Check-In to Style

Beijing is reborn as a modern gem

By: Gary Bowerman

Chairman Mao’s gaze still defines Beijing. His portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace (at the entrance to the Forbidden City), where Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, is the centerpiece of Beijing’s heart and soul, Tiananmen Square. But despite the imagery from the past, China’s capital city has its eyes fixed firmly on the future. As it refashions itself to host the 2008 Olympics, a confident, modern city is emerging. On the steps of the China National Museum, an Olympic countdown clock galvanizes tourists’ attention.

For visitors, Beijing’s municipal makeover is good news. Several new luxury hotels are opening, all offering state-of-the-art service, facilities and multilingual staff. Boutique offerings are better than ever and fashionable new restaurants open regularly. Tour companies are also devising ever-more creative itineraries enabling clients to enjoy Beijing’s powerful mix of imperial palaces, temples, culture and history in style.

China’s capital is a giant metropolis and its traffic congestion is legendary, so choosing the right hotel location is essential. Two of the finest, Peninsula Palace and Grand Hyatt, are located just off Wangfujing Dajie, Beijing’s main shopping street, in close proximity to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The St. Regis is another popular option, located further along the main Dongchangan Jie thoroughfare, a 15-minute cab ride from Tiananmen Square. Forthcoming openings by Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott, Four Seasons, Park Hyatt and Westin promise yet more upscale accommodation options.

For clients who wish to swap “supersmart” chic for Chinese courtyard character, the Bamboo Garden Hotel and Lusong Yuan hotels are excellent mid-range options located in traditional Beijing hutong districts. Both offer an intriguing insight into Beijing’s fast-disappearing architectural past. For a quirkier historical experience, the Red Capital Residence is a small boutique hotel in a 200-year-old courtyard home extravagantly decorated with antiques, furnishings and memorabilia favored by China’s Mao-era leaders.

Having chosen a stylish hotel, clients must now decide how to see the city in style. Many options are available, but some spots simply cannot be overlooked. “There are certain things you must see and do in Beijing, especially if you are a first-time visitor,” said Adam Minter, marketing director of upscale travel specialists, Wild China.

Such “must-see” attractions include Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, but Minter said Wild China aims to add value by providing new experiences.

“We like to take visitors to places not everyone visits or offer something not everyone else will do,” Minter said.

Examples include a guided canal tour, rather than bus trip, to the Summer Palace. This unique boat journey features expert narrative on the history of Beijing’s waterways and delivers clients straight into the sumptuous surroundings of the Summer Palace’s vast Kunming Lake avoiding the coach queues in the parking lot. On the way back, Minter suggests a short stop to enjoy the fabulous architecture of Beijing University.

The Great Wall of China magnetizes visitors from across the globe and can get very busy during weekends. “For the more adventurous traveler, there are great hiking options along ‘wild,’ unreconstructed sections of the Great Wall, between Jinshanling and Simatai.” Minter said. “These trails are about a three-hour drive from Beijing, farther than the more-popular sites of Badaling and Mutianyu, and therefore quieter particularly during the week. And the scenery is spectacular.”

Blending history, sightseeing and culture is a perfect way to enjoy Beijing. The Peninsula Palace offers a three-hour rickshaw tour of the historic hutong districts accompanied by a professor from Tsinghua University so clients can learn about different Chinese architectural styles. Other offerings include a 2½-hour Chinese Tea Culture masterclass from a local tea master and a demonstration of the intricacies of Chinese antique furniture, allowing participants to spot real antiques from fakes.

After gorging on Beijing’s rich daytime offerings, clients will want to relax and dine in style after dark. The Peninsula Palace’s noble house-style Huang Ting Cantonese restaurant; the authentic Tuscan villa feel and excellent Italian cuisine at Danieli’s at the St Regis; and Made in China’s contemporary take on a traditional Chinese kitchen at the Grand Hyatt are the pick of the hotel dining scene.

Each time I’m in Beijing, I head straight for The Courtyard. Located in the moat of the Forbidden City, its excellent fusion cuisine, strong wine list, great views and Cuban cigar selection make it the place to eat. My Humble Home in the Oriental Plaza complex serves up excellent Sichuan and Asian-fusion dishes in a contemporary setting. More historic is Mei Mansion near Houhai Lake, which upholds the traditions and recipes of an old Peking opera chef. Its plentiful Shanghainese hot and cold dishes are served in special set menus created to meet your budget.

Beijing’s 21st-century renaissance is riding the crest of an Olympic-fuelled wave, bringing with it unprecedented levels of creativity, style and new experiences for visitors to sample. As the clock counts down to 2008, China’s capital is sure to become one of the hottest destinations on the planet.


Peninsula Palace
8 Goldfish Lane, Wangfujing

Superlative service and refined luxury. All 525 rooms (including 57 suites) offer a plasma-screen TV, high-speed Internet access and Braille room number. The lower lobby shopping court features Bulgari, Tiffany & Co., Chanel and Prada.

Grand Hyatt
Beijing Oriental Plaza,
1 Dongchangan Jie

Opened in 2001, this 782-room hotel is located on Beijing’s main thoroughfare and offers eight different room types, from Grand Room to Presidential Suite. The interior is bright and contemporary and the service friendly and assured.

St. Regis
21 Jianguomenwai Dajie

Popular with business visitors, the St Regis offers 273 rooms, fine restaurants and excellent facilities, including a natural hot spring spa and aromatherapy treatments, bowling center and 24-hour
butler service.

Red Capital Residence
9 Dongsi Liutiao

Boutique hotel with suites inspired by prominent Chinese historical figures, including Chairman Mao. The design seeks to retain the elegance and exclusivity of traditional courtyard living, while also providing modern amenities, such as Internet access.

Bamboo Garden Hotel
24 Xiaoshiqiao Hutong, Jiugulou Dajie

Located near the Drum Tower, this atmospheric courtyard hotel was once owned by a Qing Dynasty. The delightful bamboo garden is complemented by red-lacquered walkways. Mid-range rooms start from $65 per night.

Longsan Yuan
22 Banchang Hutong, Kuan Jie

Located in one of Beijing’s northern historic hutong districts, this charming hotel is built around a series of traditional courtyards. Bike rentals, Internet access and tour bookings available. Mid-range rooms run from $45 per night.