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Secret life of Hong Kong's island hideaways

By George Webster for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Not far from Hong Kong's skyscrapers lies an cluster of idyllic island retreats
  • Traditional culture and striking scenery abound in small fishing towns
  • Mainsail provides an at-a-glance travel guide to the area known as the New Territories
RELATED TOPICS
  • Hong Kong
  • Sailing
  • China
  • Travel Destinations

(CNN) -- Hong Kong is often thought of as the ultimate in "Chinois chic" -- an ultramodern east-Asian metropolis crammed with skyscrapers and upmarket retail palaces.

But a short boat ride away from the electric glow of the financial center exposes a cluster of refreshingly bucolic islands and mellow stretches of sandy coast -- which together form part of an area known as the New Territories.

Rich with the vestiges of traditional Chinese culture and boasting some of the region's finest natural scenery, the district offers welcome respite for jaded city-dwellers and represents one of Southeast Asia's best-kept coastal cruising secrets.

From the windsurfing hub of Cheung Chau, to the secluded oasis of Lamma, to the pastoral expanse of Sai Kung peninsula -- here is Mainsail's at-a-glance guide to the lesser-known side of this former British colony.

Cheung Chau Island

The journey begins on the dumbbell-shaped island of Cheung Chau. Although only a short 30 minute sail from Hong Kong's central district, the island couldn't be more different.

In place of imposing glass towers, you'll find remnants of Hong Kong's traditional past: small wooden shops on narrow streets, ancient temples and a bounty of traditional fishing rafts.

The island boasts two exceptional beaches: Tung Wan, a popular bathing area with an array of idyllic beach houses and Kwan-yin Wan, known as a windsurfing haven.

Don't miss: The Cheung Chau Bun Festival. The Pak Tai Temple, built in 1783, is home to the must-see Cheung Chau Bun Festival every spring.

The parade meanders through narrow streets to the temple grounds, which are peppered with vast bamboo towers containing an endless array of sweet white buns. At midnight, athletes clamber up one of the towers in a contest to grab the buns at the top which are thought to bring good luck.

Lamma island

A short sail southeast of Cheung Chau is Lamma -- Hong Kong's third largest island and its ultimate get-away-from-it-all refuge.

Bicycles are the predominant mode of transport -- as there are no cars -- and buildings higher than three storeys are strictly prohibited.

Seafood lovers should make a pilgrimage to the fishing town of Sok Kwu Wan, which houses an abundance of terraced restaurants on stilts above the bay. Fresh chilli crab, garlic prawns, deep-fried squid and steamed fish with ginger and spring onions are popular favorites.

Don't miss: Chinese New Year. Lamma Island is also one of the last areas in Hong Kong where traditional Chinese New Year celebrations still take place. At midnight a colorful fireworks display is orchestrated by the main families of the villages in order to ward off evil spirits.

Sai Kung

Further north, along Hong Kong's east coast is Sai Kung -- a peninsula surrounded by a collection of verdant, picturesque little islands.

Inland, Ma On Shan County Park is a hiker's dream. There are some remarkable trails that meander off into the surrounding countryside or slope back down to the beach. Impressive views of the sea and neighboring islands open up from many of the high vantage points within the park's boundaries.

At the pier in Sai Kung town, a floating seafood market operates in the afternoon. Fishermen sell fresh sea food directly from their boats, while rows of customers select and attempt to haggle the price for their purchases.

Don't miss: Tin Hau temple. This traditional temple in honor of the Goddess of the Sea, is in superlative condition due to a number of well-funded renovations over the years. Take an easy walk up to the lookout and a relive your childhood flying a kite in the pleasant breezes of one of Hong Kong's few prime kite-flying destinations.