
When the Tai O Heritage Hotel opened in Hong Kong this year it represented a coup for conservationists in a city not known for preserving buildings.
The hotel sits on a headland on Lantau Island overlooking the South China Sea, in a building that used to be the Tai O police station. In 1902, when British police built their outpost here, the bustling fishing village was a strategic location on the far western edge of the territory from where the authorities could keep an eye on smugglers. The station also offered a clear view to the point in the sea where British territory ended and Chinese began.
As the fishing industry declined and the handover to China came and went, Tai O became a sleepy day-trip destination, and the police station was abandoned in 2002. It was in a state of worsening disrepair when the non-profit Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation, headed by executive director of Sino Land Company Daryl Ng (pictured above), won the bid to restore it. “It’s special that we can be part of the fabric of Hong Kong history,” says Ng. “I have a two-year-old son – I want him to walk around in 20 years’ time and see this.”
Ng consulted international heritage organisations in the design phase and employed architect Philip Liaou – a fellow conservation nut – to steer the construction. The Hong Kong Government paid for the restoration and retains ownership, but the design, outfitting, and operations of the hotel are up to the foundation, with all profits going back to the community.
The result is the kind of place that’s rare in Hong Kong: a countryside getaway an hour’s drive from Central. The original structure is intact, with a restaurant added atop the former police dormitory. Nine rooms on two floors feature airy interiors in light hues. Sea Tiger, the first-floor corner room occupying a former office, carries the name of the navy vessel that patrolled the area. Repainted cannons, searchlights and thick metal shutters abound; one of the shutters is still riddled with bullet holes.
The reception area sits adjacent to old jail cells, which are now used to house books and historical objects. Just up the hill from the hotel is a restricted area, formerly British military grounds and now property of China’s People’s Liberation Army. It is unclear exactly what goes on there; a sign, perhaps, that the strategic value of the area hasn’t entirely dwindled.
The restaurant employs a simple menu using local ingredients. Dishes include cheesecake with begonia flowers from the nearby mountains and crispy pork buns containing shrimp paste, for which the village is famous. Its furniture comes from the China Tea Club, a former Hong Kong institution.
Throughout the Tai O Heritage Hotel, artists display their work; it also organises cultural exhibitions related to the area. From the building’s early days as a defensive outpost to today’s gourmet offerings and artistic activities, it has always come out guns blazing.
Darwin, as Australia’s northernmost city, is a new strategic post for the US in the Asia-Pacific region, hence the Americans’ military presence there (200 marines have settled in Darwin so far and 2,500 more are expected). Looking out over the Beagle Gulf and the Timor Sea, Darwin is a low-lying town with little traffic congestion, leaving plenty of time to fish and cool down at the beach.
Viva la Vida
Mother-daughter team Kate Staples and Jennifer Hanlon, along with business partner Emily Graham, recently opened Darwin’s first wine bar. Facing Raintree Park in the city centre, it is a popular spot for an after-work tipple. Tapas plates use local produce, including Darwin’s own buffalo mozzarella from Beatrice Buffalo.
48-50 Smith Street Mall;
+ 61 8 8942 0544;
Manolis Greek Taverna
Chef Manolis Papathomas’s taverna is always busy. At long tables, diners pass cheese platters and bowls of mermizeli (a bread salad) to each other; slow-cooked lamb and htapodokeftedes (octopus balls), are favourites. “I want customers to feel at home,” says 29-year-old Papathomas. Sister Amalia runs the floor, little sister Nomiki helps cook and mum Irene makes the desserts, including heaving slices of galaktoboureko: a pastry made with baked vanilla custard and sugar syrup.
4/64 Smith Street;
+ 61 8 8981 9120
A tropical setting just minutes from the city, these Balinese-inspired eco villas are Darwin’s first example of boutique accommodation. The individually designed two-storey villas have multiple bathrooms, outdoor showers and kitchens; some even boast plunge pools.
6 Gardens Hill Crescent;
+ 61 8 8981 8850;
On the edge of Darwin Harbour and open nightly from mid-April to mid-November, this open-air cinema looks across the bay at the Top End’s famous sunsets. An initiative of the Darwin Film Society, the cinema screens features and documentaries seven nights a week throughout the dry season, as well as the Darwin International Film Festival every September.
Jervois Road, Darwin Waterfront;
+ 61 8 8981 0700;
Away from the battle lines, Afghanistan has personality, warmth and a wealth of entrepreneurial spirit. These are our favourite finds
The Flower Street Café
Owned by an Afghan-Californian, this friendly spot in the Qalai Fatullah area is where war reporters get their salads and lavash flatbread wraps.
Street 7, House 57; + 93 07029 3124
The music scene in Kabul has been steadily growing since the fall of the Taliban, but many shows are still underground, secretive affairs. Newly opened is The Venue, hosting movie nights, book readings and art exhibitions.
Street 6, Taimani;
The Kabul Wall
To get a unique view of the city, take a walk alongside the Kabul Wall. According to folklore, the wall survived shelling during the 1990s civil war because the 15th-century king who built it mixed the bones of his workers into the plaster. A three-hour hike to the mountainside starts in the Bagh-e Babur section of town; be sure to get a guide or fixer.
British MP Rory Stewart started the Turquoise Mountain Foundation after a winter spent walking across Afghanistan in 2002; it is dedicated to restoring traditional Islamic arts. Call to arrange a visit to their Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture at a restored complex in the Old City.
Skiing in Bamiyan
Since 2010, thrill-seekers have been visiting the ethnic Hazara province (one of the safest in Afghanistan) to ski and hike – no chairlifts here. Reaching Hazara by road from Kabul is unsafe, so charter a plane.