Zhang Mei: As Covid Restrictions Loosen, Where to Stay in China in 2021
Zhang Mei is the founder of WildChina, an award-winning travel company, and author of “Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham.”
It’s cliche to say that 2020 was a year lost to Covid-19, but in the China travel sphere, it’s really true. I personally haven’t been back to China for the entire year, while I used to go monthly. As travel rules imposed for the Lunar New Year have now expired, those inside the country are able to roam around with far less fuss. Lucky them.
So, here’s a review of hotels written and then shelved in 2020, dusted-off and shared for the first time. I hope you’ll get to enjoy these places soon.
In 2018, Chinese undertook 5.54 billion domestic trips. Given there are 1.4 billion Chinese people, that works out to everyone traveling an average of four times a year! And, the number of domestic trips for 2019 is expected to be up another 10%. This is a battleground no hotelier can afford to ignore.
This makes it tough for hoteliers, but great for travelers: better service, prices, and experiences. Rather than ranking the hotels, I thought I’d highlight a few that represent the trends I’ve noticed.
Rosewood Hong Kong
Luxury hotels in big cities have to go for an extra marathon, not mile. The comfortable king bed with a fluffy duvet and heated toilet seats, once symbols of luxury, are now standard. The intense competition is now in creativity and execution of excellence.
Rosewood Hong Kong opened in March 2019 near a long-time Hong Kong icon — the Peninsula Hotel. The queen mother of Hong Kong hotels. This would have thwarted any hotelier. But Rosewood, the young belle at the ball, debuted with all the riches Hong Kong offers. The 322 guestrooms start at a spacious 53 square meters (570 square feet) and come equipped with a Dyson hairdryer in every room. The view of Victoria Harbour captures the slow crawl of cargo ships, the zipping of yachts, and of course, the neon lights of skyscrapers on Hong Kong island against the backdrop of Victoria Peak.
Beyond the glitzy hardware, the service details are subtle but impressive. There’s a curated selection of books in each room, and the choices can ease the panic of anyone who forgot their Kindle. I picked up “Rules for Modern Life” by Sir David Tang, thinking he might give me some pointers on how to enjoy this luxurious hotel. It was entertaining to read about the differences in etiquette between flying private and commercial. Not that I’m going to be able to use that advice any time soon, but it’s always good to be prepared. I put it down open-faced to mark my page. When I returned in the evening, the book was closed, and a silver bookmark with an embossed Rosewood logo was marking my page.
I walked into the bathroom to wash my hands. The octagonal soap bar was standing up on one of its sides. I wonder who on the Rosewood team dreamed up this detail, so guests won’t struggle with prying the flat soap off the tray.
The General Manger Marc Brugger tells me the brand is all about a sense of place. He previously launched Rosewood Beijing to sensational success, and now he is scoring for a second time in Hong Kong. The only catch is the $600 a night price tag (I stayed as a guest of the hotel, thank you Marc!). I am happy to mark my own page and struggle with my own soap.
Mandarin Oriental Beijing
Mandarin Oriental Beijing pushes luxury in a healthy direction towards sustainability.
There is a Chinese phrase that says “happy things take time.” This applies to the Mandarin Oriental (MO) Beijing. It took 10 years for MO to open in Beijing. Back in 2009, MO was about to open in a building adjacent to the iconic CCTV tower. Sadly, a fireworks display set the building ablaze. Puff, everything was gone, together with MO’s Beijing dream.
In March 2019, MO Beijing opened a boutique hotel with 79 elegant rooms. What I love most about this property is the morning run. When the streets were still quiet, I took two lefts from the door of the hotel, and there were the red walls, moat, and drooping willows of the magnificent Forbidden City. My route took me in a 5 kilometer loop around the rectangular imperial palace complex. The best place to stop to take a snap is the northeast corner, where the moat stretches south and west, creating a beautiful reflection for the corner tower and the clouds above. There are also local residents sitting patiently by their fishing poles, a must-see in Beijing.
