I was fortunate to be one of seven agents across the U.S. to be invited to participate in a luxury China trip in September, 2014.
Our itinerary included Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Our hotels were the luxury Aman at Summer Palace and the new Waldorf Astoria, both in Beijing, the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai and the Amanfayun in Hangzhou. All top-end properties.
Beijing - -
Aman at the Summer Palace. This ancient structure is a part of the Summer Palace grounds and Aman has taken these courtyard accommodations in a village-like setting, kept the ambiance so you feel you have traveled back in time, but have made the rooms as luxurious as anything one would find anywhere in the world. Being attached to the Summer Palace, one of the perks of staying here is being admitted to the Summer Palace grounds through a “secret” entrance unavailable to the public. This puts you right in the heart of the Palace grounds, ready to explore. For visiting the Summer Palace as well as the Great Wall, this property is a must, since getting to the Wall is so much easier when you stay toward the outer edges of Beijing. You cut precious drive time off your trip.
Like many people, I have seen the pictures of the Chinese air quality –or, rather, lack of it. Our trip started out looking just like one of the many internet photos of Beijing – not being able to make out the buildings that were just across the road. I call the air ‘smaze.’ The Chinese call the air haze, we call it smog, hence, smaze.
Day one of our trip took us to the Great Wall section called Mu Tian Yu. This is the preferred section to see, as most of the crowds are taken to the VERY crowded Badaling section, closer to Beijing. Mu Tian Yu is approached by a chairlift, as the Wall in this area is way above in the hills. To come down from the wall, you can either take the chairlift back down or take an alpine slide where you are on a one-person sled going down a very twisty-turny track. The Wall is in good shape in this section with steep hills and crooked steps, but still a lot of fun to roam this iconic site.
After leaving the Great Wall, we returned to the Summer Palace and did a long walking tour around the grounds. The last resident of the Summer Palace was called the “Dragon Lady” and led a very controversial life. The Summer Palace is a huge area with a very large lake, bridges, many temples and all kinds of small and large palaces. This is a must see on anyone’s Beijing itinerary.
We changed hotels, sadly departing the Aman at Summer Palace, but anxious to see the new Waldorf Astoria in the heart of the best area of Beijing. We were not disappointed. This hotel is a WOW!
Day 2 and we’re off to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Smaze is the air of the day on this day as well. Tiananmen Square can hold 1 million people so you get the idea of how huge it really is. Guides are not allowed to talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square revolt. The Forbidden City is just across the way. Since the Forbidden City was home to the Emperors, it’s massive -- they really never left the grounds. It was a lovely experience to walk through the middle door which only emperors could pass through.
We had lunch at the Four Seasons – A gorgeous hotel a bit farther out from the heart of the city, and lends itself to being more of a business hotel.
Day 3 – Upon opening my curtains to check the smaze outside, I was shocked and thought I might be dreaming to see blue-bird blue sky, the sun smiling down on the city and hills around Beijing ! Who knew there were hills around Beijing? I considered an alternative universe for a moment as I could not wrap my mind around the kind of air quality experienced the past two days. It was a brilliant day and changed the entire complexion of the city. It was the perfect day to see the Pandas perform for us at the zoo and then off to the Lama Temple to see the infusion of Tibetan and Han Dynasty architecture and art. This temple survived destruction during the Cultural Revolution.
We returned later to the Waldorf Astoria and had a cooking lesson in making dumplings. We went to a wonderful local 3 Sisters Dumpling restaurant in one of the hutongs for a fabulous lunch.
Shanghai – Paris of the Orient
Day 4 - We departed Beijing on China Eastern for Shanghai. Once again we were privately taken to the fabulous Waldorf Astoria along the Bund on the Puxi side. Along the way we stopped to see the 4* Sofitel which is very close to the pedestrian shopping street of Nanjing. It’s a lovely hotel but you do NOT want the lead-in rate room. It’s very small and when you walk into the room, you’re in the bathroom. The weirdest floor plan I’ve ever seen.
