For people who don’t know the city very well, Hong Kong can be overwhelming first thing in the morning. Perched on an island, the centre is famously built up, noisy and, in the summer, inescapably humid. As the rest of the city jolts to life, the most sensible option is to make for the water.
Descending the concrete steps toward the San Wai Swimming Shed on the coast of Mount Davis, the first glimmers of dawn create flecks of light on the Sulphur Channel. Sampans and star ferries coast across the panorama, belying the fact that the waters are actually pretty choppy. The swishing and swashing masks the dampened creaks caused by your timid footsteps as you let the narrow boardwalk guide you to sea. Suddenly the allure of it all will cast your fears aside and draw you into the replenishing sea.
In the 1950s, Hong Kong’s northern corridor was lined with about 10 swimming sheds, each equipped with a spindly pier and ironclad cabins for changing, today just San Wai remains. Swimming out 20 yards and spinning north rewards bathers with views of the city centre. There is a wild quality to this place and its advisable to tread (water) carefully: signs warn of unpredictable currents and here there are no lifeguards to leap in to your rescue should you venture out too far.
As soon as the sun creeps over the mountains, the pier will be teeming with bathers who line up to get their daily dose of saltwater. Soon you’ll be sharing the sea with dozens of swimmers in bright bathing caps. With most making their way to the office at this time in the morning, it’s a noticeably senior crowd. But they all look fit, limber and distinctly fresh. We put it down to something in the water.
Plan your trip
How to get there: Take a taxi to 404 Victoria Road then concrete steps and a handrail lead you down to the San Wai Swimming Shed.
Where to eat: Eat a post-swim breakfast with the locals at Sun Hing on Smithfield Road. It starts serving dim sum at 03.00.
Colonel Griffith J Griffith suffered a few stains on his character by the time he died in 1919. Aside from “industrialist” and “mining expert”, the Welsh-born tycoon also has the denomination of “attempted murderer” next to his name in most history books – he served two years in San Quentin for shooting and injuring his wife. While he clearly wasn’t a model husband, you can’t fault his sense of civic responsibility. In 1896 he handed over more than 1,200 hectares of his own land to the local government, forming Griffith Park.
While standing outside the Griffith Observatory as dawn spreads across the surrounding landscape, two definitive guises of Los Angeles are on display: facing out towards the city, you can see downtown LA rise up from the twinkling sprawl and the first light glinting on the steel-and-glass towers of the city centre – the mist around the skyscrapers lifts as the temperature rises and the city emerges into a new southern Californian day; facing up towards the peak of Mount Hollywood, the park shows little evidence of the progression of time since the area was owned by Griffith – New York may be the city that never sleeps but here life begins each day at a respectable time.
Snaking through the trails at that time in the morning, the coyotes are likely to outnumber the people you encounter on your way. That’s no bad thing. In a matter of hours, the park will be populated with Hollywood Hills hipsters, dressed in expensive workout leggings matched with intricately torn concert shirts – and at least two script ideas they’d like to pitch to you, irrespective of whether you are or aren’t a Hollywood exec. By contrast, the coyotes keep to themselves.
Plan your trip
How to get there: Take a car to the intersection of Vermont Canyon Road and Vista del Valle Drive and head up the East Observatory Trail.
Where to eat: The wonderfully woodsy Trails Café, at 2333 Fern Dell Drive opens at 08.00 and offers organic light bites and all the California canyon ambiance of a Joni Mitchell song.
The Hornby Lighthouse on Watsons Bay is a cheerful sight with red and white stripes running from its base to its lookout point. At first glance, it looks like a giant barber’s sign or a mighty stick of candy. But though the lighthouse is quaint, it is no folly. On the night of 20 August 1857, a cargo-and-passenger ship called The Dunbar crashed into the cliffs below, killing all but one of the 122 people on board. This and other subsequent disasters led to the lighthouse being built in 1858.
The postcard-perfect pictures that one finds when plumbing the location into Google are a far cry from what it is like to be there. Even on a calm day, the clifftop is exposed enough to blow away the ennui of even the most jetlagged traveller. Wind aside, the view out towards Sydney Harbour and the archipelagos beyond helps you overcome the elements – even if you happen to be running into the breeze.
While Watsons Bay was once a sleepy fishing village, it is now a smart community of well-heeled Syndeysiders. As of 09.00 the South Head Heritage Trail, which snakes down the west side of the peninsula, will be populated with runners sporting pricey workout gear and accompanied by their preened pooches. But they almost certainly won’t be awake yet.
Nearby Lady Bay Beach, a 15-minute jog from the lighthouse, is a picturesque spot reserved for nudists – though public nudity before breakfast might prove a little much. Further along the same trail you’ll find the no-less-inviting Camp Cove, which in summer provides the perfect place to cool off and where, in winter, you’ll spot a whale or two – if you’re lucky.
Plan your trip
How to get there: Take a taxi to the Camp Cove beach entrance and make for the Hornby Lighthouse. If you’re in town, take the ferry from Circular Quay direct to Watsons Bay.
Where to eat: Head to the Beach Club of Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel for a breakfast bowl of hummus, dukkah eggs and quinoa.