© Alphonse B. SenyBy Virginie Michelet
I had, of course, viewed the photos on the website. I told myself that being able to stay in this mythical place was indeed an extraordinary opportunity. That it was the best thing that could happen for someone seeking to understand China and, in particular, its history. That the budget was not a major factor because it was not I, I assure you, who decided to invite myself here. It was destiny, in the shape of a mission commandeered from good old Europe. Enough said. Still, the question rose: the place is indeed magical viewed from a distance, but up close - considering that Aman Resorts is a well-known hotel chain that has been listed for over twenty years (1988) - what would I really find?My obsession with luxury, a blend of extreme comfort, attention to the smallest detail and discreet customization – would it be satisfied? After all, how many times, what seemed to be a paradise at first only turned into a secret hell for me owing to bad management or blatant cost-cutting? Am I demanding? Definitely, and I admit the fact!
The Summer Palace is more than just a place in China. It is a myth or even a symbol of nationalism. Located northwest of Beijing, it housed the residences and temples of the Qing emperors, who came here for respite from the unbearable heat of the Peking summers. We all remember the sack of the Summer Palace in 1860 and in 1900 – a pillage perpetrated by Western powers grouped under the banner of a savage imperialism (see the extraordinary letter written by Victor Hugo), and the years spent in rebuilding the Palace by the Dowager Empress Cixi (Tzu Hsi) who expended on it such unbelievable sums that it was one of the reasons leading to the fall of the Empire in 1911. Just east of the Palace, distinguished visitors were lodged in sumptuous buildings while waiting to meet with the sovereign. They sometimes waited for months. It is here that the Aman chain, with the help of the Chinese government, so I was told, renovated the traditional architecture of a group of buildings that can hold their own, even when compared to the Summer Palace that lies adjacent to the Resort.
It is a great pleasure to reach the small door set in the wall, be provided with a backpack duly filled with Kleenex, water, a map of the Palace and a mobile phone in order to call someone who would promptly open the door when you came back. Yet no questions were asked, when a half-hour ago, we just wished to get to the Palace.
Or being accompanied at night by a young man carrying a beautiful traditional lamp, urging us to be careful where we trod (the buildings are separated by pathways, outdoor corridors, almost lanes).
Or entering the magnificent room in pure nineteenth century style (see the writings of Paul Claudel, Consul in China), finding on my bed cleverly turned down for the night, a card narrating a bit of history, illustrated with drawings, eating two homemade cakes, placed on a small bamboo plate, writing unlikely calligraphy using the brush and ink that are lying on the desk, listening to traditional music that had been turned on before my arrival, taking a bath infused with relaxing herbs and a candle in a bathroom with wooden trellises ...
Or, finally, to be graciously initiated in calligraphy by a master, swim in an underground pool twenty-five meters long all to myself, or almost, take a steam bath, bathe in a Jacuzzi with unpolished stones, and savour one of the best Peking Duck in the capital (where it is a specialty). And all the time, everywhere, the feeling of space, well-being, History, and kindness, genuine concern. In which hotel lobby (if indeed this can be called one) as soon as you sat down, would someone immediately approach you to ask if you would like a drink, as though you were among friends, with no intention of selling you anything, since the drink is complimentary?I am one of those people for whom the ideal of a museum is the Frick Collection in New York or the Jacquemart Andre Museum in Paris, places which have been inhabited by a family or a couple that love the arts so much that they pass on this love over time to us. I am one of those people who do not play tourist, but adore real encounters. But rarely has one the impression that such opportunities exist in the small gilded world of international luxury hotels, because of the globalization of mass luxury (I know it is a contradiction in terms, and yet ...). The Aman Resorts group seems to not only offer us something different, but also presages what will be – most certainly - the individualized luxury of tomorrow. Is it a coincidence that this chain is expanding, especially in Asia? According to the "Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report”, which awarded it the never-attained score of 99 out of 100, it is a "serenely romantic vision of a bygone China "....
© Virginie Michelet