Expat travel – what’s new for 2018

Make 2018 your best holiday year yet. Carolynne Dear finds out where the travel experts will be hanging their beach towels this summer

Muscat, and Oman in general, is top of many bucket lists this year


Living in Hong Kong and thus reasonably central to most destinations, the exciting prospect of family adventures overseas often turns into an overwhelming wishlist of potential destinations. So where to start?

For some, the lure of ‘home’ will outweigh many other considerations. But what if you want a ‘proper’ holiday once the relatives have been visited and old friends caught up with?

Of course travel with children throws up its own set of challenges. Most of us want to see or to do something a bit different on holiday, but how do you marry that with the demands of smaller globetrotters?

Lucy Jackson, co-founder of luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel, is a mother herself and well versed in the needs of families.

“People like to get off the beaten track, but with littlies in tow it’s important to be practical as well,” she says. “Is there a decent chemist or doctor within reasonable reach, for example?”

Lightfoot is a luxury tour operator with offices in Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong (and one more about to open in Sydney), specialising in tailored holidays to countries all over the world. A staff of forty works across the offices and are sub-divided into teams of experts. These specialists visit ‘their’ area at least twice a year to keep up to date with new openings and developments and there are also teams of people ‘on the ground’ that Lightfoot works with. From being able to recommend the hottest chef in town, to just being aware of nitty gritty infrastructure information, it’s these sorts of detail that can ‘lift’ a holiday from fun to fabulous.

“One example is the new expressway between holiday hotspot Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka and the capital city Colombo,” says Jackson. “It’s nuts and bolts detail, but it knocks an hour off the 120km journey time and makes things much more comfortable. It’s this sort of information that makes a whole host of resorts much more ‘do-able’.”

Of course Lightfoot team members are on-hand to make recommendations for the more exciting side of travel and basically ‘pimp up’ your holiday. “We recently hosted a family 70th birthday party in Sri Lanka,” explains Jackson. “We were asked to recommend a restaurant, but I knew of a fantastic local chef who could be brought in to create a memorable dinner. We decorated canopies with flowers by the rice paddies and it was a very special evening.”

Six Senses Fiji
The brand new Six Senses resort, Fiji

According to Jackson, multi-generational travel is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in expat territory like Hong Kong. “Families often request best ‘meet-up’ destinations. I would say if you’re hooking up with European-based family, Sri Lanka is a great option. It’s pretty much halfway, the villas are gorgeous – think Bawa-style charm, lots of space, large rooms and of course they are fully serviced. With small children in tow, villas are always preferable to hotels. When you’re up at sunrise with tiny tots, you don’t want to be told the hotel breakfast doesn’t open until 8am. With a villa holiday, you can completely tailor your holiday to match your needs.”

If you’re Europe-bound, Italy is still on many wish lists, with a bit of everything for everyone. Croatia is enjoying a lot of interest, as is Montenegro. “I do think people are trying to find something a bit different in Europe and Montenegro ticks that box,” says Jackson. “And of course interest has risen since Aman Resorts opened on the Adriatic.

Tour agent Flight Centre (flightcentre.com.hk) agrees. “If you want to get off the beaten path and visit a destination before it’s overrun with tour groups, Montenegro certainly fits the bill,” said a company spokesperson. “With pink sand beaches, soaring mountains and lush forests, there are plenty of breath-taking natural sites to take in, juxtaposed with a treasure trove of medieval architecture.” The tour company recommends trying the Aman Sveti Stefan for a Balkan seaside getaway, or taking a sailboat along the Adriatic coast. “The ancient town of Budva is an interesting stopping off point.”

Portugal is also enjoying a bit of a resurgence – it’s affordable, there are lots of boutique hotels opening at the moment and it’s a great family destination.

“Often overlooked, Portugal is currently perceived as ‘safer’ than other European destinations due to recent terrorist events,” said Mark Thomson, a director at Minor Hotels which is owner of the Anantara resort group (anantara.com). “It’s loaded with culture and also has some great coastline and beaches.” The group has recently acquired a property on the Algarve, its first step into Portugal. The Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort overlooks the Victoria golf course and boasts 280 rooms and suites, five swimming pools – including a children’s pool and Palms outdoor pool, both of which are heated from October to May – kids and teens clubs, family activities, babysitting, and is just a few minutes drive to the beach, bars and restaurants of Vilamoura.

Hawaii is also rising in the popularity stakes, especially with more flights opening up the Pacific islands to Hong Kongers. Scoot is planning a flight to Honolulu by the end of this year. With beaches, shopping and heaps of activities, it’s a destination that suits all ages and budgets. “Catch a helicopter flight to Haleakala National Park, Haleakala Crater and Hana Rainforest Preserve, the largest rainforest in the United States,” says Jackson.

And what of the ‘shoulder season’, in March and April and again in October when most school half-term holidays pop up but there’s not so much time to travel long-haul?

