Amere 27-km drive from downtown Shanghai–but in sharp contrast to its hustle and bustle–an extraordinary restoration project is finally bearing fruit. There’s nothing quite like it, actually. In the early 2000s, Ma Dadong, an entrepreneurial success symptomatic of the new China, visited his home town of Fuzhou in Jiangxi, a province noted as a cradle of Chinese culture. Fuzhou itself was home to Wang Anshi (1021-86), the reformist prime minister of the Song Dynasty. A dam announced by the government was going to inundate several Qing and Ming-era villages and, with them, graceful stone houses, some over 500 years old. Apart from the villages, thousands of camphor trees, revered by the Chinese, would be drowned forever. It broke Ma’s heart.
Thus began a project, which would be unbelievable were it not real, to uproot, transport and transplant 10,000 camphor trees (10,502, to be precise) and about a thousand other trees to a private forest 700km away on the outskirts of Shanghai. It was a logistical nightmare. The trees had to be pruned to make them light enough to transport. Landslides due to rain made matters difficult,with trucks upturning often. Some bridges on the route were too low to allow passage, so the road underneath had to be dug to allow trucks to pass. In places, toll gates had to be removed and reinstated. And the trees had to be transported as fast as possible if they were to survive. Ma kept at it. A decade and a half later, 80 percent of the trees have survived the journey and are flourishing. Ma also managed to save 50 heritage dwellings, which were taken apart, brick by brick and beam by beam, marked, catalogued and reassembled as 26 dwellings not far from the private forest. Aman Resorts had joined the journey in 2009 and they brought in Kerry Hill Architects, old Aman hands. The result is Amanyangyun, or ‘nourishing cloud’, a stunning reimagining of Chinese heritage, both tangible and intangible.
To call it a hotel, or even a resort, would be a travesty. I prefer sanctuary–for the guests; for those ancient bricks; and for the trees, some of which are millenarian. As Ma Dadong puts it in the short and moving documentary about the project which they screen for guests in Amanyangyun’s spiffy IMAX theatre, some of these trees were standing even before the first Chinese emperor was born. Amanyangyun’s own clutch of camphor trees includes the ‘Emperor’ tree, a venerable, gnarly specimen which guests are encouraged to ritually water on arrival.
Of the 26 antique dwellings, 13 will be sold as private residences to some extremely wealthy people. With completely reimagined interiors, no creature comforts have been sacrificed here. Apart from every enticement imaginable, the residences also have subterranean art galleries (but with lots of natural light), wine cellars and a private movie theatre (but, of course).
The other 13 villas, with bedrooms ranging from three to four in number which can be rented separately, makeup the resort. There are elements an Aman junkie will spot instantly; the delicate wooden furniture and the muted colour palette, for instance. Yet Amanyangyun, like every Aman resort, is distinctive and rooted in place.
My more modest Ming Courtyard suite, in the modern wing, consisted of two private courtyards, one with a gas fireplace, the other with a Japanese style soaking tub fashioned from a single slab of stone. Past the entrance, there was a comfy bed facing a flat-screen TV which could be tucked away discreetly behind wooden screens. The bathroom had not one but two vanities, a cosy shower cubicle and another bathtub. All this meant a fair number of light fittings and figuring out the correct switches was a bit of a learning curve for me, even though one of their nice guest executives ran me through the functions diligently. I would have much preferred one of those hi-tech solutions where everything is controlled from the screen of an iPad or similar.
In Shanghai’s freezing pre-spring, the interiors were warm and fuzzy and hot water ran in the taps almost immediately. The ceiling was high and sloping, adding to a generous sense of space, which extended to the restaurants and other public spaces, and to the sprawling gardens and parklands overlooking the lake. We’ve always thought of space as the final frontier in luxury, but at Amanyangyun, it’s also about time; not just time which runs ever so slow in the shadow of the nourishing cloud, but also the travel-back-in-time kind.
When you’re not distracted by all the obscenely good food on offer (about which in just a bit), at the heart of the Amanyangyun experience is Nan Shufang. A cultural centre named after one of the reading pavilions in the Forbidden City, it is housed in a heritage villa redolent with the aroma of Chinese cedar. Here, when you’re not admiring nifty artifacts and furniture made of the coveted nanmu wood, you can join immersive sessions in everything from Chinese calligraphy to flower arrangement, guzheng playing and, of course, tea appreciation. Yes, all this activity will make you hungry. But Amanyangyun, like every other Aman, has you covered, and there are several fine dining venues to choose from.
Deceptive simplicity seems to be a leitmotif with Aman Resorts. At Arva, the Aman’s Italian restaurant concept, dishes with simple one-word names and restrained descriptions reveal complex flavours and eclectic plating. Their veal carpaccio was memorable. Nama, the Japanese restaurant, besides being Aman spelt backwards, also means ‘raw’ and serves traditional washoku
cuisine. Launched only last year at select Aman resorts, it’s a culinary concept that took a year to develop. Lots of sushi and sashimi here, served on beautiful handmade pottery that celebrates Japan’s wabi-sabi aesthetic. There’s also a bar and cigar lounge where I resisted ordering, with great difficulty, the Purple Afternoon Tea. In contrast, my breakfast of buckwheat and millet congee and Shanghai-style juicy dumplings was plainer but no less delightful.
