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The first choice in the gorge

Silks Place Taroko, Taiwan

 

Silks Place | © Stephan Burianek

 

Taiwan’s most famous natural site was formed by a river called Liwu. In the course of millions of years it continuously has worked its way down, sharply cutting through the granite and marble of the island’s Central Mountain Range. The Japanese once named the canyon Taroko and therefore it is generally known by Westerners as the Taroko Gorge. Chinese call it Tàilǔgé (太鲁阁). The gorge itself is characterized by a highway that was built in the 1950s – mainly for defense reasons – by 40,000 soldiers, and which nowadays can become especially crowded on weekends. To experience the most scenic parts of the area, people can hike on the numerous trails along and around Liwu River (立霧溪). The area has the status of a national park that covers 27 peaks over 3000 meters (9842 feet) above sea level.

 

Hardly any buildings had been allowed to be erected in this area, which is why accommodations are rare. Not surprisingly, however, they did an exception for Taiwan’s longtime dictator Chiang Kai-shek, who had a villa right on the picturesque spot where the Taisai River flows into the Liwu River. Like other similar residences this site was finally democratized by building a hotel in 1997. Being part of the Gran Formosa hotel group, it is today called Silks Place (晶英酒店).

 

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With a swimming pool, three hot tubs, and a tennis hard court on its roof, it is without a doubt the best hotel far and wide. My Gorge View Room had the classical guest room blueprint, with the bathroom next to the entrance aisle that led to a rectangular bedroom. Its window offered a nice view to the Liwu River and to the Tianfeng Pagoda (天峰塔) on the steep and rocky hill on the other side. The brown shaded interior was rather simple and followed the Zen style approach of the entire building.

 

Throughout the hotel I noticed a certain, somewhat muggy smell that seemed to originate from the cream-colored carpets. That’s why the next time I would rather choose one of the so-called Honeymoon Studios which have wooden floors as part of an emphatic minimalistic design. They are part of the more expensive Retreat Floor, which means that guests also have access to the Retreat Lounge and hence to its 24-hour beverage service.

 

The Silks Place includes some very special venues and services, like an ample kindergarten, the Kid’s Club. On the Roof Floor guests can attend Yoga classes in the morning, and at night there are complimentary dance and music performances on the terrace. I especially liked the elegant white marble sculptures by Tsai Ming-guan (蔡明冠). The sculptor personally changes and rearranges his artworks from time to time and hence adds an arty touch to the hotel.

 

The Mei Yuan restaurant is said to be very good. It derived its name from the plum garden in front of the hotel and serves Chinese and other Asian food, using local ingredients. Don’t ask why, but I had dinner in the Western cuisine restaurant instead. It’s called Wellesley and serves “steaks” without distinguishing between beef types, cuts or even the gradation of doneness. My colleague, to be fair, was extremely happy with his salmon.

 

All in all I would say that the Silks Place is a very simpatico hotel with a great location.

 

Hotel website

 

 

A majestic spot in the mystical heart of Taiwan

The Lalu Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan

 

View from The Lalu's top level down to the Sun Moon Lake | © Stephan Burianek

 

Did he say left or was it right? Less than a minute after having received the directions from the friendly smiling bellboy I can’t remember anymore. Okay, I did not listen particularly carefully, to be honest, but finding a hotel room is usually not that much of a challenge.

 

However, I did not anticipate the architectural consistency of The Lalu’s minimalistic design. Banishing signs might raise the optical poshness of a place, but not even the most perfect elegance will be able to lead you into the right direction after getting out of an elevator for the first time. Of course I took the wrong turn.

 

But this story is not meant to criticize The Lalu’s architecture; I am actually intending the contrary. The Zen style design of this magnificent building covering a rock at the shore of Taiwan’s legendary Sun Moon Lake (日月潭) is absolutely beautiful. It was designed by Kerry Hill Architects. Founded by an Australian in Singapore, this company is also responsible for today’s appearance of other outstanding accommodations like the Amannusa (Bali), the Alila Manggis (Indonesia), or the The Datai Langkawi (Malaysia). As fittingly described on the Design Hotel’s website, Kerry Hill’s work is characterized by “clean lines and a low profile sense for luxury”.

