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Discover Hong Kong's real wild side

By Dean Irvine, CNN
  • Hong Kong has some amazing hikes minutes from the city's skyscrapers
  • Hundreds of kilometers of trails can be easily reached
  • Ferries can take visitors further afield; Lantau Island has two of the highest mountains

(CNN) -- Shopping and eating; Hong Kong's two main pursuits.

But just beyond the unremitting air-conditioning of shopping malls and the throng of street life is another world altogether -- one of lush mountains, country parks and quiet beaches.

The great outdoors and Hong Kong might seem like an oxymoron, but most of the territory's best hiking trails can be reached in under an hour from Central on Hong Kong Island.

With convenience at the heart of city life, a short taxi ride or bus journey can take visitors to the start of the Dragon's Back -- a walk along the ridge of low mountains that ends up on the southern side of Hong Kong Island at the seaside town of Shek O.

A few hours of gentle hiking are rewarded with great views of the south side of the island (air pollution permitting) and the outlying islands beyond. Lunch in a beachside restaurant , or even try surfing at Big Wave Bay one of the island's best beaches, just a 20 minute walk away.

If the Dragon's Back is a well-trodden path and easy hike, more serious and challenging walks are not hard to find.

With only about one quarter of Hong Kong's territory built upon there are large areas of (almost) unspoiled country side, much of it protected as country parks. The Wilson and MacLehose trails (named after former British governors) crisscross the territory.

The Wilson trail runs north and east from the bottom of Hong Kong Island through country parks almost to the border with mainland China. Over 100 kilometers (62 miles) long, the MacLehose trail runs east to west through the New Territories from Sai Kung peninsular (also home to a popular fishing town).

Accessing the start of sections of the trails can seem a little incongruous and often involve passing through subway stations, shopping malls and crossing thunderous roads lined with old industrial buildings before scaling steps onto a seemingly hidden pathways.

Sections five and six of the MacLehose Trail can be hiked in a few hours and offers a great mix of stunning views of Hong Kong's highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, and Kowloon's hotchpotch of skyscrapers and apartment blocks below.

Just off from the path is a labyrinth of Second World War tunnels that can be explored, part of the Gin Drinker's Line, built to (unsuccessfully) repel advancing Japanese troops from the north.

Hong Kong's best beach is Tai Long Wan, a beautiful, undeveloped stretch of white sand ringed by verdant mountains, and for the best part of the year, completely deserted.

It takes a four hour hike through Sai Kung Country Park to get there that passes through bamboo forests and the semi-abandoned village of Ham Tin; there are around 100 abandoned or "ghost" villages in Hong Kong's New Territories, a symptom of its rush to urbanize since the 1970s.

At the beach, in true Hong Kong style, camping equipment can be rented from the beach side restaurant. Spend a night camping on the beach or up in the hills behind and watch the sun rise over the South China Sea before catching a fast motorboat back to Sai Kung town.

For those that prefer more waterborne adventures, Kayak and Hike offers paddling excursions out to the remote volcanic islands around the eastern coast of Hong Kong's New Territories.

The waters around Hoi Ha Wan have the best snorkeling in the city -- it's no Great Barrier Reef, but is the city's only marine park and one of the few places where pollution and fishing haven't taken their toll on the marine life.

The city's ferries provide a great escape route from city life, as well as a pleasant alternative commute for thousands each day. Lantau Island is just 45 minutes from central Hong Kong's ferry piers. Its home to yet more mountains and wild buffalo that lope across the roads (where private cars are banned), but also the city's airport and the tourist-clogged Big Buddha at the Tian Tan monastery.

Serious hikers can tackle Lantau Peak or Sunset Peak, Hong Kong's second and third highest mountains. Buses can take you to the start of the hikes.

The effort is worthy of the reward, especially as you can be back sipping a sundowner in a Hong Kong rooftop bar among the gleaming skyscrapers by the evening.