Banyan Tree Hotel

China Reaches for Five Stars

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 on the California coast or the Plaza Athenee 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 — opened for the Olympics in August.

China's new luxe lodgings come with all the flourishes: state-of-the-art electronics, exceptional settings, international cuisine, dreamy spas and designer decor. Better still, the rates sometimes are 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.

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 the time for 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 extraordinary scenery such as that around Lijiang, 120 miles from Yunnan's capital Kunming in the far southwestern corner of China.

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 contemporary Asian fusion.

Most of the guests were tourists from the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan and were 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.

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.

A serendipitous collection of contemporary architecture 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.

I knew almost nothing about Yuzi Paradise when I arrived at the three-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.

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, although it seemed as though the temperature was well over 100. 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 only swimming pool was neglected and unappealing, inside the park by the owner's villa.

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.

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.

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.

But 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.

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.


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