Set in elegant pavilions that were once imperial waiting rooms, boutique hotel Aman Summer Palace in Beijing offers a taste of pampered Qing Dynasty living. Its traditional tiled roofs, peaceful courtyards and superlative spa may be fit for an emperor and empress, but, with direct private access to the Summer Palace’s wonders, it has a rather special ace up its richly embroidered sleeve.
Noon. Check-in, 3pm. Both are flexible subject to availability and a fee (half a night’s stay for check-out until 6pm and a full night’s stay for early check-in and later check-out).
Double rooms from £515.80 (CNY4,370), including tax at 15 per cent.
Rates include breakfast; choose from Continental, Chinese, low-calorie or American options alongside fresh fruit and fine teas. Cultural activities, access to the Summer Palace, a tea ceremony and soft drinks in the minibar are also included.
Want to upgrade your film nights? Guests can use the hotel's private cinema for free (must be booked in advance). The library is home to rare works on the Summer Palace and glossy photography books on the region. Chinese calligraphy demonstrations are hosted here and the hotel also runs free cultural activities at 4pm every day, ranging from paper-cutting to kite-making.
At the hotel
Gardens, spa, gym, Pilates studio, squash court, table tennnis, private cinema, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, DVD player, minibar, tea and coffee making facilities, Aroma Therapy toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
Set in clusters of three pavilions surrounding a tranquil inner courtyard, rooms are dressed in natural hues and polished wood inspired by the Ming Dynasty. Deluxe Suites are serene and romantic, with imposing four-poster beds and inviting day-beds made for languid reclining. With deep sunken baths, double sinks and traditional lamps, their bathrooms have the intimate, cosseting feel of a bath house. Sprawling across three pavilions, the Imperial Suite is its own little compound, with drum-stool seating, a private spa treatment room and floor-to-ceiling carved-wood panels. Ask for a room in the courtyard closest to the palace’s wall: the sound of the daily Chinese opera performances (at 9, 10 and 11am) wafting over from the great stage will transport youto the heyday of the Chinese empire.
Aman’s temperature-controlled 25m pool is an ink-blue, mirror-smooth affair, hidden away in an atmospheric subterranean retreat. Rows of loungers and raised day-beds await around its edges – a perfect excuse for a vitamin-packed treat from the juice bar after a few virtuous laps.
All rough-hewn stone and sleek wood, the Aman spa sprawls over two floors as an underground temple devoted solely to guests’ wellbeing. Each of the nine twin treatment suites has its own bath tub, shower, steam room and massage area. Get acquainted with your chi with treatments designed by the Qing Dynasty’s own Chinese medicine practice. Acupuncture, herbal poultices and cupping form the backbone of the spa’s treatment menu, but there’s plenty for those hungry for indulgence, too: try heated gemstone massages, wild jasmine wraps and ginger-rich scrubs. Kick-start a new regime in the fitness suite, an impressively hi-tech, sky-lit space kitted out with Technogym equipment and Pilates reformers, offering daily classes at 2pm. Forgot to pack a partner for the two squash courts? Guests get free access to both, plus free table-tennis sessions and entry to the yoga and Pilates studio. The hotel’s personal trainers will happily put you through your paces.
Bring a copy of Cixi’s biography to immerse yourself in the Empress Dowager’s life of intrigue and political machinations, which shaped the last throes of the Qing Dynasty.
The private cinema shows films every day at 6pm. Sink into one of the deep leather seats with a bowl of popcorn, or book the space to yourself to play festival programmer. Guestrooms and Family Suites are accessible to disabled guests.
Welcome, although extra beds are only available in Suites and above. Under-12s stay free (4-11s are charged CNY300 for breakfast each day); older children are charged CNY700 a night including breakfast.
Arrange for breakfast to be served by the lake at The Summer Palace – you’ll have it all to yourselves before it opens to the public at 8.30am.
Diaphanous silks and impeccable tailoring.
A foodie before her time, Empress Cixi was said to enjoy 128 dishes at every meal. The Chinese restaurant pays tribute to this imperial appetite with elegant comfort food: sample a feast of crispy pork skin, amber-hued Peking duck, stir-fried fish with asparagus and chef Jing Guang Gu’s perfectly balanced Szechuan chicken. Naoki’s set menus offer French-Japanese fusion at its best; try the sea bream sashimi and the green lobster salad. Breakfast is served in the Grill restaurant, where prime cuts of meat and fresh seafood are given a western treatment at lunch and dinner. Head to the lobby for afternoon tea in the dappled shade of a traditional courtyard.
Retire to the Reflection Pavilion, a traditional red-framed structure with a picturesque terrace overlooking a peaceful lotus pond. All dark panelled wood and plush bar stools, the Cigar Room offers premium cigars and warming spirits.
Lunch is served 11.30am–2.30pm, afternoon tea 2pm–4pm and dinner 6pm–10.30pm.
Pick from the restaurants’ menus during opening hours, after which a light menu of salads, sandwiches and soups is available around the clock.
The hotel is just steps from the Summer Palace, a sprawling complex of peaceful gardens and striking imperial buildings on the leafy shores of Kunming Lake, a half hour’s drive from the bustle of central Beijing.
Beijing West Train Station, a 40-minute drive away, serves high-speed trains to Hong Kong, Guanzhou and Shenzen, as well as destinations throughout the west of China. Subway lines 4 and 10 stop at Xiyuan and Beingongmen stations nearby.
Beijing’s heavy traffic is best left to the professionals. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but the hotel has a car park if you insist on bringing your own wheels.