 

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The hotel is following a top-to-bottom concept: The lobby is located on the top floor, the eighth, from where the guests go down to reach their rooms. The main wing of the hotel is actually built in front of the hill, standing more or less by itself. All guest rooms have a lake view. And it seems that all the rooms also have a nice terrace with movable sun shades made of wood slats. There was even an additional bed on the terrace. In fact, the finally conquered guest room on level four provided me with a lot of enjoyment. Teak wood was its dominant material, which created a warm atmosphere. I also liked the orchids that added a certain kind of friendliness. The bath room area was connected with the bedroom by two open doors. As often, the minimalistic design also bore some challenges. I spent quite some time to search for the mirror light switches in the bath room, and it took even longer (a whole day and night, in fact) before I found the air-con control pad hidden in the bed. I could have asked, of course, but men don’t ask, right?

 

The lake view from my terrace was majestic, even in a literal sense: The actual hotel is built on the very same spot as one of Chiang Kai-shek’s villas. Taiwan’s erstwhile dictator owned around a dozen villas, which were all located on the most beautiful spots of the island. The Lalu (涵碧樓) peninsula was one of these sites. The name, by the way, is an expression derived from the language of the native Thao tribe, which used to live at this place, and which still is sacred to them. During the Japanese colonial time the former two lakes – the Sun Lake and the Moon Lake – were united by creating a water power plant and by flooding most of the peninsula. The power plant still exists, which is why the Sun Moon Lake is today called the Heart of Taiwan, as it provides many parts of the island with electricity. Besides that, the lake has become a busy touristic site, with a popular bicycle pathway, ferryboats and pagodas on the surrounding hills. Incidentally, Chiang Kai-shek even had his own chapel near the villa (he had to convert before marrying his wife, who is said to have been the real dictator in fact). It is very simple and now open to the public.

 

The Lalu’s cuisine thoroughly meets high expectations. The breakfast buffet has a good selection and also offers local “Assam” tea (a bit odd, as it is very light, hence everything but Assam). Besides a Japanese restaurant the hotel also houses a Chinese restaurant, which is said to be very good. For reasons that are not interesting enough for fussy explanations, I finally landed in the third restaurant, called The Oriental Brasseries, and had some Western food there. It was good but not outstanding.

 

At the end it would not be fair to point out the beautiful location and the felicitous architecture without mentioning the obliging staff of this original property. After my hotel room quest finally had turned out to be successful, I decided to refresh myself down on level zero, in the heated 60-meters outdoor pool. It was a misty day, with a cold wind slightly blowing; no wonder I was the only one out there. When I got out of the swimming pool the pool boy approached me with a steaming cup on a plate. “Some ginger tea for you.” Wow, thank you! The staff at The Lalu really made me feel pampered.

 

Hotel’s website

 

A monolith of luxury

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Kempinski Suzhou

 

How different was the Kempinski to the Pingjiangfu, where we had stayed before! Located in a high-rise building way out of Suzhou’s city center, the Kempinski hotel tries to show off with its dimensions. Everything is enormous there: Its very own garden at the Dushu Lake, the 50 meter indoor pool, the water wall in the lobby, and the chandeliers in the ballroom with its gigantic Swarowski chandeliers. There is even a golf course nearby, at least for a maximum of 20 hotel guests per day.

 

Most of the guests stay for business purposes – about 80 percent, according to the hotel – which might be the reason for the missing of the fruit basket, which has become an enjoyable habit in the majority of five-star-hotels around the globe. Apart from the welcoming lobby the architecture could generally be described as stone-cold sober, especially in the hallways.

 

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I was allowed to move into an executive suite, which unsurprisingly had a business look, nevertheless it had all someone could wish for: a lot of space, a marbled bathroom, a panoramic view, and – most importantly – a perfectly cozy bed. Being accommodated in a suite, I had the chance to visit also the Executive Lounge. It’s nice there, but due to the restricted time periods for alcoholic drinks (only three and a half hours per day) it is not the best place for neither a good-morning bubbly nor a good-night beer.

