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Less than an hour by high-speed train from Shanghai, the lakeside city of Hangzhou has historically been among China’s most coveted short-break destinations. Framed by verdant hills dotted with temples, shrines and tea plantations, this prosperous metropolis grew up around the photogenic West Lake. The eerie morning lake mists have long enthralled early-risers and provided inspiration for generations of Chinese poets and landscape artists.
At this time of year, with spring in the air, Hangzhou and the surrounding countryside is a haven of outdoor adventure and exploration. A great way for clients to experience the gardens, parks and temples around West Lake, plus the causeway through its center, is to rent a bicycle. Hangzhou boasts a fleet of more than 40,000 bright red cycles for public use, with rental kiosks dotted around the lake and city.
Pedal power enabled me to explore the lake’s fabled sites of interest, with fairytale-sounding names (Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge, Orioles Singing in the Willows and Leifeng Pagoda) in double-quick time — leaving me extra time to investigate other al fresco offerings a little farther afield.
For clients who prefer to exercise both body and mind in Zen-like synchronicity, chakras can be charged and muscles toned at Yoga Summit. Located in a beautiful Buddhist temple complex at the summit of Wu Hill overlooking West Lake, it hosts daily classes in Hatha, Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga. Outdoor teahouses selling Hangzhou’s famous Longjing Tea also share the hilltop. These unhurried spots are perfect for post-yoga tea sipping with the locals, while appreciating the fabulous lake and hill views.
Hill walking is another outdoor activity that showcases Hangzhou’s landscapes. A recommended route ascends the forested Baoshi Hill from the lakeside Temple of Yue Fei to Purple Cloud Cave, home to a revered cave-temple. From here, it takes 30 minutes to hike to Yellow Dragon Cave, a cave temple from which a dragon’s head was once said to have emerged from the rock. Leaving the temple behind, a steep stone path shows the way to Baochu Pagoda, an obelisk-shaped tower that can be seen from most points around West Lake. Looking down over the lake from the pagoda itself is an enervating experience.
For visitors with time to spare, heading beyond the Hangzhou city limits opens the door to two enchanting natural locations: Xixi Wetlands National Park and the peaceful hillside retreat of Moganshan.
Designated as China’s first national wetlands park in 2005, Xixi Wetlands meanders across picturesque marshlands located about a 20-minute drive from West Lake. The wetlands were first cultivated in the Han Dynasty and expanded to cover approximately 6,940 square feet of land during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Urban development means that they have since shrunk to a now state-protected area of nearly 120 square feet. The bucolic beauty was transferred to the silver screen in 2008 when scenes from Feng Xiaogang’s movie “Fei Cheng Wu Rao” were shot here. Clients can jump onboard a wooden junk and cruise slowly along the winding waterways to spot the abundant flora and fauna, and around 90 species of birds.
Another attractive feature of Xixi Wetlands is the Westbrook Resort. A small cluster of hotels, including Sheraton, Angsana and Banyan Tree, provide stylized, upscale accommodations on the edge of the wetlands. Also located here is the supremely modernistic, 68-room Xixuan Spa Hotel, featuring the palatial MetaSpa. Sixteen private suites offer high-tech beauty and spa treatments, such as Cosmelan, TMT and AQS from Switzerland. Body contouring and skin rejuvenation are offered, plus deluxe massage and body wraps. Topping it all is a spectacular sunken steam pool and Jacuzzi, which can only be described as a sci-fi reinterpretation of an opulent Turkish bathhouse.
Just one hour’s drive from Hangzhou, the hillside village of Moganshan became a stylish summer retreat for affluent Shanghai dwellers in the 1920s. Elegant holiday homes, hotels and churches were constructed into the hillsides using locally quarried stone amid the becalming bamboo forests, tea plantations and tiny farming communities. In recent years, Moganshan’s appeal has been rejuvenated with a couple of small hotels opening their doors, and renovated farm cottages rented out to weekend warriors and corporate retreat groups.
At the Naked Stables Private Reserve, nestled between an ancient pine forest and tea plantations at the foot of the mountain, clients can stay in deluxe treetop villas, go horseback riding, hiking or mountain biking on undulating trails or take a fishing trip to a secluded lake. After all that exertion, it might be time for some less-athletic entertainment, such as a soothing swim in an infinity pool or an indulgent spa treatment.
Given that this region is famed for its Chinese tea, an alternative option is to pick and roast your own tea leaves from Naked Stables’ private white tea fields. Savor a fresh cup of tea on your own private balcony overlooking the forest — there really is not a more decadent way to experience the charms of the Hangzhou hinterlands.
Banyan Tree Hangzhouwww.banyantree.com/en/hangzhou
Naked Stables Private Reservewww.nakedretreats.cn
Sheraton Hangzhou Wetland Parkwww.starwoodhotels.com
Xixuan Spa Hotelwww.xixuanspahotels.com