“Oman is bucking the mass tourism trend and offers a ‘rarefied’ experience due to the relatively few travellers who visit,” says Jackson. “It’s a decent mid-haul destination and has got that exploratory feel – going out in dune buggies and so forth. But you can also pair it with a beach holiday around Muscat or Six Senses Zighy Bay on the Gulf of Oman – on arrival you’re taken up the mountain and invited to paraglide into the reception area – and with a heap of other activities it’s great for teens looking for a bit of adventure. March and April is also a good time of year weather-wise for the Middle East, mid-summer is too hot.

“Take an eight-day tour from Muscat, discover the Harjar Mountains and take a 4WD tour under the craggy peaks of Jebel Akhdar, stop at picturesque fishing village Sur which is famous for its traditional Dhow boat building, and finally enjoy a luxury safari-style tent and candlelit dinner,” says Jackson.

Anantara resorts recently opened Al Baleed Resort Salalah along the south coast of Dhofar. The hotel includes kids and teens clubs and is minutes away from UNESCO World Heritage Site Al Baleed Archaeological Park with grand mosque ruins and the Museum of Frankincense. The resort offers a 250 metre beach, outdoor infinity pool, spa, sports courts, watersports, dive centre, cocktail classes and Thai and Arabian cooking workshops. 

“Personally, I like Vietnam and Cambodia for those in-between holidays,” admits Jackson. “My picks would be the Four Seasons Nam Hai and The Victoria in Hoi An. In Siem Reap the Belmond is lovely and I have heard good things about Phum Baitang Hotel, which is a sort of ‘green village’ made up of Cambodian architect-designed villas and was of course where Angelina Jolie stayed during the filming of First They Killed My Father. Siem Reap is great for families, we can set up picnics amongst the temples, bike tours, boat trips on the lake – it’s very affordable and you can do it in just four days or so.”

And for Jackson herself? An extended family holiday in Noosa is on the cards for Chinese New Year, then she’s hoping for a trip to either Sri Lanka (“my favourite Asian destination”) or Sira Beach House in northern Lombok – overlooking the Gili Islands and a watersports lover’s paradise.

“The only issue with Lombok is the non-direct flight, but just take that extra leg and you will get so much more out of your holiday. As a company we pride ourselves on making these transfers as seamless as possible so clients are ushered from one flight to another without complications. We check that car seats and baby seats are in situ and everything has been thought through.  

“Lombok is great, it’s super safe and a bit of an antidote to bustling Bali. There’s golf, diving and you can cycle around the villages. To be honest, we don’t recommend guests stay overnight on the Gili’s anymore as they’re getting a bit of a party reputation, but Sira Beach House is gorgeous. And the locals are so friendly, you go out to a restaurant in Lombok and the staff will literally take my baby boy out of my arms and start cooing over him.”

Another family favourite for Jackson is Dedon Island Resort in the Philippines. Again, it’s an add-on flight – you fly to Cebu and then on to Siargau – but worth the extra effort. The tear-drop shaped island is reef-fringed and the resort all-inclusive.

For more information or to ‘pimp up’ your own holiday, contact lightfoottravel.com
2018 openings…

Bali – next month sees the opening of COMO Uma Canggu, a 53-bedroom resort on the south coast. Boasting a further 66 one-, two- and three-bed apartments and 12 penthouses with private pools, the resort is sure to prove a popular addition to the holiday island. It will also offer an in-house surf school and a beach club, comohotels.com

Laos and Cambodia – fancy getting back to nature but don’t want to rough it? Luxury tented accommodation will be hitting Luang Prabang in Laos and southern Cambodia this year. Rosewood Luang Prabang is a top notch tent and villa encampment located in a forest setting by a meandering river and waterfall. The five 100sqm tents feature Laotian and French colonial furnishings, private dining areas, wrap-around decks and a spa, rosewoodhotels.com

Shinta Mani Wild straddles Bokor and Kirirom National Parks in Cambodia with 16 sophisticated tents along a 1.5km stretch of riverbank. Opening mid-year, enjoy wildlife excursions and private boat expeditions, shintamani.com

Montenegro – Europe’s current ‘hot spot’ sees the opening of five-star The Chedi in Lustica Bay this year. With views over the Adriatic, this new development comprises 110 rooms, two restaurants, a bar, outdoor pool, heated indoor pool, spa and fitness area, ghmhotels.com

Chile – the South American destination is top of many bucket lists this year, so the capital city is no doubt happy to welcome the arrival of the five-star Mandarin Hotel Santiago. The hotel is located in the popular Las Condes district and boasts 310 rooms, 23 suites with views over the city and the Andes, a large outdoor pool and five restaurants, mandarin.com

Cathay now flies direct from Hong Kong to Copenhagen

Family fun

Family friendly-hotel openings this year include Six Senses Fiji, Malolo Island and Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, China  

Six Senses Fiji will be offering villa accommodation, each with their own private plunge pools positioned on the western side of the island. The property will also have two gourmet restaurants, an outdoor pizzeria, three bars, a gourmet food market and walk-in wine cellar and tasting room. A customised wellness and spa experience as well as treetop yoga, a state-of-the-art fitness gym, tennis club, a kid’s recreation club, water sports and two full-service marinas for yacht mooring and chartering completes the picture.

Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain in Chengdu, China is located at the gateway of the picturesque Qing Cheng Mountains. Fun family activities include panda tours, movie afternoons, river rafting, tennis, cycling, tai chi and yoga classes, an indoor pool, night-time photography tours, Sichuan cooking classes and historical tours to nearby ancient towns and heritage sites.

For further details about either property, contact Flight Centre, flightcentre.com.hk

Flight news

From this year, Cathay Pacific will be flying direct from Hong Kong to Dublin, Copenhagen and Brussels. Bookings are currently available through flightcentre.com.hk

Tiffin and trains

We were very excited to be riding the North Borneo Railway today, enjoying breakfast and lunch on board as the old steam locomotive puffed its way through the jungles and villages of Sabah.


Construction of the historical railway started in the 1880s, in an effort to pave the way for the opening up of the untapped natural resources of Borneo for commercial cultivation. Naturally the scheme was dreamt up by those sturdy Brits, who never knowingly let a hot and humid jungle get in the way of a trading opportunity.

We received a warm welcome on board from the staff of the North Borneo Railway.
And so the director of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, a William Clark Cowie, initiated the building of the first railway in Sabah. In 1903 the rail-link was extended 90km to include Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Land between here and Beaufort was cleared of forests for the cultivation of rice, tobacco, sago, tapioca, soya beans and pineapples. These crops were then hauled down by rail to the port at Jesselton and exported, no doubt for the delectation of all those Downtonesque Lady Crawleys the length and breadth of Britain. One can only guess what they made of the first pineapples to be off-loaded.

Unfortunately the entire railway system was paralysed during World War II under Japanese occupation, when rails, bridges and locomotives were all damaged. A programme of reconstruction was implemented post-war, when North Borneo became a Crown Colony.

After Malaysia was formed in 1963, the railway service was managed the Sabah State Railway Department, with diesel quickly replacing the steam engine. The North Borneo Railway was thankfully re-launched by Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department, initiating what is today a delightful experience.

Breakfast is served on the North Borneo Railway.
Friendly staff ushered us into our extremely comfortable carriage, complete with bathroom and our own waitress who worked tirelessly bringing us drinks and food. With a toot and a whistle and a great puff of smoke, the British ‘Vulcan’ steam locomotive rolled out of Tanjung Aru station. The kids were kept busy waving at the locals waving back at them as we steamed our way to Putatan and then to Kinarut. 

A nice touch was the ‘passport’ we were given on departure, and our waitress rushed around to ‘visa’ stamp it every time we passed through a station. En route we enjoyed a delightfully presented breakfast of curry puffs, toast and coconut jam, steamed cassava parcels and a local cake made of rice flour and coconut milk. It was all very convivial.

We disembarked at Kinarut for a quick tour of the local Chinese temple, and then it was on to Papar, passing through jungle, fruit orchards and the odd herd of water buffalo. We had a 20 minute stop at Papar and a wander around the local markets while the locomotive was de-coupled and the train turned around. When we re-boarded, it was rather gorgeous to discover the tables had been neatly laid for lunch with tiffin tins containing fish curry, steamed vegetables, chicken fried rice and fresh fruit.

We puffed our way back to Tanjung Aru, arriving mid-afternoon. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day, which kept four kids entertained and happy while soaking up a bit of the local culture.

And if you’re looking for a good South East Asian jungley tale to while away the morning, Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner follows the story of young Edgar Drake, who is summoned from his quiet London life by the War Office to travel to the jungles of Burma to repair the rare grand piano of an enigmatic army surgeon stationed there. With more plot twists and turns than a Mekong tributary, the story serves up an unexpected ending.

Take yourself back to the jungles of South East Asia in the 1800s with The Piano Tuner.

The North Borneo Railway operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Bookings should be made through the Sutera Harbour Hotel at http://www.suteraharbour.com. 


Old-world charm

When you’ve got visitors in town, the China Club is a fantastic spot to head to  for an evening to remember – the 1930s Shanghai teahouse-style interiors, the “noodle show”, the great food and the city-scape views from the little roof terrace all make for a great night out.

China plate in the entrance lobby – it used to be full of fish but these fun figurines are very cute.
The club is stuffed full of eye-catching nicknacks and paintings – my favourites are the legs eleven plate (pictured above) and the Churchill picture in the dining room (pictured below). I could spend many happy hours snooping around these interiors, the old library on the top floor is particularly fascinating.

