Travel

China's luxe hotels still reaching for 5 stars

Lijiang, China

You are lounging in a warm plunge pool in the garden of a private villa while listening to "The Goldberg Variations." Your robe and slippers are on the floor where you dropped them, right near the giant, pillow-mounded platform bed. You are thinking about having a brie omelet for breakfast, then a spa foot massage or a ginseng facial. You know you won't have to tell the bartender how to mix a dry martini when you order one before dinner.

Are you at the Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur or the Plaza Athénée in Paris?

Not even close.

You are at the Banyan Tree in the mountains of southwestern China, at one of the sophisticated new luxury hotels springing up all over this country. In Beijing alone, several new high-end hotels -- including a Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental -- are due to open by the start of the Olympics in August.

You used to be able to count the number of China's five-star hotels on five fingers, so the emergence of world-class accommodations here is welcome news for travelers.

China's new luxe lodgings come with all the flourishes: state-of-the-art electronics, exceptional settings, international cuisine, dreamy spas and designer décor. Better still, the rates are sometimes appreciably lower than at such accommodations in the West.

But in other ways, Chinese hotels don't always live up to their stars, partly because the government-sponsored rating system is based on facilities only, neglecting the quality of service.

"There are many five-star hotels in China that would be lucky to achieve a four-star rating in other countries," said Damien Little, a director for the hotel consulting group Horwath HTL in Beijing.

The chief stumbling block has been the dearth of well-trained personnel. "The number of quality staff is limited, owing to the poor level of hospitality schooling in China," said Guy Rubin, Beijing-based managing partner of Imperial Tours, which specializes in luxury trips to China. "Graduates are surprisingly ignorant of the service levels expected of them."

Last spring, wanting to find what luxury means in China, I stayed at some of the highly touted new hotels: the Banyan Tree in Lijiang, the Commune by the Great Wall about 50 miles north of Beijing and the Hotel of Modern Art near Guilin in southern China.

It wasn't exactly a hardship posting, and there were wonderful surprises. But on other occasions, simply asking for a blow dryer caused enough consternation to make me feel like a despotic empress.

BANYAN TREE LIJIANG

There comes a point in almost every trip to China when travelers need a break from guides and tours, when they would give an army of terra-cotta warriors for a cup of freshly brewed coffee, when they don't want to see another indecipherable restaurant menu or spend another night on a hard Chinese bed.

That's when it's time to get to the Banyan Tree Lijiang. Since the hotel opened in 2006, it has provided blissful interludes to many weary road warriors.

Banyan Tree is a small, Singapore-based hotel chain that specializes in flawless service, tasteful hedonism, eco-friendly operations and showcasing extraordinary scenery like that around Lijiang, 120 miles from Yunnan's capital Kunming in the far southwestern corner of China.

Visitors come here to see the mountains and enjoy the culture of the Naxi people, one of China's most colorful ethnic minorities. Naxi arts and crafts are on display in the beautifully preserved old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of glacier-fed canals, cobblestone streets, bridges and shop houses.

Modern development is fast claiming the wide, mountain-rimmed valley, so it was wise of Banyan Tree to choose a site in the bucolic farm fields about five miles outside town, near the village of Shuhe. It was once a stop on the ancient Tea Horse Road between central China and Tibet, but now the village is a quieter, miniature Lijiang, 10 minutes on foot down a cedar-lined lane from the Banyan Tree.

Besides strolling and shopping for Naxi crafts in Shuhe, hotel guests can go horseback riding in the foothills or trek in nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge. But, honestly, it's hard to leave the compound once you pass through the peak-roofed portal.

Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the hotel is symmetrically arranged around a series of ever-widening courtyards that yield to a shop, lounge, bar and the Banyan Tree's two restaurants, one serving elegant Chinese cuisine, the other devoted to contemporary Asian fusion.

Beyond that, a network of canals feeds into a broad reflecting pool fringed by weeping willows. The branches were strung with red lanterns, a breathtaking sight when illuminated at night.

Most of the guests were tourists from the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan able to pay rates -- starting around $500 -- that are high by any standard. Besides the sophisticated, pitch-perfect staff, made up of workers from all over Asia, I saw few other people because each of the hotel's 55 chambers is a supremely private, single-story villa surrounded by its own gray brick wall.

