Hong Kong might be best known for its densely packed skyscrapers, crowded streets, and luxury shopping, but the Southeast Asian city isn’t just an exciting urban getaway. With more than 450 miles of coastline, 100 beaches, and 260 outlying islands, Hong Kong is a haven for nature lovers and sun seekers.
Cheung Sha Beaches, Lantau
Most visitors to Lantau Island aim for the orderly sands of Silvermine Bay, the closest beach to the ferry port at Mui Wo, but better swimming can be had along Lantau's southern coast at Upper and Lower Cheung Sha Beaches. These are the longest stretches of sand in Hong Kong, ringed by peaks and, closer by, South African restaurant The Stoep, and High Tide, a Thai-Chinese eatery where most of the ingredients are grown in its garden. Just beyond Lower Cheung Sha Beach is Tong Fuk, another fine stretch of wild sand and sea edged with rocks.
Tai Long Wan
Pristine sands, decent waves, fresh (and sometimes dangerous) currents, all amid stark beauty and tree-clad outcrops… It's hard to believe you're in Hong Kong at Tai Long Wan. Sharp Peak rises in the distance and several islands can be seen out to sea, but the main attraction here is the big water, drawing overnight campers and surfers most weekends, but mostly deserted during the week. Be warned: you are not, officially, supposed to swim here. In Hong Kong government-speak, these beaches are not "gazetted", thus not supervised by lifeguards, but even without getting wet these beaches are special and well worth the trek to reach them. On a good day, one of the four cafes might be open and a surfboard for hire, but bring your own water and take away your rubbish away with you.
A hidden cove closed to visitors for half the year so that turtles have a chance to nest, access by foot involves an hour or so of walking along the southern side of Lamma Island, but junk trips sometimes moor out in the bay and swimmers can dive in. If you meet anyone, it will be a surprise. At Turtle Beach itself, a small curving bay offers little shade but lots of isolation and peace and quiet – rare commodities in Hong Kong. Even if it is turtle nesting season, you can soak in the atmosphere, walk around the turtle-watching cottage, and lie back on ochre-hued rocks over the bay.
Cheung Chau Windsurf Beach
Cheung Chau island has at least three beaches – the main Tung Wan (East Bay) Beach is a long stretch of sand marred by cheap, short-stay accommodation (where many young Hong Kong couples go for a bit of intimacy), but at the other extreme is the deserted Italian Beach, or Pak Tso Wan, in a sheltered south-west cove with hidden rocks. In between, wind-whipped Windsurf Beach (Kwun Yam Wan) is the most fun, where a curving sand beach is open at the left for windsurfers and small boats to get in and out – Hong Kong's own and only Olympic gold medallist, Lee Lai-shan (aka San San), honed her windsurfing skills here to win at Atlanta in 1996.
Hung Shing Yeh, Lamma Island
Lamma Island has several hidden and little-known, unsupervised beaches. Hung Shing Yeh is the largest, with changing rooms, rocky areas, volleyball nets and a restaurant and several stands selling beer and ice-cream. As with most Hong Kong beaches, a shark net is hung under an orange line of buoys which has the main benefit of keeping rubbish out and swimmers safely within the marked area – sharks are only rare visitors to Hong Kong. Lo So Shing Beach, with a backdrop of untouched Lamma Island hillsides, is further along the coast towards Sok Kwu Wan, and is considerably less frequented.
On a hot sunny day, reaching the fine golden sands of Shek O can be an obstacle course of inflatables, dinosaurs, supermen and footballs favoured by Hong Kong families eager to get the most from their day out. Much of this frantic activity, however, will be confined to the shore, and the determined sea-seeker will find a lot of it to spare. The beach is ringed by high rolling hills and dramatic drops, covered by Hong Kong's usual mix of shrubbery and trees, with rocks poking through the foliage. The settlement of Shek O itself combines the rustic charm of small village streets and huge mansions scattered over the verdant greens of the Shek O Country Club, owned by a handful of the richest and oldest trading families of the China coast. Lifeguards, shark nets and gentle rolling waves make this a popular beach.
Big Wave Bay
This is Hong Kong's only officially recognised surf beach (unlike the unofficial but usually better surf of Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung). Clean and scenic, this beach is separated from the more family-led fun of Shek O by two large headlands. Set in a deep cove with a backdrop of undeveloped green hills stretching as far inland as you can see, Big Wave started attracting an expatriate surfing scene of a hardy dozen or so people by the 1970s, but in recent years has become much more popular with Hong Kong surfers, drawn by waves whipped up by winds from both the north-west and east. The wind swells are consistent, but at weekends you'll be competing for them. There are also dangerous rips to be aware of – follow the locals' lead.
Stanley and St Stephen's
Stanley's main beach is on the other side of the isthmus to elegant Blake Pier (worth a stop to admire the black art nouveau pillars and tiled roof), and comes with excellent swimming areas and windsurfing conditions, even on bleak and rainy days when the cliff-ringed bays help whip up the breeze. The beaches of St Stephen's Bay, below the college of the same name, are much smaller, more peaceful and more focused on paddling, windsurfing and small boat sailing (and incidentally where expatriate prisoners of war were held for almost four years during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the second world war).
Repulse Bay and South Bay Beach
Repulse Bay looks almost too pretty swim in. The sands appear to be manicured, the trees as if they've been positioned to create an utterly orderly vista – which makes it a popular spot for tour groups (particularly from mainland China) to pose for photos before leaving again. All of which leaves the sea wide open for swimming. Beyond the shark net you'll spot waterskiers, and anyone who has watched the 1955 film Love is a Many-Splendored Thing will fantasise about recreating that swim across to the headland far out across the bay. South Bay Beach is more secluded, quiet and less trammelled, largely due to the one-mile walk to find it – along the South Bay Road via Middle Bay, another quiet, sandy, tree-fringed beach.
Deep Water Bay
Overlooked by the tour groups, Deep Water Bay is home to a hardy crowd of early morning swimmers – mostly elderly Chinese locals renowned for stripping down in even the coldest weather for a daily dip. Weekends can get crowded here, with its views of the yacht club annexe on Middle Island and the cable car up and over to Ocean Park, but weekdays offer hidden delights of long quiet snoozes under the trees and unencumbered swimming. There's even a special lane within the shark net area so that casual daytrippers and youthful splashers don't get in the way of the tough ones who have fitness goals to reach.