The Castle Hotel, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, features a German microbrewery. // © 2014 The Castel Hotel
The Liaodong peninsula extends a pointed finger into the Bohai Gulf on China’s northeast coast. Perched on the so-called “fingernail” — with the Bohai Gulf to the west and the Yellow Sea and North Korea to the east — is Dalian, one of China’s most picturesque cities.
When flying into Dalian’s Zhoushuizi International Airport on a clear day, the meandering coastline and mountainous topography of its narrow isthmus provides a spectacular preview. Swooping closer, the rows of high-rise apartments and sprawling industrial zones are signs of the region’s ambitious development as a major international shipping and commercial finance center for Northeast Asia.
Known as the Pearl of the North, Dalian has long been a cherished destination for Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Russian tourists because of its forested coastline, excellent seafood and compelling history.
Dalian is becoming increasingly popular on a global scale, thanks to prestigious events such as the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions (nicknamed Summer Davos), which it co-hosts with Tianjin. The city is also positioning itself as a glamorous international boating destination. Luxury cruise ships are adding Dalian to their itineraries, and the new Donggang Marina recently hosted 50 of the world’s finest yachts and China’s first-ever Beach Polo World Cup.
Like China’s other east coast cities, Dalian’s history betrays international influences, with periods of Russian and Japanese rule. In the 20th century, the thriving commercial city, then known as Dalny, was a port city controlled by the Russian empire and the southern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Today, downtown Dalian is peppered with heritage Russian architecture, art deco banks and elegant tree-lined avenues. Many signposts are trilingual (Mandarin, Russian and Japanese), and the winter months welcome long-stay Russian travelers escaping the bitter chill.
Dalian has around 70 plazas — bizarrely, most of which are circular — making it easy to navigate. Clients should begin a tour of Old Dalian at Zhongshan Square, built by the Russians in 1899 as Nicholas Square and encircled with European stone mansions. The fabulously retro second-floor coffee shop of the Dalian Hotel features flower-edged stone balconies and is a great vantage for photographing the famous square. Not far away, Renmin Square is the seat of the municipal government, lined with imposing Communist-style buildings and a choreographed water fountain.
Labor Park in the city center is a lovely spot to wander and watch locals play cards, practice tai chi and have picnics beneath century-old trees. History buffs should also take a ride in Dalian’s vintage olive- and russet-colored commuter trams with polished wooden seats, a relic of the Japanese occupation dating back to 1909.
With more than 1,180 miles of coastline, opportunities abound for scenic ocean vistas, watersports and beach fun. A highlight of any trip to Dalian is a journey along Binhai Road, a 20-mile-long coastal road affording spectacular views of beaches, bays, mountains and woodlands. Sailing, fishing and swimming at sandy beaches, such as Fujiazhuang and Jinsha, are popular in spring and summer.
Many family-friendly tourist parks are dotted en route, most notably Tiger Beach Ocean Park and Polar Marine Animals World, where clients can find beluga whales, polar bears and penguins. Further afield, golf enthusiasts can play 36 oceanfront holes at Dalian’s Golden Pebble Beach Golf Course, designed by Peter Thompson.
At the southern end of Binhai Road is the seaside Xinghai Square, which is promoted as the largest urban square in Asia. Dalian’s newest luxury hotel has recently opened here. There’s no missing The Castle Hotel, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. The Bavarian-inspired castle sits on the cliff’s edge overlooking the ocean and features 359 palatial guestrooms, suites and apartments and a German microbrewery.
Facing the beachfront promontory, Grand Hyatt Dalian, which is slated to open later this year, presents a contemporary ambiance and sweeping ocean vistas from each of its 370 guestrooms and suites. Its six restaurants include a Korean-style barbecue and a rooftop Chinese kitchen and bar.
Dalian is just a one-hour flight from Beijing and a two-hour flight from Shanghai. Heading farther north, the Harbin-Dalian high-speed railway — the world’s first high-speed railway in areas with extremely low winter temperatures — connects Dalian with the thriving northern Chinese cities of Shenyang, Changchun and Harbin in around three hours.
Jinli Street in Chengdu
A long pedestrian street stretched over ancient land, Jinli Street in Chengdu is a sought-after destination for individuals looking for distinct flavors of southwest China. On this busy street, walk past street venders shouting the name of their specialty snacks and indulge your taste buds with local favorites. You may come across treats such as sweet dough balls, steamed yam cake and spicy beef in bamboo while navigating shops with locals and tourists alike.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Vegetation and fog cover the towering cliffs at the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park located in south-central China’s Hunan province. Hike through the fog to reach spectacular views of the forest or opt for a very long cable-car ride for even greater views. Numerous viewing platforms are available all throughout the 185-square-mile park, but the most notable sites are located in Huangshizhai Village in the center of the park. Other must-see sites include the Golden Whip Stream and the Yuanjiajie scenic area.
