A refreshing retreat in the midst of bustling Hong Kong

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Hong Kong is a combination of spectacular mountain peaks and gleaming highrise buildings stretching straight up from the harbor, as well as beaches, floating restaurants, sampans, steamships, traffic jams, and crowded shopping districts. The island of Hong Kong is the main, but not the largest, one in the 400 square-mile territory that shares its name. On this island rests the prime district of Victoria City, or Central, at the base of Victoria Peak. Opposite Central, across the bustling Victoria Harbor, on the Chinese mainland is the commercial district of Kowloon. The two areas are connected by the Star Ferry, whose frequent, seven-minute crossings cost just 10 cents.

Part of the ambiance of Hong Kong is the amazing density of noise from cars, buses, and chugging and tooting boats. With sidewalks jammed by hurrying people, it appears that everyone is on the move.

Sometimes a visitor wants to escape the traffic and commercialism and find a quieter place. And, yes, it is possible to find seclusion in this teeming city. One way is to follow one of several planned walks that are marked on easy-to-follow brochures available here.

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A particularly pleasant walk - which begins just a few blocks from the Star Ferry pier, leads through the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, where one can explore 12 acres of seclusion and subtle beauty.

Since the short walk uphill from the harbor is quite steep, some travelers prefer to take the Victoria Peak Tramway to the Bowen Road stop or a taxi to the entrance, and then walk downhill to the harbor after the visit, as we did. At the Upper Albert Road entrance to the Gardens, an Oriental-style stone gate greets visitors. Beyond the steps one finds a haven of lush tropical growth with splashes of seasonal color.

For example, on a spring visit we found azaleas in full bloom along paths that meandered through the small but densely developed gardens. One feature of the gardens is an extensive aviary housing tropical birds in very clean surroundings. Whoops, trills, calls, and whistles blend to create an exotic cacaphony. My favorite call came from the (South American) bare-throated bellbird, which somehow approximated the bong of a loud bell.

The birds have been brought here from all over the world. For example, the aviary houses Chilean flamingos, white naped cranes from Northern Mongolia, and sacred ibises from Africa. There is even a roadrunner from the southwestern United States.

Only at the edge of the garden could we hear the traffic and see the city's towering skyscrapers. Throughout most of the walk we felt totally insulated by the plantings and the quiet at the park's center. One path led to a compact camellia garden with red, white, pink, and variegated blooms set off by azaleas of pink, white, and purple.

Our informal group of five travelers had banded together to escape the throngs of shoppers and maze of shops on Nathan Road in Kowloon. As we traveled the gentle uphill paths, we began to hear animals chattering and calling. Eventually we came to the mammal houses, where the loudest inhabitants were the siamang, or great, gibbons. In an adjoining cage, a huge rust-colored Bornean orangutan and her baby were swinging on their oversized jungle gym. Among several endangered species of monkeys nearby was the emperor moustached tamarin from South America. The most captivating, however, were the common marmosets (Brazil), only about 6 inches long, happily huddled together and looking at us with beadlike eyes.

My aversion to seeing animals caged was assuaged somewhat in this lovely, cool park, where they appeared to be so safe and content. Plaques indicated that several species were reproducing much better here in captivity than in the wild.

During our early-morning visit, the Botanical Gardens were uncrowded. A gray-haired couple practiced T'ai Chi exercises with graceful, slow-motion precision. A woman in pajamalike clothes and a straw ``rice paddy'' style hat was busy sweeping the paths. Uniformed elementary-school children with their teachers studied the birds and then settled down to sketch them on drawing pads. Clearly, few tourists had found this spot.

On our walk downhill from the park we were able to explore streets and shops. Our route was along Hollywood Road, where the better antique shops in Hong Kong are found. These are worth poking into, even for just a look at fine examples of Oriental furniture, brasses, carpets, jade, and porcelain.

One option on the walk to the harbor is to cut through a densely populated shopping area to discover the flavor of old Hong Kong. Here one finds streets with typical Chinese stores - a butcher shop with dressed ducks hanging in the window, a tea shop, a dried fish shop with everything from squid to seahorses, a spice shop, a vegetable and fruit shop, and even a sidewalk barber.

The harbor level offers a mix of modern department stores, computer stores, and shops with everything from handkerchiefs to office copiers. But, alas, the walker is back in the noise and crush of traffic and far away from the serenity of Hong Kong's Botanical Gardens.

Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.

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