Hong Kong international capital of the world, ultimate stop-over city and shopping heaven slogan live it, love it can now add Olympic host (of the 2008 equestrian sports) to its list of soubriquets. Posters of a local showjumper plaster the streets; walkers and tai chi practitioners explore the new museum of the horse in Penfold Park, at the competition site at Sha Tin Race-course quarantine restrictions preclude horses being with the rest of the Games in Beijing theres a big publicity drive to curb spitting and promote hand-kerchiefs, a video has been made for schools, and film star Jackie Chan has clambered aboard a horse. Yet, during my visit in November, the locals seemed underwhelmed about the big honour; it appeared to be the well-kept secret of one of the worlds least subtle cities. You mean youre going to Beijing? queried the mystified tailor when I told him Id be back for the games and another silk frock in August. Ditto the graceful ladies of the Chinese Arts & Crafts Shop in Tsim Sha Tsui, when I said the loyalty card theyd awarded me for being so profligate in their shop of treasures would be most handy for my return.
The mystification is probably because only about 2,000 of Hong Kongs seven million population has a clue about the Olympic disciplines of eventing, dressage and showjumping. In China, a horse is a racehorse, and you bet on it. Every race day, about seven million betting transactions take place; the Jockey Club is Asias second largest IT user and the islands biggest taxpayer, giving HK$1 billion to charity each year. The fevered atmosphere of evening racing at Happy Valley, during which floodlights bathe the surrounding Legoland cityscape in otherworldly, tropical colours, was the highlight of my visit.
Sport is not a particularly big deal in Hong Kong, and, despite the assiduous PR campaign, a high proportion of the Olympic audience will be the perennial, globetrotting followers of equestrianism. Theyll appreciate a championship sited in an atmospheric hub; at the Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Games, their sports took place on the fringe of culture. And daytime distractions will be important this time, because all the horsey action is at night, apart from an early-morning cross-country phase. This is being constructed at opulent Beas River Country Club, where the British building team receive cool looks from golfers as they sweep past at frightening speed in their buggies.
The common interest of the Olympics will enhance visitor experience, especially if its your first time, as the government is determined to give a warm welcome. Hong Kong may be a happening place, but it doesnt feel like it when youre on your own and everyone else seems to be having a wild time somewhere else. Theres an edgy, hard-nosed, competitive feel; each morning, millions of preoccupied workers fan out of their tall homes, noisily choking the streets and not worrying about whom they knock over, and at night, they magically funnel back up into the sky again. My respite from this swirling, shouting crowd was to criss-cross the harbour in the prows of the continually running Star Ferry boats and absorb the famous skyline, although clear days can be elusive.
And this leads one to the big snag. So blissful was the November climate that it was hard to take seriously the advice of John Ridley, the Jockey Clubs head of racing operations. He suggests that the press corps should get fit, adopt a placid mindset and avoid sudden, panicky movements all things that journalists tend to find difficult. Summer in Hong Kong, apparently, feels like an outdoor steam room fanned by a claustrophobic, wet hairdryer 24 hours a day. Racing is halted, and even seasoned ex-pats cant cope they say white shirts blacken on the way to the office, shoes rot in the typhoons and belts go mouldy in a day.
The first time I visited Hong Kong, on a solo stopover, I found it bewildering, uncouth and lonely; the second time, bolstered by friends, local knowledge and the unstinting efforts of a friend at the Jockey Club, it was exhilarating and friendly. I grasped the ex-pat addiction to it and revelled in the assuredness that accompanies greater familiarity. And for my forthcoming third visit, when Im not watching a horse, I will know how to move slowly and calmly between the essential, mainly air-conditioned, places.
Hong Kong Tourism Board for hotels and attractions (0207533 7100; www.discoverhongkong.com). For Olympic information, visit www.equestrian2008.org or www.hkef.org. Visit the Hong Kong Jockey Club at www.hkjc.com. Kate flew to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com).
Best floating restaurant
Jumbo Kingdom, Shum Wan Pier Drive, Aberdeen, has excellent grills and outdoor heating and rugs for winter evenings
Best in experience
The bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club, Lower Albert Road, Central. You can only get in with a member and they have to buy the drinks
Best colonial experience
Tea in the Mandarin Orientals atmospheric Clipper Lounge (Connaught Road, Central), or the magnificent Art Deco Peninsula Hotel, Salisbury Road, Kowloon
Best Symphony of Lights viewpoint
Trendy, glass-fronted Aqila Spirit, a bar on the 30th floor of One Peking Road, Kow-loon, for the nightly harbour lights show
Best place to catch a (natural) breeze
A spectacular harbour cruise, picked up at any of the ferry points
Best view (urban)
Everyone goes to the touristy peak to look north, but looking south across the harbour from Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kongs highest mountain (3,00ft) in Northern New Territories hiking country, is spectacular
Best view (rural)
A huge choice: one forgets that more than 75% of Hong Kong is undeveloped and 40% is national parks offering some of the worlds best walking and beaches
Stanley Market, on a south-side bay, is an enjoyable bus ride away and has amazing bargains
Best one-stop shop
The Chinese Arts & Crafts Shop (branches in Central, Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui) for flowered silk jackets, Christmas decorations and vases, isnt cheap, but is so civilised. (Shopping is themed by streets Canton Road for jade, Hollywood Road for antiques, Sham Shui Po for electronics, etc.)
Kowloon has plenty, but La Elite Fashions, Mody Road, served me a beer and produced an immaculate outfit from one hasty fitting
Never go out without your hotel name, and destination, written in Mandarin, and have change for the bus
BEST OLYMPIC TOURS
Trips are being run by Incentevents (01926 888027; www.incentevents.co.uk), The Ultimate Travel Company (0207386 4646; www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk), and Sportsworld, Britains official Olympic ticket agent (01235 555844; www.sportsworld-group.com). The Olympic torch relay is on May 2 in Hong Kong