Sitting in a battered old armchair in a dated therapy area, a heated lavender-scented pillow around my neck, and my feet plunged in a barrel of warm soapy water, it’s hard to believe I’m in the heart of the thriving metropolis that is Hong Kong.
As I listen to the piped bird music and sip a rose-petal tea, the masseuse sets to work on my tired tootsies. I may only be 15 floors up Century Square, an unremarkable skyscraper in the heart of the financial district and a stone’s throw from designer shops including Prada, Armani and Louis Vuitton, but up here in Gao’s, away from the buzz of traffic, crowds and money-makers, I could be a million miles away in some backwater of rural China.
Foot massage places like Gao’s have become a haven for stressed-out executives both on Hong Kong island and in Kowloon, across Victoria Harbour. For around £15 you can enjoy 50 minutes of rest and relaxation, although some customers never switch off, texting furiously throughout the pampering.
And indeed it is hard to switch off in ‘Asia’s World City’, as the Hong Kong Tourism Board calls it, situated on the south-eastern coast of China and covering an area of 425 square miles comprising Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories, which includes 262 outlying islands.
Little has changed since I visited the island before the British handed it back to the Chinese in 1997. There’s a new airport which is, frankly, much less worrying for passengers than the old one, where the plane had to fly between mile-high blocks of flats to find the runway. Cathay Pacific has also launched a new premium economy class on its Hong Kong route with more leg room.
There are certainly more skyscrapers than I recall, but with a population of seven million, space remains at a premium and the only way is up.
Some things remain the same: the Star Ferry’s still transporting passengers from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, but more luxurious junks are offering trips to see the Symphony of Lights, the nightly light show involving more than 40 buildings on either side of the harbour.
Dai pai dongs (Chinese street cafes serving cheap food including noodles, tofu and fried rice) live happily alongside trendy eateries and bars in the Hollywood Road, while Michelin-starred cosmopolitan restaurants compete with private dining rooms run by Chinese families who grow their own food organically on small farms in the New Territories.
There is a constant feeling of optimism and from a customer service point of view that’s certainly true, judging by the terrific standards I experience in the Mandarin Oriental, the jewel in the crown of Hong Kong Island’s top-class hotels.
The hotel is supremely elegant with three Michelin-starred restaurants, quiet efficiency and meticulous attention to detail.
There’s plenty of heritage remaining on the island, including temples and Buddhist monasteries.
While the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong will inevitably increase, there will always be places to balance your yin and yang - and I can already feel a return visit to Gao’s on the cards.