The venue has nestled very comfortably into the top three floors of what used to be the old Bank of China Building. The site used to be occupied by the eastern part of the old City Hall, which was constructed in 1869. The western end of this doomed building was demolished in 1933 to make way for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank Building, while the eastern end was flattened in favour of the Bank of China in 1947.

The Bank of China Building rose out of the ashes of City Hall in 1952 – the goal being for it to be the tallest building in Hong Kong at that time, at a cute 15 storeys – these days it pales beneath the towering skyscrapers surrounding it (ICC, today’s tallest building just over the Harbour in Kowloon, comes in at over 70 storeys).

But things moved on, and in 1991, the bank moved to new headquarters in the nearby Bank of China Tower. Today, along with the China Club, the old building is used as a sub-branch of the Bank.

The China Club and restaurant opened its elaborate doors, thanks to Sir David Tang (of Shanghai Tang and Tang Tang Tang Tang fame), in 1991.

The China Club’s infamous “noodle man” gets to work, showing diners how it’s done.
A gorgeously-decorated dining room (think old world ceiling fans, modern artwork, art-deco mirrors, fans and elaborate chandelier-lighting), delicious food, and a couple of “shows” – the tea ceremony is fun but doesn’t quite match the lovely noodle man and his deft mastery of traditional noodle-making – seem to be just the right ingredients needed for a fun night out.

Eye-catching artworks and historic photography adorn the walls.
After stuffing ourselves with crispy duck pancakes, dim sum and an assortment of Sichuan and old Hong Kong dishes, we wound our way up the stairs to the small roof terrace and bar to the side of the library. The cityscape views over the Harbour to one side and the twinkling lights of mid-levels and the Peak to the other are spectacular.

And for good luck we did race around to the front of the neighbouring HSBC building to pat Stephen the lion’s paw while we were waiting for our ride home. You can never have too much good luck, even when you’re fortunate enough to call Hong Kong home.

To dine at the China Club you need to be a member, or be dining as a guest of a member. The China Club, 13, 14/F, Bank of China Building, 2A Des Voeux Road, Central, 2521 8888.


Tapas in Taipa


Don’t miss the Macau international fireworks contest this weekend. Carolynne Dear takes a stroll through the peninsula’s cultural other half, pretty Taipa Village, which is also home of the firecracker. (Originally published in the September 2016 issue of Expat Parent).

The sun sets on pastel-hued Taipa Village, a world away from the bling of the Cotai Strip.

Cobbled alleyways and pretty pastel-coloured terraces don’t exactly spring to mind when you contemplate booking a weekend in Macau.

But before the builders moved in after the Portuguese pulled out in 1998, the peninsula and surrounding islands was just that – an attractive, low-rise, quiet destination by the sea.

However, the early 2000s saw the transformation of Macau into a glitzy casino capital as much of the land between peninsula Macau and Taipa and Coloane islands was reclaimed. Taipa and Coloane eventually ended up connected via the flashy Cotai Strip. The casino era had arrived with a bang.

Today, having welcomed resort after resort, the Macau government is looking to its past and showing some love for the older parts of the peninsula, namely Taipa Village.

Taipa village was originally a fishing hamlet located in the south of Taipa Island which was home to local residents who made their living through fishing, firework production and handicrafts. Despite the recent years of dramatic urban change, it remains a living community that has retained its culture and heritage.

“Our goal is to promote Taipa Village as an exciting and culturally rich non-gaming destination,” says Pamela Chan, senior marketing manager for Taipa Village Destination (TVD). Billed as the “authentic Macao”, Chan explains that TVD is offering the area as an alternative to the city’s casino resorts.

Following a decade of regeneration in the area, Chan and her team are now hoping to attract locals and tourists back to the area, offering heritage attractions, dining, niche retail offerings and a diverse arts and entertainments scene.

On a blustery day, I catch up with Hilda Leong, from the TVD team, and after a delicious tapas-style lunch at Casa de Tapas, one of the many Mediterranean-style restaurants that line the laneways, we set out to explore the village.

We start at the Pak Tai temple, one of the biggest and most significant temples in Taipa. As the two main village industries used to centre around fishing and firework-making, it follows that the local community worshipped the god that was believed to protect against both floods and fire.

Next door to the temple is the locally renowned “Si Toi” bicycle hire shop. The flat, cobbled streets, many of which are too narrow for traffic, make for an ideal cycleway for families. The square outside the temple is covered with bikes for hire come weekends, says Leong.

We wander around the corner to the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History. The compact mint-green and white building used to house the Municipal Council of the Islands. It now promotes and preserves the history and culture of Taipa and Coloane with a small but interesting range of exhibits spread across its two floors.

