STOP TWO: HONG KONG – A GLASSY PARADISE
Since Hong Kong is a mere hour-long boat ride away, we couldn't visit
Macau without stopping into China's other nearby autonomous territory;
those in a rush can grab a copter – and be there in twelve minutes.
Well-known as a shopping haven and financial center, Hong Kong, I knew,
would be a pulsing metropolis of highrises, but I didn't know how high
these babies would shoot; Manhattan seemed miniature compared to this
futuristic glasscape that was surprisingly clean and well-organized,
and where locals dress flashier than those in Paris or Milan.
Glamour-magnet Hong Kong is also dripping with luxury hotels, and
Warner and I checked out the local offerings of two chains that we
hadn't yet tried: the Shangri-La, the lavish Chinese-owned chain, and
W, Starwood's hipster brand, which boasted the brand-spanking newest
hotel in town.
View from window at the Island Shangri-La, which stood so high it
made even forty-floor towers look puny. Photo: Steve Warner. Top left
above photo: Steve Warner.
It wasn't until we walked into the art-wrapped and curving
marble-staired lobby of the Island Shangri-La, where a string quartet
of lovely Asian women was playing, that I discovered the hotel where we
were staying our first is not just tall – it's the tallest hotel on
Hong Kong Island. Being as I was only half-awake, that reality didn't
fully set in until we entered our room on the 32nd floor, which spilled
a fabulous view of Victoria Harbor and skyscrapers way down below.
Between the basket of fruit and the welcome tea – served in a basket of
a tea cozy – between the muted colors, understated beauty, delicate
artwork, and elegant bathroom (with a TV just over the deep tub), the
height didn't faze me a bit.
Until, that is, the window washers dropped by: their appearance
literally sent me into a tizz. Dashing down to the sixth floor, I
instantly recovered, wandering past the dramatic entrance of Café Too,
lined with towering jars of fruits and oils infused herbs (where the
breakfast buffet is an amazing feast), and the swanky Lobster Bar and
Grill done up in many shades of blue (where live jazz piano is
performed at night) and onto the terrace, where nearby buildings shot
up like a post-industrial Redwood Forest. And looking up at these
striking towers – some of them geometric interpretations (like a kuala
climbing up a tree on the Australian embassy) -- I was overcome by a
sense of surreal serenity that seemed to emanate from this glasscape
that allowed only a glimpse of blue sky, which itself looked
artificial, as though it had been painted in. I made peace with this
altitudinous man-made creation, perhaps for the first time appreciating
such a sight, as I stood there looking up in true awe.
One quality that sets the Island Shangri-la apart is the abundance of
gorgeous Asian-themed artwork that fills the hotel – 915 paintings to
be exact – but the topper is the gigantic Chinese painting that starts
in the atrium on the 40th floor and rises up a full 16 stories: it's
the world's largest Chinese landscape painting says the Guinness World
Book of Records. And the bubble elevator affords a fantastic view of
the huge painting as you glide up to 56th floor since, like the one at
the Macau Tower, the bubble elevator is made of glass. Worse, what
would have been a quick trip was greatly lengthened by Warner, who upon
entering the bubble elevator, casually leaned back – against the
buttons – a faux pas resulting in a stop at every floor on the way up.
The Island Shangri-La's bubble elevator gives a spectacular view
of the world's largest Chinese landscape mural. It took 40 artists six
months to complete the 167-foot-high mural on silk. Photos above and
left corner above: Steve Warner.
Frankly, I wanted to jump off the upward-bound people mover each time
the door opened, but restrained myself, not wanting to tip off the
kindly PR person Leanne, who was giving us a personal tour, about my
crippling fear. Nevertheless, it was obvious I was goofy when I
staggered out of the elevator and unsteadily followed her towards
Petrus, the renowned French restaurant of chandeliers, impressionist
paintings, 18-karat gold plates and award-winning food.
With 1,500 varieties of wine to choose from and some 12,000 bottles on
hand at last count, Petrus – said to have the best views in Hong Kong
-- is famous for its wine tastings, and I was walking like I'd just
been to one, or a few in rapid succession. The elevator ride had so
done me in that the hallways didn't even look straight, instead
appearing to curve – but thankfully Leanne pointed out that the
appearance wasn't merely a vertiginous hallucination: there are no
straight hallways in the entire hotel: it's designed like an oval,
since Chinese superstition holds that dead end rooms – like those at
the end of a straight hallway – are a magnet for ghosts.
