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[Outbound]: Le Passage, Moganshan

A country house in a tea plantation that makes its own brandy and foie gras. That clean mountain air is two hours away, my friends...
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not.

Moganshan’s been a retreat for Shanghai’s elite since the 1880s. Now the mountain is studded with hotels, from backpacker places like Prodigy to the eco resorts run by naked.
Le Passage Mohkan Shan is the latest addition, a 28-room country house, built using reconditioned materials and timber, designed as a place to go and relax with the family or as a couple, enjoy French cuisine, meet nice people, kick back, bike the hills or wander in the tea plantations that surround the property.

Let’s just come right out and say this: Le Passage absolutely nails all of these things. It’s one of the most attractive, relaxing and friendly places I’ve stayed in China, and it’s only been open for a few months. Getting out of Shanghai can be a drag and it can be expensive. But here is an extremely good reason to make the journey.

A bit of background: Le Passage has been many years in the making. The land was bought half a dozen years ago by a French guy living in Shanghai who wanted a place to bring his family at weekends. When he picked it up, there was little more than a hut here and an abandoned tea factory. Slowly, the family renovated the tea factory, reusing materials — tiles, timber and stone — sourced from around China. More buildings were added. They sunk a heated pool in the back, fed by spring water, and built a library; two dining rooms and a wine cellar went in. A biodynamic tea crop was planted and they filled the place with open fireplaces, antiques and nicely worn furniture.

Dining was always at the core of the concept. This is a place where you go to eat and drink. A rotating roster of chefs comes up from Shanghai and cook here at weekends. The cellar is stuffed with wines from boutique French winemakers. Dinner is a five-course affair. On our visit we had foie gras terrine, a salad of bamboo shoots picked in the forests around the property, French onion soup, sea scallops with leek and black truffles, and roasted duck a l’orange, with apple tart tartin for dessert. Breakfast was equally huge, and we managed to squeeze in Sunday lunch, too —a massive spread of fresh pasta, salads and roast beef.

But despite the elegance of the food and the decor, nothing is stuffy. And this is really where the place excels: while most good hotels and restaurants in China are appealing to their customers by offering five-star food and wine, many fall back on stuffiness in order to ram home their elite credentials. More often than not, this translates into a stiff, unfriendly atmosphere, snooty service and the sensation that all but the most important of VIPs are putting the hotel out, just by being there.

Le Passage is the very opposite. The staff are chatty and full of smiles. The proprietor, Christophe Peres, and his family wander around and might drop in at your table for a glass of wine and a chat about the future direction of the menu. Two friendly dogs plod around the place, the smell of wood fires infuses the air, and everyone seems eager to get to know each other and share their stories. You inevitably end up chatting to other guests, maybe even eating with them or going off for walks or bike rides. It’s like staying at your grandmother’s house, if your grandmother was a wealthy, urbane gourmet cook with excellent taste and an inexhaustible group of smart, interesting friends.

Le Passage harvests its own tea crop, producing yellow, green and black varieties. They also make brandy from the local mountain pears. The site collects and purifies rainwater, heats its water with wood pellet boilers and local ingredients grown on the mountain feature on the menu. However, none of this is done as an eco gimmick. The owner simply likes to use what the local land provides. He’s knowledgeable the history of the mountain and the ornithologists and tea growers who explored it 100 years ago and he also has plenty of his own tales to tell: ask him about the six months he spent cycling across China eight years ago.

The accommodation itself is artfully done: rustic but cozy and comfortable. The rooms have high-ceilings, aged wooden floors and claw-foot bathtubs, and the showers use mountain spring water. Of course, there’s cable TV and DVD players in all the rooms, but you’re not going to come all this way to watch CNN. You come here for the fresh air and scenery, and the hotel abounds with it. Le Passage sits in a valley (called the Valley of Fairies, zing!) surrounded by hiking and biking trails, bamboo forests, a reservoir where you can swim and plenty of little villages for those who want a local meal. They have mountain bikes for guests to use, and staff will suggest routes, from easy jaunts to tough, all-day rides. Private and group yoga classes can also be arranged. Oh yes, they have their own rose gardens, where guests can gather – so we were told – “armfuls” of flowers when they’re in bloom.

Yeah, so we liked the place a lot. Relaxing, friendly, well designed, with excellent food and wine, plus the clean air and rolling hills of Moganshan. So how much is all this going to cost, and how do you get there? We took the train from Hongqiao to Hangzhou, then a car to the property. From boarding the train to checking-in at Le Passage took two hours – an hour on the train and an hour in the car… So, not bad. Most of the other guests had their own cars and they said you could drive from downtown Shanghai in about two and a half hours.

But what does it cost: Deluxe rooms are 1500rmb from Sunday to Thursday or 1800rmb at weekends, and 2100rmb during holidays. Garden rooms are 2200rmb and 2500rmb, or 2800rmb during holidays. Or they have a suite that sleeps four from 2800rmb to 3800rmb. Breakfast is included in the price of all rooms, or you can add full board, which includes that five-course French dinner and lunch, for 800rmb per person (400rmb for kids). Wine is on top of that, with bottles starting at 350rmb. Hmm… Not cheap, but for this level of comfort and style, I was expecting to pay more. In fact, I have paid more, for considerably less memorable weekends.

The only thing that seemed over-priced was there car pick up from Hangzhou, which cost 500rmb each way. I’d say get a cab from the station, if you can find one who’ll take you all that way, and it shouldn’t cost you more than a couple of hundred. Chat up the driver and arrange for him to come back and pick you up the next day.

If you’re thinking about a weekend trip, my suggestion would be to get up early on a Saturday and go down before lunch, which would give you a whole day of lazing around the hotel before dinner, and then you can spend the Sunday exploring the mountain. Weeknight stays would be ideal if you want the place to yourself.

Those rates are also good throughout Chinese New Year, including Valentine’s Day on the 14th. If you’re stuck in this gloomy grey sinkhole next week, that clear mountain air would taste exceedingly sweet.

For our full listing, go here. For full details about the property, check their website here: