I don't know why, but I guess I'd always assumed that Hong Kong consisted of Hong Kong Island. Later I'd learnt that it had spread well onto the peninsula next door, but I didn't realise there were more islands too. In fact there's about 7 significant ones (plus a number of smaller others).
On my second day in Hong Kong, after spending the morning sorting out work stuff I zipped down to the central ferry piers and hopped on a ferry out to one of Hong Kong's outlying islands, Cheung Chau. The ferry takes 30 mins (if you take the fast one) and you go out halfway around Hong Kong Island, giving you a good look at the harbour comings and goings as you go.
They say that Cheung Chau Island gives you a good idea of what Hong Kong was like before it became so modernised and so intensely high-density.
It's a fishing island, the harbour still crowded with small to medium-sized fishing boats, all with that classic Hong Kong sampan-style curve to them.
There's not a huge amount there; the population's about 30 thousand, and the main town is all in the skinny middle of the island, where you can walk from one side to the other in about 5 minutes.
The town is thankfully not oriented towards tourists so much, the exception being perhaps some restaurants around the waterfront. There's still plenty of traditional stalls, many selling dried fish of various descriptions – I have no idea if you just eat it like that or what! I did tried some local desserty things, Hong Kong's cuisine is famous for (amongst other things) “egg tarts”, which turn out to be quite custardy pastries (ie. they're egg yolk tarts). Not bad.
There's also some ‘corner shop’ type places (you will need these – I consumed more iceblocks that day than in the entire year prior), street vendors for various foods, and irritatingly, one of Hong Kong's ever-present McDonalds branches (hiss). (There are so many of these on Hong Kong Island you have to work hard not to walk into one accidentally.) As Luther kindly found me, there's also a bank with ATMs – just wander around the streets close to the waterfront if you need it, streets aren't really named well there.
In fact the streets are more like alleys – they're very narrow; there's no cars on the island (actually that's not quite true, there's a tiny custom police car and a tiny van “ambulance” – don't injure yourself in any way that requires lying down while you're there) nor any trains etc, so it's all about walking here,
There's also some quite nice beaches, which although not large have golden-white sand and (apparently well-maintained) shark nets, which was actually pretty appealing given it was around 32°C when I arrived!
No time to laze about anyway, and I would've burned to a crisp in that sun. I walked up around the hill at the southern end of the island (it's a bit dumbell shaped – hills at either end, narrow bit in the middle connecting them). Paths take you up to viewing points over the South China Sea and around to villages (ie. groups of houses – mainly western-style, some flash, some really not) and temples (which were nice enough, but pretty generic – much like temples you might have seen all over Asia).
The temples seem to be as much like community centres as religious places – at Nam Tau Tim Hau temple there was a bunch of the local men sitting around having a chat, and a couple more playing a chinese board game which I didn't recognise- I though at first it might be go as it's played on the vertices of a grid and from the state of their gameplay looked like it might involve surrounding the opposing pieces, but it had a rectangular board and when they played turns I noticed that they were moving their pieces rather than placing new ones.
Otherwise I just sort of wandered around and looked at stuff. It was really oppressive heat so didn't have the energy to go out to the more outlying places of interest – 4-5 hours walking in that heat was enough! I headed back to the port.
After all this walking I was damn hungry, and keen to sample the local cuisine which is one of the reasons Cheung Chau is a suggested visit for tourists. Fresh seafood is the local specialty, some of the restaurants even having it alive in tanks out the front that you can choose from.
I tried an apparently-popular local crab dish which has fresh ginger and spring onions – quite tasty, and I didn't even get sick later :). It's very economically priced for a traveller too, though I'm sure the price will go up (and the quality down) sadly as more of us travel there.
Then it was back to Hong Kong Island. Cheung Chau is worth a visit and a good chance to get out of the city and find some tasty fresh seafood. Also consider Lamma Island for similar.