Hong Kong is surrounded by some 260 outlying islands, most of them uninhabited. Those that are inhabited offer the easiest opportunity to see something of rural Chinese life -- just hop on a ferry in Central and then sit back and enjoy the view. In fact, taking a ferry to an outlying island is the cheapest harbor cruise there is, making getting there part of the fun.

Three of the most accessible and popular islands are Lantau, Cheung Chau, and Lamma. Each offers something different: Lantau, which can also be reached by MTR and then cable car, is famous for its giant outdoor Buddha -- one of Hong Kong's major attractions -- and Po Lin Monastery with its vegetarian meals; Cheung Chau, with its beach, boat population, and thriving fishing community, is a popular destination for families and is the best choice for immersion into village life; and Lamma, known for its open-air seafood restaurants, hiking trail, and beaches, is best for getting away from it all.

Getting to the Islands

Ferries to all three islands depart approximately every hour or two from Hong Kong Island's Central Ferry Piers, also home of the Star Ferry. You can purchase your ticket at the piers just prior to departure or use the magnetic Octopus transportation card, but avoid going on Sunday or holidays when the ferries are packed with city folks on family outings. There are two kinds of ferries: ordinary ferries and quicker hover-ferry service (called Fast Ferries). The Fast Ferries to Lantau, Cheung Chau, and Lamma are used mostly by commuters. I personally prefer the slower, ordinary ferries because the view is better, especially if you're headed for Lantau or Cheung Chau: These have the bonus of deluxe class, which is on the upper deck and has an open deck out back -- a great place to watch the harbor float past when the weather is nice (ferries to Lamma are only one class and have no outside deck). In addition, deluxe cabins are the only ones that are air-conditioned, a plus when humidity is at its peak. In any case, you might wish to head out to an island via regular ferry and then return via Fast Ferry. On Saturday afternoon and Sunday, there is additional infrequent ferry service from Tsim Sha Tsui's Star Ferry concourse to Lantau and Cheung Chau, but it may not offer deluxe class.

Fares to the islands are a bargain. Monday to Saturday, tickets for ordinary ferries cost just HK$12 to HK$18 for ordinary class and HK$18 to HK$22 for deluxe, depending on the destination. Fares are slightly higher on Sunday and public holidays: HK$17 to HK$20 for ordinary class and HK$26 to HK$32 for a deluxe ticket. Fast Ferries range from HK$23 to HK$37, depending on the destination and the day of the week. Children and seniors pay half price.

In any case, by ordinary ferry it takes only 35 minutes to reach Lamma, 55 minutes to reach Cheung Chau, and 50 minutes to reach Lantau. Fast Ferry reduces travel time to 20 minutes for Lamma, 35 minutes for Cheung Chau, and 40 minutes for Lantau.

For information on ferry schedules and prices, drop by an HKTB Visitor Centre. You can also obtain information on schedules to Cheung Chau and Lantau at tel. 852/2131 8181 and www.nwff.com.hk; for Lamma, call tel. 852/2815 6063 or visit www.hkkf.com.hk.

The Best Seat on Board -- The best view aboard ferries to the outlying islands is on the left side of the boat, as Central, the Western District, and Hong Kong Island glide past in all their glory.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.