I’m heading to Shanghai for a work conference. You know the drill: serious wonks, forgettable hotel, rubber-duck dinners. If I extend my trip a few days, how can I best experience the city—and a bit of the countryside?
Looking for something above and beyond in Shanghai
You may be locked in solitary for a few days, but you’re in China, where the world is your dumpling. Extend your stay for three days, but keep things simple—don’t involve an airport. Instead, spend another night or two in Shanghai, followed by two nights in the country at one of China’s four Aman resorts. The new Amanyangyun is an hour’s drive—and a world apart—from downtown Shanghai. Alternatively, take a 45-minute ride on the high-speed train to Hangzhou, where Amanfayun awaits. And no, I don’t have stock in Aman resorts—just an expensive obsession.
Admittedly, your choices for overnighting in Shanghai are endless, but I love the gilded extravagance and the Last Emperor–like service of the Peninsula Shanghai, and while the history of the humble Peace Hotel, where Noël Coward finished writing Private Lives, is great, the hotel is not. You’ll be more than happy in the glam sky-high Park Hyatt, especially from one of the enormous upper-floor suites in the clouds. For something newer and super-classy, the charming and impeccably designed Les Suites Orient on the Bund has the best views of Shanghai.
On my last three visits to China, I didn’t make a move without consulting the clothing designer and art dealer Han Feng, who is from Nanjing, moved to New York, and now splits her time between the two cities. She’s best known as the costume designer for Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera. She certainly didn’t go wrong when she suggested I book a vintage Beijing Jeep 212 and a driver from Insider’s Secret Ride. It’s the best and quickest way to get a read on the city, and the tour includes giant skyscrapers, out-of-the-way boutiques, the remnants of a several-hundred-year-old garden built by a scholar, and a little-known Buddhist temple from the Qing dynasty. My favorite stop was the retail-and-dining complex 1933 Old Millfun, a 1933 Art Deco masterpiece that was built on the site of what had been one of the largest abattoirs in East Asia.
Dinner should be at Ultraviolet. Mainland China’s only three-star Michelin restaurant also provides a full-on theatrical experience—there’s only one table, which seats up to 10 guests, and chef Paul Pairet vows that each dish served during the 20-course tasting menu is “enhanced with its own taste-tailored atmosphere: lights, sounds, music, scents, projection, images and imagination … and food.” Sounds tedious, but trust me: Seven years on, Ultraviolet remains a tough reservation and is one of the most creative, extravagant, exclusive, and expensive meals I’ve ever had. (Dinner, including wines and cocktails paired with each course, can run upwards of $750 a person. Pairet recently opened a more gently priced bistro called Polux in trendy Xintiandi.) For Chinese cuisine, try Lazhu, which opened recently. Yongfoo Elite, located in a beautiful villa on the gorgeous grounds of the old British Embassy, excels at Shanghainese cuisine, and for honest-to-God Hunan cooking at its best, visit Spicy Moment, on tree-lined Wuyuan Road in the former French Concession. Small, casual, and always packed.
The next morning, head to one of the two Aman resorts. For the past decade, Amanyangyun’s owner, Ma Dadong, has worked to re-create an environment that references his memories of growing up in Fuzhou, some 500 miles from Shanghai. Accordingly, Amanyangyun is set in a forest of camphor trees. In fact, some roads on the highway from Fuzhou to Shanghai were altered for the sole purpose of transporting these specimens (some of which are over 1,000 years old). Dadong also imported original villas from the Ming and Qing dynasties, built lakes poeticized with black swans, and persuaded our friend Han Feng to open her Art Space and Design Studio. In early 2020, Feng will also open a separate clothing-design studio (by appointment only, email@example.com), offering ready-to-wear as well as custom-made pieces. My favorite was a black silk and mandarin-collared dinner jacket, accented with fuchsia satin lining.
Should you opt for Hangzhou, you will not be disappointed. Once the capital during the Song dynasty, Amanfayun is surrounded by its own natural beauty, history, and tranquility—an ancient village of stone cottages, cobbled walkways, romantic landscapes, and Buddhist temples. Nearby, historic West Lake is now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Nixon and Zhou Enlai famously strolled there in 1972. How things have changed!
Richard David Story is a writer and editor based in New York