Sights at the Island Shangri-La, including the Library (bottom
left) and Shangri-La suite (bottom right). Top photos: Steve Warner.
Bottom photos: Island Shangri-La.
Noticing my trepidation at stepping into the bubble-lator again,
Leanne suggested we take non-glass elevators for the rest of the tour,
and my head stopped swirling as we took in the Library, the swimming
pool over which skyscrapers hovered like a modernist sculpture, and
elegant suite after elegant suite – all with stunning art work, murals
and paintings set into walls – and all affording dazzling views, which
I duly admired from afar. By the time we got to the ground floor – and
the patisserie where they serve high teas (both English and Asian
varieties), I had fully recovered from the spins.
But then Warner and I embarked on a whirlwind city tour, past the art
galleries off Hollywood Road, through street markets where they peel
tangerines for skins used in traditional Chinese medicine, while
tossing away the tangerines themselves. Led by our guide Tom, I
fearlessly stepped up on the escalators that rose past street-side
temples and trendy international restaurants, and we darted into
pharmacies where bat wings and birds nests were weighed out for medical
treatments, and deer tails and dried seahorses were piled behind glass.
After a dim sum lunch, Tom led us on to the high point of the day, so
The funicular which travels at about a 45 degree angle up Hong Kong's highest hill.
View of Hong Kong from the funicular viewing area on a cloudy
day. Spirals of incense burn for weeks inside taoist temples, where you
can buy good luck charms. Tangerine peels are used in traditional
Chinese medicine, but the tangerines themselves are tossed. Photos:
The problem wasn't the funicular ride. It was what you do when you're
out of the funicular that set me a-spin: you walk around on the
open-air viewing overlooking Hong Kong – to the north, sparkling
scrapers, and to the south, a thick green forest covering steep hills,
punctuated by the occasional villa owned by one of Hong Kong's
super-rich. The view was spectacular, but a three-second glimpse again
kicked off another near panic attack, and I again questioned what would
happen at Vertigo.
After taking the funicular down to lower altitudes, we stopped at a
temple thick with incense smoke. On a whim, I bought the Chinese
Astrology Deluxe Good Fortune Pack with a jade necklace, jade
carvings, a lucky gold card, a mantra and a small carrying pouch -- a
set which the saleslady assured me would protect me from all harm and
bring me fabulous luck. The question was whether it would keep me from
humiliation – because I was already feeling deep shame at what was
looking inevitable: I had to cancel the dinner. Clearly I was not ready
for Vertigo; clearly I would never be.
That evening, however – after a trip through the pristine subterranean
mall of high-end stores that wove underneath the hotel and a ride on
the squeaky clean subway and a stroll through the litter-free and
dazzling downtown, where the locals all looked like they'd stepped off
the cover of Vogue, I was once again intoxicated by this gorgeous city,
feeling that same serenity I'd felt that afternoon gazing up at the
edifices towering like sparkling mountains. Warner was wowed during our
stroll through downtown too – being struck by the women: he proclaimed
that Chinese women (not the Thai women, as he'd previously asserted)
were the most beautiful in the world; I happily noted that unlike the
Thai gals, the Chinese rarely noticed him, and not a one had sidled up
to slip him her number, an hourly phenomenon in Thailand that really
grates on my nerves. While Warner kept gawking, I returned to loftier
thoughts, and I decided for once and for all to kick my irrational
fears and carry on with the plan to dine at Vertigo.
But then we went to W Hong Kong.
