Chocolate ice cream at Godiva 8-10 Dec, Wan Chai

A couple walked past us yesterday afternoon sporting padded winter jackets and two chocolate ice cream cones each. What an appropriate snack for a cold day.

I knew about this last week as some of my friends sent round this alert. 

  
So if you’re up for ice cream today or tomorrow, you can head over to the Godiva in Wan Chai (between La Station and Eric Kayser bakery). 

  

Ok this is an update. At lunchtime today 12 noon, the building management put queue lines up and the Godiva staff put up temporary signs indicating that the wait could take half an hour. 

  
There were many people queuing despite the wet, cool, rainy day and most walking out with a cone in each fist. Amazing that if people perceive value, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, they’ll form a line.

  People were buying and eating ice cream late into the evening.

  

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Functional Map of Swatow Street, Wan Chai

I’ve finally gotten around to drawing my functional map of Swatow street, Wan Chai.

Access from Johnston Road for pram/ strollers/ wheelchairs. Everyone else take the stairs from Queen’s Road East.

Lots of cool cafes and trendy takeaway stalls are populating the street, you now see only a few electrical stores and sand/ cement shops left. There’s a friendly stationery shop that is very comprehensive.

It’s loaded up in full resolution and I’ve tried to make the text bigger this time round.

Street map of Swatow Street, Wan Chai

A walk with a stroller from Central to Wan Chai

It was a balmy Sunday afternoon. During lunch, small person decided she was tired. So she requested to sit in her pram and fell asleep soon after. 

What a treat. What could we do with this precious hour or two? We decided to walk to IFC to check out the sales. 

After an unsuccessful shopping experience (only 20% off tags at American Vintage), we browsed the new iPads in the swanky and perpetually crowded Apple Store. 

Then out onto the overhead walkway by CitySuper to cross over to the Star Ferry. There is a lift which will take you down to the ferry concourse level where it’s a 3 minute walk to the big Ferris wheel.

Note: if you exit out to the overhead bridge near the Apple Store, be prepared to carry your stroller down the stairs. (This has to be one of the most unfriendly and thoughtless designs in the entire IFC complex, a ramp would be easy to insert).

We decided to walk back to Wan Chai via the waterfront.

  
It was smooth going all the way from Central through to Admiralty’s Tamar Park. Then the walk from Tamar to Wan Chai was less pleasant. The construction of the east-west bypass and the new MTR line had created chaos with roads and pavements. To be fair, part of the road was sectioned off for pedestrians and since traffic was light on a Sunday, it was tolerable. 

Well, it was until we hit the intersection where we cross from Admiralty into Wan Chai. To get to either the convention Center or HK Arts Center, we were forced into using an overpass to get across (large plastic road barriers prevented us from simply crossing the road).

  
This wide, old, circular overpass that went up two stories had steps… Very wide steps… The type that you practically have to skip down if you’re running. Not funny. So husband had to hoist the stroller with sleeping baby in it up two floors.

barrier to wheeled access

On the other side of this overpass, the only way down to street level without stairs is via the elevator in the HK Arts Center. Up a few steps which is still a hindrance. It would be equally easy to have included a ramp.

From here, it was again a smooth stroll past the fire station and Grand Hyatt to the lifts at the Center, which lead to the overpass back to Wan Chai MTR.

I suppose once the bypass is complete, the boardwalk above it should be the route to take. It is very important that city planners note the current flaws and aim to fix them.

For now, a temporary traffic light for a street crossing would be easy to do and provide barrier free access from this side of Wan Chai to Tamar Park. 

Currency Exchange Challenge in Wan Chai

Go and find a money changer“, he said. “We only need to change a bit and the money changers will give a better rate than the bank“.

I’ve seen them all over Wan Chai, these narrow money changer shops. It’s often women sitting behind steel grill locked doors with the standard deep inset glass window with a slot for the transaction. 

The receptionist at my previous building looked horrified when I asked her which money changer she would recommend. “I don’t trust any of them” she said, then after a brief pause “I would recommend a bank”. Hmm.

The currency board displays are sometimes printed, sometimes electronic and occasionally hand written. I find it way too complex to stand there for five minutes trying to figure out how much I’ll get, so I’m very grateful for my iPhone currency exchange app that preps me in advance.

My online search for a reliable money changer in Wan Chai produced dodgy results at best. Google answered my question with old forum posts and many remittance managers and banks advertising their services. No tangible information there. There was one forum reply that said he used the money changer by the Wan Chai MTR but that’s not much to go on.

I needed to change 2000 HKD to Taiwan dollars. According to my app, I was looking to get anything between 8000 to 8400 Taiwan dollars. So off I went to see who would offer me the best rate. Small person was asleep in the pram, so I could only visit the pram accessible street side locations. 

The first one I visited was a small shop on Queens Road East, more or less opposite Hopewell Center between Amoy and Swatow Street. The lady listened to my request, rapped out a number on her calculator and turned it so I could see it through the glass. 7,840. Hmmph what a rate… Not even my lowest. I shook my head and told her it was too low and pushed off down to the Avenue where I cut across Johnston Road to the MTR side.  

