Friday, August 17, 2012

Location, Location, Location (Hong Kong)

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine 2010
Photos by Nana Arellano Aoyong

It’s a mantra for real estates agents and applies to many establishments, especially for hotels. Of course it’s also about service, amenities, and other features. But with Marco Polo Prince Hotel, which sits right at the heart of the city’s busiest commercial and business hub, location sure contributes greatly to its success.

Tsim Sha Tsui is like an oriental version of Times Square.

Located along Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Marco Polo Prince Hotel and its other sister properties (Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel and Marco Polo Gateway), form part of Hong Kong’s largest shopping complex and are next door to some of HK’s major tourist attractions. Prince is part of Harbour City, a shopping zone of about 700 shops including 50 restaurants. Behind it is Victoria Harbour, offering guests an almost surreal view of the city at night. On the other side, guests can walk towards Salisbury Road for some education at the Cultural Center, the Space Museum, and the Museum of Art. Everything else is a ferry or an MTR ride away. It seemed like when the city was planned, the Marco Polo group got lucky and got first dibs on the center of the Hong Kong universe.

Fair warning

Marathon shopping tip: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

The Prince’s location, coupled with its multi-star service and amenities, has propelled it to strive and thrive in spite of the economic downturn. In fact, Prince was named Hotel of the Year at the recently concluded Marco Polo Annual Awards by Marco Polo Hotels.  It was a grand slam victory for Prince General Manager Philip Lim and his team, with the hotel bagging a total of three awards (Hotel of the Year, Most Competitive Hotel, and Hotel with Most Improved GOP Performance).

1881 Heritage, an ode to the Victorian Era and big name brands.

 “I would look for a hotel that is in a very good location,” shares Philip, but he was quick to add that “a hotel in a good location that is branded is plenty, but the difference is the service. We always try to create additional value for our customers, taking the extra mile.” 

A budget shopper's heaven.

And this was exactly what I was looking for on the day I revisited Hong Kong. With my feet itching to go a-walking, and my heart longing for some retail therapy and a little wine sousing on the side, I found what I was looking for at the Prince Hotel. And so yes, I blame location for the calluses on my feet, the extra pounds around my waist, my thinning wallet, and the excess baggage. Consider this a warning. If you are dieting, saving, or looking for some downtime, Prince Hotel is not the place to book. However, if you are up for some gastronomic fun and retail adventure, then you would be happy with Prince.

NY in HK

Outside the Prince’s cool confines (it seemed like they always set the air conditioning at freezing point inside the malls and the hotels. I heard this keeps people wide awake, which doesn’t really make sense what with everything that the location has to offer), the energy is almost electric. Fire-red taxicabs whizzed by between buildings that scream of colorful marketing and commerce: Cotton On, DBS, Tax Free, Sony, Marrionaud Paris, Tsubaki, Sale, S. Square Cafe Cozy Lunch Set and several other signs in Chinese which I’m sure either promised porcelain skin or the best pork suckling in town. The signs are big and colorful, some sparkle and pulse. They reminded me too much of Times Square in New York, only the signs were mostly in Chinese.

New and cheap!

At rush hour, the place transforms into Wall Street oriental. Asian men in business suits and women in stylish high heels rush home in packs. A sprinkling of Caucasians and other races walk alongside them. They walk lost in their thoughts. Some talk in their hands-free sets, brushing past us, seemingly not noticing us. A mass of bodies, they move almost mindlessly, flowing efficiently and with purpose, crowding escalators and filling trains. I am almost scared. Feeling much like a country mouse lost in a rat race, I was afraid they would trample me, but the frenetic energy brings a tingle to my flesh.

‘Tis the season to spend

Love in the midst of madness (photo by Nana Arellano Aoyong)

The air had a crisp quality to it that was somehow odd in a place crowded with buildings and roads choked by cars and buses. It was a familiar exciting feeling: the anticipation of Christmas. We walked farther along Canton Road and soon we came upon the houses of Hermes, Channel, and Gucci. They were like big gift boxes with glittery ribbons. When we neared the flagship store of Louis Vuitton, we noticed a long queue by the door. People were actually lining up to get into the store. It’s the season for giving, after all. People were eager to spend.

We continued on towards Nathan Road but were quickly sidetracked by small boutiques that sold dresses and shoes that were more within our budget. I found a light wool dress in heather, and with it I imagined a pair of black tights and a white Christmas. The tag said 69 Hong Kong dollars. I quickly did the math in my head – Php 417. It was going to be a very happy holiday indeed. In another store, I chanced upon a creamy golden light coat with a puffy collar and sleeves.  The tag, which read, HKD100 made me hesitate, but then Nana, my shopping buddy, said I looked like someone who just stepped out of the JFK airport. That erased all doubts. 

Come to Manila, and you won't have to fall in line to spend big.

Shopping was such a joy in these little streets between Nathan Road and Canton Road. The only real downer is that fitting clothes are prohibited in most stores. “No fit! Cannot! Cannot!”

