The Peninsula Beijing shows how considerable design spend and the ability to be bold can elevate what was already a stately product. This was always a significant hotel but now, thanks to a total interior redesign by Henry Leung, it is significantly striking, with three floors of super-luxury retail that include a recently opened Jenny Packham, right next to the hotel’s own boutique. I love the way Leung’s designs are sleek and mostly understaded. In all 230 room – the smallest being 60-square-metres – one wall has a floral overlay: a hint of the metallic floribunda that gently dance over some walls in The Peninsula Hong Kong rooms.
And boldness? Well, what used to be a sideways-on 30-step staircase leading from the lobby floor up to the next level is now a True Statement staircase, straight on as you go into the hotel. It is pretty bold, too, to take away the front desk. There are various small tables, and chic and immaculately groomed agents seem to appear by magic whenever one is needed. It is also bold to keep your main restaurant, Jiang, 30 steps down on a lower level – although there are escalators and elevators, and the excellent retail down there certainly helps. Reach Jiang through an elegant sitting area and then choose from a variety of niche ambiences, for more, or less, privacy. At breakfast a separate room is opened, for an enormous and superb buffet; you can see through to the kitchen, and talk directly to your egg chef.
Being The Peninsula, of course the abundant displays of art are memorable. My visit happened to coincide with a temporary exhibition of works by two Turkish artists, displayed in the gallery leading to the 24/7 LifeFitness gym. I especially liked the piece shown here, ‘Happy family’, by Yalçin Gökçeba, who for a couple of decades was an Ankara-based cameraman with Turkish Radio Television. But then I also like the permanent art and sculpture including, in the lobby, a life-size bronze statue of the sitting man (artist Zhang Du), and the leaning-man sculptures flanking the door (Gao Xiao Wu). And being this company and this hotel, of course there were lots of thoughtful touches; things like lens cleaning cloths, and hand sanitisers in the bathroom (where a three-foot-high tai chi ceramic sculpture sits, above the deep tub) and – for those going to the Great Wall – a guide book to review beforehand, and a muscle reliever for afterwards. More and more it seems, what gives a hotel the luxury designation is all those details, with service (led here by French GM Vincent Pimont) to match.
When Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Center first opened on October 9th 1992, it showed what multi-use was all about. The gigantic complex includes offices and residences, a mammoth gym and a big hotel that stressed its German-ness (observe its name, ‘Lufthansa Center’). I remember going to the hotel in its early days and being in awe of its airport terminal-like lobby, its curved roof soaring overhead as you walked what seemed like 200 yards to the elevators at the far end. Now the lobby has been softened, with central carpeting and large flowers, and pop-up art exhibitions. It is truly international, with a German touch – there are even pretzel-shaped Laugenbroten at breakfast.
And – bliss, oh bliss – soon all 540 rooms and suites will have been refurbished by designer, HBA. I was lucky enough to be in suite 1515, a harmony of palest blue-grey with hints of maroon – see the video below – although the Shanghai Tang toiletries add a riot of other colours. The space is really practical and, surely a first, the bathroom’s Emco magnifying mirror is on a vertical shaft so it can be used by an NBA player as well as what the fashion industry calls a ‘petite’. Other pluses about this room include opening windows, and a view down over the hotel’s own garden to the Liangma River. Anything on this floor also gives easiest access to the absolutely new 15th floor club lounge.
The lounge is so right for today. Still overseen by the ever-helpful Tony Liu, it is now an end space that wraps around three sides of a central service pod, allowing breakfast and cocktail service to be presented on buffets going 270° around. This will definitely increase use of the club. And with the recent arrival of GM Brice Pean, there were little elements of surprise continually throughout my stay – I loved reading a small paperback that arrived, 101 Stories for Foreigners to understand Chinese people, by Yi S Ellis with her husband Bryan D Ellis.