My simple but elegant quarters were decorated with contemporary Chinese fabrics, lamps and furniture. Spring green bamboo brushed against the window behind the bed. To the right the bedroom opened onto a palatial bath with an exposed double tub and dressing area. To the left was a small lounge with a settee built into the wall.

But the room's true glory was the stunning view from the sliding glass window in front of the bed: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, actually a series of peaks, stretching 20 miles from north to south and topping out at 18,360 feet. Cloud banks stream by its face so fast that watching the mountain is like looking out the window of a speeding train.

I passed a long afternoon that way. I needed nothing else, except that dry martini that arrived at sunset, perfectly shaken, not stirred.

HOTEL OF MODERN ART, GUILIN

The Hotel of Modern Art near the honeymoon capital of Guilin in the steamy-hot, deep south is a loopy diversion from the sometimes-taxing business of sightseeing in China.

It lies at the threshold of a 1,320-acre art park on the swampy plains around Yuzi Mountain, one of the fantastically shaped limestone peaks of Guilin immortalized in classical Chinese painting and poetry. Now the mountain marks Yuzi Paradise, the brainchild of a Taiwanese cemetery tycoon whose legacy is a garden for modern sculpture that's too massive to be shown in most museums.

As the flat swamplands were drained, begonias and agapanthus were planted among the pine trees, lakes were filled and winding paths, just right for bicycles (which can be rented at the hotel), were laid.

A serendipitous collection of contemporary architecture started taking shape. It includes an art center in an overlapping chain of off-kilter steel blocks; public bathrooms in a mound of artsy Chinese boulders; a memorial to the late Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng; and a hangar-like atelier where Taiwanese artist Ju Ming is casting 1,269 sitting Buddhas for a temple in Taipei and French sculptor Paul-Alexandre Bourieau directs stonecutting for a huge dragon sculpture commissioned by the developer of a new Hong Kong skyscraper.

Then sculptural works arrived from 140 artists in 47 countries: "Golf Is Art," by Taiwan's Marvin Minto Fang, a reverse "Alice in Wonderland" putting green with gigantic tees and balls; "Strange Loops" in steel, by Eberhard Eckerle of Germany; an immense metal shadow puppet by China's Su Xingchuan; a gargantuan paint roller by Cuban Jorge Luis Santana; and a whole world of larger-than-life-size cartoon characters by a Taiwanese artist known simply as Jimmy.

I knew almost nothing about Yuzi Paradise when I arrived at the 3-year-old Hotel of Modern Art, whose marble building looks like a half-eaten white layer cake. Its shaggy courtyard and wide, sparsely furnished lobby display more contemporary sculpture.

Staff members at the reception desk explained my entertainment options after I checked in. I chose a bike ride in the park, a ceramics-making class in the atelier and a boat trip on the Yulong River in nearby Yangshuo.

On opposite sides of the hotel's ground floor are a small spa and an Asian-American fusion restaurant where I had a terrific tuna melt sandwich and a cooling passion-fruit slush. The kidney-shaped bar next door is surrounded by high metal stools, also designed by the many-talented Fang, that say "Art Is Seating" on the seat top.

Hip, young staffers have the same loose style of service as those at American boutique hotels, and I saw evidence of cost cutting. To save money on electricity, the halls on upper floors were not air-conditioned, though it seemed as though the temperature was well over 100. The only swimming pool was neglected and unappealing, inside the park by the owner's villa.

Thankfully, the air conditioning worked fine in my $130 deluxe double. Like the lobby, the room didn't have much furniture, but what there was had been chosen with style and humor. The walls were pale green, accented by a yellow armchair and bubble lamp. The round bed was surrounded by white gauze drapes suspended from a track, and one whole side of the room was lined by a wide, curving bay window with a view of several peaks as bizarrely shaped as anything in Utah's Monument Valley.

Recently Yuzi Paradise opened the smaller and more luxurious Hotel of Modern Art Relais & Châteaux inside the park. Construction was underway when I visited, so I didn't get to see the rooms in a pyramid-shaped building with long, sloping eaves covered by a lush lawn.

