Mary Gostelow visits a stunning pair of new hotels in Chengdu
The Temple House is one compelling reason that the gal diverted to Chengdu, China. In the under two years since opening, the 100-room beauty has become TripAdvisor’s 2017 top hotel in China for service, and the accolades never stop. Look at one day’s worth of TripAdvisor postings and the all-five-star assessments include: “they have it all”, “a wonderful combination of very minimal modern design with unexpected touches of Chinese elements”, and “high luxury that somehow manages to stay accessible”.
OK, first the setting. An ancient temple, which today houses a gallery for pop-ups of modern Chengdu art, and also a 24/7 library of some 10,000 hardbacks from Heywood Hill, has been extended to an outside hilly garden, all grass, and an 11-floor L-shaped hotel block. Below the garden, cut-outs give light to a lower level that includes an Olympic-sized indoor pool and the gym – from which you can look up to daylight. Many of the new walls are formed of traditional Chinese bricks.
The designer inside and out is Dan Shuttleworth of Make, and he has obviously worked minutely closely with Swire Hotels’ Brian Williams and Dean Winter. I love the EcoSmart fire plinths that light and warm the garden – and I love looking across the garden and its hills to buildings that include a café, which has a really admirable herb garden outside, a project initiated by the extremely creative GM, Kurt Macher. See how there are sculpture-shapes in the garden that actually have inset video screens: this is an entire ambience of continual surprise. Come on a Saturday and you might coincide with weekly yoga on the roof of the Italian restaurant, which is actually lower, below-ground level – a wedding was taking place there the afternoon I arrived. Every Saturday is also European picnic day: you are loaned blankets to spread out on the grass, all the better to open the hamper filled with goodies from chef Joshua Nudd.
Kurt and I ate Italian that night, doing the simple thing of rucola salad with sun-dried tomatoes followed by oven-baked spring chicken with truffle mash that brought back lifetime memories of the spring chicken at the eternally youthful Prezza in Singapore. Actually, I predict now that Temple House will quickly become immortal, just as its elder siblings are: Opposite House in Beijing and Upper House in Hong Kong. I love the way that this House is integral with the amazing hectares of designer shops and teahouses, all in traditional tiled houses, immediately around. There is, admittedly, one exception: surrounded by Gucci, Hermès, Marimekko and Zara and the like, all in those tile-roofed buildings, is one white-and-glass box, Apple Studio.
Yes, this is style, throughout – the room service menu suggests one gin, Hendrick’s, and one vodka, Ketel One, to give a single example. There is no space to describe rooms but it is essential to talk about the super staff, one of the key reasons for this luxury hotel’s deserved success. Kurt Macher has painted back-of-house walls in soft ice-cream colours, and some hold framed photos of all 360 team members – if and when any dare to move on (and, typically, China’s hotels have some of the highest staff turnover rates in the entire industry globally), they are given their photo as a leaving present. There are boards to sign up for car-sharing, there are listings of departmental initiatives. Kurt Macher personally leads Stretch With Kurt warm-up physical jerks at the beginning of housekeeping shifts, and so on and so forth. What an extraordinary hotel this is.
And then I walked across the chic Tai Koo Li shopping village that separates the two new hotels. This is the village that is mostly traditional-look tiled Chinese houses; here you find Armani through to Zara. Interestingly, the shopping needs both hotels, and both hotels need each other.
To the other new property, Niccolo Hotel. It is rare indeed to find designers of modern luxury hotels who get everything, or nearly everything, right from the viewpoint of busy 21st-century travellers. Congratulations, therefore, to HBA, and to the powers-that-be at Marco Polo Hotels for what has been achieved at the launch Niccolo Hotel. Room 1907 was bright and light. The bathroom has a clear wall, with electronic screen, through to the main room, where half the floor is uncluttered wood-look, just right for a ballroom dancing lesson, says the gal. Other admirable points include a long table-desk, and a low coffee table, both ideal for opening a wheelie. Other designers please note that time-starved travellers are, more and more, living out of open suitcases rather than unpacking properly.
So many other highlights come to mind. The espresso machine is easy-to-work Nespresso, the safe is a drawer-set SafePlace Tiara II, the Toto sinks have simple inbuilt stoppers, bathroom lighting good enough for makeup is complemented by a magnifier mirror; there is a bathroom wall television and, in the main room, the wall-set LG screen swings around to wherever. The bed is uncluttered by comforters or the like and has just one show cushion (with the pillows). All-wall windows, looking down over the shopping area, have three coverings, blinds, blackouts and sheers, all simply worked with clearly-marked switches. Honestly, as I said to the hotel’s Portuguese GM Adriano Vences, and its local distribution guy, Simon Wang, my room is as near 100 per cent as is possible.
We had dinner in the very thoughtful Niccolo Kitchen. Why thoughtful? It has a menu that satisfies every taste, from appetisers to sushi via desserts that include furikake pineapple cake. What on earth is furikake? To find out I started dinner with furikake-crusted tuna loin, apparently the favourite of Marco Polo boss, Jennifer Cronin. It turns out it is a Japanese seasoning, dried and ground fish, plus bonito and chopped seaweed – worryingly, it can also include MSG, a good thing I did not know that at the time. Over a glass of Caliterra 2015 Merlot Reservas Colchagua, Simon Wang filled me in on Chengdu life. Weddings here are, for instance, not evening affairs, as in Beijing and elsewhere, but they are generally at lunchtime. This is excellent news all round. Guests do not need to go to the office at all.
They turn up early at the wedding venue for pre-event mahjong and when the nuptials are over it is back to the mahjong, sometimes continuing on to a dinner, which all means the host hotel gets more income from rent of mahjong rooms, and accompanying edibles and potables, and a good time is had by all. Even though I did not coincide with weddings here, everyone was having a good time, and I can see why. This is a modern luxury hotel that does not waste space and labour by having a dedicated executive club lounge. Instead, take an executive room and you get, free, a bento box breakfast, 24/7 non-alcohol mini bar, evening cocktails and (bliss!) pressing and laundry – I could not believe that after I gave one item to lovely duty manager Nancy it was brought back 90 minutes later. At my – non-bento box – breakfast, back in Niccolo Kitchen, the buffet ranged from home-made yoghurt to deep-fried bananas, and really fibre-full toasting bread, and, bliss, there were optional paper cups for coffee. Yes, modern luxury hotels do understand what today’s travellers, not only millennials, want.
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com