Worth getting out of bed for
First built in 1750, the Summer Palace has a long and rich history inextricably linked to the fortunes of the Qing Dynasty. This Unesco-listed landscape of palaces and classical gardens encircling the mirror-smooth Kunming Lake was once used as a retreat from the searing summer heat of the Forbidden City. You’d be forgiven for doing much the same and dedicating your time in Beijing to contemplative walks around the grounds, meditative sessions in the spa and gentle hikes through pine forests to the Ultimate Blessings pavilion, a picturesque spot for picnics and badminton. Once you’re ready to explore further, staff will happily arrange tours and visits to Beijing’s must-see sites, from maze-like hutongs to serene Buddhist temples and cutting-edge art galleries. Don’t miss the Temple of Heaven, a complex of 15th-century religious buildings representing the relationship between heaven and earth.
You’ll find no shortage of gastronomic delights if you’re willing to travel into town, from sleek fine-dining establishments to cheap-and-cheerful noodle and dumpling joints. By the Tibetan Zhizhusi temple, the tasting menu of Temple Restaurant Beijing (+86 10 8400 2232) reads like a gastronome’s tour of the world: sample pea soup with caviar, tender suckling pig with a pumpkin purée and merguez-flanked lamb loin. On Maizidian Jie, Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu serves plump northern dumplings in rainbow hues (+86 10 6586 4967). Quench your Peking duck cravings at Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant (+86 10 5169 0328), an upmarket pit stop where full-flavoured fowls are glazed and roasted to crispy perfection.
Secret doors and hidden passageways are the stuff of childhood dreams (and, let’s face it, adults love them, too). They’re the kind of thing that, with a good interior designer and architect, you’d expect to be more prevalent. Yet for whatever reason, they’re usually confined to Hollywood movies. But not, as Mr Smith and I discovered, at the Aman Summer Palace in Beijing.
Mr Smith and I had been ruminating on a trip to China for a couple of years. Fueled by a newish, somewhat random interest in Chinese antiques – though the idea that forgotten, family-heirloom porcelain cups and vases could fetch upwards of £20 million at auction may have had something to do with it – and subsequent Mandarin lessons, Mr Smith had been plotting a months-long sojourn to China for some time. In the end, though, eight days was all our schedules could afford (cue eye rolls), so we decided to spend the majority of this in the capital.
Unlike Shanghai, which has the frenetic pace and always-on buzz of a sprawling, cosmopolitan city, Beijing has a slower, more laidback feel. Sure, there was enough traffic at times to cause us to sit sullenly, in silence, in the backseat of our DiDi (the Chinese Uber). And don’t get me wrong, the air pollution was a bit of a bummer. But in general, Beijing felt calm and collected. Interestingly, nearly every scooter we saw on the road was electric (a government effort to try and curb the negative effects of a zillion vehicles), which means the city happily bypasses the incessant sound of 125cc engines that plagues other Asian cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh.
But our blissful attitude was also due to the fact we weren’t in the hustle-bustle of the city. Instad, we were being treated like royalty at the Aman Summer Palace: a hotel truly like no other. Thanks to the fact that it’s, quite literally, next to the palace (and, in some areas, on the actual former grounds), it genuinely feels like a place of serious historic significance. The kind of place you feel privileged to visit. As you wander the raised walkways, through peaceful courtyards and elegant pavilions, you can’t help but wonder what the Qianlong Emperor thought as he strode through the exact same halls 300 years ago.
All of the rooms are set around a courtyard and feature tasteful Asian touches: a kettle shaped like a teapot, perhaps, or a tasseled Chinese good luck knot prettying a bunch of cables. Nothing is over-the-top or cheesy – it’s all crisp white bed linens and elegant wood period furniture; the only red in our room is courtesy of the contemporary bedside lampshades. No Chinatown lanterns here! This is the case throughout the hotel, too. The restaurants are sophisticated and refined, never garish, serving up steamed bao and congee for breakfast (though eggs and other western options are available), then steaming soup in elegant, cloisonné bowls for a hot pot dinner, where Mr Smith and I slurp up every last drop.
But back to secret doors and hidden passageways. Without a doubt, the highlight of Aman Summer Palace is the secret door through which you can slip, unnoticed, straight into the heart of the palace. Mr Smith and I get busy, partaking not once, not twice, not three times, but four times over the next two days. It truly is how I imagine it would be to step through the door at the back of the wardrobe in the Narnia books; on our first adventure, we’re plunged from the serenity of the hotel straight into a large group of Chinese tourists in matching yellow t-shirts – just as Lucy Pevensie landed straight into the One Hundred Year Winter on her first journey into Narnia.
Finding the right door in the maze of corridors on the hotel side is a bit tricky; luckily, attendants are easy to come by and always eager to show you the way. On the palace side, at sundown, when guards gently begin ushering tourists towards the exits and we know it’s time to find the gate once again, he guides us around a left turn, another left turn, then a right, then a left, and miraculously, we’re back at the hidden door. To get back into the hotel, we’d been told to use the loaner mobile phone, though in the spirit of adventure, we try simply knocking – and it works.
On our second outing the next morning, things are a bit calmer and Mr Smith, using his inner compass, guides us toward the beautiful Kunming Lake. It’s a hazy day, and I can imagine the Empress Dowager Cixi daintily making her way across the beautiful 17-Arch Bridge or the surprisingly steep Jade Belt Bridge while the Emperor has a sitting with his government officials. Forget the crowds at the gates, who are no doubt already working up a sweat in the humid morning sun: our secret passageway is the best way to enter and properly enjoy the Summer Palace (and, as far as Mr Smith and I are concerned, the only way).
Indeed, between the hidden door experience at Aman Summer Palace and the rest of our eight days in Beijing, our trip has an air of feeling like a childhood dream come true. And there’s not many better things in the world than that.