Returning to the road in New Mexico in pursuit of making art.
Writer Sloane Crosley investigates how a five-star hotel, culinary treats, and realistic expectations can a long layover into more than a sleepless blur.
MY FIRST EVER 24-hour layover was spent slumped in a phone booth in Breclav railway station in the Czech Republic, close to the Austrian and Slovakian borders. I was 21 years old, broke, traveling around Europe without any portable technology, and dependent on rural train schedules. At dawn, I awoke from a back-breaking slumber to the bark of a police dog. Drifting onto my platform, I disavowed the 24-hour layover for life. But when it comes to certain cities and certain adulthoods, such vows are made to be broken. So, one foggy night, I stepped off a plane from Sydney, Australia, in Hong Kong, ready to embark upon the most glamorous layover of my life. Possibly of anyone’s life. I cleared customs and strolled straight into a Brewster Green Rolls-Royce (one does not climb into one of these things), sent courtesy of the famed Peninsula Hong Kong hotel.
This, I thought, is not your momma’s phone booth.
On any budget, a tight timeframe is both a hindrance and a gift — “Extreme Layover: Hong Kong Edition.” I knew I would be getting to the hotel late at night and leaving the following night (headed back to New York City), which meant precious little time for unconsciousness on Frette sheets. But with such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parcel of time, I found myself free of the guilt that often comes with a far-flung trip. There would be no collating a flurry of recommendations. Of course I would miss whole neighborhoods, markets, and tourist attractions. My only problem, if I was forced to identify one, was the siren song of my accommodations: overlooking Victoria Harbour as well as the recently renovated Hong Kong Museum of Art, the five-star Peninsula hotel consistently pops up on “best of” lists, year after year. My suite was an apartment with multiple city views, changing areas, bathrooms, and a dining room table. Who would want to leave? The Peninsula has been wondering the same thing and now offers all-inclusive staycation packages. But as the clock tower (part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway and former terminus for the Orient Express) chimed midnight, it served as a reminder to stop sending “I live here now” videos to friends, leave the curtains open, and try to get some sleep.
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The next morning, I went for a jet-lagged jog along the Central and Western District Promenade across from Hong Kong Island. A first view of Hong Kong leaves one with the impression of a major financial district, unzipped down the middle, with a body of water (Victoria Harbour) flooding into the empty space. It’s both “built up” (at night, massive digital advertisements affixed to skyscrapers cast rainbow shadows onto the water, putting one in mind of “Blade Runner”) and serene, with mountains and islands in the distance. The promenade was crowded with tourists, many from mainland China, taking pictures and flashing peace signs. While a single day does not lead to an accurate biopsy of a city, the whole place seemed to be in a good mood, owing to the recent lifting of one of the longest Covid mask mandates (945 days) on the planet.
Back at The Peninsula, I enjoyed a traditional dim sum breakfast of dumplings, congee, and noodles before heading off to Yuet Tung China Works, a slightly off-the-beaten-path discovery I made in advance. Yuet Tung China Works is Hong Kong’s last remaining hand-painted porcelain factory. Located in an industrial building (freight elevators and an overworked ceiling fan decorate the ground floor), it’s 20 minutes of traffic but a world away from The Peninsula. By sheer coincidence, both establishments were founded in 1928, a fact which tickled Joseph Tso, the third-generation owner. Tso proudly showed me around his labyrinth of breakables: colorful vases, plates, and Buddhas, many of which don’t come cheap — a dragon-adorned dinner plate broke my mental currency converter at $1,000. But it’s understandable: an octogenarian artisan sat in between piles, brush in hand, hunched over a single teacup. I purchased a small bowl, painted with vibrant bursts of flowers by Tso’s grandfather, pressing my bag close to my body as I squeezed my way out.
At the insistence of a friend from Sydney, I headed to the packed Mak An Kee on Hong Kong Island for lunch, where I was seated at a table with several equally determined lunch hour customers, slurping delicate shrimp wonton soup. And while I did not have time to meander through the area afterward, I did pick up several bags of chocolate mochi bread at Silver Mine Bake. There’s a universal legibility to a line around the block for carbs. But things moved quickly. One perk to the 24-hour layover? Getting fresh treats for loved ones back home, knowing they will still be delicious when you land.
I made sure to take the 143-year-old Star Ferry back across the harbor, a peaceful and breezy 10-minute trip, before heading to the magnificent M+ Museum, which warrants a full day in itself. Opened in late 2021, the museum is an agricultural marvel dedicated to art and design from the past two centuries, with bougainvillea-dotted grounds and a roof garden, both of which play up the contrast between the urban and the natural (leading to an unholy amount of Instagram boyfriends and their chicly ensembled creative directors). I happened to catch “Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now,” a multi-floor special exhibit featuring the largest collection ever assembled of the influential artist’s work.
I had to yank myself out of the museum to get back to The Peninsula for an evening Skin Brightening Facial (I know, I know, I too am reading this sentence). A facial is an ideal indulgence between long-haul flights. As I sat, waiting for my treatment (which also included a vigorous facial massage that stimulated heretofore unknown muscles), I kept pressing the spa manager for the ingredients of the tea I was drinking. She insisted it was just ginger, honey, and lemongrass, but I don’t know if I’ve ever consumed so much delicious tea in one sitting.
The only minor misstep of an otherwise perfect day took place during my final hours in the city, at the marvelous dinner before my flight. “Marvelous” and “misstep” are strange bedfellows. My dinner was an impeccable culinary tour of France at Gaddi’s, the legendary French dining destination that oozes with history. The decor, waitstaff, and the food (Chef Albin Gobil worked for years under Jöel Robuchon) are all extremely French. A Michelin-star parade of langoustines, turbot, and macarons moved before me as a sequined singer belted out soft rock ballads in Cantonese. It was perfect. The thing is, every inch of The Peninsula caters to either a refined local clientele who will gladly gravitate to a hyperfaithful French meal or to tourists (many of whom arrive via one of the hotel’s two helipads) who surely experience Hong Kong for longer than 24-hours. These are “normal” travelers who would not mind their last taste of Hong Kong transporting them upwards of 10,000 miles back in the direction from which they came.
And yet? I soldered on. As I left Gaddi’s, I passed an arrestingly beautiful screen behind a wall of glass. Hailing from the seventeenth century, the screen depicts Emperor K’ang-hsi being entertained by dancers and children. The screen is part of a pair, the other one of which is in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it served as a reminder of how much more of Hong Kong I would have to experience next time, of how much more awaits me no matter where I lay my head. As I strolled into one of the hotel’s Rolls-Royces en route to my 3 a.m. flight, the clock tower struck midnight once again, marking the end of a purgatory that felt a lot like heaven.
The Peninsula Hong Kong is a Fine Hotels + Resorts property. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.
Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” and “Look Alive Out There,” and the novel “The Clasp.” Her new novel, “Cult Classic,” is out now.
Nicole Rifkin is an award-winning Canadian American illustrator based in Upstate NY. She graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Communications Design (Illustration) and has an MFA in Illustration from SVA. Her interests include sleep and fuzz pedals. She lives in a barn with her husband, two cats, and five million tote bags.
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