Back on the cobbles outside, Leong leads me to the edge of Taipa Village where the elegant low-rise buildings rather dramatically collide with the golden monolith that is The Galaxy. The paved area marking the edge of Taipa was once a little beach overlooking the sea. While Leong reasonably points out that the gaming industry has brought both money and jobs to the peninsula, I can’t help thinking that the hotels loom like rather unfortunate toads over a pretty, pastel-hued pond. But I guess that’s progress.

We move on to the Taipa Houses-Museum, five colonial houses that were once the residences of the Portuguese governor and other high-level civil servants and their families. They are situated on what was once the seafront, but is now a lily-festooned lake that is all that is left of the original waterscape. Leong explains that the lilies were introduced for their ability to change salt into freshwater, and when they bloom in the summer they make a dramatic backdrop for the little Museum houses on one side, and the shiny skyscraping hotels on the other (reclaimed) side.

The houses are currently shrouded as they are repainted and smartened up, but inside each one offers a different display focusing on Macanese and Portuguese culture and history. In 1992 they were acclaimed as one of the top destinations in Macau for outstanding beauty and important architectural value.

We walk back to the restaurant for a restorative coffee, passing by the old fireworks factory. It is immense, the old yellow boundary wall running the full length of one of the main thoroughfares. After a fire on the peninsula in 1925, the industry was moved lock, stock and barrel to one location in Taipa Village, employing thousands of locals during the 1950s and 60s. However, by the 1970s the industry started to dwindle in the face of mass production in mainland China.

The Village is bursting with art galleries, boutiques, enticing restaurants, museums and stunning colonial architecture. If you’re looking to escape the crowds and the bling of the Cotai Strip, Taipa Village is a real breathe of fresh air.


Getting there

Take a boat from the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, Shun Tak Centre, Sheung Wan to Macau. Crossings take approx. one hour, don’t forget your passport and HKID.

From Macau, take a taxi to Taipa Village (approx. fifteen minutes).

For more information about Taipa Village, see taipavillagemacau.com.


Taipa’s blast from the past

Although Taipa Village was originally a fishing settlement, it was also once an important hub for the firecracker industry.

Macau was not rich in natural resources, but it was able to offer cheap, skilled labour in the 1950s and 60s, which gave rise a large, productive fireworks manufacturing industry.

At one point, Macau was home to five fireworks factories, creating many job opportunities for local residents. By the 1980s, however, fireworks production began to slow in Macau as workers left in search of more lucrative jobs and safer working conditions.

The Iec Long Firecracker Factory in Taipa Village is the best preserved industrial heritage site in Macau and stands today as a reminder of the village’s manufacturing past.

Macau celebrates its explosive past every autumn when the world descends on the peninsula for an international firework contest.

Now in its 28th year, the contest will be held this September 24 and Oct 1. It’s free to view – head to the waterfront or on top of Penha Hill on Macau peninsula for the best spots.

For more information, see taipavillagemacau.com and fireworks.macaotourism.gov.mo.


The sun is shining, the water is sweet

Make the most of a glorious mid-autumn weekend with a family kayaking trip, writes Carolynne Dear. (As published in the August issue of Expat Parent).

Fun on the water at Long Ke, Sai Kung Country Park. (Photo courtesy of hkestonian).

It’s a balmy morning in Sai Kung as we wait for on the New Pier for our speedboat pick-up out to the famous Hong Kong Geopark.

We’ve booked onto a family kayak and hike adventure day with local water sports specialist, Paul Etherington, and have been promised kayaking, a “light” hike, snorkelling, a speedboat tour of the geopark, and a Chinese seafood late-lunch by the beach to finish off. All in all, we’re pretty excited to get going.

We are soon bouncing our way across Sai Kung’s Inner Port Shelter to Yau Ley, or High Island, located within Sai Kung East Country Park. This is where the kayaks are stored and our point of departure for the paddling part of the adventure. The sea kayaks are all twins or trios, and Etherington soon has us appropriately teamed up and equipped with paddles and life-vests ready for the short trip round to Millionaire’s Beach in the next bay. My seven-year old son has been allocated the middle seat, with my eleven-year old daughter taking the front, and me in the engine room at the back.

We have a quick snack and a cool off on Millionaire’s, before hitting the water again for the longest paddle of the day, across to Bluff Island. We are accompanied by several safety kayaks and a safety speed boat. It’s a gorgeous paddle, although the seven-year-old is relegated to “wave watching” duty after a few near misses between the end of his wildly enthusiastic paddle and the back of the eleven-year-old’s head.

We pull up triumphantly on the beach at Bluff – even the teen and her friend in their twin kayak are quite proud of themselves.

Now for the hiking part of the day. We pull on socks, trainers and hats and scramble through the undergrowth at the end of the beach to the beginning of a rugged trail that takes us up to the highest point on the island. The views are breathtaking – the shimmering Sai Kung Inner Port shelter and its emerald green islands on one side, and the wild, sapphire blue ocean on the other. The jewel-like imagery is richly deserved.

