Tai Long Wan (大浪灣; lit. “Big Wave Bay”) is one of Hong Kong’s most unexpected contradictions: a beautiful bay, fringed with white sand beaches and backed by verdant mountains. All this, only a short distance from some of the most densely populated metropolitan centers in the world. Whilst I have been hiking to Tai Long Wan for many years, I have always skipped the first pair of beaches (Sai Wan, 西灣; lit. “West Bay”) in favour of the more popular and scenic Ham Tin Wan (鹹田灣). In truth, the village of Sai Wan always seemed a little scrappy, and the beach was usually packed with campers, so it was easier to move on to the next spot.

As a result of these preconceptions I was somewhat underwhelmed when my wife (Danielle) recently suggested Sai Wan as a possible camping destination for the Easter school holidays. After some dithering we settled on it as a compromise between something new, somewhere accessible and somewhere nice.  As it turns out, I had grossly underestimated Sai Wan and its offerings, and we spent an incredibly enjoyable 3 days there. What follows is a brief description of the trip.

Tai Long Wan (map) is located in Sai Kung East Country Park, and can be reached via several hiking routes, including the storied MacLehose Trail. Whichever route you take, you end up on Stage 2 of the MacLehose, as this constitutes the only path in and out. Alternatively, budget permitting, the bay can be reached by boat from the waterfront in Sai Kung Town, or by helicopter from the city. As a young family on a single income, we opted to hike in, but rather than walking all the way we took a taxi from the carpark at Pak Tam Chung to the northern most part of the High Island Reservoir road. From here it is a relatively gentle 2km hike on paved trails.

Loaded up with a toddler, a baby, two 55L packs, a giant family tent and 10L of water, my wife and I set of for a little stroll. Matthew was a trooper for much of the walk, but in the end needed to be carried for a couple of stretches. As a result, Dan and I struggled under a combined weight of around 80 kilos, which made things a little slower than we had hoped. In the end we resorted to running shuttles up and down the trail, and managed to eventually get all people and supplies to the beach in one piece.

Arriving on the last day of a long weekend, we met a few people coming the other way, and over the course of the day saw the beach steadily empty until it was just us, our noisy kids and our oversize tent. From there on we encountered a steady trickle of day trippers, but no other campers, leaving us free to revel in relative solitude.

As with many scenic spots in Hong Kong, Sai Wan is chaperoned by a cluster of old village houses, some of which offer refreshments and simple, hearty, Cantonese meals. Whilst most of the natives have either passed away or moved on, a few remain in their ancestral homes, earning a living catering to walkers, campers and the weekend junk crowd. A quick inspection of the four restaurants at Sai Wan is all that is needed to recognise Orental Restaurant & Bar as the place to be. With its friendly owners (Ah Kwan, who speaks fantastic English, and his lovely wife), excellent food, reasonable prices, backpacker styling and cold beer, it is by far the best such restaurant I have encountered in 30 years in Hong Kong. Accordingly we abandoned almost all of our cooking plans and made ourselves at home on the terrace. As an extra bonus Ah Kwan let us use the shower, toilets and sink prior to us even suggesting we might be customers, which really endeared him to us. If you ever meet Ah Kwan, don’t be fooled by his laid back style: he and his wife work incredibly hard, bringing all their goods in by trail using a small hand trolley, whilst commuting in from Sai Kung Town where they live with their kids.

Sitting down for drinks and dinner on the first night, we got chatting with a friendly stranger (Kevin Coniam), who turned out to be the General Manage of Surf Hong Kong. Located at Number 4, Sai Wan Village (right next door to Oriental), Kevin’s outfit aims to bring quality surf instruction to Hong Kong. We shared a great evening chatting about our shared background as Hong Kong kids who had left and returned, as well as life in Sai Kung, surfing, rollerblading and much more. Kevin kindly offered me a long board, wetsuit (I am a wimp, it was cool) and introduction to his local break, and early the next morning I took him up on his offer. As a keen holiday surfer, I have always been wary of surfing in Hong Kong, as there never seem to be any waves. To my pleasant surprise, the beach break was throwing up consistently surfable waves, perfect for a novice like me. Much to the pleasure of my shoulders, it was mostly easy to avoid paddling out, with the break within standing height. After catching a few waves, and watching Kevin prance light-footed around his long board, we retired back to the surf shop where we repaid Kevin’s kindness by helping him tidy house. Still very much a work in progress, Surf Hong Kong is a great place to get into surfing, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

The other highlight of our stay was beating a path up the small river that flows into the northern end of Sai Wan beach. With a few wrong turns and a little scrambling, we found ourselves at a delightful set of pools fed by small waterfalls. These present a great chance to wash off some salt and grime at the end of a hot day, and by July will provide a welcome relief from the scorching summer sun. Without two young kids we probably would have spent more time luxuriating in the setting, but dinner beckoned and we headed back to Oriental for some fantastic beef friend noodles (gong chau nau hor). Whilst not as dramatic as some other falls in Sai Kung East Country Park, these little gems provide an easily accessible, family friendly diversion from the breach.

After two days and two nights of camping bliss we packed up our tent, said our farewells and headed home. The hike out was worse than the one in, partly because it involves walking up more than down, but also because we did it under a blazing sun. By this point Matthew, having spent 48 hours running naked on the beach, was exhausted and had to be carried almost all of the way. Despite having drunk our water and eaten our food, we still struggled to get ourselves and our gear out, and the whole process was most enjoyable once it was over. Arriving back at the road we quickly picked up a cab, and driving home we marveled at the many convenient wonders of modern living.

I am already looking forward to the next time we return to Sai Wan, and am scheming up plans to take some students out for a combined surf/village cleanup. Although the beach is immaculate (courtesy of some locals employed by the government to keep it that way), it is expensive and difficult to get rubbish out, which has unfortunately lead to some unsightly dumping around the village and rivers. Phuket it may not be, but Sai Wan is a little bit of tranquil paradise, Hong Kong-style.

Credits: image of Ham Tin by Chingleung on Wikipedia.