Escape the Crowds ... in Hong Kong?

Even though it's packed with people, the area has some beautiful, serene places.
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Hong Kong is famous for its shopping, dining and hustling pace, but many visitors don't know that this East-meets-West metropolis has a quiet side that you can explore on foot at your own pace.

Although it has 7 million residents and packs in 15,000 people per square mile -- said to be the densest concentration of people on earth -- 40% of the Hong Kong special administration region is parkland. These green spaces encompass rich wetlands, lush tropical gardens and scenic nature trails.

Even in the heart of town, venerable temples, vest-pocket parks and quiet walkways provide places to chill out when you want a break from the intensity of the city.

The most unspoiled place in Hong Kong may be the Mai Po Nature Preserve. It is a short drive from the mainland Chinese border city of Shenzhen on the northern edge of Hong Kong's New Territories, and you have to book a visit in advance, but it's worth it. Going by taxi is best.

At Mai Po, I alighted in bird-watching hole No. 7, a small wood and corrugated metal structure with a softly sliding door. As I peered out, I saw a lanky egret wading through shallow, briny water.

For a moment, all was silent.

Then, suddenly, a disturbance caused the egret to look up, unfold its wings and fly away into a landscape of mountains and clouds turned orange by the sunset.

Hong Kong sits on a prime flyway for migrating birds, some from as far away as Siberia and Australia. During peak spring and fall migrations, tens of thousands of shorebirds flock there. In the Mai Po marshes, they feast on shrimp and small fish for their journey up and down the east coast of Asia. At such times, the trees are black with roosting birds, and wading avians like egrets and kingfishers make their way through brackish waters, eyes downcast in search of salty morsels.

A much smaller (150 acres, to Mai Po's 3,500 acres), tamer oasis is the Hong Kong Wetland Park, a watery refuge and educational showcase built to provide a taste of nature in a part of the New Territories thickly coated by highrise apartments.

Interpretive galleries explain what wetlands are, and why they are endangered by climate change and overdevelopment. A 30,000-square-foot visitors' center is topped with grass to cool the building in Hong Kong's semi-tropical climate.

Out of doors, an elevated wood-plank walkway meanders across the water and through the trees. Unlike Mai Po, where tour guides accompany visitors, walks at the Wetland Park are self-guided. Walkways thread through areas planted to attract specific insects and birds; here is an area for butterflies, there is an area for dragonflies. A floating boardwalk rises and falls with the tides among thick, green mangroves.

Also on the grounds is a wooden observation tower. I climbed the stairs and opened the shutters. Looking through binoculars, I spied a wondrous sight: a huge gathering of gray herons, several hundred yards off. Pointy-beaked, black-crested, covered with black and gray feathers, the herons waded and pecked, waded and pecked, then stopped stock-still. All was silent.

That degree of calming silence is hard to come by in the central-city, but even there, it can be found.

One great place is the Peak Circle Walk, a two-mile pedestrian loop on the slopes of Victoria Peak, the 1,811-foot mountain that overlooks Hong Kong Island and the bustling, ever-shrinking, landfilled harbor that separates the island from Kowloon.

If you get a clear day, you can look down to the boat-choked harbor at Aberdeen on the south side of the island, out to Lantau Island -- the home of decidedly unquiet Hong Kong International Airport and Hong Kong Disneyland -- and down at the forest of pastel-colored high-rises that climb the mountain in the Central and Mid-Levels districts.

As you stroll along the well-marked trail, you'll find plenty of vista points for taking photos or taking-five with a swig of bottled water. Tropical plants and birds are on display, as are views of the homes of Hong Kong's business elite. The walk takes about an hour, with stops. If you're hungry, the Peak Lookout, a stylish restaurant near the terminal for the circa-1888 funicular -- the Peak Tramway -- is a calm, pretty place for a good European-style lunch or a drink.

Even the heart of Central, the city's prime business district, has soothing alcoves. I like Hong Kong Park, a verdant city park located by the Pacific Place mega-mall and the gorgeously vertical Island Shangri-la Hotel, where I looked down on helicopters zipping about like giant, mechanized bumble bees.

The park has a waterway stocked with koi, a big, walk-through aviary and the hushed Museum of Tea Ware, installed in Flagstaff House, a cooly elegant, whitewashed 1846 building that housed the British commander back in the days when the Union Jack flew over Hong Kong.

Walking through Central is different than strolling through most other big cities, thanks to its overhead web of walkways. Designed to lift people off the congested sidewalks, the walkways provide good views but take a while to navigate; nothing is actually very far away, but getting there takes time.

Along Hollywood Road, one of the city's prime walking, gawking and shopping streets -- known for its antiques -- is the 1840s Man Mo Temple.

Step inside, and you quickly forget about the neighboring skyscrapers; this is a surviving relic of Imperial China, with its religious statues, red and gold ornamentation and devotional corners. Big burning cones and elaborate coils of incense dangle from the ceiling, perfuming the temple and transporting the mind.

For literal transportation, the endearingly old-school Star Ferry is a must-do. Plying the harbor between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, these green-and-white, lozenge-shaped boats (fare: 25 cents) provide sterling views of the skyline, especially after dark, when the lights of the skyscrapers blaze forth. Even up-to-the-minute modernity can be calming when you see it at nighttime from the water.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.