The newest sleepery in Hong Kong. Photo: W Hong Kong
It promised to be trendy, fashionable and hip: W Hong Kong had only a
few weeks before thrown open its doors for a soft opening and
everyone who learned we'd be staying at the latest hotel of the chain
famous for non-traditional luxury cocked an eyebrow and asked for a
report. Had they talked to us the first hour we were there, they would
have gotten an entirely different report than the one we would have
given when we shuffled off the next morning feeling like dinosaur
It has started off swimmingly: we left the Island Shangri-La in W's
Audi Q7, and sped over to Kowloon – a connected island, where dredge
ships pulled into the harbor. W's valets and bellhops – if such these
handsome black-clad guys with headsets could be called – were friendly,
and once we stepped inside the entry area – off to the right is a
gleaming mall of designer shops -- the Wow Factor was high. The
elevator, I noticed with alarm, was glass, but luckily it only went to
the 6th floor, and besides the video flashing from the elevator floor
gave you something to look at besides the view.
Behind the reception desk on the 6th floor, the wall was illuminated
with a flashing pink flower pattern, and lovely shell-like shapes hung
from the ceiling in the bar off to the right; between the dancing
shadows and scultpures hanging about, W Hong Kong emanated a feeling of
being an edgy art gallery/club.
Cooool, I cooed to Warner, who nodded in agreement.
Warner snapped these shots of W's Living Room, the view and our Marvelous room pre-photo black out. Photos: Steve Warner
Happily, our room was on the 16th floor – only millimeters off the
ground compared to the previous heights from which we'd viewed the
world. The elevator, this one not glass, opened on white bookcases
filled with faux books painted white; the room number was displayed on
sheet music propped on a music stand. The room -- with an IPod station,
a 42-inch flat panel TV in the bedroom, and another TV over the bath --
had arty touches splashed throughout, from the pale mural of
butterflies on the wall to the cut-out paper shade on the lamp; the
view of ships and boats in reds and greens added a festive touch as if
custom-ordered. Furnishings and fixtures were stylish – from the deep
rectangular sink to the artfully-arranged Munchie Box which included
such novelties as cannisters of oxygen spray.
Wanting to try some oxygen, I looked everywhere for the price list, finally calling downstairs to ask where to find it.
It's in the 'Munchie Box,' said the girl on the other end.
It's not in the Munchie Box, I said.
She put me on hold and soon was back. The price list is in the Munchie Box.
But it's not there.
It's in the Munchie Box, she repeated.
No, it's not. Could you send another price list?
She promised to do so, but it never arrived.
The luggage didn't arrive either – after waiting over an hour, I finally called downstairs to request its delivery.
And then we noticed the deal with the water.
I admit that I'm spoiled. Staying in the finest hotels in Asia, Europe
and the Middle East, I'm accustomed to amenities. The plush robes, the
nice toiletries, the great beds, superior pillows, down comforters and
fine cotton sheets – those are now a given at every luxury lodging.
Stays in Asia (such as those at the Shangri-La and MGM Grand) usually
include complimentary breakfasts -- mind-boggling buffets with
fantastic cheeses, cured meats, salmon and seafood, exotic fruits,
glazed pastries and loaves of home-made bread, omelettes cooked to
order, creamy yogurt and muesli, alongside noodles and dim sum, for
starters. In many highend sleeperies in Asia and the Middle East,
you're greeted with a welcome drink, as well as a fruit basket or a
tray of glossy chocolates or honeyed pastries; check-ins are often
in-suite; internet may be complimentary, in some trendy joints like the
Murano long distance calls are so cheap as to be free.
W Hong Kong came through on the robes, the nice toiletries (theirs'
from Bliss), and the sumptuous bed and bedding; the press kit –
conveniently stored on an USB key, a very smart touch – came in a
purple bag along with a tube of luscious Bliss lemon and sage body
butter, a W t-shirt and a W baseball cap with the embroidered message
Well, hello there!
Whether the W of the W chain stands for wow or wild or even
Well, hello there – I'm not sure, but, as Warner noted, the W
definitely doesn't stand for water. I don't recall staying before at
one luxury hotel in Asia that didn't offer at least a bottle or two of
What does this notice say? asked Warner, thrusting a bottle of Voss in my face, pointing at the paper collar.
It warns that those who drink it will pay. And the price tag was over eight bucks.
Call and ask where they put the complimentary kind. I called; there wasn't any complimentary kind.