A workman was driving a mower up the gently angled roofline. I smelled freshly cut grass and laughed. It was like something out of Dr. Seuss. Where else in the world but Yuzi Paradise do they have to mow the roof?

COMMUNE BY THE GREAT WALL

The celebrated Commune by the Great Wall began as a showplace for the work of 12 Asian architects who were commissioned to design dream houses for China's new moneyed class in a country club-style subdivision about 50 miles north of the capital. The models, which won a special prize for art patronage at the 2002 Venice Biennale, line a dry canyon near the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

It was a marvelous idea that got better in 2005 when the Commune created a hotel by replicating four of the original four- to six-bedroom models along a neighboring canyon that winds up from the Commune clubhouse. The Switzerland-based Kempinski hotel group manages the property, bringing one of the best wine cellars in northern China to the two stylish restaurants in the clubhouse.

Under Kempinski, the Commune also got a beautiful new spa, where I had a blissful, traditional Chinese massage, and a state-of-the-art children's center, which has its own kiddie-sized Chinese teahouse, art studio, costume shop and water slide.

Even the squalling toddlers I saw plodding with their parents up the long, steep road from the children's center to villas at the far end of the canyon knew instinctively that, as a hotel, the Commune has logistical problems. These stem from the property's hilly, dispersed layout and were only partly solved by the introduction of shuttle service taking guests to and from up-canyon rooms. Transportation is needed because there is only a small terrace cafe for guests staying in this part of the Commune.

At first I sympathized with Kempinski for having to deal with the challenges of the hotel's radical design. But the more I came to know the Commune and its hopelessly inept staff, the crankier I got, a state of mind hardly conducive to enjoying fine wine or blue-ribbon architecture.

When I checked in, I was given a double in a chalet near the cafe at the end of the road. My $260 chamber was in a yawningly large two-bedroom suite that made me feel as though I was home alone in the model home of a new subdivision. So I turned it down and waited for a more agreeable room to become available.

About three hours later, I got a double in a Bamboo Wall villa by Japanese architect Kengo Kumo, a stunning split-level structure encased in curtains of bamboo. But the clone wasn't as harmoniously sited as the original house in the neighboring canyon, and my room didn't have a view of the Great Wall or much furniture besides a handsome Japanese-style bed on the tatami-matted floor.

The rest of the villa was occupied by a noisy group of guests who left overflowing ashtrays and soda cans in the shared living room.

Getting breakfast in my room the next morning was no easy matter. I called room service early and got a man who couldn't speak English. When I tried out my fledgling Chinese, he giggled. I finally managed to tell him I wanted toast and coffee, but he said he had many orders to fill and only one delivery truck.

"You go to the buffet in the clubhouse, all right?" he said, then hung up.

I called the front desk and got a clerk who spoke English fairly well, I thought. I launched into an explanation of my problem: I didn't want to go to the clubhouse for breakfast and thought an hour was too long to wait for toast and coffee, even if room service had only one truck.

There was a pause. Finally the man asked, very politely, whether I wanted a truck.

I must have gotten through to him, though, because my breakfast arrived about 30 minutes later.

Things got better when I went for a walk up the canyon past the original dream houses, including the Twins, a pair of contemporary cottages by Kay Ngee Tan of Singapore, and Distorted Courtyard House, by Rocco Yim of Hong Kong, all steel and floor-to-ceiling glass, shaded by a bamboo sunscreen.

I would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite. But I particularly envied the American family I met along the way staying in the svelte, low-lying Furniture House, by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. It was built of laminated bamboo around a courtyard.

Groups willing to share bathrooms can rent any of the original villas, which seemed to me far more rewarding than staying in a copy.

A path leading up to a wild, tumbledown section of the Great Wall departs the road near Cantilever House by Venezuelan-born Chinese architect Antonio Ochoa.

As I wound my way around the terra-cotta-colored structure dramatically pinioned against the hillside, I heard music and laughter. At the top I leaned against the old stone of China's Great Wall and gazed at the dream houses in the canyon below me. Just then I saw activity on the roof of Cantilever House: chairs being set up and wedding guests assembling. Then I saw the bride, heard the unmistakable first four notes of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" and felt a lot better for some reason known only to the great architect in the sky.

susan.spano@latimes.com

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