Amanfayun at Hangzhou review | spa hotel China
Live like a favoured mandarin in Zhejiang Province
The quick read: A five-star experience is taken for granted at an Aman resort, but Amanfayun spa in Zhejiang Province, China, offers something really unusual: the chance to travel back in time and live like a favoured mandarin in imperial China. Set within a constellation of Buddhist temples in the city of Hangzhou, it is less a hotel than a village, with a communal bathhouse/spa, meeting hall, restaurants and tea house.
Who it’s best for: You will find affluent Chinese couples sipping tea on one of the river terraces or cocktails around the pool at the weekend here – especially from spring through to autumn. You will also spot ‘Aman junkies’ from America, Europe or the Middle East intent on checking out one of the group’s newest concept destinations, and mid-week you may well find business folk.
It’s the perfect retreat from the bustle and hassle of Hangzhou’s business hub just a 20 minute drive away, but you could easily pass a week here, hanging out in the gorgeous traditional stone and cedarwood houses, drinking one of the famous local teas while contemplating the transitoriness of human existence. It’s unlikely you will spot many families with noisy kids here, apart from Chinese pilgrims passing through – they can still pass along the old stone-flagged main street which is part of the temple trail. You will definitely encounter monks in their dusky robes walking between the Buddhist academy and the main temple complex.
What you can do: The emphasis here is on stopping the crazy roulette of modern life, taking things in at walking pace and by lantern light; so don’t expect a state-of-the-art gym or anything too high tech. You can luxuriate in an old-fashioned bathhouse, have a traditional bamboo massage, melt into a hot tub and be waited on by a cohort of therapists. There is t’ai chi, reflexology and yoga by arrangement and if you have enough time on your hands you can learn the Chinese calligraphy.
It’s a wonderful place to practise mindfulness: you can mediate with actual monks at 4am and attend Buddhist philosophy talks. As there is a renowned and ancient Buddhist academy just a stone’s throw away, it seems almost churlish not to. Curiously, meditation classes do not appear on the wellbeing menu but perhaps the idea is that you find your own meditation: whether that’s tea drinking, walking or just looking at the magnolias.
And of course there are plenty of limestone hills to explore as you climb up to ancient temples with great views across the West Lake (assuming you’re lucky enough to have a cloud-free morning). The 1,600 year old temple of Lingshun is quite a hike but the smaller temple complex of Taoguangguanhai is easily accessible and the famous Lingyin Si (Soul’s Retreat) and Yongfu Si are a short amble away from the gate. The ancient rock Buddhas and Bodhisattvas carved into the limestone mountain above the river should really not be missed.
Where you stay: The wonder of Amanfayun is its location. It’s extraordinary that the local government allowed its constuction inside a national park and pilgrimage site – but then this is no ordinary hotel. For hundreds of years the village had been home to the tea growers of the world-famous Longjing leaf, the champagne of green teas. The story goes that quite recently the growers became so wealthy that they didn’t know what to do with it all and applied to build flashy extensions on their modest stone-built ones. So to avoid a Millionaire’s Row effect inside a national park, the government gave them land nearby to build their big houses. At some point the Aman group came along and proposed something more in keeping for the derelict village.
The dwellings are (re)built in traditional stone with dark cedarwood shutters, high beams and reed roofs. Low lighting is employed throughout the whole resort to enhance the time warp effect and you will be hard pushed to find plastic anywhere (apart from the water bottles in the bedrooms and spa). Despite looking like old China there is state-of-the-art temperature control including underfloor heating for the colder months and colonial style ceiling fans. The suites come replete with everything you need to host and perform your own tea ceremony including the furniture and varities of Longjing and Jinquhangmai tea. And if you look carefully you can find the mod cons: widescreen TV, wifi, electric ceramic teapot.
The rooms have showers so that guests are encouraged to use the bathhouse/spa, which is a delight: individual treatment rooms off a central courtyard which comes with large wooden tubs, a steam room and hot water which cascades out of a stone faucet. Fayun Place is the ‘great hall’ which houses a library stocked with art, politics and the history of China (alongside Dan Brown and David Baldacci!)
How was it for us: Tucked away in bamboo groves and Ash trees, Amanfayun is so discreet that it took 45 minutes for my driver to find the entrance. We retreated back to the car park where we were informed that the concierge golf cart would pick me up. I was impressed by the no car policy and although I later found out that this was because the Reception House was undergoing renovation, it added to the air of exclusivity.
I visited in mid-January, the quietest and coldest time of the year (temperatures can drop into the minuses). It was intended to be a breather on a business trip to visit factories and I was determined to enjoy every minute. If first impressions are everything, then I was seduced by the reception at Fayun Place, an elegant 19th Century hall with high ceilings, low lighting, elegant furniture and refreshing tea with green tea biscuits and the charm. Or maybe it was the magical words, “when would you like your massage?”
