Foreigners come to China not only for work or investment, but also to sample the country’s many landscapes, its long history and meet people from a wide range of cultures and traditions. In that process they also often seek out unique living arrangements, from local B&Bs to luxury hotels, and chances to taste the country’s big array of local flavors.
Caixin Global has invited veteran travel expert Zhang Mei to introduce our readers to these other sides of China through a new regular column. Founder of the travel company WildChina and author of the book “Travels Through Dali with a Leg of Ham,” Zhang specializes in finding unique Chinese travel and dining experiences.
Last week, I received a call from an American who asked me to help with an anniversary trip for his wife to China. They last visited China 30 years ago and stayed at the Great Wall Hotel in Beijing,
“I wonder if you could find us something better,” he asked.
“Oh, yes!” I said. The Bvlgari Beijing is a stone’s throw away from the Great Wall Hotel.
Beijing and Shanghai are bursting with new luxury hotels. Take Shanghai. In 2018, the Middle House opened next to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery (Asia’s first), and immediately became one of the city’s hottest spots. The Capella Hotel unveiled 55 elegant rooms in row houses in the most expensive part of town. But the Amanyangyun took the cake when it relocated ancient houses and thousand-year-old trees from far-off Jiangxi province to the suburbs of Shanghai. China’s luxury hotel business embodies the energy of the country: Everything is possible.
By global standards, it’s also a bargain. The sudden influx of luxury offerings has made prices competitive. A room at the Four Seasons Beijing is half the price of its counterpart in New York and the service is comparable. So even if luxury hotels are not your thing, China at this moment is a perfect place to indulge.
Besides the luxury scene, what’s most exciting is the entrepreneurial spirit in the small lodges popping up everywhere in China. These are following the trail blazed by the successful Naked Retreat of Moganshan, three hours out of Shanghai. This recipe combines stunning views with great design, large windows, and infinity pools, and the contrast of concrete and distressed wood. Unlike the luxury hotels, prices for these properties can actually be very high, thanks to eye-catching photos taken by hipsters on social media.
I love the creativity of the small lodge scene, the mix of the old and the new. However, the service leaves a lot to be desired. I’m sure that someday Chinese travelers will start to demand more than just a pretty picture. In the end, it’s a hotel room, not a photo studio.
This list is road-tested by travel professionals I trust and includes a lot of my personal experience. These destinations sparkle with the vitality of China. Sometimes, it’s the design, mixing the modern with China’s history; sometimes, it’s the service. I will tell you exactly how it felt, both good and bad.
I limited the picks to three city hotels and three off the beaten path.
I normally have a problem with the Bvlgari brand. I consider the brand to be stunning, but ice cold. The hotel isn’t shy about displaying photos of their jewelry. It’s also located from 40th to 46th floor of a building, which is slightly inconvenient.
But what really impressed me was the attendant at the pool. One morning, I went for my morning laps. There wasn’t a single soul in the pool. Great. Underwater flip turns are difficult for me. My head always pops up at the end of the pool during the turn. All of a sudden, as my head popped up, I noticed a bottle of water sitting right in front of me on the edge of the pool. Obviously the attendant had been watching me for a while. I asked for some tips on my freestyle strokes. That turned into a 30 minute private lesson. The attendant, Martin Li, is a professional swimming coach in Shanghai. Seek him out if you ever go there.
I have always believed that you can tell the quality of service from small gestures such as these. At Bulgari, this attentiveness stretches all the way to the top. The general manager, Vincent Billiard, seems to know the schedule of every guest. “Have a great presentation,” Billiard said to me as I left the hotel at 5 p.m. to go to my event. The next morning, he asked: “How was your talk last night?” The only other man who does this to me is my husband.
Besides hitting all the standard marks for a beautiful room: a really comfortable bed, bathroom and amenities, and a stunning view of Pudong, this is a hotel that truly makes you feel cared for. With only 50 rooms, it’s easy to remember everyone, Billiard said. I disagree; it takes a lot of work to be this detailed.
To list two hotels under one brand is usually against the rules. But this hotel also won my heart.
I had three reasons that delayed my test of the Bvlgari Beijing. The first was location. I used to live nearby, close to the Liangma River, which smells. The second was that the Bvlgari brand has always seemed too bling-bling for me. Three — The hotel was embroiled in corruption scandals that I had no interest in.
Then I checked in. The next morning, I woke up at 6 and looked down at the river 10 floors below. A man was doing breast strokes in the river, and from this high above, I could clearly see his arms and legs moving rhythmically, just like a frog! Is the water that clean now? I wondered.
The breakfast restaurant is right by the river, and I requested a table in the garden. My breakfast was a perfect fusion of East and West. A bowl of beef noodle soup, a croissant, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and a latte. With a jogging path just over the hedge, it is probably one of the nicest breakfast spots in Beijing … as long as the air is good.
The Murray Hong Kong
How anyone found the space to squeeze a 336-room hotel onto Cotton Tree Drive is a mystery to me. Cotton Tree Drive is chocked with offices for investment bankers, management consultants and lawyers. But there it is, a 1969 building renovated into Hong Kong’s newest luxury property.
My counterpart at China Travel Service Hong Kong, Gloria Wu, loves the Murray. While it can’t compare with the renovations of Qing dynasty homes in China, she loves how the Murray’s developers accentuated what was positive about the building’s 1960s vibe. As Gloria notes, the Murray was one of the best examples of a successful renovation project in Hong Kong.