 

 

In Europe I had stayed in several other Kempinski properties before, where I learned to appreciate the brand’s generally high level of customer service. Although the staff in Suzhou was smiling friendly anywhere in the hotel, they obviously had not have been trained in flexibility. It needed a lot of arguments to add the price of the swim cap – which you can’t lend, only buy in order to use the gigantic pool – to the room bill. Furthermore buying a simple train ticket via the concierge became quite an extensive project. Again, it was not possible to add the expenses to the room bill. The concierge only accepted cash, so I had to go back to my room. When I came back he said that he needed my passport in order to make a copy of it. I refused to go up again and asked him to get it from his colleagues at the reception desk. He told me to come back in the afternoon to pick the ticket up. I already felt too exhausted to ask why he would not send the ticket up to my room. Anyway, in the afternoon there was no ticket, but another concierge. The new concierge did not know anything about my ticket, so I had to explain everything again. He found the envelope of my order, still with the cash in it, so obviously nothing had been done. He asked me to come again the next day in the morning. On the next day of course I met a third concierge, who did not know about my case. To make it short: I finally got the tickets, but the whole procedure was quite vexing.

 

But let’s focus on the positive things: Beer lovers will enjoy the “Paulaner Brauhaus” (Paulaner brewery) on the ground floor. The beer is brewed on the spot, with German barley malt and Chinese water. However, we were rather looking for something local and had dinner at the Wang Hu Ge restaurant (望湖阁中餐厅) which turned out to become definitely one of the best food venues we visited on the entire trip.

 

 

The dinner started with a discovery: Sweet lotus roots, cooked and sliced, with glutinous rice in its holes. It was followed by a couple of traditional Suzhou dishes, like the famous “squirrel fish” (松鼠桂鱼), a sweet and sour mandarin fish (Chinese perch) presented with its mouth-opened head and striped tail fin facing upwards. Little flat chestnut cakes were served in union with fabulous Dong Po pork. This dish is said to go back to the poet Su Dongpo (蘇東坡). At the Kempinski the pork belly comes sliced in a pyramid shape, with bamboo shots inside – as shown in the video below (in German, sorry guys!). A tofu stew included Chinese mustard leaves, and the Lion Head dumplings (狮子头) seemed to consist of crab meat only, replacing the pork meat in other places. As dessert we chose a Thousand Layers Cake. There were no layers, but a lot of Azuki beans inside (红豆千层糕). What else should I write about this yummy place…choose the Kempinski for your stay in Suzhou or not, but in any case go to the Wang Hu Ge restaurant!

 

 

Hotel website

The hidden gem in the middle of a magnet

Pingjiangfu Hotel, Suzhou

 

The largest lake in the Jiangsu province is called Taihu („Big Lake”). Situated between Nanjing and Shanghai, this freshwater treasure did not only have a huge influence on the Jiangsu cuisine; it was also the source of many picturesque sandstone formations that can be found in the famous classical gardens of Suzhou (苏州), a city near the shore of the lake. These gardens today are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No wonder that our expectations were pretty high.

 

To make it short: We loved the gardens, but we were a bit disappointed not to find much left what was once called the “Venice of the East”. Most of the former canals and its arched bridges were extinguished a long time ago; neither had we found as much historical houses as expected. There was more or less one street, right next to a remaining canal that seemed to bring back the old times: It is a pedestrian zone called Pingjiangfu, which turned out to be a hotspot for the newly-and-soon-to-be-married.

 

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Right next to that tourism magnet and well secluded behind a broad drive, there is a “Small Luxury Hotel” which is named after the famous street: Pingjiangfu (平江府). The 130 rooms are situated in two buildings of a former weaving mill in the back of the property. My room was quiet, and I liked its original blue print: While entering, the bath tub (which included the shower) was situated on the left, behind a frosted window glass. On the right there was the lavatory, with the toilet in the back. It would be exaggerative to call the room spacious, but due to the open space concept we did not feel cramped. The Chinese style furniture referred to Suzhou’s tradition and appeared to be of high manufacturing quality.

