THE PULI HOTEL AND SPA, SHANGHAI, CHINA
BEST FOR: AN ADVENTUROUS FIRST TASTE OF CHINA
NOT FOR: ANYONE WHO DISLIKES CROWDS OR FEELS NERVOUS IN A RELENTLESSLY BUSY CITY SETTING
For a taste of the exotic in a hyper-urban setting Shanghai hits all the buttons. Speedy, complex, chaotic, and crazily crowded, this super-modern city with historic ties to Britain gives you a caffeine-jolt screenshot of China: what it’s all about, what it has been, and what it’s becoming. It’s unbeatable for letting you mix a delectable dose of sumptuous East-meets-West spa with the chance to dip your chopsticks into the products of countless restaurant kitchens, along the way checking out 5,000 years of Chinese art and culture and exploring shops the likes of which simply don’t exist in the West. A place you kind of owe yourself to visit, then, because if China is the future, Shanghai, the world’s number one mega-city – with a population of almost 25 million (it’s the biggest city on the planet) is the place to get a preview.
Despite its size, however, you needn’t worry about having to cover massive distances during your stay. You’ll probably spend your entire trip within the few square miles that make up the heart of Shanghai. This embraces both the colonial-era areas dating back to the late 19th century, when the great European powers planted themselves in Shanghai and forced China to open up to trade – the massive, majestic former banks and insurance buildings of the riverside Bund, built largely by the British, and now converted into hotels and smart bars and restaurants, and the graceful, treelined streets of the French Concession, now a key shopping area – and the neon dazzle of Pudong, the new highrise hotels and business district opposite the Bund. All energy, buzz and fascination, this heart of the city also embraces countless busy modern streets and the occasional remnant of 17th century China such as the Ming Dynasty Yu Gardens, with their zig-zag paths and curly-rooved teahouses.
But the range of restaurants alone could keep you busy, whether sampling sizzling dim sum at street stalls or ordering cocktails among the expats at glamorous outposts of Western restaurants such as Hakkasan, home of delectable cod in champagne. Some places, admittedly, such as the backstreets restaurants with dog on the menu (listed as yellow dog and black dog; they apparently taste quite different) and the cavernous food markets with their plastic bucketfuls of wriggling fish, eels and goodness knows what else might kill your appetite for a while. Eating out definitely won’t be dull, though.
The shopping is similarly eclectic. The best hunting grounds are Nanking Road, Huaihai Road and Fumin Road in the old French Concession, home to boutiques such as Madame Mao’s Dowry, Atelier Miss Lue, Lili Ming, Banana Moon and Helen Lee, plus riveting spots such as Fabric Market, TaoBao fake market, Number 1 Department Store, and Lei Yun Shang pharmeceutical department store off Nanking Road West. Home of two floors of natural remedies such as ginseng roots at a fraction of the price you’d pay in Britain(foot-long roots for 3600 RMB; 21.50RMB for the capsules that cost £20 in London ) and cupping sets for around £30, and with a floor of doctors to consult (some speak English) and the fascinating Medicine Cottage, where hairnetted assistants make up herbal prescriptions, this is a true must-see. Ignore the designer boutiques and branch of 10 Corso Como. Despite the recent – January 2016 – reduction in taxes on imported luxury goods, they’re still more expensive than at home. Focus instead on local goods such as tea (black, green, red and white and in dozens of varieties; hugely popular in China) and tea-sets; bargain silks; the kind of gel pens Rymans sell at £2.50 or more at 15p each; and in the French Concession shops, 1930s-look Shanghai Lady calendar-girl soaps for a lifetime of stocking-fillers.
And at the end of the day in the Puli , the first hotel in China from the fledgling group Urban Resorts, and a fashion and media crowd favourite (both local and visting), provides a welcome escape from the perpetual huge crowds. Unlike most five-star Shanghai hotels – which either line the Bund or cluster fortress-like in Pudong – the 222-room PuLi is tucked away on the edge of the elegant old French Concession. Its spectacular USP is its long, light-filled lobby overlooking a reflecting pool and outdoor garden, paved in shiny black handmade tiles – the same glossy black tiles used in the Forbidden City in Beijing – and lined with a 105-ft long spectacular wood bar. At one end of this bar is the concierge desk, and at the other an all-day brasserie where you can grab a quick breakfast, £22-for two afternoon tea or order a cocktail.
