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UNLOCKING CHINA countdown to the 2008 olympics

Reaching for 5 stars

A new crop of luxury hotels has opened across the country. They're a triumph of style but not service.

February 10, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

LIJIANG, CHINA — You are lounging in a warm plunge pool in the garden of a private villa while listening to "The Goldberg Variations." Your robe and slippers are on the floor where you dropped them, right near the giant, pillow-mounded platform bed. You are thinking about having a brie omelet for breakfast, then a spa foot massage or a ginseng facial. You know you won't have to tell the bartender how to mix a dry martini when you order one before dinner.

Are you at the Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur or the Plaza Athenee in Paris?

Not even close.

You are at the Banyan Tree in the mountains of southwestern China, at one of the sophisticated new luxury hotels springing up all over this country. In Beijing alone, several new high-end hotels -- including a Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental -- are due to open by the start of the Olympics in August.

You used to be able to count the number of China's five-star hotels on five fingers, so the emergence of world-class accommodations here is welcome news for travelers.

China's new luxe lodgings come with all the flourishes: state-of-the-art electronics, exceptional settings, international cuisine, dreamy spas and designer decor. Better still, the rates are sometimes appreciably lower than at such accommodations in the West.

But in other ways, Chinese hotels don't always live up to their stars, partly because the government-sponsored rating system is based on facilities only, neglecting the quality of service.

"There are many five-star hotels in China that would be lucky to achieve a four-star rating in other countries," said Damien Little, a director for the hotel consulting group Horwath HTL in Beijing.

The chief stumbling block has been the dearth of well-trained personnel. "The number of quality staff is limited, owing to the poor level of hospitality schooling in China," said Guy Rubin, Beijing-based managing partner of Imperial Tours, which specializes in luxury trips to China. "Graduates are surprisingly ignorant of the service levels expected of them."

Last spring, wanting to find what luxury means in China, I stayed at some of the highly touted new hotels: the Banyan Tree in Lijiang, the Commune by the Great Wall about 50 miles north of Beijing and the Hotel of Modern Art near Guilin in southern China.

It wasn't exactly a hardship posting, and there were wonderful surprises. But on other occasions, simply asking for a blow dryer caused enough consternation to make me feel like a despotic empress.

BANYAN TREE LIJIANG

There comes a point in almost every trip to China when travelers need a break from guides and tours, when they would give an army of terra-cotta warriors for a cup of freshly brewed coffee, when they don't want to see another indecipherable restaurant menu or spend another night on a hard Chinese bed.

That's when it's time to get to the Banyan Tree Lijiang. Since the hotel opened in 2006, it has provided blissful interludes to many weary road warriors.

Banyan Tree is a small, Singapore-based hotel chain that specializes in flawless service, tasteful hedonism, eco-friendly operations and showcasing extraordinary scenery like that around Lijiang, 120 miles from Yunnan's capital Kunming in the far southwestern corner of China.

Visitors come here to see the mountains and enjoy the culture of the Naxi people, one of China's most colorful ethnic minorities. Naxi arts and crafts are on display in the beautifully preserved old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of glacier-fed canals, cobblestone streets, bridges and shop houses.

Modern development is fast claiming the wide, mountain-rimmed valley, so it was wise of Banyan Tree to choose a site in the bucolic farm fields about five miles outside town, near the village of Shuhe. It was once a stop on the ancient Tea Horse Road between central China and Tibet, but now the village is a quieter, miniature Lijiang, 10 minutes on foot down a cedar-lined lane from the Banyan Tree.

Besides strolling and shopping for Naxi crafts in Shuhe, hotel guests can go horseback riding in the foothills or trek in nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge. But, honestly, it's hard to leave the compound once you pass through the peak-roofed portal.

Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the hotel is symmetrically arranged around a series of ever-widening courtyards that yield to a shop, lounge, bar and the Banyan Tree's two restaurants, one serving elegant Chinese cuisine, the other devoted to contemporary Asian fusion.

Beyond that, a network of canals feeds into a broad reflecting pool fringed by weeping willows. The branches were strung with red lanterns, a breathtaking sight when illuminated at night.

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