I like hotels. Rather, I like when hotels do good. For me, that means they have a sense of place. They feel like the area you’ve traveled to. At their best, they really make you feel as if you’ve traveled somewhere, not just ended up in a sterile room in an unfamiliar city without the creature comforts of home.
So I keep a list — a list of places that look interesting to me, either for their setting or their design or their food, or preferably all three — and I’m quickly working my way through that list now that international destinations are off the table. This is that list.
A few points:
- My list is almost exclusively for places within a two-hour high-speed train ride away. (I make exceptions for Anhui and Jiangxi.)
- There are many great hotels that are cheaper than the ones on my list. This isn’t a comprehensive guide. It’s my list of places I like or I would like to like, when I have the time, money and motivation. Maybe you’ll find a place on here that inspires you to take a trip as well.
- I have been to a lot of these hotels over the years, some many many times. But not all of them! That’s why they are still on my list.
- My prices came from a Ctrip search for Saturday, August 15, because that’s in the future. It’s arbitrary but is at least a rough guide to prices.
- I didn’t include city hotels as a category (though two of the historical hotels are in a city) because I’m saving that for later.
Ok, the hotels!
ON THE WATER
Jiangnan, the area south of the Yangtze River where almost all of these hotels (and Shanghai!) are located, is cut across with canals, rivers, creeks and wetlands, and dotted with lakes of varying degrees of beauty and fame. Hangzhou wins the manicured, cultured lake award for West Lake, which is kind of a fantasy of what a lake should like look as envisaged through Chinese literati and imperial eyes. Beautiful place. Abuts the city and the famous tea fields of Longjing and surrounding villages.
Four Seasons Hangzhou (杭州西子湖四季酒店) is the king of the lake, among luxury hotels, with an infinity pool looking over the wetlands (not the actual “lake” lake), an extremely well-regarded Chinese restaurant in Jin Sha (金沙) and an indoor pool surrounded by massive wood columns and daybeds, giving it the feel of some international mastermind’s secret lair.
Prices are painful, to be honest (3,625rmb and up), but if you want a taste of the amenities, you can always buy a day-pass for 400rmb that gets you into the pools and the grounds of the hotel for a few hours (for first-timers; after that, 800rmb). Or go for dinner. Jin Sha, which does highly refined Jiangnan and Hangzhou food, is open to the public.
Hangzhou is also very well-known for its Xixi wetlands, though not really well-known in the English-speaking world. For 2,013rmb, you can stay right in the wetlands at the Muh Shoou Xixi Hotel (杭州木守西溪酒店), which was designed by the same architecture firm (GOA) as the Four Seasons.
Alternatively, there’s a spa-focused Banyan Tree Hangzhou (杭州西溪悦榕庄) on the east side of the wetlands from 3,199rmb per night. Think about going to this place for dinner.
An hour away from Hangzhou on the train (and two hours from Hongqiao Station), Ningbo’s Dongqian Lake has a big tourist economy on holidays but is still a very relaxing place to spend a few days. There are a few international resorts around — the Hilton (宁波东钱湖华茂希尔顿度假酒店, from 1,119rmb) is nice and has a great Chinese restaurant name Qian Hu Ge (钱湖阁) for Ningbo specialties like river shrimp and braised black carp tails (it’s a thing) — but Park Hyatt Ningbo Resort & Spa (宁波柏悦酒店, from 2,166rmb) rules over all the other hotels.
It was the first Park Hyatt in China but still maintains a high wow factor, with a canal-side setting and an absolutely fantastic Chinese restaurant called Qian Hu Yu Gang (钱湖渔港), or the rather bland “Seafood House” in English.
Can’t overstate how much I enjoyed this restaurant for its regional cooking: a ton of yellow croaker dishes, a tea-smoked Mandarin fish, chewy niangao, clams cooked with spring onion oil, and many more. It’s expensive — the hotel and the restaurant — but if you have a thing for great Chinese cooking, Ningbo’s salty palate and restaurants that embrace local ingredients, maybe you’d like it too. And unless you are ordering luxury seafood, it’s not that expensive. Maybe 500rmb per person. Also the only restaurant in all of Ningbo to have two diamonds from Dianping’s Black Pearl guide.
At least two other boutique hotels stand out in this region for water views (and probably way more): Ahn Luh’s 84-room retreat (千岛湖安麓酒店) on the shoreline of Qiandao Lake (two hours from Shanghai by high-speed train), and a much more accessible, minimalist spot in Wuzhen (阿丽拉乌镇) from the Alila brand.
Ahn Luh only has three hotels in China, all in Jiangnan, all beautiful takes on Chinese tradition; Alila also has three, including Wuzhen, though it is now part of the Hyatt group. Neither brand is cheap. Ahn Luh Qiandao Lake starts from 2,432rmb. Alila Wuzhen is about the same at 2,478rmb.
The Yihe Mansions (南京颐和公馆, from 1,064rmb) in Nanjing are a group of villas built in the Republic of China period (1912-1949) and mostly in the 1920s. The Nanjing National Goverment led by Chiang Kai-shek ran the city for 22 years, from 1927 to 1949, and Chiang drafted a plan in his first year of governing the new national capital designating the area around Yihe Lu as the "Mansion District". It quickly became the home to official and military elites. In 2006, the city government began restoring 26 of the villas in the district, which now comprise the Yihe Mansions hotel, operated by the Relais & Chateaux group.