 

 

Besides that, the modern low-key interior design throughout the whole property is absolutely inventive. I would call it minimalistic with Chinese imprints. This not only counts for the hallways, which are decorated with antique Chinese country-style furniture, but also for the spa facilities, which include an indoor swimming pool, a gym, and a beauty salon. This hotel very well combines Chinese traditions and western requirements.

 

But there is something else that makes this hotel special, namely the historic entrance building with its 350-years-old garden. Besides the lobby it houses a neat traditional tea house with a small saloon in the first floor, and a cosy smoker’s lounge on the second level. When the weather is fine, people can enjoy their tea right next to a pond in a classical Suzhou-style garden in front of the tea house. The name of the garden is Bàn Yuán (半圆), which is a wordplay: It can be translated either as “half-circle” or as “half-garden”, both of which refer to its size and shape.

 

The hotel’s only restaurant turned out to be an insiders’ tip. It serves classical Suzhou cuisine at its best. We had the famous mini-shrimps from the Taihu. Peeling them must have been a painstaking work. They were stir-fried in sesame oil and came with a glass of local Biluochun (碧螺春) tea, which is meant to be poured over the dish. Furthermore we tried soft slices of eels in an oily sauce. It was delicious although probably not the best for people on diet. We also enjoyed a chicken soup that had little eggs (probably quail) in it. A great choice were also the Baozi, with a tasty soup inside. It was joined by a sponge cake that was filled with a red beans paste. My favourite dish in optical regards consisted of little duck cubes with a sweet, red sauce on top. Very rich were the field beans (蚕豆) that were combined with Amaranthus, the Chinese spinach (苋菜). Slices of gristly jellyfish (海蜇) served as a snack in between, as well as golden needle mushrooms (金針菇). The dinner literally turned out to be a feast that was finished by a sweet soup of white balls in an azuki bean sauce.

 

 

I can really recommend this hidden gem. However, it is a public domain hotel that still has a lot of work to do regarding staff training. The communication in English often turned out to be exhausting. According to the hotel the proportion of international to domestic guests is about half-half (mostly via booking.com). If they manage to handle the language problem in the future, the Pingjiangfu could become a “real” small luxury hotel.

 

Hotel on the SLH website

Inspiring valley retreat

Pathway Amanfayun, Hangzhou

 

After two nights in the state-of-the-luxury-art Four Seasons hotel down at the lake, arriving at the Amanfayun in the hills was like entering a lost world. Somehow the computers in the scarcely furnished reception house did not seem to fit at all to the historic ambiance, created by the surrounding old, dark-colored wood.

 

At this point it is time to admit that I sometimes insist to carry my luggage to the room by my own. I am not a fan of endless seemingly minutes of twiddling thumbs in the room, minutes often without the potentially desired calmness for toilet related relief. However, this time I was glad that I did not insist. On the way to our room #16 we walked a bumpy stone path, passed detached guest houses and crossed a creek. Not really suitcase-friendly, but incomparably beautiful. The energy of the whole place was amazing. We were in the midst of fertile woods, in a valley with strongly green vegetation all around.

 

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The general low-key attitude of this exceptional property was only deranged by hotel guards standing evenly spread alongside the main path. That seemed to be a necessity as the way that leads through the resort is publicly accessible. In fact the whole area belongs to public authorities, with the Amanresorts commissioned to run the place as a hotel. The carefully restored hotel buildings once used to serve as a monk’s village. The area still is sacred, with ancient rock Buddhas and seven surrounding temples that seem to earn a lot of money with thousands of paying pilgrims every day.

 

Our room turned out to be a house – single-story, but a house. There was a spacious living room, an equally spacious bed room, and quite an ample bath room. The Space was framed by high grade materials which were formed to an Asian-minimalistic design. I cannot remember any ornamentation. It made you feel like on an expedition, apart from the matter of fact that there was all you needed, broadband internet included.

 

 

As part of the Amanfayun facilities there are two restaurants. We heard that the fancier one which serves international cuisine was very good. Anyway, we were looking for local stuff, so we ate at the more casual Steam House, where they serve Dim Sums as well as regional dishes. The food was not outstanding but good.

