We are two of the lucky ones. My partner is shakily tackling a gin and tonic on a leafy roof terrace overlooking Shanghai, now appreciating its reputation as China’s most turbulent city. Three hours earlier we were frantically navigating our taxi, realising that ‘Urbn Hotels Shanghai’ doesn’t translate well in Chinese. I was in the front seat, rammed up against my driver’s greasy Perspex protective box, straining through the windscreen to anticipate junctions. Mrs Smith was in the back, punch drunk and holding on tight.
Our white-knuckle ride had taken us north and south, past ancient and modern architecture. We had stolen occasional glances of landmarks in the Shanghai skyline to lose them again behind lesser-known tower blocks. But in the end, it didn’t matter. The journey was fun and pretty much summed up Shanghai: a city of contrasts, lost and found, old and new. And all without a single word or mannerism between us and the driver that had been understood.
Regrouped later in Urbn’s lobby we – and an adventurous group of our metropolis-loving friends – exchanged anecdotes, setting the pattern for the next few days of our city break. Behind us in reception were stacks of bygone leather suitcases – a backdrop to the stories of the city that travellers such as ourselves bring in. Privately owned and created by a Californian and an Australian, you can feel the Urbn originates from people who have travelled. It combines a sensitive touch with a sense of adventure.
The self-contained suites provide personal space where few locals know what that concept is, the abundance of reclaimed materials respect the land it sits on and the worthy, ecologically sound construction – yes, the Urbn is China’s first carbon-neutral hotel – means it’s possible to visit the manufacturing centre of the world while avoiding accusations of helping it to bolster the world’s carbon footprint.
The Urbn is a former post office converted into 26 rooms. It’s intimate enough without feeling like you’re at a family reunion of unknown relatives, while being large enough to utilise the 24-hour room service guilt-free at 4am to order the very worthwhile house burger.
The rich mahogany floors and walls aren’t sheer opulence either: it is sensitive reclaiming that gives Urbn’s spaces their soul – real soul from local houses in a city that is so geared towards the new it doesn’t understand what second-hand is.
What the hotel calls a studio lounge we happily call a suite. What Urbn calls a courtyard suite, we called our penthouse. A huge slate shower room with seating for four made us think we were expecting visitors. The freestanding bathtub had two great panoramic views – one of the flatscreen TV and one of the Shanghai rooftops through floor-to-ceiling windows. Add the masterful bed and wraparound sunken lounge area, and it was as good being in as it was being out.
When we did venture outside, we hit hip-hop guru Gary Wang’s (aka DJ V-Nutz) club the Shelter – literally an old air-raid shelter showcasing local and global underground music. For something more upscale (and above ground), try Lounge18 on the Bund. Dressy, upbeat with amazing views – you will feel you have ‘arrived’.
I didn’t know it at the time but have since learnt that China is one of only three countries that have never been occupied, and it is this strength of culture that’s the real reward in Shanghai. There is little the Chinese haven’t experienced or overcome, and it’s an attitude that hasn’t escaped the Urbn’s unflinching staff. Burgers at 4am were small fry. There was nothing that couldn’t be handled.
If you wanted DVDs they appeared with armfuls, if you wanted games, the same. In fact, gaming is obviously popular because there was a full-on room and bar on the fourth floor, complete with video projector, dedicated purely to the pursuit. And good cocktail mixing in Urbn’s bar/restaurant RoomTwentyEight wasn’t lost in translation either.
Shanghai is home to languages so numerous and dialects so wide-reaching that written and spoken words are rarely fully understood. So if you’re going to jump in feet first, Urbn Hotels Shanghai is the perfect platform. Plus, if you pick up a ‘Take me to the Urbn’ business card from reception, you’ll avoid perilous taxi journeys – and white knuckles.
Anonymously reviewed by Mark Chalmers (Art Digerati, Tribal DDB)
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