HONG KONG As the Peak Tram click-clacks its way out of the steel and glass maze of Hong Kong Central toward the summit of Victoria Peak, it passes under concrete bridges supporting streets in the residential area called the Mid-levels. It wheels through lush greenery and finally into the open and a spectacular view of Hong Kong and more distant Kowloon.
Tourists rise from their seats, pushing to the windows to punch the shutter buttons on their cameras and smartphones.
Most of the tourists will wander around the tram's upper terminus, a seven-level shopping mall called the Peak Tower. Or they'll visit the Skyview Terrace 428 a balcony atop the mall that's almost 1,300 feet above sea level and offers a stunning view of the city and harbor.
Hong Kong one of the world's major financial centers also is one of its most densely populated areas, with more than 7 million people jammed into about a quarter of its 426 square miles.
Away from the shores, the terrain of the islands becomes steep and mountainous, which is why Hong Kong also is known for its plentiful hiking opportunities.
Twenty-four country parks on the islands and peninsulas that make up Hong Kong are crisscrossed with four major trail systems and myriad smaller trails, according to the website hkwalkers.net. And thanks to an extremely efficient public transit system (use of public transportation in Hong Kong is the highest in the world), you can get from the hustle of the city to a trail head in just minutes.
The aptly named Peak Trail is just a few steps away from the Victoria Peak tram. Flat and paved, it's frequented by joggers and sightseers and offers spectacular views and interesting vegetation.
The Peak Trail is about 4 miles long and is a section of the Hong Kong Trail, which begins at Victoria Peak and snakes 31 miles across the island through a variety of country parks to finally drop to the sea at Big Wave Bay.
Like the Peak Trail and the other two major routes in Hong Kong the Hong Kong Trail is broken up into easily digestible segments for hikers to choose as much or as little as they want.
One of the most spectacular sections is the final leg the longest at 5.3 miles called the Dragon's Back.
TIMEasia selected it in 2004 as the best urban hiking trail. The hike is a challenging climb, rated "very difficult" by hkwalkers.net.
It begins as a dirt path, which transitions to cement stairs for the steepest part and culminates at Shek O Peak 932 feet above sea level.
The peak offers a stunning view of Tai Tam Bay to the west and Big Wave Bay to the east. Just south of the bay is the village of Shek O with a variety of shops and restaurants. On a clear day, paragliders sail over the hills and use the Shek O beach as a landing spot.
After descending from Dragon's Back, the trail winds around the island and finally drops down to Big Wave Bay. A short hike down the road gets you to Shek O and the beach and numerous restaurants for resting and replenishing before catching a bus or cab back to Hong Kong Central.
The Hong Kong Trail is the closest to Hong Kong Central, but on nearby Lantau Island, the 44-mile Lantau Trail offers hiking that is just as challenging but with different scenery.
Lantau Island is near Chek Lap Kok, the island which is home to the relatively new Hong Kong International Airport.
Stuck with a long layover? A 30-minute cab ride from the airport gets you to where the Lantau Trail crosses Tung Chung Road and could be a fun way to spend some time.
At the Tung Chung Road intersection, hikers have a choice of going west to climb Lantau Peak, which is the highest peak on Lantau Island and second highest in Hong Kong, or east along a trail that skirts the southern flank of Sunset Peak and offers stunning views of the village of Tung Chung to the north and the airport beyond.
At the end of the trail is Mui Wo, a beachfront community where hikers can opt for a tasty meal at the China Bear Restaurant and pick up a Mickey Mao T-shirt as a souvenir.
And, as with most hiking destinations in Hong Kong, Mui Wo abounds with choices for transport home. Most elect the half-hour fast-ferry ride back to Hong Kong Central but the options include a bus to the airport and the metro or cab back to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.
HIT THE TRAILS AROUND HONG KONG
For more information about hiking in Hong Kong, go to http://hkwalkers.net a government-produced site with a wealth of information and maps.
The four long-distance trails:
Wilson Trail 48 miles
Passes through eight of the country parks. It begins at Stanley on the south end of Hong Kong Island and goes north to Nam Chung in the northeastern New Territories. It is the newest of the four long-distance trails. Between sections two and three of the trail, hikers will have to use the Mass Transit Railway to get from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. Section two ends near the Taikoo station, where it's possible to catch the MTR to the Yau Tong station and the start of section three.
MacLehose Trail 62 miles
Winds from east to west through the peaks and valleys of the New Territories north of Kowloon. The trail crosses many of the highest peaks in Hong Kong. A few of the sections of the MacLehose Trail are paved roads, but most follow hillside paths. Hiking conditions are easy to moderate on most sections. Only two sections are rated "very difficult."
Lantau Trail 44 miles
Begins and ends at the beachfront community of Mui Wo on Lantau Island. The trail makes a 44-mile circuit of the island and is divided into 12 sections, three of which are rated "very difficult." The trail goes over the island's highest peak, Lantau Peak at 3,064 feet, offering views of the city of Tung Chung and the Hong Kong airport.
Hong Kong Trail 31 miles
Goes from west to east on Hong Kong Island, starting at Victoria Peak and ending at Big Wave Bay, just up the road from the beachfront community of Shek O. Two sections of the trail are rated "very difficult." The trail includes a climb over Dragon's Back, arguably one of the best hikes in Hong Kong with its views of Tai Tam Harbor and Big Wave Bay.