The Shanghai Waldorf gave us huge one-bedroom suites with lovely river views. The bathrooms are very large and luxurious. This hotel has a tower wing where we stayed and a beautiful heritage building that is all suites. This is my favorite hotel in Shanghai. I had a straight-on view of the twenty-year old Pudong side of the river as it started to light up for the evening. What an amazing view.
I love the feel of Shanghai. It’s energetic and vibrant, offering a very Westernized ambiance in style.The newer Pudong side has such beautiful hotels as the Portman Ritz Carlton, the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, the Shangri-la, the Langham and the Andaz to mention a few. Amazing to know the Pudong side of Shanghai is only 20 years old.
Shanghai is a walking city, especially around the Bund area.People hang out along the water walk-way, people watching and strolling.
We also had a chance to visit the magnificent Peninsula Hotel, also on the Puxi side but at the very end of the Bund. Their roof-top terrace bar gives a wonderful view of the colorful Pudong buildings at night. We were guests of the Peninsula Hotel on their private yacht for a twilight river cruise. Seeing both sides of the Huangpu from the water is a very different perspective as you watch the buildings light up on both sides to create the evening’s eye candy.
DAY 5 – Yu Gardens
Besides the great shopping Shanghai offers, there is tucked away inside their version of a touristic outdoor shopping mall a little treasure of a place called Yu Gardens.
This dates back to 1559! But to get into these gorgeous gardens, you must travel through the shopping mart - every souvenir you can imagine is here in case you need to catch up on your shopping. They have some lovely jewelry stores selling pearls, jade, coral at very good prices.
I was a bit sad to leave Shanghai – I truly enjoyed this city even for the short time we were there.
DAY 6 – SHANGHAI TO HANGZHOU BY BULLET TRAIN
I LOVE trains! Was so excited to be taking their fast train – 1 hour – between these two cities. We had first class seating which was very comfortable. Interesting enough, the business class on the train was more luxurious than the first class. This is because politicians are not allowed to use first class for government travel, but they can use business class -- so the trains have made business class more expensive and comfortable than first so they can travel in “business class” and not get in trouble!
Hangzhou ~ The Garden City
We arrived in Hangzhou at a very futuristic station where apparently no one is allowed to sit. There were vast, vast terminals with no seats !
Hangzhou is in tea plantation country. It’s known for beautiful West Lake, and an important historic site when the Song Dynasty was chased this far south by the Jin Dynasty and set up shop in Hangzhou. This is a small-ish city by Chinese standards, with lots and lots of green spaces and parks. It was one of the Chairman’s favorite places to holiday.
Our stay was at the fabulous village resort, Amanfayun, another classic and unique Aman property. The hotel was an old village that Aman completely renovated with all the necessary amenities, but retaining the old village feel. It’s a very charming hotel My only niggle is the lighting in the room. They have all kinds of amenities in the rooms, including flashlights. Thank God for those. Even with all the lights on, I needed my flashlight to negotiate my way around the room. Food was okay at this property. I might have just been tired of eating by this time.
From this resort, you can walk to the Buddha Rock with hundreds of carved buddhas – all different – carved in the rock face. From there you went on to the Buddhist Temple that is very different from the others we visited. The carvings here are exquisite.
We took a boat ride on West Lake – on the same boat that Ho Chi Minh took when he visited this area years ago. It looked that old, too. There were far nicer boats on the lake. After the cruise, we visited the Four Seasons Hangzhou for an incredibly delicious lunch.This hotel is very beautiful in a peaceful, serene setting near the lake front. It’s a great location.
Our last night in Hangzhou, we went back to West Lake to see the ever popular water show produced by Mr. Zhang Yimou, who was responsible for both the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. It was a plethora of color, haunting music and beautiful costumes. They perform it on a stage that is 3 centimeters beneath the lake’s surface so the illusion is that they’re doing this all on top of the water. I’m so glad that the guide explained the story to us beforehand so we had a clue as to what was happening. It was a real treat. We had royal box seats – first row, which is definitely the way to go.
The trip came to its conclusion and we had to say good-bye to the mystical land of China. It was a wonderful lifetime experience. Everyone should see this immense, diverse and magical country at least once.
For more information or assistance with your adventure, contact Linda Lewis.