The Garden Hotel Suzhou (苏州南园宾馆, from 844rmb) was built on the site of Chiang Kai-shek’s former villa, named Lixi Pavilion (丽夕阁). It was completed in 1927 for Yao Yecheng, one of Chiang’s concubines, before he married Song Meiling. Yao was originally from Suzhou. She and Chiang didn’t have children but she later adopted and raised Chiang’s second son, Jiang Weiguo, living at the Pavilion for seven years.
In 2003, the hotel took over the land from the Suzhou government and spent several years and several million rmb completing the hotel, which opened in 2007, the same year Lixi Pavilion was listed as a national historical site. The big compound is now part museum but mostly hotel, though they offer tours (in Mandarin) of the grounds for all guests. Even just walking around, you can glimpse an old limousine in the garage and a private temple. Go eat these.
The West Lake State Guest House (杭州西湖国宾馆, from 1,380rmb) in Hangzhou was originally three private gardens: one from the Liu family, one from the Kang family and one from a family no one seems willing to talk about. Liu Xuexun, the patriarch of the Liu family, was a politically active and wealthy scholar originally from Guangdong, and close partner of Sun Yat-sen. After a failed uprising in 1900, Liu settled on West Lake — his longtime wish — and spent eight years building his private garden. It was gifted — ahem — to the new government in 1953 and now makes up the majority of the hotel's grounds.
Kang Youwei was the patriarch of the Kang family. His private garden, called Yi Tian Yuan (一天园), was north of Liu's garden. He was a political rival of Liu, and his party had once planned Liu's assassination. After Kang's reform agenda failed in 1899, he moved abroad, returning in 1913 and buying land near Liu's place — a move intended to irk Liu. Kang built a villa for his art collection. The whole property was again gifted to the government in the 1950s.
In 1953, Mao drafted New China’s first Constitution while at Liu’s Garden, which had not yet been turned into the hotel. He later spent quite some time at Liu and Kang’s old place, resting and studying English. In February 1972, the Sino-America Joint Communique was drafted and signed at the garden’s octagonal pavilion, marking the re-establishing of ties between the US and China for the first time in decades. Nixon and Zhou Enlai were both there. The hotel opened the following year, and is now the go-to for heavyweight international leaders when they visit Hangzhou, from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama.
The Chinese countryside is really beautiful, if you know where to look. In the last five years or so, there has been a massive wave of minsu — small-scale hotels kind of like B&Bs in the west — opening up in rural areas. I toured a bunch of them a few years back in southern Anhui to pick out favorites. They are everywhere, and most can be booked on Ctrip and other Chinese hotel booking sites.
My all-time favorite is the third Pig’s Inn, in the southern Anhui village of Bishan (碧山) called the Old Oil Factory (黄山猪栏酒吧乡村客栈老油厂店). It used to be a pressing facility for all the canola that grows in the area and blooms in April. Now it’s a small hotel with outstanding countryside cooking. There are two other Pig’s Inn locations, one literally up the road in a former merchant’s house and one about 20 minutes away in the ancient town of Xidi. Stay in the Old Oil Factory. So much charm. Rooms start at 1,334rmb.
That whole area of southern Anhui used to be called Huizhou and it extended into Jiangxi as well. That’s where you’ll find Ed and Selina Gawne, and their two-year-old daughter, who live in a 300-year-old house they restored and turned into a small hotel, Wuyuan Skywells (婺源天净沙英国洋民宿). Gawne gave up on Shanghai a few years back and went and did something pretty cool. Rooms start at 636rmb.
Back in Zhejiang, Alila’s second hotel (阿丽拉·安吉) is out in the middle of nowhere but technically in Anji (it’s a big county), right on the edge of a small lake. You need a car to get here and some money to spring for a lake view villa (two rooms, bathtub big enough for four, panoramic views of the lake from the bed) but the Chinese restaurant is quite good and not as expensive as you’d think. Rooms are 2,478rmb, lake view villas are 4,361rmb.
Two more options in Hangzhou, one affordable and the other aspirational. The first is called the Lushmon Retreat (杭州龙井茂居酒店, from 1,051rmb) and it’s a tiny property up in the tea fields. SmSh stayed there in April 2019.
The second is the Amanfayun (杭州法云安缦). Yeah. The one that starts from about 5,462rmb. That they designed to look like a forgotten Chinese village, hidden up in one of the valleys. It’s 20 minutes from downtown Hangzhou and marketed as a spiritual escape, on a pilgrimage circuit of seven ancient Buddhist temples.
The rich! So enlightened!
In that same spirit — honeymoon, annual bonus, self-destructive financial habits — there is the Kayumanis Nanjing Private Villas & Spa (南京香樟华苹酒店), a retreat with 19 villas. Each one has a private swimming pool.
The rich! So aquatic!
It’s one of only two Kayumanis properties in China; the other is in Yangshuo. The Nanjing one is in the village of Sizhuang, outside of town, on the site of imperial hotsprings. If you can absorb the cost, make sure to call ahead; as of July 2020, they are only allowed to accept Chinese guests.
Finally, Ahn Luh also has a rural property in Shaoxing, about 12km from downtown, named Lanting (绍兴·兰亭安麓酒店). The smallest rooms at the 88-room property are 60-80 square meters, and they go up quickly from there in size and price (the entry-level rooms start at 2,395rmb). If you like traditional Chinese architecture, want to get away from the city but also want someone to give you fresh towels twice a day, this one is particularly appealing. It was designed by Jaya Ibrahim, the same designer who did The Puli hotel in Shanghai.