 

Apart from that there are three independent eateries on the property, one of which is the Lingyin Vegetarian House which tries to serve cloister compatible food with an haute-cuisine-appearance. Although I liked the idea, it did not work out for me. I found the dishes nice to look at, but at the same time rather tasteless. Contrariwise my companion Stefan loved it.

 

We both approved the Tea House, which is owned by tea master Pang Yin. Many years ago Pang Yin used to be a computer science teacher who one day started to collect Chinese antiques. Very soon her space ran out, so she had the idea of opening a tea house. Today she has become a well known Hangzhou society lady running three venues. She does not only have her own tea exclusively produced in different areas of the country, but also creates desserts for each type of tea. Saç Ekimi During my visit she told me that for each type of tea she boils water that was first resting on stones which she personally collected in the specific area from where each tea came from. This seemed quite an esoteric approach to me, if not a good marketing idea. The truth is that in her Tea House I had the best Pu’er of my life so far.

 

 

Of course the Long Jing Cha (“Dragon Well tea”) is THE big thing in Hangzhou. The hotel organized us a guided tour to nearby tea fields. We walked the picturesque Nine Creeks path, with rows of tea bushes on both sides of the hills. After that we visited the National Tea Museum, which houses a very nicely done exhibition with informative English explanations. Do you know the difference between yellow, white, green, red, and black tea? Then come and see. At the end of our tour we were given a tea ceremony during which we tried several kinds of teas, among them a state-of-the-art Long Jing. I realized that there is no tea culture at all in Europe, with England included.

 


Back at the Amanfayun I absolutely fell in love with the Fayun Place, the magical centerpiece of the property. It consists of two 19th century courtyard houses that were linked together and now serve as a peaceful retreat, with a relaxing library on the first floor. On the ground floor there is high tea served in the afternoons, with players of traditional instruments producing atmospheric “lounge” music.

 

I did not use the Amanfayun Spa facilities, a five-structure-compound surrounded by bamboo groves and magnolia trees, but without any doubt they provide individual relaxation experiences combined with high-standard services. It includes a 20-metre heated pool, several treatment rooms, a gym, a bath house, and a room for Pilates and yoga.

 

Above all: The friendly staff, all dressed in dark-brown and wide tailored uniforms, acted strikingly naturally. At the end it was really hard to leave.

 

Hotel website

The epitome of luxury

Smoked tea egg couldn't taste better

Four Seasons Hangzhou at West Lake

 

One of the biggest challenges for international luxury hotels in China is without a doubt to assure that their staff speaks English. Especially in provincial towns – although it seems odd for Westerners to call megacities like Hangzhou (杭州) that way – only very few hotel managers seem to be aware of that topic. The reasons are obvious: predominantly domestic customers, less qualified applicants than demanded and a general high fluctuation seem to impinge on the motivation to serve international clients as professional as they would deserve it. Nevertheless, in a long term these hotels run the risk of demolishing the high-profile image of the international brands they represent.

 

The Four Seasons Hangzhou is different, and its General Manager Rudolf van Dijk seems to be relieved by the compliments we delivered personally during our visit. “We are very selective regarding our personnel decisions. While recruiting for the hotel opening more than two years ago we probably accepted one applicant out of ten.” What exactly is the qualification the Dutch is searching for? “I prefer ‘fresh’ people, with no experience in the hospitality business at all. We train our people by ourselves, and we are searching for specific characters.”

 

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I did not only find the staff of this hotel outstanding, but everything around it. The location is unique. Situated right at the history-charged West Lake, this world heritage treasure can easily be experienced by foot or by hired hotel-bicycles. Moreover, the Four Seasons Hangzhou is a truly leisure resort. There is no multi-floor-building slated to spoil as many (business) people as possible. This hotel is really exclusive, and its venues are split into several low structured buildings amidst an inviting green park.

 

 

There is no need for the hotel to drop their guest’s names in the press, like other houses in the West started to do a long time ago. It is obvious that the Chinese elite, be it politicians, actors or well known business people thankfully accept the possibility to stay in one of the exclusive villas inside the property. Besides these over-the-top-choices the hotel offers an exclusive amount of 78 guest rooms, five of which are classified as suites. I did not get a room with view of the West Lake, although such exist, nevertheless I absolutely enjoyed my stay from the first moment when I entered the “room”, which consisted of a hallway, a spacious bath room with a free-standing bath tub, a bed room with a couch, a hidden ample TV screen and a desk and, finally, a roofed balcony.

 

The architecture in the whole property is defined as “Jing Nan”, a traditional regional style with pagoda-like roofs which used to be popular during the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. The resort consists of a couple of rather small-scale buildings that are linked by walkways, which lead through pleasant water gardens. Also the interior design seems highly deliberated. I especially loved the spa facilities. The treatment was great, but I was blown away by the atmospheric design by Bensley Design Studios & Concept Saphyr. In a perfect way it fulfills the approach of a contemporary interpretation of Chinese traditions by using natural materials and including water flows.

 

And then there is this great food venue called the Jin Sha restaurant. Jin Sha means “Golden Beach”, and refers to a historic place near the hotel. The Jin Sha restaurant is the spot where the idea to start this blog was born. To us – my dear friend Stefan Tauchhammer and me – in that very special moment it appeared as the most perfect epitome of luxury in contemporary China. The cuisine is defined as Shanghainese and Cantonese with local influences.

 

 

Executive Chef Tan Chwee Chan designs his dishes in a creative way, reminding on the optical pleasures you find in the French haute cuisine. The plate with appetizers was a good start, both visually and flavorfully. It consisting of delicious bits of sweet glutinous rice in a lotus root, half of a tea smoked egg that was topped with some caviar and topping pea starch noodle rolls with vegetables and sesame, and honey barbecued pork. It was followed by a cod fish soup with mushrooms and ham, a steamed crab claw on egg white and sea urchin sauce, and furthermore a cube of braised pork belly that came with an abalone on its side.

 

I guess I gave some good reasons to stay there for a while.

 

Hotel website

 

Be aware of the term „international luxury“

Hotel window viewDingli International Hotel, Huai’an

 

One interesting thing about economically booming societies is the fact that their individuals face new circumstances, which create the need for new learning processes. When it comes to the term “luxury“, the access to this progress depends on the distribution of income as well as on the geographical situation. Hence luxury is a very elastic word, especially in China. This is what we learned in the city of Huai’an (Jiangsu province).

 

Without a doubt shining floors like the ones in the lobby of the Dingli Hotel can be associated with „luxury“ not only in Chinese terms but in general. The same may count for the glass-cage-elevator on the glass facade of this high-rise building. The rooms are nice, too, quite spacious with a huge bathroom window in order to let as much natural light in as possible. To call them luxury, though, would stress the term too much.

 

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The Dingli defines itself as an “international“ five star hotel, which is a good example for a striking overestimation of one’s own capabilities. The problems started at a badly trained staff at the reception. We were lucky to have a Chinese friend accompanying us, as English skills do not seem to fit into the “international“ approach of Dingli’s hotel management. Besides that many Westerners will agree that friendliness plays an important part at luxury venues. During our whole stay the staff did what they had to do, but it would be too much to call them helpful. Actually I found them almost rude at the hotel’s Huaiyang cuisine restaurant.

 

 

However, what made me almost explode was their inability to call a taxi. The hotel is situated far from the city centre, in quite an odd commercial zone, with factories as direct neighbors. It can take you an hour to find a passing taxi on the near main road. The inability to move makes you feel like in an upscale prison. Is it a Chinese way of thinking that you have to have a car, if you are rich, maybe even with your own driver? Don’t rich use taxis in China? Even if that would be the case: the hotel had “international“ written all over, even on the notepapers.

 

We also visited the hotel’s fitness area, which consists of an indoor pool and a fitness centre. The venue is OK, but only insiders find the way, which is quite long and not considered to be gone with bathrobes, as you might bump into a wedding party, as we did.

 

Besides expensive handicrafts in the lobby, the whole building is quite bold, with no obvious interior concept. Luckily the room rate was not “international luxury“ neither: At the end we paid CNY 410 (€ 50) for a double room, with breakfast included.

