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A visit to Cheung Chau island in Hong Kong harbor

HONG KONG -- Looking up at Hong Kong's skyline of soaring office towers and mammoth apartment complexes, it is hard to imagine that a short ferry ride could whisk you away from this bustling metropolis to another world, a world without high rises, cars or crowds.

Just eight miles (13 kilometers) from Hong Kong's Central Pier, Cheung Chau offers a perfect escape from the big city, with a taste of Hong Kong's old island culture and some of the cheapest fresh seafood around. It was once a pirate's cove where renegades of the South China Sea stashed their booty. Today, it is a hideout for tourists and locals alike.

Cheung Chau is just one of several outlying islands in the Hong Kong harbor. In fact, more than half of Hong Kong's total land mass can be found spread out across 23 country parks, offering plenty of options for day trips. Cheung Chau means “long island” in Chinese, but it is better described by its unique dumbbell shape, where red granite cliffs to the north and south sandwich a narrow village in between. Most of the tourists prefer a day trip to Cheung Chau and back to Hong Kong hotels for the night and locals in Hong Kong typically like to spend a few days on the island.

My boyfriend and I started our day by boarding a morning ferry (boats run twice an hour) from Hong Kong's Central Pier. Along the way, we read up on Cheung Chau's history, which led us to believe our day would be spent in an isolated fishing village rich with culture and tradition. When we arrived, we were surprised to see modern conveniences like a big-chain grocery store and an HSBC ATM, just steps from the dock. Then the sound of a wailing oboe pierced the air and dispelled our disappointment.

We turned around to see a traditional funeral procession. Family members of the deceased disembarked from the ferry all dressed in white, the color of mourning in Chinese culture. A traditional Hong Kong funeral requires the family to don a thin outer garment of hemp sackcloth. The corner of the sack is made into a hood for women, and men wear headbands. Steeped in tradition, superstition and good feng shui, Cheung Chau is an ideal place for the Chinese to bury their dead.

After the procession had passed, it took just a few minutes to walk across the narrowest part of the island to Tung Wan, a small but sandy beach good for swimming or sunbathing on a warm day. On the way, we passed through Cheung Chau village, a labyrinth of alleyways with plenty of tasty street food for sale. Try the island's juicy fish ball skewers (less than US$1 each) and crispy potato chips, spiraled beautifully on a long stick. For the sweet tooth, there is homemade red bean rice pudding and candied wafers topped with shredded coconut.

On one side of the beach, you will find Pak Tai Temple, dedicated to Cheung Chau's “patron saint,” who is credited with saving islanders from the plague and from marauding pirates in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you stop in for a visit, drop a few coins in the donation box before you leave. On the other side of the beach is a Windsurfing Centre, run by the family of Hong Kong's Olympic gold-medalist Lee Lai-Shan. Here, you can rent windsurfing equipment and sea kayaks for a ride out on the waves.

We decided to explore the southern part of Cheung Chau, passing by an ancient stone carving that is said to be more than 3,000 years old near the Windsurfing Centre. It is not known who made the drawings, but archaeologists believe the images may be that of sea monsters, adding to the myth and legend of the surrounding seas.

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 A visit to Cheung Chau island in Hong Kong harbor 
This April 2010 photo courtesy of Marc Kuo shows the Pak Tei Temple in Cheung Chau, Hong Kong. The temple is dedicated to Cheung Chau's "patron saint" who is credited with saving islanders from the plague and from marauding pirates in the 18th and 19th centuries. (AP)

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