Flanked by little JingAn park (kept neat and green by everyone being very strictly kept off the grass), and steps away from the golden rooves of the Buddhist JingAn temple and the newer temples to Burberry, Gucci, Dolce, Chanel et al on the smartest stretch of Nanking Road West, and, very conveniently, with a Metro station entrance yards away, the hotel feels very welcoming when you totter in at the end of each manic day. As the immaculate young concierges smile a greeting and a porter rushes to relieve you of your bags, you can feel your shoulders sink and spirits revive. And if you’ve planned a rough schedule before your trip and booked a few treatments in advance, you’ll be able to head directly to the dark, scented womb of the Anantara spa. Thoroughly and thrillingly old-Shanghai in look, with dark panelled walls and low light coming from antique 1930s Chinese lamps rather than the Espa-look tealights de rigueur in so many other spas, the treatment rooms have broad, heated massage beds and private showers. And, as ever, the pleasing setting would be fairly inconsequential if the therapists were lacklustre. But in recruited a team from north-west China, near the border with Tibet, an area that provides small but strong, hard-working, sweet therapists including Julia, who looks too little to deliver the tough massage she excels at. The PuLi has struck lucky.
After your treatment, and tea, you might be fit to Metro back to the Bund to eat – 3 on the Bund houses eight hugely glamorous restaurants including Mercato, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and the Pop American Brasserie terrace bar . Standing among the international and wealthy local crowd on the terrace of the seventh-floor Pop American brasserie, looking out over the Huangpu to the neon dazzle of Pudong, with the red flag of China flapping from a tower and the monumental architecture reminding you once again of the city’s history, is a truly exhilarating experience. No 5 , home to M on the Bund, and no 18, home of a branch of Hakkasan, with a lively main room and private dining room that both look out over the river, are rivals for the “best on the Bund” title.
Or you could just take the deliciously lazy route and veg out with room service to watch Chinese tv. You might even be able to catch up on a subtitled episode of Downton. It’s huge in Shanghai. And if you’re at the hotel on a Sunday, its 398 RNB brunch – a mix of Mediterranean and local dishes – is well worth staying in for, especially if you have a sweet tooth. Seafood, charcuterie, roast meats, baked sea bream, pasta and rice dishes such as risotto and rabbit, cheeses, fresh baked bread … the main courses are all perfectly nice but it’s what you finish with that is most delectable: molten brownies, tiny polenta cakes, and celestially sticky Chinese cinnamon buns. They alone could keep you coming back to Shanghai.
PRICE: From £178 per night, based on two people sharing
CONTACT: Tel: +86 21 2230 9988; web: www.thepuli.com
NEAREST AIRPORT: Shanghai PuDong International Airport
TRANSFER TIME: 45-minutes drive
TOP TIPS FOR SHANGHAI
* Book an anti-jetlag massage for an hour or so after your arrival in Shanghai.
* If you want to delve into the city’s history, the key museums in this area to browse your way through are the early 20th– century French villa with its old gramophone and tea-services that is the Memorial Residence of Sun Yat Sen, founding father of communist China; the Shanghai History Museum; and the Propaganda Poster museum, lined with Mao-era reminders of the Cultural Revolution that devastated China in the 1970s.
* To get an insider’s insight into the city’s food, markets and cooking techniques, book one of the great half-day food-tasting city walking tours organised by UntourShanghai.com. Dumpling Delights; Street Hawker Potstickers; Nanjing Soup and Dumplings; the routes and sampling-spots vary but the knowledge and enthusiasm of the guides – mostly expat Mandarin-speakers, headed by the American Jamie – is a given. Culinarybackstreets.com/shanghai gives more local dining recommendations.
* Avoid going in July or August, when the weather is unspeakably steamy, or in grimly chilly January.
* The traffic could drive you insane, so use the Metro: safe, cheap – only 3RMB a ticket or 18RMB for an all-day ticket – and easy to use. Station names are given in English as well as Chinese characters and informative signs abound (“Danger! Jumping into the tunnel is fordbidden!” etc.) . But – big but – it is essential to remember which entrance/exit you should use. Ten to 12 entrances per station is not uncommon. As squares can be ten times the size of Trafalgar Square you will be lost and confused if you neglect to check this.
* You have got to spend at least one evening on the terrace of one of the bars on the Bund, drinking in the view across to the neon of Pudong. It feels like the centre of the world. The liveliest place is probably 3 on the Bund, a wedding-cake of a building housing eight separate restaurants including the Whampoa Club, Jean Georges, and Mercato, also presided over by Jean Georges Vongerichten.
* If you are eating with Chinese hosts you should know the basics of Chinese dining etiquette. To show respect, be punctual, don’t take a seat until one is offered (there’ll be a strict hierarchy at work and the guest of honour is usually placed in the centre of the table, facing the entrance), and humbly keep the rim of your glass lower than the other person’s when clinking glasses. Leave some food on your plate after each course or you will be pressed to eat more and more; a clean plate signifies that your host meanly didn’t provide quite enough food. Enthusiastically praise the food.
* Get the hotel to give you a map and card printed in Chinese as well as English so that you’ll be able to show any taxi-drivers/helpful passer-bys where you want to get back to.
FIRST-HAND VISIT WRITE-UP BY: ADRIAANE PIELOU