Now on sustainability. I checked in at 10 p.m. There was an iPad by the bed. The sustainability page’s offerings intrigued me: air purifier, bed linen, bath towels and house-bottled Nordaq water. I have always hated the confusion at hotels — some tell me to put a card on bed to have linen washed, others say the reverse. Here, it’s simple. With one click, I set my linen to be changed every three days. Same for the towels. The best is the house-bottled water. I ticked the box to have the plastic bottles replaced and put the iPad down. Within 10 minutes, a lovely young lady knocked on my door with a tray of water in glass bottles, which they clean and reuse. It was 10:30 p.m. I was impressed.
Think back to the 5.5 billion trips Chinese take. If every hotel did what MO is doing, we’d save countless billions of plastic bottles. Keep competing on sustainability, I love it.
The River Hotel Collection
Design, design, design. These are the three golden rules for small boutique hotels today. The River Hotel Collection embodies these rules in every way.
One of my best trips in 2019 was visiting Xia Yuqing, a successful hotelier in Ningxia. Ningxia Hui autonomous region is firmly off the beaten path, and is one of China’s less-developed regions. It’s better known for its coal production than its tourism. But Xia brought together a few well-known Chinese brands like Xipo and Xuli and built a cluster of handsome bed and breakfasts, collectively marketed under The River Hotels in a small city called Zhongwei.
Surrounded by yellow sand, Zhongwei is on the southern edge of the Tengger Desert. We drove for 30 minutes from the airport, crossed the Yellow River on a pontoon bridge and then turned onto a small paved road. We were met by a cluster of yellow houses sandwiched between the Yellow River and a stretch of the ancient Great Wall. Their concrete walls are sand colored to mimic local rammed-earth construction. The interiors are beautifully designed, modern with clean lines. White puffy duvets on huge mattresses on a raised “kang” — a northern Chinese style of a built-in bed — seem to invite you to lie down for a nap.
The site offers the exotic charm of desert life. Within a few minutes, I climbed to the top of a hill with a renovated stretch of the Great Wall. The view from the top is stunning. The Yellow River flows peacefully by; desert flowers surprise you with dazzling purples, blues, and yellows. Trains run on the ridge on the other side of the river, choo-chooing across the vast landscape. There was no one else, just me with a wide stretch of time and space. Magical and peaceful.
Well-to-do Chinese millennials arrive with what seemed like an entire desert wardrobe, all sorts of white dresses, khaki pants and Golden Goose sneakers. Xia knows very well that the majority of his clients are here to post about their voyage on social media. He and his team create rustic dinners by the river or in the desert. The tables are set with wine glasses, gas lamps on dried branches, white linen and tanned folding chairs. The dishes may be limited, but they are picture perfect.
There are five B&B brands within the collection and each has four to 15 rooms only, and they are individually designed and operated. Since opening in February 2019, the occupancy rate shot to 99.85% in August. Book early.
Hidden Valley Resort
Hidden Valley Resort has brought glamping to Shangri-La, Yunnan province.
We arrived in Hidden Valley on a snowy day. After driving through the empty streets of a small Tibetan village outside of Shangri-La town, we walked into a different world. In the main living room of the hotel, there was a roaring fire, steaming hot ginger tea, the warm smiles of the Tibetan staff, and our gregarious host Peter Ho.
Peter and three other friends are all from Singapore but this pristine valley ignited their imagination, and a few years later, this charming resort came into being, with one more local Tibetan partner investing his family land into the business.
The five tents and the nine rooms in the Tibetan house are all designed with comfort in mind. There is a stove in each room. Large windows frame the mountains in the distance. An enchanting setting for a relaxing stay.
The part I love most is the staff. They are all local villagers who can practically walk to work. Their warm smiles and eagerness make you feel at home. I asked if I could go see their homes, one of them said, sure, would you like to come and visit my mom for some yak butter tea? Next time, I’ll do that after a day’s hike to an alpine lake or a monastery.
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