 

However, due to a manageable competition the Dingli is said to be the best hotel in Huai’an, a situation which might change very soon. During our visit there were construction sites all over, setting up new living quarters in no time. The city was in the middle of a development process. It would be interesting to come back in five years or so, and to see the changes – also regarding the use of the term „international luxury“.

Nanjing’s first mover cooks extremely well

Busts in a Superior Club RoomSofitel Galaxy Nanjing

 

The French Sofitel hotel brand was one of the first international movers on the mainland Chinese luxury market. The Sofitel Galaxy in Nanjing is a good example: When its 48-story-tower opened in 2006, it was the only international luxury brand in the capital of Jiangsu province.
This has changed, of course, and the hotel tries its best to defend its top position. In June this year the hotel lobby was widened in order to provide its guests a more friendly welcome. Also, some furnishings in the public areas were redone.

 

I think the Superior Club Rooms which we occupied gave a very good reason to stay in that hotel. Due to the brown shaded interior the atmosphere was cosy, and the room was delightfully spacious. Huge windows provided an elevated view of the city. The design was rather minimalistic, with straight lines and little décor. Two little artworks in the shape of curled busts were grading up a business corner, which was perfectly situated next to a window. The marble floored bath room consisted in fact of two rooms – one with a wash basin, and one which contained the toilet, a bath tub and a shower. Both parts were individually accessible, and connected by a sliding door.

 

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We had access to the Club Lounge, a privilege that we appreciated and enjoyed. It is situated on top, with a perfect view of the surroundings. Also the service was very good. It became my favorite working place.

 

What surprised us though, were the personnel’s poor language skills. Soon after our arrival I went to the hotel’s indoor pool. Before jumping in I asked the pool boy for a towel, which was answered with a shrug of his shoulders. He worked at the pool, but it seems that nobody had taught him the most quintessential English words. Something very similar happened only minutes later when I ended up pantomiming in front of two other hotel staff members. Finally one of them smiled and proudly offered me a bathing cap. But no, I had just asked for the way to the showers.

 

The target group of this hotel obviously seems to be domestic guests. Later I met Kevin Qin, the General Manager, and he told me that only about one third of the hotel’s guests are non-Chinese. This might explain the laxness in this regard, but I think international brands have to fulfill international standards, one of which is a barrier-free communication in English.

 

With this, we hit upon a general problem in the dynamic Chinese hotel industry. There is more demand of qualified employees than available on the job market. Upscale hotels have to train its staff to meet the requirements of its demanding customers. But due to a high volatility on the market, the average employee says good-bye after two years, jumping to a competitor that has offered to pay a few Yuán more. Investing in the staff for hotels often means to finance their competitors.

 

Back to Nanjing: Sofitel’s credo of combining French elegance with local culture is absolutely followed in the Sofitel Galaxy, at least when it comes to its restaurants. Besides the rather casual Spectrum 7, where both Western and Asian cuisine are served, there is the more elegant Le Mistral, offering traditional French cuisine and local specialties.

 

We chose the third restaurant, called Le Chinois. It is focusing on Cantonese food, with Sichuan cuisine as well as Shanghai and Huaiyang dishes enhancing the menu. We asked for a tasting flight through Huaiyang dishes, a cuisine style that originated very near Nanjing, in the cities Yangzhou, Huai’an, and Zhenjiang. It is part of the Jiangsu cuisine.

 

 

The assorted appetizers showed the hotel’s approach to present the dishes in a way that appeal to the eater’s eyes. In fact, they also appealed to our palates. The so-called century duck eggs, buried for a couple of weeks before consumed as a delicacy, came in quite a presentable dough roll. Right next to it: Petite cubes of chicken and beef terrine as well as small slices of bitter melon and purple sweet potato. After that the waiter brought a soup with dried Boletus mushrooms and steamed Chinese perch filets, better known as mandarin fish. We rejected a wine pairing and asked for traditional drinks. First we were brought a glass filled with a warm, milky liquid. It was not easy to classify its neutral taste. They told us that it was the juice of yam roots, allegedly very healthy and helping your libido. The waiter saw our excitement and brought another drink – yellow and mealy-creamy. This time it was a corn juice, a simple drink which perfectly matched the meat ball. Our fabulous dinner was finished by a fresh fruit plate.