Cliffside Dining in Hubei
Unusual, exciting and dangerous are all words that can describe Fangweng Restaurant — a cliffside restaurant in the Hubei province of China. The entrance is through a rectangular-shaped gray building on the side of Yemingzhu Road in Yichang City. Upon entering, a waiter will lead guests to one of two seating areas. Those who choose to sit alongside the cliff will enjoy jaw-dropping views of the Yangtze River. There is also seating available inside the restaurant’s natural cave for the faint-of-heart.
Window of the World in Shenzhen
Travel through Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and the Americas all in one afternoon. Replicas of major monuments and sites from all over the world have been recreated on a smaller scale at the Window of the World theme park in the city of Shenzhen. Stroll past replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids, Mount Rushmore, Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal and a number of other heritage sites on your walk through the park.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY:
Thanks to new regulations, travelers from the U.S. (and 50 other countries) are now allowed a visa-free 72-hour stay in Xian, the capital of the Shaanxi province. In order to take advantage of this policy, clients must meet all three of the following requirements: They must be citizens of one of the 51 countries (with valid traveling documents), in transit to a third country or region (with a layover in Xian) and must have the respective tickets to show officials at the Xian International Airport before exiting the airport. Seven other cities in China, including Shanghai, Chongqing, Beijing and Chengdu, have had success implementing the same visa-free policy.
Need for Speed
Visitors to the western region of China can now easily explore the wealth of destinations on the eastern side, and vice versa. Since July, a new bullet train on the Shanghai–Wuhan–Chengdu High-Speed Railway has taken guests between Chengdu and Shanghai in just under 15 hours and 20 minutes, which is five hours shorter than the preceding train system. The D2206 train departs Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station at 6:36 a.m., passing through Nanjing, Hefei, Hankou and Chongqing, before reaching Chengdu at 9:54 p.m. Travelers coming from the opposite direction can take the D2208/D2005 train from Chengdu, departing at 8 a.m. and arriving at 10:58 p.m.
A Tribute to Roast Duck
Quanjude — a 150-year-old Peking duck restaurant in Beijing — is offering guests more than an authentic, all-duck banquet. Inside its doors, the restaurant now houses a roast duck museum, with more than 500 items to peruse. Visitors can learn the history of roast duck and the restaurant through displays and sculptures and then enjoy a traditional banquet meal afterward.
Third Night Free
Extend your stay in China with the Third Night Free package offered by the Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake. A complimentary third night is available for guests reserving a two-night stay, and the package may be booked back to back. As part of the package, a limousine will escort guests from the airport to the West Lake Pier, for a traditional Chinese wooden boat cruise, complete with longjing tea.
The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is offering a Comfort You package for travelers who stay a minimum of three nights. Complimentary breakfast buffet for two is included in the cost, and guests have access to six dining venues that offer panoramic views of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island. Deluxe rooms are available for $200 per night, and a deluxe suite starts at $400 per night, exclusive of taxes, gratuities and fees. The offer is good through Dec. 28.
Tan Ta Festival
In late October and early November, Buddhist pilgrims travel to the temples of Damenglong, a town in Xishuangbanna in the Yunnan province. This site serves as the center of pilgrimage and, every year, festivities take place in and around the temples. A 10-day event, the Tan Ta Festival features temple ceremonies, hot air balloons and good luck rituals. (Late October to early November)
The Chinese Winter Solstice takes its origin from Taoist philosophy and marks the longest day of the year. For Taoists, yin and yang represent the balance of two opposites; the lengthening of night and shortening of day is one example of these powers in motion. During the annual festival, warm dumplings are enjoyed throughout China as a customary dish to keep warm during the cold weather and to drive away evil spirits. (Dec. 22)
Angkor Heritage and Art Exhibition
Ancient artifacts from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will be exhibited for six months in China, in an effort to promote cultural links between Cambodia and China. The National Museum of Cambodia has planned to lease 80 objects from the Khmer Empire, dating back to the 9th to 15th centuries. The exhibition will initially be held in the Capital Museum China in Beijing, then it will travel 1,335 miles to the Guangdong Provincial Museum in the south of China. (Dec. 26, 2014 – June 30, 2015)
Red and gold lanterns permeate the eastern sky every year for the Lantern Festival. Dating back to the Han Dynasty, this annual festival began when Emperor Han Mingdi heard about Buddhist monks lighting lanterns in worship to Buddha. In honor of his great respect to Buddha, the emperor implemented this practice into his empire, turning it into a country-wide festival over the centuries, with cultural performances in the daytime and fireworks at night. (March 14, 2015)