Hong Kong has welcomed a brand new luxury sports Academy – and it’s in the leafy environs of Sai Kung. Carolynne Dear found out if it’s worth the trip north.
It’s been a long time coming and has certainly not been without its detractors. The Hong Kong Golf & Tennis Academy is now nearing completion and is looking to an official full launch this summer. Currently in a “soft” opening phase, it seems to be winning around an initially sceptical local community.
Construction work began a few years ago on the tranquil slopes of Sai Kung’s green and pleasant countryside. Suddenly, and seemingly overnight, there were huge metal pylons towering out from between the villages of Wu Lei Tau, Tai Chung Hau and Pak Kong. One minute the area was home to a couple of garden centres, some sleepy village dogs and a trickle of low rise village housing, the next it looked as if the neighbourhood was set to become the next Shenzhen.
What was going on? There were “market research” evenings laid on with the local community, PR companies were brought on board, but the cynicism was palpable. A country club in Sai Kung? What about the traffic? The noise? The cost? This is a low-key, close-knit community, a world away from the shiny “bubble” of Hong Kong Island. It seemed the developers may have picked the wrong spot for their posh country club.
And so it was with great interest last month that I turned off of Hiram’s Highway, Sai Kung’s main artery, and onto the little village road that leads to this shiny new interloper. I arrived determined to remain ambivalent about the whole excursion, but to be honest you would be hard pushed not to be impressed. The sweeping driveway leads up to a set of pretty terracotta-roofed buildings. There are golf buggies and water features aplenty and smartly uniformed staff usher me to a parking spot and then into the main lobby.
As I am swept along on my tour, it becomes apparent that no expense has been spared with the fit-out. The interiors are good looking in a plush, gleaming, country club kind of way and to be honest more than rival any Island-based venue.
But this is a sports “academy”, not a “club”, and its big sell is its high performance tennis and golf training programmes. It boasts both coaching and teaching aids unique to Hong Kong in both disciplines, and this is where the trip to the New Territories becomes worth the extra grunt.
The Bruguera tennis programme was initially developed by one of the master’s of the game, Spaniard Lluis Bruguera in the 1980s. Son Sergi was taught under the Burguera method and went on to win several Grand Slam titles with a top ranking of third in the world during his heyday. The Bruguera Tennis Academy here in Sai Kung is the first time the institution has travelled outside of Spain and the facility is actively managed by the Burguera family, as well as by on-site professional coach, Bastien Liverious. The Academy is partnering with the Bruguera Tennis Academy in Barcelona this summer to offer parents and children the opportunity to train in Spain.
The array of indoor and outdoor courts, plus the only junior-size courts in Hong Kong and a special “Padel” tennis court, is impressive. I’m no pro tennis player, but I recognise great facilities when I see them. I left considering dusting off my racket.
The tennis has been paired with the Jack Nicklaus Academy of Golf, offering a “signature” instruction programme from another sporting great – for golf illiterates, American-born Nicklaus is widely regarded as the greatest golfer of all time.
Outside, it became clear that the much-maligned metal pylons are actually a support structure holding up the giant nets surrounding an impressive six-hole golf training course.
The Academy of Golf also boasts three Jack Nicklaus coaching studios which are powered by Nicklaus Academy video analysis software, including multiple high-speed video cameras, a pressure/balance plate, a ball launch monitor and a live video feed for students to review their performance. If you’re looking to work on your game, this is the place to do it. There are practice putting greens and bunker, a VIP training area and 75 hitting stations with automatic ball feed on three levels – as well as the six-hole training course. At night, the whole facility is flood-lit. Throughout the summer, the contagiously enthusiastic golf director Billy Martin is laying on Friday-night games, followed by a social barbecue, to introduce members to the six-hole concept.
There are year-round coaching programmes a-plenty for both adults and children in both sports and the Academy is also working to pair with local and international schools to share its top-notch facilities. To the club’s credit, as a privately-owned institution it doesn’t have to do this, it’s not subject to government requirements about working with the local community to fulfill licensing obligations. But it’s the right thing to do – in space-poor Hong Kong even the plushest international schools often have no spare square footage for tennis courts – and certainly not for golfing facilities.
The club also boasts a Kids Academy, which includes an enormous, gleaming indoor play-structure with helter skelter slides, tube slides, climbing nets and so forth. There is a separate toddler area for younger children and a cafe. There are also indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a games room and activity room and all are overseen by experienced staff, freeing parents up to go and work on their golf and tennis skills, or just relax with a coffee. A busy summer programme of fun activities for littlies is currently being put together.
As the tour continued on to the sumptuous three-level Balinese spa, the dining room, the coffee shop, the resort pool, the dim sum restaurant, the vegan restaurant, the indoor pool, the Moroccan courtyard… I began to feel I was inhabiting a parallel universe. I was in Sai Kung, but was I really in Sai Kung? I was in a bubble, but it was a beautiful bubble and to be honest, I didn’t want to leave. In the coffee shop I bumped into a colleague enjoying a post-gym latte.
“I know!” she laughed. “Believe me, my house overlooks all of this. When those metal pylons went up I was distraught. Bang goes my view, I thought. And then I had a tour at the end of last year and was blown away. I couldn’t not join. It’s the antithesis of everything we love about shabby chic Sai Kung – but it’s so good! If you’re going to play tennis, this is the place to do it.”
I guess as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I’m researching the two-year membership package right now.
Hong Kong Golf & Tennis Academy, 81 Tai Chung Hau, Pak Kong, Sai Kung, www.hkgta.com.