I can hear the siren call of the sea, its melodic ‘shush shush shush’ singing to me through the acacia trees. I quicken my pace as the foliage shrinks to shrubs and the thick clay soil turns to soft golden sand underfoot. And then I see it — finally — a sweet stretch of beach lapped by waters that look like the surface of an opal, swirling from deep blue to vibrant turquoise and pale aquamarine. I pull off my shoes, throw my backpack on the sand, let my hair down and stride in.
With the sun beating down and temperatures hitting 32C, I’m fully clothed, and gleefully let the cool waves crash into me. I could be in Mauritius, the Caribbean or Indonesia, but, in fact, this beauty — Tai Long Wan — lies just 25 miles from the centre of Hong Kong.
There are only two ways to reach this special place — either by boat or a six-mile hike across the Sai Kung Peninsula — which means it’s an adventure to get to, and when you do arrive there will rarely be more people here than you can count on your fingers and toes.
I set off in the morning from Causeway Bay, riding the MTR subway out to the Hang Hau public housing estate in the New Territories, and from here I take a minibus. My phone suggests the next part of the journey will take about 40 minutes, but Hong Kong’s pocket-rockets have me there in half the time, scooting along the coast past low-rise villages, Taoist temples and Spanish-style villas.
We screech to a halt in Sai Kung, a village known for two things: sailing and amazing seafood. The air smells of brine. Open-air restaurants — complete with bubbling tanks of live crustaceans — line the seaboard, while multimillion dollar yachts, pretty sailboats and little wooden sampans all bob happily alongside each other in the bay. You can hop on a tourist speedboat from here straight to the shores of Tai Long Wan for the equivalent of about £15 each way, but I have set my sights higher. Instead, I catch a double-decker to Pak Tam Au, where I can join the 60-mile Maclehose Trail.
Two hours after leaving home I’m at the entrance of Section 2 of the trail, with another two hours of vigorous hiking ahead. The first few steps lead straight into sub-tropical forest; the concrete path shaded by casuarina, eucalyptus, longan and pandan trees. Winding downhill, every now and then a gap appears, opening onto jaw-slacking views of the eastern peninsula — all squiggly coastline, luminous jade waters and rippling mountains, as if pulled straight from a Chinese watercolour.
In the far distance, paragliders circle in the thermals above forests that twitch with porcupines, muntjac deer and wild boar. Then there is the tiny pier at Chek Keng, an abandoned village half-swallowed by ivy, and a hello from a freshwater turtle, which bobs to the surface as I cross a stream.
This — mainly downhill — section of the trail has been a breeze, the next part, cutting inland and uphill towards Tai Wan village, less so. I puff and pant my way up the slopes, occasionally meeting other Hong Kongers along the way, some bent double with their hands on their knees, drawing breath, others — usually pensioners — cheerfully marching past with their umbrellas up. Eventually, the path tilts down and into Tai Wan, which is basically two houses and a hut that may or may not sell snacks (it’s hard to tell).
There’s only really one way to go from here; left off the path and onto a narrow dirt track sandwiched between bamboo groves. I clamber over tree roots, skip on stones across streams and admire butterflies dancing in pretty green glades before I’m finally beckoned to the beach. No part of the trail has been particularly arduous, but the searing August heat — combined with 90% humidity — has made the traverse feel satisfyingly challenging. But it’s the sight of the shimmering South China Sea that’s the ultimate reward.
I move between sea and shore until the sun starts its slide towards the horizon. Then, I make my last 10-minute trek over to neighbouring Ham Tin Beach to catch the speedboat back to Sai Kung. I end the day with the wind in my hair, beguiled once more by the sound of the sea.
Indus Experiences has five nights’ B&B at the four-star Harbour Grand Hong Kong from £1,150 per person, including international flights and return airport transfers in Hong Kong. indusexperiences.co.uk
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)