All this was superb, of course, but the true culinary gem at Amanyangyun is Lazhu, serving Jiangxi cuisine, which, if you can imagine it, is fierier than the food of Sichuan. Certainly, the beef entrails cooked in soy chilli sauce was impressively spicy. This famous dish has inspired at least two poems, one by the aforementioned Wang Anshi and the other by Tang Xianzu, the Ming dynasty ‘Shakespeare of the Orient’. Much of the food at Lazhu, to be savoured along with views of a bamboo grove, harks back to the past.
Some of the recipes have been drawn from cookbooks that are over a thousand years old, but everything is served without unnecessary fuss or ceremony. ‘Crushed rice, spices and pork belly’ has been consumed with much love in Jiangxi for centuries, and finds pride of place in the ‘food bible’ of Yuan Mei, a celebrated poet and gastronome of the Qing dynasty. Some other gems I had the pleasure to sample: seared matsutake and lettuce roots (from the Song dynasty cookbook, Light Food From the Mountain), and braised Mandarin fish in chilli soy sauce (from the Qing dynasty cookbook, Master of the Wok). There are no desserts at Lazhu, but if you have an uncontrollable sweet tooth, you can order the crispy rice dumplings rolled in crystallised sugar.
Then there’s Hu Meng, their talented sommelier, who’s at hand to create dedicated pairings at each of Amanyangyun’s signature restaurants and who has promised to put some stunning Chinese wines on the Lazhu menu.
A retreat is not a treat without a spa. Ranged around a garden courtyard, the 2,840 sq m spa has 10 sprawling treatment rooms, soon to be joined by bathhouses which will incorporate a Russian banya and Turkish hammam. There are indoor and outdoor pools, a state-of-the-art gym and a tranquil yoga and pilates studio overlooking a reflection pond. The spa draws inspiration from traditional healing systems around the world, including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the shamanistic traditions of the Navajo Native Americans. New age offerings like laser acupuncture will soon join the fray, Franck Chantoiseau, Amanyangyun’s calmly efficient resort manager told me.
Accompanied by the strains of the Gayatri Mantra, my 120-min Amanyangyun Signature Journey comprised an indulgent full body massage punctuated with herbal compresses, and drew on traditional Chinese techniques as well as Western lymphatic drainage. My therapist, Sri, hailed from Bali. You want deep pressure?, she asked. I murmured assent. She was true to her word. I’m not quite sure what she did, but I emerged a new man, all my cricks gone.
Naturally, I was teary-eyed when it was time to leave. But I was also happy to have witnessed an important moment in the evolution of what may well be the world’s most exclusive hotel brand. Subtle changes have been set in motion as the ambitious brand tries to stay relevant for a changing clientele: corporate restaurant concepts being rolled across several Amans, the quiet introduction of televisions, and, possibly a first for an Aman, a proper ballroom. Time, not space, is the final frontier in luxury, and Amanyangyun has made something beautiful, something real out of it, going where no one has gone before.
Both Air India and China Eastern fly direct to Shanghai Pudong International Airport from New Delhi. Amanyangyun is about 50min drive from the airport. I flew Air China via Beijing and can vouch for their effusive hospitality (as a bonus, I got to visit Aman Summer Palace, another stunning Aman Resorts property in China). I was also able to fly to Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, which is just 30min from Amanyangyun.
The latest offering from Aman Resorts, Amanyangyun is situated in the Minhang district, 45min drive southwest of Shanghai’s city centre. Surrounded by a towering camphor forest and a tranquil lake, 13 antique villas and 24 Ming Courtyard suites are on offer. The property has been designed by Kerry Hill, while the landscaping is by Dan Pearson Studio. F&B venues include an Italian, a Japanese and a Chinese restaurant, the last serving authentic Jiangxi cuisine. There’s an IMAX cinema, a boutique offering jewellery, artwork and clothing by Chinese American designer Han Feng, a massive spa and a 200-seater banquet hall. Chinese cultural activities can be enjoyed at Nan Shufang.
From $944 (Ming Courtyard suite), taxes extra. Includes daily breakfast for two, return transfer to Shanghai airport, and replenishment of the minibar(excluding alcoholic beverages)once a day. Additional amenities for villas: 24 hours butler service, complimentary laundry (no drycleaning) and valet pressing service. Exclusive for the Antique Villa 4-bedroom and Qing Antique Villa 4-bedrooms: replenishment of minibar once a day (including alcoholic beverages and house wine cellar selection). Exclusive for the Antique Villa5-bedrooms, Ming Antique Villa 4-bedroom and Amanyangyun Villa 4-bedrooms: free-flow minibar setup (including alcoholic drinks and house wine cellar selection). CONTACT +86-21-80119999, aman.com
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Downtown Shanghai is just a short drive away. You’ll have a hard time tearing yourself away from the sanctuary that is Amanyangyun but, if it’s your first visit, at least take a walk on the historic Bund and admire Pudong’s unreal skyline.
Amanyangyun is in close proximity to the Qizhong Golf Course, the Qizhong Forest Sports City and the Qizhong Forest Park.
There are several water towns in the vicinity.
Aman Resorts has four properties in China now. Apart from Amanyangyun in Shanghai and Aman Summer Palace in Beijing, there’s Amandayan, Lijiang, informed by Nakhi culture and overlooking Lijiang’s old town, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and Amanfayun, Hangzhou, set in a centuries old village, offering a glimpse of traditional China near West Lake, a Unesco heritage site.