MANILA, December 20, 2004 (STAR) By Scott Garceau and Therese Jamora-Garceau - On a recent visit to Hong Kong, we: Saw a panda bear roll down a hill in a thicket of bamboo like a drunken sailor.

Took a cable car ride over a mountainside high above the breathtaking South China Sea.

Saw a sea lion giving a trainer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Viewed Kowloon’s Christmas light show at night from atop an open-air double-decker bus.

Made a teddy bear.

Saw a stuffed two-headed calf.

Saw Brad Pitt, Elle Macpherson and Pierce Brosnan, and had our picture taken with Jackie Chan.

Drank oolong tea in a ritual going back 4,000 years.

Heard an er hu player serenade us with Que Sera Sera and My Heart Will Go On (the theme from Titanic).

Saw Santa Claus addressing a crowd in Central’s Statue Square in Chinese.

In short, we, our daughter Isobel, and theater actress Jenny Jamora, had an extraordinary experience in Hong Kong. People know Hong Kong is a prime destination for shopping and dining, but did you know it's a great family destination as well, with dozens of child-friendly attractions? The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) wanted to show us a different side of Hong Kong–one that both parents and children would enjoy and remember.

Here are some of the reasons Hong Kong still manages to attract so many visitors.

Day 1 — Thursday

After checking into the plush Hotel Miramar in Kowloon’s bustling Tsim Sha Tsui district we enjoyed cocktails and snacks at its Executive Lounge (our rooms also included complimentary Internet hookup, pay movies, laundry service and unlimited mini-bar consumption). A quick bus ride took us to downtown’s Victoria Peak Tower before dusk. Its seven-level assortment of offices and restaurants is topped by museums, cafés and a stunning, panoramic view of Victoria Harbour. You get up there by riding the old-fashioned Peak Tram, a cable car that hauls you 373 meters up a hillside to the observation decks. Down below, the Peak offers Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium, a collection of curios, wax figures and freaky facts that is perhaps of more interest to older kids (featuring grisly recreations of shark-attack victims and medieval tortures). Next to it is Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. A towering Princess Di greets you as you enter, but it’s local heroes like actors Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh that attract the camera-ready poses. The museum highlights replicas of local stars and leaders, as well as the British connection, with popular footballer David Beckham on display and a special Royals section. Of course, there are anatomically-correct US leaders as well: President Bush, we learned, is about Scott's height, while US Vice President Dick Cheney is practically a dwarf.

We concluded the night with a relaxing dinner at nearby Café Deco Bar and Grill. With its sushi, grilled prawns and lamb, and a jazz band (Filipino, naturally) playing upstairs, it was a great way to unwind and enjoy the stunning night view of the harbor.

Day 2 — Friday

Passing through the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, we set out for Ocean Park, the popular theme park with its spectacular backdrop of the South China Sea. Like most sea parks, this one has water rides and aquariums, but with distinctive regional touches, such as the Goldfish Pagoda, the Japanese Garden, and the HK$4.2 million Hong Kong Jockey Club Giant Panda Habitat, which boasts male and female pandas An An and Jai Jai in a serene and spacious environment. Since pandas spend 55 percent of their day eating and 41 percent sleeping, it was lucky we caught the two engaged in extracurricular activities: female Jai Jai was busy grooming herself for a nap, while rambunctious male An An was prowling the edges of his hilly habitat, eventually crashing through some bamboo bushes before taking a playful tumble down the hill.

Next we took a cable car ride from the Lowland to the Headland, scaling the side of a mountain to visit the dolphin, shark and other aquatic animal exhibits. The cable car view was easily the most breathtaking we’d ever experienced, but what was nearly as amazing was the sight of several hikers ascending a path up the mountainside below our car. As we found out, hiking and trail climbing is a favorite activity here, not surprising when you consider that 93 percent of Hong Kong is still open land, marked by winding, hilly geography.

At the Headland we visited Atoll Reef, where visitors can enjoy a three-level round aquarium, teeming with massive groupers, manta rays, remoras, barracudas, hammerheads and nursesharks. Bulbous moon jellies drift in a nearby tank, luminescent against a blue light.

Another steep climb up Ocean’s Park’s hills took us to Ocean Theatre for an open-air dolphin and sea lion performance. Press affiliation helped us into the sun-shielded VIP section, which was fortunate because every other seat was taken for this popular attraction. The VIP section offered another grand view of the South China Sea, foregrounded by one of the park’s most perilous rides, The Abyss, in which patrons can take a group bungee jump plunge 100 or so feet down the shaft of a tower, only to bounce up again several times before settling to a halt.

Actually, an even bigger family attraction is yet to come: Hong Kong plans to open its own Disneyland on Lantau Island in Nov. 2005 with what promises to be the most stunning backdrop of any Disney park worldwide. And it’s only a two-hour flight away for Filipinos.

At night, back in Kowloon, we dined at a new eatery that lived up to its name: Trendy Toon Town, with its stuffed Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh and Disney interiors attracting both children and stuffed-animal-crazed adults. One dining area is modeled after Pooh Bear’s Hundred-Acre Wood, while the other is lined with row after row of stuffed toys, each with a pricetag averaging HK$800 (about $100 US); that’s because these are licensed, limited-edition toys, not the Hong Kong ready-for-export models. Needless to say, the restaurant also has a bustling little gift shop.