Everything at W Hong Kong has hip-n-trendy names – rooms and
suites were divided into categories like Fantastic, Marvelous, and
Wow. Whatever one thinks of the place, it's definitely a colorful
alternative to the typical luxury hotel. Photos: W Hong Kong
Most W packages don't automatically include breakfast either, despite
rates on par with most of Hong Kong's poshest hotels. Little things
like that began to chink away at the experience. But the clincher was
the place was so cool as to be frosty; outside of the kind staff at the
concierge stand – called the Whatever, Whenever desk – and the sweet
valet guys, the place had a knack for making us feel like we weren't
deemed hip enough to be seen there.
That evening, after searching an outdoor market for soothsayers who use
birds to tell fortunes (we never found them) and instead hanging out at
a tea shop where some teas opened up into flowers, and some tea cups
changed colors when warmed, I wanted to check out the in-hotel scene.
Slipping on a satin off-the-shoulder number, I headed for the Living
Room – W's high-ceilinged bar with the shell sculptures hanging down
and a reflective butterfly mural catching the light.
The bar was nearly empty, but I'd heard Hong Kong's nightlife starts
late. Settling down with a glass of wine, I began jotting impressions –
how the sixth floor was all about shadows and light play. A second
server appeared, introduced herself, and gave me a once-over checking
out my notebook and outfit; I wasn't sure if she thought I was a
working girl or if she wanted to point me to a nursing home or the
YMCA. Despite my suspicions that she was a spy, she seemed friendly
enough, asking, Can I get you a glass of water? Foolishly, I said yes
– thinking a glass of water meant a glass of tap water or some form of
free water like bartenders often give back in the States, only to have
the bottle of Voss delivered and opened before I could protest –
thereby doubling the bill. Having just dropped nearly $30 for a glass
of wine and a glass of water, I wandered downstairs, where outside
the red-wrapped restaurant Fire, I fell into a conversation with
British investment bankers about the state of the world.
The only soothsayer we found in Hong Kong's Temple Street Market
had an appointment, but we did find decks of groovy playing cards.
These samples from the Old Calendar and Old Photos decks put out by
Chinese card makers HCGPK (www.hcgpk.com).
Back in the room, I found Warner dressed up and weirded out.
Went looking for you at the bar, he said, looking bummed. Wanted a
scotch, but everybody was eyeing me. I felt like I was being given a
'cool test' and that I was seriously flunking it. This place makes me
feel generationally-challenged. When they look at me, they seem to be
thinking, 'Oh Dad, just stay up in your room!'
The next morning's tour hammered home that idea.
To be fair, W Hong Kong hasn't had its grand opening. To be fair, PR
Gal was under pressure: bigwigs from Starwood were in town for a
meeting. To be fair, I was cranky – having tossed, turned, and
shuddered all night thinking about the upcoming dinner at Vertigo. To
be fair, W has every right to project whatever image it wishes and to
cater to a hipster elite. To be fair, it's definitely a novel take on
the luxury idea. To be fair, I think both PR Gal and I felt badly by
the end over how bizarrely our interaction had gone. To be unfair, this
was the strangest hotel tour I've even taken – and it highlighted how
thoroughly unprepared I was for the rooftop dinner in Bangkok.
The lounge music was already thumping the next morning when PR Gal met
us for coffee. The meeting started badly: her hand was so delicate that
when I shook it, I heard the bones crunch. In case there had been a
question, she instantly confirmed that we'd come to the wrong place.
Musicians, fashion models, photographers, artists, entertainers –
between 25 and 45, she said, when I'd asked who was the hotel's target
group. She gave Warner and I a closer assessment. Even up to 55 is
OK. She looked at us more closely. Well, even older is all right,
she said hesitantly, if they have a youthful frame of mind.
Ah, I thought. Even though we fell in the age range – before it was
extended in our honor – we didn't have a youthful frame of mind. If
only I'd tried the oxygen in the Munchie Box I might have looked and
felt more youthful.
I confirmed with her that this was the first W in Asia, and mentioned
I'd seen a sign for another W coming in on Macau, saying the company
appeared to be growing by leaps and bounds.
Melissa, she said, if you're going to ask such detailed questions
I'm going to have to arrange an interview with the management. (In
fact, I'd already requested one, but the request was disqualifed after
I embarrassed myself by mentioning the name of W's founder, who, I was
informed, was ancient history.)