The second one I visited was one that I’d walked past many times, in the Southorn stadium building. It’s next to a property agent and along the same row as a shop that sells fabulous sugar cane juice and the herbal tea. There was a lady there changing money and her son was playing by the entrance. She asked him what time they closed for the day. 

“Three o’clock” he said.  

I made my usual inquiry.

8064” was the verbal answer. I repeated the figure to confirm it. Yes, he nodded. Ok at least that met the minimum figure. 

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The third one was the money changer by the Wan Chai MTR station between the stalls selling lok lok, those sinful egg waffles and the discreet methadone dispensary. This lady behind the counter was chatting animatedly on her mobile phone, not even bothering to look at me or pause to ask what I wanted. I stood there somewhat patiently waiting for her conversation to end. It never did. 

About two minutes later, a local man who was hovering around outside the booth looking at the various signs on the money changer stepped in to the small space beside me. He spoke loudly and asked how much renminbi he could get for three thousand Hong Kong dollars. She didn’t stop talking on the phone. Without missing a haha or heehee to her friend on the phone, her fingers punched the calculator. She didn’t even look at him when she turned it towards the glass. 

Satisfied with the number he produced the money and pushed it through the slot and she had the corresponding currency stack which she placed in the note counting machine. How silly of me. Of course this is Hong Kong and it’s never rude to interrupt when it’s business and everyone is expected to multi-task. When he collected his money and left, a tall black man in a suit stood by the entrance and a well dressed lady behind him squinted to see the rates over my shoulder, I quickly made my inquiry. 7846. Nope. Outta there.

The fourth one was a shop I saw when I was crossing the road to head to the fifth one. This one was on the main thoroughfare of Fleming road near Hennessey. It had big bright signs and looked bigger than the last three so I thought I’d try my luck. 

7460. What?!! The rate was just getting worse this side of Wan Chai

Onwards to the fifth, a larger money changer with a premium position on the triangular pedestrian area between Johnston and Wan Chai road. The lady turned the calculator. 7485. Yikes.

So best of five. 8064 was the best I would get. I headed back to Southorn and without saying anything presented my 2000 HKD. The bespectacled man nodded and then told me he didn’t have small notes, so he’d give me 8000 Taiwan dollars and 16 HKD change. 

The rate I got was around 4% above the interbank rate. Not as good as the 3% credit card rate but better than the 5% standard kiosk rate. image

It’s a difference of 600 HKD between the lowest and highest quote. Worth a 45 minute investigation to know which money changer I would revisit…both in terms of the exchange rate and customer service. 

King Chi money exchange, Southorn stadium building facing Johnston Road. Just off the tram stop for Wan Chai MTR.

Ps. Just for the record I went to the bank the next day and for the same 2000 HKD I would’ve got 8070 TWD at the money changer. At Standard Chartered, if you’re an existing client with an account, they offered 7914 TWD. 

The Wan Chai Green Trail

Hong Kong’s dramatic natural scenery provides a really fantastic backdrop for photos on a clear day. There’s the lush green mountains and the dark swirling ocean waters of the harbour. 

If you live well, it’s likely that you have an apartment that has a view of the mountains, the ocean, or both (that’s living very well).

Hong Kong has reclaimed a significant amount of land by filling in the harbour instead of building uphill. Residential development has gradually crept up the mountain but high prices for these properties (probably due to the cost of infrastructure installation and government regulation) keeps this in check. Interestingly, the residential area that borders the green lung is termed “upper edge“. 

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The Wan Chai Green Trail starts at sea level in Wan Chai and ascends rapidly through the upper edge and up the mountain slope.

 

Bamboo Grove Condo, upper edge
 
It starts by the old Wan Chai post office (next to the Fresh Grower vegetable shop) and leads up to Kennedy Road. 

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Wan Chai Green Trail

This trail head isn’t particularly scenic, so our recommendation is that you walk up to Kennedy road via Stone Nullah Lane. 

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If you came up by the post office, the trail should be straight ahead of you i.e. just across the road. If you came up by Stone Nullah Lane, cross the road at the traffic right and turn right towards the huge condo development known as Bamboo Grove. The trail begins again here with some stairs and a signboard.

Depending on your level of fitness, you may consider the slope steep (or not). The incline I would estimate is about 20% but your thighs and heart rate might make you guess something closer to 30%. If it’s your first time, take a few breaks to admire the skyline and greet the people meandering down the slope… Some of whom go backwards.

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At a normal walking pace, and no long breaks, you should reach the intersection with Bowen road within 10 minutes. There are some benches right here on the cross roads and more seating areas to the left. There’s also a public toilet if you need to use one. 

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Feeling comfortable? Continue upwards. This next stretch is less steep than the one you just came up and winds around to the left. There are some nice views over Wan Chai / Causeway Bay Area, and if you look up through the tree canopy, you’ll catch a glimpse of one of Hong Kong’s most expensive condos jutting out from woodland into open sky. There are also some impressive ravines where water runs down after a rain, presumably down through the Stone Nullah underground box culverts to the sea. 