On top of that, my WildChina colleague Sherry Thorn also loved the breakfast and raved about the roof-top bar. A drawback? The views were not that great, and Hong Kong is, really, all about the view. Still Gloria and Sherry both praised it as being fresh and chic.
I love the Peninsula Hong Kong for its views, and the Upper House for its cool. Maybe this new Murray Hotel can add some old Hong Kong nostalgia. I will try it next time.
Now moving on to the wild China that I love. Many of these properties require a flight there and back. It might take a trip, but it’s worth it.
Sunyata’s name in Chinese has a funny ring to it. It means “about to get off the mountain.” It is not a common saying in Chinese. It even sounds a little Japanese, I asked the owner, Lai Guoping, what’s behind the name. “Getting off the mountain means returning to your roots after the successes in life.” Sunyata means “emptiness” in Sanskrit.
We arrived at Shaxi Sunyata after a three-hour drive through the mountains of Dali. The first thing that struck me was the Bai ladies who helped carry our luggage. They are not the most professional staff like the ones in Bvlgari Shanghai, but they greeted us with the warmest smiles. The younger staff would address the older staff as “big sister” — Ah Jie in Bai ethnic dialect. That set the tone. We were being cared for by our big sisters.
Shaxi, located half way in between the famous tourist towns of Dali and Lijiang, is a sleepy little village. Historically, it served as a major rest stop and market town on the Tea and Horse Caravan route that connected Tibet to the rest of China. The village is filled with old houses, an old open-air opera stage and a temple.
In such an ancient environment, it’s challenging to build a new hotel. But the Sunyata Shaxi lodge strikes the right note. The common front room is large and encased by glass windows. It’s flooded with sunlight during the day and the glow of a fire at night. I loved the rammed earth walls that are remnants of the old house. The garden contains a cement planter filled with rosemary in front of another old yellow house. The architect perfectly blended the old elements with chic minimalist design. It’s a delightful place to chill.
Of course, there are tons of little challenges; in some rooms, I almost bumped my head on the low door frames, and I am only 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Some rooms don’t have radiant heat. I’d avoid those in winter.
My guest Craig Kirkpatrick, who was traveling with me, summed it all up. “The shower, oh mine, the hot water comes instantly. It’s divine.”
Yangshuo was probably the first backpacker town in China’s history. It’s known for the jagged Karst peaks that shoot straight out of the Li River. Images of fishermen in straw hats and capes fishing with cormorants often grace the covers of tour package brochures. Yangshuo, together with the Great Wall and the terra cotta warriors have come to symbolize China to much of the world.
So, not surprisingly, Shangrila, Banyan Tree and a bunch of small local lodges have opened hotels there. But Alila is different.
In its previous incarnation, Alila Yangshuo was a sugar factory. But the factory went bust and Yang Xiaodong, an investor, found it in disrepair and for sale on one of his road trips that he took from Shenzhen to Tibet. Yang bought the plant and the rest is history.
Yang hired a well-respected architect Dong Gong to turn the factory into a hotel. The facade of the factory stayed, the grey brick walls were cleaned and stayed, an elevated old water works connecting the factory and the nearby river stayed. A new swimming pool was dug under the water work’s bridgeway. The whole place is reminiscent of Roman ruins mixed with 1960s communist factory, and makes an incredible contrast up against the precipitous Karst peaks.
The standard hotel rooms are built in a brand new building next to the highway. It is not noisy when you close the door. I’d avoid the ground floor rooms as they tend to be damp and humid. It’s not perfect. The staff is stressed by the immediate influx of Chinese travelers, as the hotel has become a sensation throughout China. But, it’s definitely worth a try in winter — the low season in Yangshuo.
Ahn Luh Lanting
There are only a few hotels I would go to in the rainy season. Amanjiwo in Indonesia is one, and Ahn Luh Lanting is another. The thing I enjoy most about the rain is not getting wet. I love sitting in an open-air balcony with a cup of tea, watching the rain floating down gently, or in Ahn Luh Lanting’s case, pouring down.
This Ahn Luh Lanting Hotel has a few challenges. For one, it’s very hard to spell the name, whether in Chinese or English. Where did all those Hs come from? Then, it’s located in Shaoxing, a lesser-known city two hours outside Shanghai. Other than for the famed local plum wine, and its notoriety as the birthplace of China’s most famous modern writer, Lu Xun, there are few reasons to go there.
But the 88 beautifully designed hotel rooms, tucked in the Aiji Mountains, and spread over 9.2 hectares, are perfect if you are looking for a corporate event or a weekend retreat out of Shanghai.
What appealed to my WildChina colleague, Aki Yang, was the sense that the hotel is not as dressy or garish as many Chinese properties, The Ahn Luh brand feels more grounded in Chinese culture, Aki observes. The houses on this property date from the Qing and Ming dynasties. It took the development company almost a decade to renovate them and build out the property. So far, the development hasn’t been hit by a wave of Chinese tourists.
For me, that’s a good reason to go.
There are many new properties scheduled to open in China in 2019. The Mandarin Oriental in Beijing, the Rosewood in Hong Kong, and many smaller boutique hotels all over China. I cannot wait to get on the road again.
Zhang Mei is the Founder of WildChina, an award winning travel company, and author of “Travels Through Dali with a Leg of Ham” by Penguin Books. She is a native of Southwest China’s Yunnan province and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Originally posted on caixinglobal.com