So I stopped asking questions. And soon Warner was ordered to stop
taking shots. I'd thought he'd been cleared to photograph the place,
but PR Gal was ticked when he did – especially after he shot one of
her, glaring into his lens.
There are photos in the press pack, she said.
Then she backpedaled. Well, he could take photos on the sixth floor.
Which, I pointed out, happened to be the floor we were on. Well, photos
of some of the sixth floor. After a few moments of asking permission to
take every shot – with answers like Hmmm, well, no… Warner packed up
his camera, ignoring her occasional demands to Take a picture of that!
The tour was growing rather chilly, all the more when PR Gal asked Warner where he hailed from.
I'm a hog farmer from Kansas, he replied with a Boy Howdy
expression; you could nearly see him in overalls, a blade of wheat
hanging out of his mouth.
PR Gal repressed a shudder, and changed the topic to W Hong Kong's décor, which she noted is nature-themed.
For instance, she said, pointing at an oversized bug sculpture on the wall, that is a mosquito.
Inside the restaurant Kitchen, she pointed out an assemblage of coat
hooks on a wall. And these are hooks, PR Gal explained, where you
can hang your dreams.
The mural behind W's dramatic 76th floor swimming pool (right)
was nature-themed, but the view sure wasn't (left). Photo left: Steve
Warner (pre-black out), photo right: W Hong Kong.
With Warner branded a loser, it was now my turn, an opportunity that
arose at the outdoor swimming pool – perched on the 76th floor. Taking
twenty steps out of the elevator, and looking at this quasi-infinity
pool that gave the illusion swimmers could dog paddle off into the sky,
I suddenly felt like I'd found myself on the wing of an airplane.
Buildings below – and except for the tower next door coming in, which
will be the world's third tallest – buildings were way, way down below,
looked like rinky dink Lego towers. I could have used a hit of oxygen
about then, because I think I'd stopped breathing.
Look at that mural, exclaimed PR Gal, pointing behind me.
I can't, I snapped, presuming a photo of it was in the press pack. I
couldn't turn my head, I couldn't move: my heart was racing, my head
was spinning, I was having the worst attack of acrophobia in my life.
To her credit and my great relief, PR Gal quickly pulled me back to the
elevator, but I still felt woozy in the 72nd floor Bliss Spa – where PR
Gal noted they were famous for their triple oxygen treatment, a therapy
I was thinking I might need to revive. Off to one side was the clever
nail bar, which looked like a candy shop – and the utensils were
delivered via a moving sushi bar.
W Hong Kong's Bliss spa. The nail bar was tres cool – the bottles
were displayed on the wall like a color-packed sculpture. Photos: W
My spinning continued as PR Gal opened the door to the E Wow Suite.
Is E Wow for 'Electronic Wow'? asked Warner.
PR Gal sniffed as though he'd just stepped on a cow paddy.
E Wow is for Extreme Wow, she said. I felt like we'd failed yet
another test, this one exposing our lack of fluency in W speak.
Window-wrapped and heavy on the blacks in the bedroom, with an
impressive oversized corner aquarium, glittery black glass table, and
bar in the living area, a windowside tub big enough for an orgy and a
toilet all done up in sparkles, the extra-spacious super-suite was
certainly unusual. (There wasn't a photo in the press pack, however.)
Another journalist, who she seemed very Vogue-ish, popped in – and she
must have been extremely-wowish herself (albeit at the far end of the
acceptable age range) since the general manager himself was showing her
the Extreme Wow Suite.
Isn't it fantastic? she raved.
Yeah, Elton John would just love it, said Warner.
Except he's too old, I thought. Then again Elton probably does oxygen and has a youthful frame of mind.
PR Gal pointed out the Munchie Box – actually a wooden tray brimming
with nicely packaged temptations; this one included the price list.
The great thing about the Munchie Box, said PR Gal, is you can pick it up and take it with you to bed.
It would be cheaper, whispered Warner, scanning the price list, to pick up a call girl and take her with you to bed.
For the rest of the tour – the Fantastic Suites, the Marvelous Rooms
and everything else, I could only think of one thing: the upcoming
dinner at Vertigo in Bangkok. There was no way I could go. And since I
hadn't cancelled the reservation there or at the Banyan Tree, I would
now have to back out in person.