UrbanResorts made its name with The PuLi, in Shanghai. Its latest luxury hotel, The PuXuan Hotel and Spa, opened February 2019 at the northeast corner of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It is a fascinating concept, soaring up to the ninth-floor rooftop, above Guardian Auction space – the owner of the 116-room hotel, Chen Dongsheng, is not only Beijing’s auction king but also one of China’s insurance supremos. Chen had been working on this hotel for years. Designed by German architect Ole Scheeren of OMA, the main grey exterior mirrors medieval China; atop the whole are light-filled events spaces, one of which is bordered by a one-off glass wall, 20 metres in length, amazingly hoisted in one piece.
It is equally stunning inside. The URSPA by AW Lake uses Cha Ling products, by LVMH. Interior designer Andy Hall, from MQ Shanghai, and lighting specialist Flaming Beacon, out of Melbourne, have got the feng shui right, both in the main spa and above it in a private meditation room, and in the bedrooms. Room sizes start at 40 square metres and go up to the 220-square-metre two-room PuXuan Suite. The sensible, regardless of room type, pay extra for access to the eighth-floor Club, which offers indoor-outdoor space and a 24/7 kitchen and bar where, if you like, you can fix your own cocktail and snacks.
I found corner suite 601, looking west to the rooftops of the Forbidden City, really calming, and I would love to have spent more time there. But I had a busy program. The GM, Mark Wouters, showed me the Chinese restaurant where, imaginatively, tables are peripherally bordered through about 300 degrees by waist-high walls, to give everyone a sense of privacy while allowing guests and servers, all trained by theatrical directors, to get in and out – there is also, of course, one proper private dining room, essentially for Chen Dongsheng (currently number 61 on Forbes’ China Rich List), who seems to eat there nearly every day.
Mark Wouters invited me to Rive Gauche, a new-look French brasserie with a menu, semi-encased in a floppy leather cover, that has charming illustrations by the hotel’s Chinese-Spanish chef, Ivan Miguez-Wang. I had his shaved fennel salad with asparagus, and we shared a signature, an eight-hour Australian short rib carved at table. The extensive wine list promotes little-known champagne labels, such as Geoffroy Expression PC, Françoise Bedel and Vilmart (especially for China’s billionaires, the sommelier also offers a Ch Mouton Rothschild 2002, at RMB28,880, A$5,978). Breakfast was equally memorable: as well as more usual offerings there is a Beijing cleansing juice, with broccoli, cucumber, honeydew and lime but whatever you choose, The PuXuan Hotel and Spa, has replaced the usual go-to buffet by a wooden come-to cart, a trolley that is wheeled up, tableside.
Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing
And now, five minutes’ drive – or 18 minutes’ walk – south to the southeast corner of the Forbidden City, you come to Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing, named for the street it is on, across from Hamley’s toy store. This is, honestly, another most unusual hotel, which opened 18 March 2019. As if in defiance of other hostelries that soar up and up, here the 73 bedrooms spread out on only the top two floors of the six-floor building, owned by Hongkong Land’s Wangfu Central Real Estate Development Company Ltd. Below what is essentially an ‘anchor’ hotel is an upmarket collection – please do not use the pleb word ‘mall’ here – of the world’s best retail brands. The architect of this horizontal hotel is KPF, who have also recently unveiled the highly-vertical Rosewood Hong Kong (interiors are by HBA). Arrive, and you are met by charming young women in flowing blouses topped, in cold months, by short capes. Immediately inside, past the Audemars Piguet store, you see a white fan specially designed by Tim Yip, art and costume director for the Beijing handover ceremony at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Above is a Frank Gehry blowfish sculpture.
Eating, drinking and networking is all on the fifth floor, which extends to mammoth outdoor terraces fully used all summer long. With the GM, Mark Bradford – yes, another Mark! – I had a memorable dinner in the Mandarin Grill, an Adam Tihany space with shiny wood floors and furnishings and crisp white linens. A favourite starter is home-cured Norwegian gravadlax, carved tableside (have egg white as a condiment, I was urged, to bring out the subtle flavour). Like many, I went on to Wagyu M4-5 Stockyard 300g ribeye which went superbly with the hotel’s specially-labelled 2015 Bordeaux Ch Confidence de Margaux. The easy way to get ‘home’ afterwards was to take 30 marbled steps from the fifth floor up to the sixth floor, then walking, via an airbridge, across the top of the library to reach the main rooms corridor.
This airbridge is spectacular, suspended so that you look down into a library which has an eclectic collection of the proper books that Mark Bradford says Chinese really admire – I borrowed a Sherlock Holmes insider overnight. The main corridor, by the way, is 126 metres. one end to the other, a long sea of pale celadon walls with gorgeous celadon-rust-teal swirl carpet. My suite, #81, had views of the top of some of the Forbidden City roofs (a notice reminds me that my window glass is two way). I have everything I could possibly want, from loofah to and orchid tree, sic, in the bathroom, and two sizes of slippers, and silk, and towel robes, and wood shoe trees. The do-everything tablet says I can buy all these, plus Begg throws, Ploh pillows and the floral Wedgwood tea set.
In the morning, after working out on one of the three Technogym runners – they are complemented by one Woodway – I had super breakfast in Café Zi. This is a perfect morning venue, outdoors or indoors, perhaps in booths highlighted by colour-burst walls. The egg chef cooks right in the restaurant, with no separation between kitchen and dining area, coffee arrives as a Rosenthal celadon cup augmented by a filled glass pot, for refills, and toast is sensibly brought, crusts still on, in a beautiful silver rack.
Afterwards they opened MObar for me to have a look (it was taken by a private party last night). The heart of the hotel, so to speak, it has bottles crammed on to ceiling-high shelves on one wall – being next to the main terraces is an attraction for smokers. I was fascinated to see the drinks menu, bound as a proper book, Cocktails Through Art & Landmarks: mixology consultants are Hope & Sesame, from Guangzhou, an all-round beverage company founded by a pair from other luxury hotels, Bastien Ciocca, once Shangri-La, and Andrew Ho, from Grand Hyatt Hong Kong.
Beijing now has two superb luxury hotels within a few minutes’ walk of the Forbidden City. Do make sure your concierge gets, ahead of time, an entry ticket for the Palace Museum. Without this pre-registration, only entry now is via QR code verification, which can be complicated for foreigners.