Then it’s back down to the beach where Etherington pulls out some snorkels and shows us a small patch of coral to the west-side of the sand.

Incredibly, Hong Kong boasts more species of coral than the Caribbean, but it has been systematically destroyed over the years. We were lucky enough to spot clown fish, angel fish and some colourful corals, and the water was beautifully clear.

From Bluff, we jump onto the speedboat for a whizz around the spectacular geology of the area. Etherington is a wealth of information, and the kids are enraptured to discover that they’re speeding around on what used to be the crater of a super-volcano.

Once on the beach again, it’s back into the kayaks for the final, and toughest, paddle of the day, around to the ocean-side of Bluff and through a sea-arch. The sea is pretty rocky, which adds to the adventure, but we are so well escorted it’s great fun skimming through the surf. The sea arch itself is one of the finest examples in Hong Kong and it’s really special floating through the arch and having an up-close look at the rock formations. The water is so clear we can see right to the bottom. In fact it’s so impressive we paddle round and back through a second time, while Etherington and the rest of the group patiently wait on the other side.

Even I’m beginning to feel slightly weary by this stage, so it’s a welcome relief to climb into the speedboat and be driven back to Yau Ley, the kayaks roped up and bobbing along behind us.

While Etherington and his team pack the gear away, we enjoy a delicious seafood lunch at laid-back High Island restaurant. Dishes of steamed fish, fried rice, noodles, garlicky scallops, prawns and sweet and sour pork are ravenously consumed, with ice creams all round for the kids. Once little tummies have been topped up, the children have a great time fossicking on the beach and leaping from the pier into the cool water, while we adults kick back with a beer and re-live our day of adventure on the high seas.

Kayak and Hike can be booked at kayak-and-hike.com.


Heritage Hong Kong – The Helena May

(Originally printed in the September issue of Expat Parent, http://www.expat-parent.com)

By Carolynne Dear

Club founder Lady Helena May with her husband, HK Governor Sir Francis Henry May, and daughters Stella, Phoebe, Iris and Dione, 1916.


There’s a gentle buzz of conversation and the chink of cutlery scraping china as I am whisked through an elegant Edwardian dining room and into the even more glorious confines of the “Blue Room”. It is lunch time at the Helena May, as members and their guests enjoy a cool catch-up over a meal or a drink, on what is a stinking hot day outside.

This is Hong Kong’s “club for women”, a private institution for Hong Kong’s ladies to meet, socialise and network, and I am here to find out more about its remarkable past from current chair of council, Tina Seib.

It was set-up and initially run by Lady Helena May – wife of Hong Kong’s then governor, Sir Francis Henry May – and financed by various wealthy donors of the day, including Ho Kom Tong, the Ho Tung family and Dr Ellis Kadoorie.

Its raison d’etre was as a safe and comfortable refuge for the increasing numbers of single, expatriate women arriving in Hong Kong. As a mother of four daughters, Lady May was no doubt well aware of the lack of facilities in Hong Kong for single women at that time.

The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of increasing independence and social mobility for women. The suffragette movement was in full swing in Britain, while new technology – such as the telephone and the typewriter – was opening up jobs suited to “female characteristics”, namely “nimble fingers” and a “polite manner”.

Many women ventured overseas – in search of employment and adventure – encouraged by advertising from the British Women’s Emigration Association, as well as male migration.

“Of course a certain percentage came on a husband-hunting mission, as was common at the time,” explains current chair of council, Tina Seib. “But many others came to work. Whatever their reasons, these women needed a safe place to stay, a respectable address for job applications, and somewhere they could meet other women.” Modern Hong Kong is a world away from the city of the 1900s where disease and neighbourhoods of ill-repute were widespread.

Over the years, the club has become somewhat synonymous with its matronly 10pm curfew and “no gentlemen upstairs” rule. But this should not detract from the role it played in enabling many single women to live and work comfortably in Hong Kong in what was then a strongly patriarchal society.

The club still boasts accommodation, both for long and short-term stays. “The residents effectively live in a grand mansion house and have the run of the place,” enthuses Esther Morris in her book “Helena May”. “There is nowhere else quite like it.”

One such resident was Joan Campbell, current principal of the Carol Bateman dance school housed within the Helena May building. She arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s as a young dancer and initially stayed in the Blue Room at the Helena May, the residential area of the club being full at the time. This year, she found herself on the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list and received an MBE for her contribution to dance in Hong Kong.


The Helena May’s current Chair of Council, Tina Seib.

“We are lucky to have an immense pool of talent and skill-sets amongst our membership today,” says Seib. “Whether they are homemakers, mothers, lawyers, journalists, bankers or architects, Hong Kong born-and-bred or here on a fleeting two-year contract, our members all have something positive to contribute to the club. The varied membership also continues the club’s tradition of being an excellent networking base for women.”