Chinese are, by the way, fascinated by brewhouses, and the hotel’s Paulaner is a real success. My visit coincided with the last night of Oktoberfest and before my memorable casual-Italian dinner with Kempinski’s big-boss Asia Pacific Michael Henssler, I met up with him and Brice Pean. Brice Pean, already in his lederhosen, was off to join hundreds of locally-based Oktoberfest fans in a blue-lit tent popped-up next to the main Paulaner. After Michael Henssler and I had enjoyed our glasses of Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva 2013 in Via Roma, we called in to see the beer drinkers. We coincided with the long dance, the conga of Munich. Oh what fun at this forever-young hotel!
And now it was off to see a totally new building. Bulgari Hotel Beijing is part of a natural vision. Led by Dr Whitney Duan, Genesis Urban Living, on the bank of the Liangma River, is envisaged as a community for tomorrow. Set in a gorgeous park landscaped to illustrate the five flow states of wu wei – play, pause, reflect, exchange, concentrate – the concept is anchored by Genesis’ headquarters, an art gallery designed by Tadao Ando, and the hotel.
Come inside Bulgari Hotel Beijing and the sleek use of natural colour and striking materials that are Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel signatures come into play. The two-floor open lobby has a bronze metallic ‘tunnel’ that leads to the elevators. The main lobby lounge has comfortable seating that is fully occupied both day and evening. In Bulgari style there are free bonbons, with tongs and bags to hold your cache. Leading off the lounge, too, is the main bar, with Bulgari-standard horseshoe-shaped bar (again bronze metal) and Cimbali coffee machine. Go further and, inside-out like the bar, is the restaurant which is overseen by Niko Romito – as in all Bulgari hotels.
This is a Michelin three-star chef who believes in few choices and composed dishes (his delicious black cod, one of six main courses, is coated in leek sauce, with crispy spinach underneath). It is the same menu every night and, apparently, in all Bulgari hotels simultaneously. Here, Daniele Ferrari’s kitchen sends out an amuse-bouche of what looks like water, but apparently it is extract of carrots and celery with no added water, and it does go well with a house wine: Therra 2013 PoderNuovo a Palazzone di Giovanni Bulgari. The cutlery is Bulgari, as is a wrapped eyeglass cloth that is delivered with the menu.
I am dining with GM Antonio Saponara who describes his own indoctrination process when he first joined the hotel, two years before opening. That initial rite of passage included working with Bulgari’s watch-makers in Switzerland, and with its leather craftsmen in Italy.
After dinner, Antonio Saponara shows me the 380-square-metre Bulgari Suite, often used for photo shoots. Look at the size of the bathtub (in gorgeous corner suite 712, my tub has a loofah the size of a large flower pot, and the towels really do dry). Every detail is essential in luxury, he says. Perhaps that is one reason for Bulgari partnering with, say, Lee Mullins of Workshop for its fitness. As a result, the 24/7 gym here is one of the best thought-out, anywhere. The pieces are all Technogym but, thankfully, not the latest Citterio designs, which are sometimes impossible to fathom. No, here you have just enough of the full range, plus Kaiser-type items, and, bliss, the televisions on equipment actually work.
In the morning, as the sun comes up, I notice yet more details in suite 712: the full make-your-own martini set; the simplicity of the Nespresso coffee machine, with two sizes of hand-painted LSA cups; the array of books that includes Sneakers: the Complete Limited Editions Guide, by U-Dox, Thames & Hudson. The shoe-cleaning box has two sizes of wood trees, and a card for Belluti attention.
Before leaving I head down to the spa for a Chinese foot massage, Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM style. My feet are washed, and I lie on a bed, to be covered with cashmere. The therapist starts, left foot first, she prods, mainly, with a little pushing and massaging. “This is your left kidney spot, here – end of toes – is the brain. Your brain is very busy but tired”, I am told. Left kidney and left shoulder, and heart, all on the left foot, are fine. Now for the right foot, what will be found here? More brain, also tired. We have the liver here, and the thyroid and the intestines. I swear I feel more energy surging through my body already. At this, my 20 minutes are up, a car is waiting and I have to leave this unique Beijing hotel, with, as one of the many memories, what seems like a PhD in TCM…