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After a hairpin bend, the path steepens again as you head up toward the gap. This last stretch often has walkers resting on the side, bikers walking their bikes and some dog lovers carrying their beloved pooches (eh!). It may feel never ending but fear not, once you see the Dutch Lane intersection, you’re pretty much there. 

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The entire ascent usually takes me less than 25 minutes. Husband carries the baby and walks ahead. He does it in about 15 minutes, but I tell him it’s not a competition. 

The trail literally spits you out onto a rather tricky traffic intersection. It’s on a bend and all the automobiles coming downhill usually do so with fearsome speed. Best to walk either to the right or left to get a clear view before you cross. Refer to the black line drawn on the map above.

The Wan chai gap/ Coombe road children’s playground (map) is straight ahead.

Note to parents

  1. It’s steep. Try not to bring your pram unless you’re including a pram as a workout weight. I have seen parents doing this though.
  2. It’s steep. Don’t let your kid bring his bike/ scooter to ride up this trail unless you plan on carrying it for him/ her / them.
  3. It’s steep. Do watch your kids as the railings near the ravines aren’t jail bars. My husband tells me kids have fallen through before.
  4. It’s steep….whether you’re going uphill or downhill. Tell the kids not to run downhill lest they want some new scars to boast about. Downhill is a test for knee caps, try going slow.
  5. Get your kids to walk it if you can, the playground (and ice cream) is the incentive. They’ll be so wiped out after the playground you’ll be able to enjoy a quiet dinner.

La Station Coffee Shop

In terms of size, this western styled coffee shop in Wan Chai is probably the smallest of them all. However, what they lack in size, they make up with style, service and better pastries.

Small person is a huge fan of chocolate croissants and we simply have to try any cafe or bakery that sells them. 

So her top vote for this year’s best chocolate croissant in Wan Chai and Hong Kong goes to La Station. She has eaten at least 10 of these from La Station since they opened a few months ago and would be happy to have more except that mummy tries to vary her diet. (Resulting in me having to eat an equal number of toasted cream cheese raisin bagels.)

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Matthew (owner) pops them in the oven for a minute and serves them on a nice wooden platter with proper silverware. The proper way. None of those disposable black plastic forks thank you. 

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The pastry selection includes sandwiches, cakes and cookies but they recently added salads and parfaits to the menu. Apart from coffee, they also have a refreshing home-made lemon juice and the winter essential hot chocolate. Take your pick.

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Interior design makes a huge difference to small spaces and in this cafe, there’s  something interesting to see wherever you cast your eyes. The matte gold pipe MTR map with lit stations makes a great conversation piece and I wonder if it reflects the owner’s ambitions.

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There is seating for around 14 people, most don’t stay too long so turnover is quick. The bar like seating doesn’t encourage it either. If you get there and it’s full inside, check the bench outside, there’s space out there for one more (or two, if intimate).

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The entrance is wide and the door is pram / wheelchair access friendly. There’s some space to park your pram, as long as you’re not wheeling in a twin version. The only kid unfriendly aspect is the high chair seating… But for chocolate croissant, I have her rapt attention for as long as it takes to consume it (small bite sized portions …make it last).
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The staff are super friendly unless they’re making coffee (full concentration) and will happily top up your glass of water and let your kid play with their toy train on request.

Read more about their story and mission here

Pak Tai Temple 北帝古廟

This is the most impressive temple in Wan Chai. Set back and away from the main thoroughfare of Queen’s Road East, it seems that not many tourists (or locals for that matter) make it over to this temple to visit or pray. 

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On Sunday, it was a quiet and calm. We were the only visitors mid-afternoon and the only people in there besides the staff.

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It’s free to enter and look around as long as your kids don’t touch or destroy anything. The statues and prayer alters are rich in color and there’s a stillness in the air that only thick stone and incense can create. 

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many altars, a drum
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pray, write your name

There are so many different altars for prayer, I will attempt to find out if they are for different reasons.

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And then the impressive incense room. If you have a sensitive nose you might want to avoid this room.

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Finally, if you’d like to know your luck for the year ahead (year of the monkey), the temple masters have it on display already.. So you know what to pray for.

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Hososcope predictions

Please take note of the signs in the temple.

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If you’d like to visit, get yourself to Wan Chai market and walk up Stone Nullah Street past the Blue House. You will only see it when you get to the end of the road.

Map to Pak Tai Temple

For families, grab a bite at Stone Nullah Tavern (western food) or drink at the 7Eleven on the way to the Temple. There’s a small sitting area next to the temple that you can sit and rest a while. Just check that the temple furnace isn’t going at full tilt… It exhausts out into the sitting area. 

Note: there are about 8 steps up to the temple so you’ll have to carry your stroller up. Best to leave it outside as there are steps and exposed traditionally wooden door frames which you’ll need to step over. These perform the all important function of keeping the hopping ghosts and vampires out.

Digging beneath the dirt… To find the good and the gritty