Indeed all members are expected to volunteer towards the running of the Helena May in some shape or form, whether it’s manning desk in the library from time to time, advising on building maintenance, or helping to organise charity and social events.

The grand Edwardian building itself is an adaptation of the Renaissance style, designed by architects Denison, Ram & Gibbs, who also worked on the Matilda Hospital and the Repulse Bay Hotel. It originally boasted a recreation ground, a lecture and concert hall, a reading and writing room, bedrooms on the first floor, and a room “for afternoon teas, where members are allowed to bring in their gentlemen friends.”

Seib is keen to impress that the maintenance of the building, the outside of which is listed, is the responsibility of the club’s council. The last three years have seen extensive renovations, including re-wiring, damp-proofing and the opening up and restoration of original ceilings covered over during the 1980s, most notably in the elegant Blue Room.

The Helena May was deliberately positioned close to Central, close to the Peak tram (the Peak was home for most colonial ladies who would have been involved with the club), close to the Governor’s house on Upper Albert Road, and just across the road from St John’s Cathedral. In those days, Garden Road was just that, a leafy enclave. These days the club battles somewhat with the noise from the concrete overpasses that now thread their way through mid-levels.

To non-members, the club is probably best-known for its extensive library, and for its ballet school – The Carol Bateman School of Dancing – which has seen thousands of tutu-bedecked children trip through its doors since it was founded in 1948. Bateman had been interred in Stanley during the war and was anxious to start children’s dancing classes as she had done in Shanghai before the war – she began with four sessions a week, renting a room for 20 pounds.

The library was founded in the 1920s and today holds the largest private collection of English-language books in Hong Kong.

During the second world war, all the books were removed and replaced with Japanese tomes in a propaganda drive to impress Japanese culture onto an unreceptive local Chinese population. The club itself was used for stabling horses and was completely looted by the Japanese.

After the war, members were encouraged to “bring a book” each time they visited the club in an effort to return the library to its former glory. The children’s section now contains over 6,000 books and junior club membership is offered for free so children can use the library (“book borrowing by children is surprisingly on the increase,” notes Seib).

The Helena May is also still very much a charity-driven institution. It supports a different charity each year – this year the Marycove Centre in Aberdeen. There is a student mentoring programme in conjunction with Hong Kong University, and the club also offers two scholarships each year for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. A former recipient of a Helena May scholarship, Pik-sun Chan, now a professional musician, returned to perform at the club’s centenary launch celebrations in February.

In a rather nice twist, the club shares its centenary with the Hong Kong Girl Guide Association, a group with which it still retains links. Each year, English-speaking members volunteer to test local Guides working towards their English Conversation Badge at an Annual Assessment Day, where the girls and their families are invited into the club.

Its graceful interiors coveted by many a bride-to-be, the club also hosts around 50 weddings a year.

It may not be the hippest club in town, it has no sporting teams to boast of and its facilities are minimal, but in its own way the Helena May has quietly stayed true to its mission of supporting Hong Kong’s women for one hundred – often tumultuous – years.

As I take my leave, Seib points out a golden plaque that has recently been hung in the front porch. It’s engraved with all the women to have taken the chair of the club since 1916. “We’ve never had anything like this,” she says, giving it a quick polish. “The club has  never really boasted about what it has achieved. And then I thought, why not? These women have quietly worked so hard. So we had this little plaque made.”

Indeed, as remarked by the Bishop of Victoria during the opening ceremony: “The management of this Institute… shall not be an easy task. I shall watch your work with an interest.”

It would seem that the ladies have done him proud.


Private island paradise is just an hour from Singapore

(published in the September 2016 issue of Expat Parent, http://www.expat-parent.com)



Barefoot bliss on Nikoi Island, Indonesia

A few years ago I was corresponding with a “mummy friend” who had recently moved to Singapore with hertoddler.

“Oh, we’re renting a desert island with some of our playgroup friends,” she breezily told me when I asked what she was up to over the summer. At the time, pre-Hong Kong days, my own playgroup get togethers consisted of a dusty community hall, an urn of over-stewed tea and several vegemite-smeared children playing noisily on a plastic climbing frame.

Phew, I thought, what a life! And with nothing much to reply to a statement like that, the conversation swiftly ended.

And yet, several years later, here I am, settling back on the silky sands of said private desert island, while the kids disappear down a leafy jungle path to play, not an i-pad or a pokemon (or a vegemite sandwich) in sight.

Welcome to Nikoi, a modern day shangri-la for weary parents everywhere.

Nikoi Island lies in Indonesian territory approximately 80kms south of Singapore, nestling serenely off Bintan Island, close to where the South China and Java Seas meet.

To reach it, we flew into Singapore and caught one of the regular high-speed ferries from Singapore’s Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Bandar Bentan Telani on Bintan Island (an easy journey of approximately one hour). From there, a car met us to whisk us across Bintan to a private launch (a 45-minute journey), and this powered us over to tiny Nikoi in under half an hour.