At the Bathhouse I was greeted by seven tidy women with tea and a treatment menu. But having filled out a health questionnaire (rather too honestly in retrospect as I opted myself out of the opportunity to try the signature bamboo massage), I went for the facial and head massage.
First I went to cleanse the factory out of my skin in the steam room which unfortunately wasn’t hot enough but the hot tub made up for it: it was literally a giant barrel softened with the sap of the wood. Wonderful. And I was delighted to get an upper back, neck, hand and foot massage with my facial which I used “British, organic” product.
After a mindful supper for one at The Steam House, I was was keen to get back to my fabulous cottage just to pad around barefoot on the warm flagstones in a white floaty gown, get my notebook out and get scribbling. It seemed a bit mean to take a photo and send it back to my boyfriend in the UK with a “wish you were here” message (no doubt as he was changing a nappy), so I left it. But the truth is, the fabulous, roomy apartments are squandered on one person – indeed I would’ve invited all my friends over for tea had it been possible.
I rose early to catch the sun on the peaks, a 45 minute hike up to the temple complex of Taoguangguanhai. With the sun streaking through the bamboo trees and the haze of incense, the chattering of ‘Chinese mamas’ … it really was a transcendental moment. Sadly, I never found the path leading to the North peak where there is a 1,600 year old temple, but I spent a wonderful four hours wandering around the most beautiful temples at Yongfu Si and the awe-inspiring sculptures inside the temples of the main tourist attraction Lingyin Si. Even though I’m a Buddhist, the carvings and sculptures of angry Gods, mythical warriors and statesmen were as alien to me as a Santeria shrine would be to a 19thC Presbyterian, but they were fascinating.
What we took home: Whether it was the good vibes of the temples of Goodness, Purity and Happiness where I spent so much time, or it was the sense of being so well looked after at the resort, I left with my cup full.
Would we go back: I would like to revisit in the spring when the blossoms are out and I would make sure I had a few extra days to soak I all up, visit the West Lake and the tea growing farms.
People watch: The level of service was high. Straight away I was impressed by the front office manager, Mr Andy Shao, who very charming, spoke excellent English and impeccably dressed. He escorted me around by lantern-light and checked in to make sure I was comfortable, happy and made my onward travel connections. The spa therapists were professional and well-trained.
Food Watch: The Steam House serves up dim-sum style and steamed local dishes. The subtle flavours of river shrimps with smoky Longjing tea leaves left you wanting more. The salad of spicy lotus root with peanut was delicious as was Yunnar mushroom soup. Example main dishes include Yongcheng Lake Hairy Crab, Double-Boiled Chicken with Ginseng and Sea Bass with steamed beancurd and Jinhua ham.
There is also a vegetarian restaurant, which is popular with the monks, and a Western style restaurant with a European chef which has an excellent selection of wines. This is where breakfast is taken (included in the room price) and you can get a decent coffee (hard to find outside the main cities), a good selection of a la carte European and American options.
The Teahouse felt a little like a movie set from the Last Emperor, laid on for the tourists, but was very atmospheric. It would be anathema to get your laptop out and start tapping away. Whispered conversations involving political or sexual intrigue were more the thing.
What’s queenly: It feels like a great privilege to be staying within the temple complex, a place of peace, worship and natural beauty. The village has been restored sensitively to evoke old China and so that its guests can feel in harmony with their environment, right down to the small details such as the wooden combs in the bedrooms.
What’s lowly: The Aman experience comes with an exclusive price tag, so high expectations underpin the experience. Therefore, if the steam room was too tepid or the bedroom was too hot, you couldn’t help thinking about how much it was costing.
Insider tip: Pick your season carefully. Go when the local season is spring or autumn to enjoy the surrounding forest, lake and flora. Take some fantastic books with you and a yoga mat. Open yourself up to the oriental arts: Buddhist philosophy, tai chi while you’re there.
Price with a companion: Village Room rates start at RMB5100 (+15%) c. £551 per night in low season and a Village Suite rate is RMB5700 c. £615 (+15%). Breakfast for two and use of bathhouse is included.
Price going solo: The room rate is the same for single occupancy.
Value for Money: Aman hotels are not for the penny conscious. You’re paying a high price to be air-lifted out of the ordinary and be suspended in a bubble of privilege for a few days. And on that front you won’t be disappointed.
Sister retreats: Aman was founded in 1988 with the vision of building a collection of intimate retreats with the unassuming, warm hospitality of a gracious private residence. The first, Amanpuri (place of peace) in Phuket, Thailand, introduced the concept, and since then, Aman has grown to encompass 30 hotels and resorts worldwide. They offer a range of spa retreats at their resorts in Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Greece, Indonesia, Montenegro, the Philippines, Thailand, Utah, and Vietnam. You can check them out in London at The Aman Spa at The Connaught.
Reviewed by Imogen O’Rourke
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