Our hands full, we decided to unload, which was not a problem because Prince was conveniently just around the corner. After unloading, we found another store with the following treasures: a vintage-looking locket watch - HKD39 (our host, Janice, said I could have gotten it for HKD20, but I couldn’t let her burst my bubble), a Chinese silk fabric covered notebook - HKD29 (“You could have gotten that for 10!”), little bolanggus (toy drums) with birth animals printed on them - HKD15, and a memorable shopping experience - priceless. There were also bracelets, porcelain China dolls, silk bags, and other inexpensive baubles that would be perfect under the Christmas tree.

sparkly stocking stuffers

I had to pace myself because we had the Night Market in our itinerary, and I knew that prices would be even more festive and that haggling would be fun. Unfortunately, things had changed quite a bit since my last visit at the Ladies Market in Mongkok, an MTR ride away from Tsim Sha Tsui. The merchandise lacked the luster that I thought they used to possess. In fact, I was reminded of the goods that they sold back in Divisoria or the bazaars in Manila. There was really nothing new, and I quickly got bored. The bartering, though, was still extremely entertaining. 

They look as cheap as they cost, and that's why I wasn't happy.

Janice taught us to negotiate for at least a 70% discount. If they refused, we could do the walk-away technique, and she guaranteed they would relent. True enough, after turning our back on them, feigning disinterest, they would grab for our arm. If we tried to extricate ourselves from their desperate grasps, they would plead. “Missy, how much you want? How much you want?” From then on, the bargaining power was ours.

Get ready to haggle.

Back at Canton Road, just a short walk from Prince, is Heritage 1881. Here the atmosphere is less manic. The stores are a little bit snobbish and uppity. Saleswomen don’t run after you. They offer a smile at a safe distance as you carefully walk around their displays. The brands – Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Mont Blanc – were not the things that delighted us. It was the building that housed all these expensive names. A building of unique Victorian architecture, Heritage 1881 used to be the headquarters of the Hong Kong Marine Police in the late 1800s. Today, it stands as an elegant structure, a reminder of Hong Kong’s rich colonial history.  

Symphony of taste and design

Behind the Marco Polo chain is the Victoria Harbour where you can turn your back away from Canton Road’s beautiful chaos. Prince, for instance, sits by the Ocean Terminal. It is directly connected to the Ocean Center which features balconies and viewing decks for weary shoppers or for those who simply want some sun and a whiff of the salty sea. Here we sat beside a snoozing local to watch the silvery waves reflect the glass and steel of the skyscrapers.

Taking a break at the Summer Palace.

At night the view completely transforms into a different world. The water turns a deep black; its edges give off a golden glow from the street lights. At Cucina, one of Marco Polo’s most celebrated restaurants, we sat by the glass walls, watching the city’s lights twinkle like stars submerged in the water. A traditional Chinese ship passed by while we sipped on our smooth white chardonnay. Its red sampan sail rig stood out, glowing in the dark. It flowed past, quiet and majestic, reminding us of Hong Kong’s proud living tradition amidst all the modernity.
It is evident even in their cuisine. The Michelin-rated menu of Cucina is a clever mix of Asian and international dishes, both traditional and contemporary and concocted by highly celebrated chefs: Graeme Ritchie, Au Yueng Chung Kei, and Ryan Zimmer. Even the table is set to display the elegant marriage of the modern and the old. The traditional crispy suckling pig skin sitting on a soft white pastry is served in an ultra-contemporary table setting that is both minimalist yet decadent. The Amadei dessert – rich dark chocolate fondant with a sprinkling of popcorn and tofu and caramel gelato on the side – sits on a slab of black marble. On another plate is a curious capsule that breaks into gooey strawberry and rose filling that spills over yoghurt cheesecake. The capsule is formed using liquid nitrogen, making the dessert a complicated dish that is just as delightfully complex in the mouth. To cap it all was a generous helping of strawberry balsamic ice cream (made from scratch of course) served in a bowl of ice, the cold crystals sparkling with the reflection of the city lights. Around us are black wooden lattice panels, marble, glass, and rich fabrics. With everything combined, it was almost an otherworldly experience. Or maybe it was just the chardonnay.

At the roof top of the Island Shagri-La, HK.

If Cucina is everything elegant, the Spice Market at the Prince is a trip back to the markets of old, alive with the scents and tastes of Southeast Asian cuisine. Lunch and dinner time, the crowd is as hectic as the markets of Hong Kong. People crowd the buffet tables for the steamed fish, stir-fried noodles, Peking duck, dim sum, tandoori, and a host of other Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Singaporean favorites. Every day they also have specials and on our first visit, they served the most special of all specials: the Typhoon Shelter Wagyu. The most tender and succulent Kobe-style beef is served on a small plate of stir-fried vegetables. The melt-in-your mouth experience almost made us forget about the other items on the buffet table. The waiters happily obliged. Plate after plate of wagyu was delivered to us, so we didn’t feel the need to stand up. We were perfectly happy where we were. We had, after all, the perfect location.


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