As we approached the island, the white sandy beaches, swaying palms, and wooden grass thatched beach huts felt a million miles away from our early breakfast in downtown Singapore.

Nikoi was “discovered” by long-term Australian expat Andrew Dixon, and American Peter Timmer (who had been living on Bintan for the past eighteen years). Dixon, disenchanted with what was on offer for holiday-makers in the region, had decided to explore the then undiscovered east coast of Bintan.

Fed up with either flea-ridden beach shacks or grandiose marble and chandelier be-decked resorts, Dixon was looking to create something of good quality but genuinely in tune with the natural environment.

So, the pair hired a tiny fishing boat to take a look at a nearby island that was reputably up for sale. On landing, they were amazed to discover gorgeous beaches, pristine reefs, extraordinary rock formations and verdant rainforest. “It was hard to believe a piece of paradise like this could remain uninhabited and untouched a mere 50 miles from Singapore,” says Dixon.

Significantly, the pair do not describe Nikoi as an “eco-resort”, considering the term to be overused. While creating a quality destination, they just wanted it to respect the natural environment – “as much as possible, we have left Nikoi as we found it – a desert island,” explains Dixon.

“Our plan was to develop a private island, not a resort,” he says. “We wanted guests to enjoy the best of local dishes and appreciate service that is relaxed and genuine – not bound by training manuals and fake smiles.” He likens the island to “luxury Survivor”.

It would appear they have achieved their aim. Entirely constructed of driftwood, with a grass roof and exciting tree-top walkways linking the bedrooms and two bathrooms, our beach hut is what dreams are made of for our seven-year-old boy. There are no doors, no windows, no air conditioning – just gentle sea breezes, ceiling fans, graceful mosquito nets draping the beds (although I have to admit we didn’t have a single problem with biting insects, a welcome change from our own New Territories backyard), simple bathrooms, extremely comfortable beds – and a handy torch for after-dark.

Almost paralysed with excitement, the seven and nine-year olds decide to move their mattresses and sleep in the huge wood-hewn window seats.

And as you would expect of a quality resort, the gentle staff visit every morning to sweep our sandy floorboards and mop the bathrooms.

This is barefoot living at its best, and our days quickly relax into a stunning early morning kayak around the island (even the seven-year-old can manage it by the end of the week), followed by jetty-jumping and snorkelling for the kids while I catch up on my pile of magazines on the beach, and finally an indulgent lunch.


The kids enjoying an afternoon in the resort pool. 


The catering on the island is what impresses me most – the dining room consists of a long, polished table – perfect for our large group of friends from Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong – in an open-sided, sandy-floored, dining hut by the beach.

The daily “menu d’hote” is chalked up on a board at breakfast-time, with sensible alternatives for the children (thank god, not a chicken nugget in sight), which mostly consist of local dishes using fresh ingredients – fish and seafood feature regularly. Parents everywhere will appreciate the bliss of not having to navigate an a la carte menu plus fast food-laden kids menu every mealtime.

In the afternoon, the children disappear to do their favourite thing on Nikkoi – Yogi’s kids club. Yogi is amazing, he spends hours with them, carving wooden objects for them, showing them how to mix mocktails behind the little bar, designing complicated adventure games covering the length and breadth of the island – this is about as close as you will get to an Enid Blyton childhood in the age of tech. Rather marvellously, they disappear for hours on end, leaving us parents to retreat to the pool on the other side of the island with books, i-pads and cocktails.

A couple of evenings we did manage to rouse ourselves for a tennis match with the kids (on the immaculate grass court – Wimbledon eat your heart out), as well as enjoy the odd massage (a team of masseurs are happy to stop by your beach hut).

Dinner is served early for the kids, so they can disappear off with Yogi for an evening by the beach bonfire or watching a movie on the huge outdoor screen at the kids club hut. Again, we adults are left alone to linger over our food and wine.

By the end of the week, none of us is ready to go home and the eleven-year-old virtually has us in a headlock promising to come back next year. “Seriously mum, it’s our best ever holiday!” she pleads with us.

To be honest, I’ve never seen our well-travelled, been there, done that children quite so animated about a holiday. We will certainly be back some day…


More info…

There are fifteen beach huts on Nikoi, with either two or three bedrooms.

The island can be rented privately, or as individual huts (nikoi.com). We travelled with other other families with similarly aged children, which worked well.

From Hong Kong, we broke our journey with an overnight stay at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (crowneplaza.com).

The Bintan Resort Ferries can get busy and should be booked in advance (brf.com.sg), as well as the car pick-up from Bendar Bentan Talani (this should be organised through Nikoi Island, nikoi.com).

The group is launching another, adult-only luxury destination on privately-owned Cempedak Island at the beginning of 2017 (cempedak.com).