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Although some travelers think of Hong Kong as just Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula, the city is home to hundreds of inhabited and uninhabited islands.
Still, many of these islands are easier to access than others. Some, like Lamma and Peng Chau, have regular multiple-times-per-day ferry services, a healthy community of full-time residents and a range of shops and businesses. Others can only be visited via private boat or kayak.
Ap Chau and Kat O, AKA Duck Island and Crooked Island respectively, fall into the sweet spot in the middle. It’s possible to visit both of these islands, located in Hong Kong’s far north close to the border of Shenzhen in mainland China, provided you do a little careful planning ahead of time.
Your reward? Two islands, both beautiful in their own distinct ways, that don’t feel anything like the rest of Hong Kong, all for just a few dollars.
The first sign you’re not just taking any old commuter ferry is the look of the boat itself. To get to islands like these, you’ll be traveling by kaito – a smaller boat that looks more like a fishing vessel.
While some of these kaitos accept Octopus transit cards (the same ones you can use on Hong Kong buses and the MTR), others only accept cash as they are run by independent companies and not the city.
The kaito to Ap Chau and Kat O departs from Sha Tau Kok, which is in the New Territories in northern Kowloon. Getting there is somewhat of a challenge in itself and can easily take 90-120 minutes from Central.
You will either have to take multiple MTR subway lines and then connect to a minibus, or get a taxi. In the New Territories, taxis are green instead of red, and you will need to pay in cash. English-speaking ability among taxi drivers is hit or miss, so ask someone at your hotel to write out the destination for you in Cantonese just in case.
Four kaitos run per day, every day – 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:45 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. If you’re boarding the last one, though, be ready to camp out – the return ferries run at 6:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1.30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Another place to pick up a kaito to the two islands is Ma Liu Shui, near the busy Sha Tin neighborhood. It’s trade-off, as this ferry is significantly easier to access via public transit, but it only has one departure per day on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. It leaves at 9 a.m. and departs from Kat O around 3:30 p.m.
Each round-trip, same-day journey costs $20 HK cash (about $3 US).
While the kaito rides are long (an hour and a half from Ma Liu Shui), the scenery is gorgeous. This is very much a journey-is-the-destination kind of trip, with the added bonus that the destination is also the destination. You are able to get up and move around, making photo ops easy.
The ride takes you through the UNESCO-listed Hong Kong Global Geopark, with Plover Cove Reservoir to your left. In the distance, you should be able to see the 250-foot-tall statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, the second tallest in the world. The bright-white statue is the centerpiece of the Tsz Shan Monastery, a passion project of Hong Kong mogul Li Ka-shing.
The first stop on the ferry will be Ap Chau, the smaller of the two islands. Ap Chau means “Duck Island” and should not be confused with Ap Lei Chau (Duck Lip Island), a tightly packed residential neighborhood. Ap Chau is said to be the smallest inhabited island in the Hong Kong archipelago.
The ferry will remain at Ap Chau. You will have about an hour to explore the tiny island, at which point everyone will get back on the ferry and continue on to Kat O. Since Kat O is bigger and has a few businesses, you spend three hours there before returning to the kaito and heading back to the mainland.
What to do
Both islands are part of the Hong Kong UNESCO-recognized Global Geopark. They’re both inhabited, but there are strict rules about what kinds of activities can take place there.
Tourist activities, especially on Ap Chau, consist of little more than hiking and taking in the scenery. Both islands have a small “story room,” ersatz museums that give background on the history and geography of the area.
On a clear or even clear-ish day, hikers on Kat O will be able to see the Shenzhen shipping container port, which is just across the sea border with mainland China.
As Kat O is larger and has a slightly bigger population, there’s a bit more to do there than take in nature. Its name means “auspicious bay” in Cantonese, and the island’s unusual – yes, crooked – shape makes it a fun place to explore.
In the small fisherman’s village where the ferry lets you off, there’s a single restaurant, family-run Cantonese eatery Yik Man. This is a perfect spot to refuel before setting off on a walk.
While Hong Kong has some of the world’s greatest fine dining restaurants, there’s truly no experience quite like going to a casual outer-island eatery. Meals are laid-back – often there’s just one set menu – and served family-style for everyone at the table. If you want a soda or a beer, you can just walk over to the cooler and grab one yourself. Payment is strictly only in cash, and don’t use large bills if you can help it.
Many Hong Kongers speak fluent English, but the further you get from the city center the more likely you are to encounter someone who doesn’t use the language as much or isn’t as proficient. Making an effort to learn a few basic words and phrases in Cantonese will endear you to locals – try ho ho (very good) when they ask how the food is, and say mmgoi (thank you) when you leave.
The main Kat O trail is about a kilometer long and fairly easy. If you’re willing to work a little harder, head up to the Tin Hau temple. The view is spectacular, even on a hazy day – the Shenzhen shipping container port is so close you’ll feel like you can practically reach out and grab it.