65 Kilometres of Wonder: Hong Kong Island’s Coastal Trail

Waterfalls. Beaches. Swimming sheds. Rocky coves with glorious views of the sunset. These are just some of the things that dot Hong Kong Island’s 65-kilometre coastline. What’s missing, though, is the sense that they are all connected – often because they aren’t. Despite being surrounded by water, access to the shore is disjointed enough that it can actually be difficult to enjoy a waterfront walk for any measurable distance. 

A new initiative has set out to change that. Urban advocacy group Designing Hong Kong, hiking app TrailWatch and neighbourhood guide iDiscover have teamed up to launch the Coastal Trail Map, which charts the best ways to circumnavigate Hong Kong Island by foot without losing sight of the water. In some cases, it serves as a handy guide to the many remarkable sights along the edge of the island. In others—where public access is restricted—it offers a blueprint for the government to make it easier for Hongkongers to visit their waterfront.

Sai Wan Swimming pier in Kennedy Town – Photo by Candy Ho for HK Coastal trail

The three groups had plenty of help from the public. The map is based on input from an event that took place over the Christmas holiday. With Covid safety in mind, participants set out to explore the waterfront alone or in small groups, documenting their journeys and anything interesting they came across. “We tried to get as many people as we could to walk,” says iDiscover founder Ester van Steekelenburg. “We ended up with hundreds of people. We wanted to know what they found annoying and what they didn’t like. And on the other side we wanted to know what people’s favourite places were.”

Their input informed a new app that will be launched this month. It includes 40 points of interest based on public feedback. “It could be a temple, a stretch of waterfront, a tree with a swing in Sandy Bay – you see people get really enthusiastic about certain places,” she says. 

“The Coastal Trail is quite unique in that it goes through nature, urban areas, residential areas, business and industrial areas,” adds Alicia Lui, project director at WYNG Foundation, the charity that runs TrailWatch. “Different areas have different vibes [and] communities, so it makes people watching quite interesting and also spotlights what makes Hong Kong tick, culturally, socially and economically.”

The journey around the island is divided into seven stages. Some are easy urban walks like the 7.5-kilometre journey along the western side of the harbour. “A lot of people didn’t realise you can now walk from Wan Chai to Kennedy Town almost uninterrupted,” says van Steekelenburg. And some are more challenging treks, like the 8.5-kilometre route that runs along the Dragon’s Back trail before descending to the industrial waterfront of Chai Wan. Along the way around the island, there is plenty to catch the eye, from the Sai Wan Swimming Shed to the vast collection of shrines and altars at Waterfall Bay

The app will make it easy for anyone to plot a waterfront excursion, but that’s just the first step in a long-term plan to make the coastal trail an official signposted route similar to the MacLehose Trail and other hiking paths. The hope is that the Coastal Trail will push Hong Kong to take a more holistic view of its coastline, which is currently a patchwork of disjointed spaces. Some of the most remarkable spots on the waterfront are technically off-limits to the public, like much of Waterfall Bay, whose namesake cascade lies beyond a locked gate. Others are accessible only through the efforts of nearby residents who have improvised trails and built informal structures, like many of the swimming sheds that dot the coast.

Hong Kong Island Coastal Trail map by illustrator Carmen Ng – available in June 2021 – Image courtesy of iDiscover

“There are all kinds of makeshift structures to make the waterfront accessible,” says van Steekelenburg. The challenge will be getting the government to recognise those informal spaces and make sure people can safely and easily access the waterfront. That’s easier said than one. One of the most beloved spots along the harbour, the so-called Instagram Pier, has been permanently closed to the public. 

Designing Hong Kong co-founder and Southern District councillor Paul Zimmerman says he is working on dozens of spots along the Coastal Trail where public access can be improved. “We basically pursue each individual improvement with each individual [government] department responsible,” he says. “We have a list of 25 things to do and each of them is a separate department.” The upside is that all four district councils on Hong Kong Island have pledged their support.

The ultimate goal, says Zimmerman, is to provide “a continuous coastal trail that every resident of Hong Kong Island can easily reach from wherever they live, and they can go for as long as they want for whenever they have time.” Hong Kong already has a spectacular coastline – now it’s finally becoming easier to enjoy it.

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