We finished the busy day with an open-air bus ride around the city, past towering Christmas lights along the Harbour and through the brightly-lit spectacle of Nathan Road. Isobel was a little too exuberant, bouncing up and down in her seat until the inevitable crash: she cried because we wouldn’t let her roam the aisles. Still, it was a fantastic view of Kowloon in all its seasonal glory.

Day 3 — Saturday

Our day began with a breakfast buffet, then it was back through the tunnel again to visit Hong Kong Park. With its lush green landscape surrounded by towering financial buildings, it’s a great break from the hustle and bustle of downtown Hong Kong. Hundreds of couples get hitched in this park every year – there’s even a marriage registry on site – and this perfectly sunny, cool day was no exception. We trekked up hills to pass through the Tai Chi garden, then strolled through the one-square-kilometer Aviary, with its fascinating collection of magpies, thrushes, imperial pigeons, partridges and pheasants. Filled with plank buttresses and man-made streams, it’s a perfect sanctuary for hundreds of bird species. A couple of large pelicans passed along the perimeter, and the more we gazed the more birds we saw nesting in the greenery. Wooden walkways led us through the aviary, yet beyond the fine mesh vaulting above our heads, skyscrapers reminded us we were still in the middle of the city. What a great place to forget your urban cares and commune with nature.

Another place to escape from everyday concerns is the K.S. Lo Tea Gallery, also located in the park next to the Teaware Museum. With 50 kinds of tea and a variety of antique tea sets on display, it’s a zen-like haven for enjoying a 4,000-year-old ritual. We took off our shoes, sat cross-legged behind a bamboo screen and ordered the full vegetarian dim sum menu. The tea lady soon arrived to prepare our orders of Taiwan oolong and rose tea. There is a specific ritual to preparing and drinking the tea: first, the purple clay tea pot and cups are warmed by pouring hot water over the rim and inside; next, the tea leaves are poured into the pot and allowed to steep for less than a minute. A first serving is meant to cleanse the cups; it is soon dumped out, and a fresh serving is poured. When drinking the oolong tea, the forefingers wrap around the front rim of your cup, to hide your mouth and allow you to slurp the tea without offending. The slurping is important to aerate the tea, and one smells the cup afterward to allow the flavors to linger.

Our daughter was game for all this, but soon grew restless. She wanted to romp around the teahouse, and despite the calming effect of the tea, we were wary of letting a toddler loose in this delicate environment. The expression "bull in a china shop" is nothing compared to a baby in a tea room; left to his or her own devices, a two-year-old, we suspect, can single-handedly topple 4,000 years of tea culture.

Next we took Isobel downtown to Teddy Bear Kingdom, where kids can pick out, stuff up and dress their own certificated teddies. The adjacent Teddy Bear Museum boasts the first-ever manufactured teddy bear (a 1904 model that’s still in good shape) as well as vintage models by German maker Steiff that can fetch anywhere from US$2,000 to $250,000 at auctions. Not only kids love this place: buying expensive toys has become a growing fascination of Hong Kong adults. Like art, buying teddy bears takes a discriminating eye: look for "quality mohair construction, hand-stitched details, carefully sculpted muzzles and pert, attentive eyes."

Isobel picked out a pink teddy, had it hooked up to a hose that shot out cotton stuffing, then helped choose an outfit: after rejecting a frilly ballerina dress, she settled on a pink Oleg Cassini-like number with matching pillbox hat and bag. With our prompting, she named the bear "Jackie."

The rest of the day took us shopping, which requires no further comment, then aboard the Star Ferry crossing to Central, where Hong Kong Winterfest was in full swing. Passing beneath Mistletoe Boulevard we paused for a photo in front of Hong Kong’s tallest (45 meter) Christmas tree, then crossed the road to Statue Square and Santa’s Town. Here, kids can enjoy the Make-A-Wish Corner, pinning their wishes to a row of sparkling trees; they can drop their letters at Santa’s Post Office, sit on the jolly fat man’s lap for a photo op at Santa’s Lodge, or make gingerbread cookies at Santa’s Workshop. There’s a second Santa warming up the crowd on a nearby stage, performing magic tricks with little girls and boys from the crowd. The square was suitably crowded on a Saturday night, so Winterfest, now in its third year, is clearly a big tourist hit.

We ended the night with dinner at Heaven On Earth, a hip little restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong near Hong Kong’s booming Soho district, where we heard the aforementioned er hu player. The "Heaven On Earth Specialty Drinks" were large and loaded with exotic potions; we dubbed one the "Hong Kong Hangover" because of its powerful kick. The night wasn’t finished, though; after dropping Isobel off at the hotel with our babysitter, we ventured out again to Aqua, a hip and edgy nightspot at One Peking Road that featured yet another spectacular harbor view.

Day 4 – Sunday

A light schedule as we prepared to leave Hong Kong: first a 30-minute drive to Shek O Beach in the Southern District, which featured some of the country’s most expensive oceanside real estate nearby at Repulse Bay. Shek O is popular for its family barbecues and picturesque beach. Stanley Market, 15 minutes away, is another popular spot for bargain shopping and afternoon lunches facing the South China Sea. It was a great way to complete our exhaustive – and quite unexpected – tour of Hong Kong, land of a thousand enchantments.

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For more information on the Hong Kong Winterfest, visit www.DiscoverHongKong.com.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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