The perfect city mini break is the holiday equivalent of a brief but torrid affair. A couple of days enjoying the very best bits of someone else’s city – enough time to fall hopelessly and utterly in lust, but not enough time to see any of its bad habits!
For me, Paris has always been my holiday bit on the side. When I lived in London, a short hop across the Channel offered up gothic Cathedrals, museums stuffed with Renoirs and Monets, and hours of languid wandering along winding cobbled streets and the banks of the Seine. But then four years ago, I moved to Hong Kong and as I’m not a believer in long-distance relationships, I’ve been casting around for an Asian replacement with very little success ever since. I’ve flirted with Singapore, been on several dates with Bangkok and fluttered my eyelashes at Tokyo, but nothing’s ever quite lived up to Paris. And then, without warning, a city came along that swept me off my feet and left me wondering whether what I had with Paris was ever really that special in the first place – Shanghai.
Often feted as the Paris of the East, I’d always scoffed at the idea that Shanghai’s skyscraper studded skyline and soupy dumplings could even come close to the Eiffel Tower and pastel-hued macarons. How wrong preconceptions can be.
After a swift two hour flight from Hong Kong, we touched down in Shanghai to be greeted by brooding grey skies and a veil of drizzle. The journey from the airport was a fairly uninspiring, verging on depressing trip along grey highways, zipping past a dirge of factories, electricity pylons and anemic looking housing blocks. But then bam, the taxi drew up to the door of the hotel – the brand sparkly new Banyan Tree Shanghai On The Bund, and the butterflies began.
Sweeping into the huge white marble lobby, an army of uniformed staff trailed in our wake efficiently toting our luggage. Check-in breezed by and we were whisked up to the room. Not just any room though, the Alpha male of rooms.
From the second I walked through the door, the view through floor-to-ceiling wrap-around windows smacked me between the eyes and set my heart aflutter – postcard perfect vistas across the river of boats gracefully gliding along its silvery waters reflecting the forest of skyscrapers on its opposite bank. Dragging my eyes from the view, I was dazzled again by a bed bigger than my whole flat in Hong Kong, a walk-in wardrobe that would make Carrie Bradshaw green with envy, and a bathroom I’d have gladly spent the rest of the weekend in.
A huge circular bath tub big enough to fit a rugby team was set right next to the window and despite the fact that those views would provide all the entertainment any normal person would need, a waterproof remote control sat on the side of the tub hinting at a TV but with no set to be seen (I later discovered it lurking behind a glossy black wall panel!).
Resisting the urge to have a Tom Cruise moment and start jumping on the bed whilst shouting about being hopelessly in love, I suddenly realised that the hollow feeling in my stomach had less to do with love sickness, and much more to do with the fact that I hadn’t eaten anything yet! Cue a hasty retreat to Oceans, the hotel’s main dining spot, where we spent a heavenly couple of hours grazing on tuna tartare, seared seabass and huge juicy steaks. The way to my heart is most definitely through my stomach and the Banyan Tree clearly had that sussed from the start.
Groaningly full, I was en route back to the Ryan Gosling of a room for an indulgent afternoon snooze, when I wandered past a couple of tealight lit steps leading up to the spa. One short chat with the super friendly therapists later, and I was curled up in an enormous fluffy robe deciding which incense to have burning during my treatment! Opting for the amber, my therapist washed my feet in a bowlful of rose-petal strewn water before massaging and kneading away every last bit of travel weariness from every inch of my body. An hour later, I floated out of the spa ready to tear myself from the cocoon of the hotel and venture out into the glittering Shanghai evening.
First stop, the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund for champagne cocktails in a 1930s time capsule. As I’m a complete sucker for old-school colonial glamour, the 39-foot mahogany bar with ceiling fans swirling overhead and jazz humming gently in the background had me at “hello”. Feeling peckish again, we drained our cocktails and headed a hop, skip and a jump from the Bund for a Yunnan feast at Lost Heaven. With sultry scarlet and dark wood interiors and a buzzy lively atmosphere, this was the perfect refuel before heading back to the Bund for a little bar hopping.