 

All in all, staying at the Sofitel Galaxy Nanjing is not a bad choice.

 

By the way: The Sofitel Galaxy Hotel should not be mistaken for the Sofitel Zhongshan Golf Resort, another Sofitel property, outside of Nanjing’s city centre. I am not much of a golfer, so I didn’t go there. Maybe the next time…

 

Hotel website

Whole China below a single roof

The Great Motherland of ChinaIsland Shangri-La, Hong Kong

 

I love hotels with exclusive sightseeing-effects. In the case of Hong Kong’s Island Shangri-La Hotel this affection is satisfied by the world’s largest silk painting. The whole thing is called “Great Motherland of China”, and it covers 714 square meters (2343 sq ft), stretching over 16 levels until very scarcely below the translucid roof of the building, which is part of the Pacific Place complex in the Admirality district on Hong Kong Island.

 

It is said that whole China is illustrated on this total work of art, which contains 250 piece parts. I discovered mountainous landscapes, the Great Wall, waterfalls, little villages with traditional houses and, further down, ships. Forty artists from Beijing had been working on this masterpiece for more than half a year. It was unveiled in 1991, in the course of the hotel’s opening.

 

It’s hard to believe this hotel has been existing already for more than twenty years, as it looks rather new in pretty much every corner. However, the spirit behind the interior design is much older. As noted in the hotel’s media information the design concept meant to „revive the style, ambience and tradition of Grand Hotels”. It’s not only words, but real: The dignified lounge of the Horizon Club makes you feel like in a venerable establishment somewhere in Europe – if you manage to fade out the wonderful view out of the windows on the 56th level: solid wood paneling and noble chandeliers evoke associations with England and France.

 

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Right aside this venue smokers hide in Hong Kong’s probably loveliest smoking room, called Roof Garden, where dozens of orchids fight against the fume. During my visit the service quality and the food & beverage selection at the Horizon Club can be classified as absolutely perfect.

 

Apart from a beautiful China pot filled with fragrant Jasmine tea and besides preserved plums as good-night-goodies, the tested room was 100 percent Western style: Heavy, cushioned seating furniture was arranged next to a solid, dark-brown desk and a huge leather-covered office chair. A neat chandelier was decorating the ceiling. Next to the bed lay a corporate edition of James Hilton’s novel “The Lost Horizon”, the source of the Shangri-La myth. As in many other Hong Kong high-end hotels, the magnificent marble laid-out bath room was equipped with L’Occitane products.

 

My room was situated in one of the top levels. The abundantly nice harbor view was literally heightened by the fact that the hotel tower was constructed on a hill. The only cutback was a restrained smell, which might had come out of the carpets.

 

Among several culinary establishments in the building, the restaurant Petrus on the top floor is deemed to be the best. I had the pleasure to sniff about over some of its French cuisine dishes. The service was excellent, and so were the creations by Chef Frederic Chabbert.

 

However, maybe due to my sightseeing-approach my attention this time was caught most by the Café TOO. Buffet restaurants like this are very popular among Hong Kong’s inhabitants, especially at week-ends, when these places are packed with families. You can watch grandpa and grandson eating ice-cream cones with the greatest pleasure you could ever imagine, while father is dissecting his beef fillet. Mother’s seat is vacant as she is lining up in front of the desserts. What a spectacle!

 

I went there with my good old friend and approved travel partner Stefan Tauchhammer. At one of approximately ten open kitchen stations we discovered a cook cutting off white noodles from a flabby compound. Mixed with several other ingredients it tasted great. Not spicy like Sichuan dishes, nor focused on the ingredient’s own taste, like the Cantonese cuisine, its complex flavors made the dish something completely different. This was “Huaiyang”, he said, a cuisine style in East China. In mainland China highly estimated, it is totally unknown in Europe. That was the moment when we decided to fly to East China. The reviews of that trip will be published, one by one, within the next few weeks.

 

We checked out at afternoon tea time, while a Western string quartet was spreading relaxing vibes in the spacious main lobby. It was afternoon tea time. We would have wanted to stay longer.

 

Hotel website