Top of the bars on the Bund for us were the Glamour Bar for art deco glam and killer martinis, and new Latino lovely Unico, where we sipped Pisco Sours and listened to an incredible live trumpet set. As the clock struck 2am, we realised it had been a very long day and we still had a weekend of exploring ahead of us. Luckily the hotel and the most comfortable bed in China were just a short cab ride back along the river.
As a result of a cocktail-soaked late night, Saturday started slowly with a lie-in so lazy that we missed breakfast! When the hangover hunger bit, we taxied double quick across town to the French Concession where we found the ideal spot to soak up the excesses of the night before – laid-back, lounge-chic Australian restaurant, Mr Willis. This high-ceilinged industrial style space is cosied up with lots of warm wood, bright artwork and homey touches. We promptly devoured huge hunks of ciabatta, a delicious salad and an enormous pizza before rolling back out onto the street for an afternoon of strolling it all off (and a little light shopping…).
As dusk fell we whipped across to Pudong, Shanghai’s chief financial district and home to a thicket of cloud-scraping, towering buildings. Zipping up to the observation deck at the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center (the current tallest of the bunch), a neon toy-town sprawled before us – a complete contrast to the pretty tree-lined streets and crumbling colonial architecture of the French Concession. Eiffel Tower, eat your heart out…
Next up a brief pit stop back at the hotel where I managed to fit in a blissful bubbly soak in that bathtub of all bathtubs, sipping a gin and tonic while being further bewitched by the breathtaking view. Revived and ready to hit the city for Saturday night, we headed for aperitifs and live jazz at the Peace Hotel before more Bund-based fun at the evening’s dinner spot, Mr & Mrs Bund. Recommended to us by a host of food-lovers we’d booked our table well in advance and were rewarded with a plum of a table set right next to the window overlooking the lights of the Bund. This modern French restaurant boasts a War & Peace of a menu so long and complicated that it made our heads spin. Luckily our amazing waiter asked a few questions and then recommended a whole host of dishes each more delicious than the last. From the amuse bouche (a tuna mousse served whimsically in a peeled back tuna can) to black cod in the bag (served, you guessed it, in a bag which the waiter snips open at the table) and topped off with quite possibly the best dessert that I’ve eaten, lemon & lemon tart – a hollowed out, candied lemon skin filled with lemon mousse, lemon curd, Chantilly cream and fresh orange and grapefruit segments. After dinner we headed upstairs to Bar Rouge where we rounded off the evening with far too many cocktails and a few ill-advised shots.
Sunday dawned and it was fuzzy heads all round again, but the promise of a boozy brunch at M on the Bund had us up and moving before you could say Bloody Mary. A feast of a brunch was washed down with Mimosas and topped off with an enormous piece of very naughty pavlova.
With a couple of hours left before it was time to say goodbye, we went for a mosey around the warren of lanes in boho-chic Tianzifang. After ducking in and out of sweet little boutiques and galleries, we happened across tables of beautiful people sipping coffees and chatting over late lunches at courtyard café Kommune. Bagging a sun-soaked spot we slurped down iced banana lattes before reluctantly admitting that it was time to tearfully bid farewell to Shanghai and set-off back to the airport.
On the flight back to Hong Kong I pondered whether this was a mere holiday romance or whether Shanghai and I had found something truly special. I find with these things that it’s best to be sure, so I’m thinking a couple more dates are probably wise. Luckily there are a few public holidays coming up and after all, Shanghai in spring has a very nice ring to it…
Nightly rates at Banyan Tree Shanghai On The Bund start from RMB3,000 for an entry level room and RMB4,300 for the Oasis Room with Romantic Pool; see their current special offers here
Banyan Tree Shanghai On The Bund, 19 Gongping Lu, near Haiping Lu, +86 21 25091188, email@example.com
Check out Natalie’s blog for all things food, fashion and fun, 3 Bad Mice.