HONG KONG AND BEIJING BEYOND SHOPPING . . .
I am invited to celebrate Cathay Pacific Airline’s non-stop service from JFK to Hong Kong, and to experience the Peninsula Hotel’s Royal Treatment. My wide reclining Business Class seat promises a comfortable and reassuring flight. I begin my fifteen and a half-hour journey-with a glass of champagne, smoked salmon, duck soup and crab dumplings; the thick lamb chops are succulent and tender.
A Rolls Royce chauffeurs me from the airport to the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. I walk through the doors of the privately owned Peninsula Hotel, and marvel at the connection to Hong Kong’s past that has been preserved in this nostalgic architectural masterpiece. The Peninsula Hong Kong, “the priceless jewel in the family crown”, has maintained its colonial integrity since the day it opened in 1928 . . . having been designed as “the finest hotel east of the Suez”. Graciously nipped and tucked over the years, this Grande Empress continues to reign over Victoria Harbor . . . more as an elegant palace than a hotel, with standards that would please a Ming Dynasty Princess.
My sumptuous corner suite (twice the size of a New York City one bedroom), decorated with silk brocade fabrics, has sweeping views of the river. Barges chug by in the early morning; a Star Cruise ship edges its way out of its berth; two tugboats circle the harbor; early risers swim laps in a rooftop pool; the sun rises on the water in a circle of coral. . Looking through the telescope in the living room, I see people working in buildings and commuters riding the ferry that connects Kowloon to Hong Kong proper. One of the few hotels that still unpacks your clothes, I return from breakfast to find my clothes and shoes neatly arranged in the closets A small panel of buttons by my bed mechanically opens and closes the drapes, lights and television.
The Peninsula Academy A La Carte
The Peninsula Hotel takes pride in treating its guests to 6 star pampering, exquisite cuisine, and a personalized introduction to key aspects of Chinese culture and tradition.
The Peninsula Academy offers a wide range of hands-on experiences that include: tai chi (a gentle healthy exercise to start your day), feng shui (the art of placement of objects and buildings to enhance your destiny), dim sum making, the ceremonial art of brewing and pouring tea, an intro to Chinese herbal remedies, and the art of brush writing (how to paint Chinese characters on silk) . . . all taught in English by local experts. There’s even a class in “how to shop smart with a personal shopper”.
Tai Chi . . . poetry in motion
I begin my first day in Hong Kong with a lesson in Tai Chi. For the Chinese, Tai Chi is an essential part of each morning. It regulates and balances the nervous system, cleanses and oxygenates organs, regulates blood circulation and strengthens the heart. They believe a daily regiment keeps the body, mind and spirit younger longer by releasing stress. I don a traditional jacket, and the master begins. I am taught to focus on slow fluid circular movements and breathing. It is not easy to follow as a beginner; It takes concentration; I tune out all thoughts and emotions. Tai Chi is like a beautiful graceful ballet . . . it takes much practice to master.
Tea Appreciation . . . an Ancient Tradition
In ancient China good tea was only available for royalty To help develop an appreciation for the health and emotional benefits of tea . . . and the body language that elevates the experience to a theater performance, I participate in a traditional tea ceremony, presided over by the hotel’s Tea Master. The folklore, customs and etiquette that surround tea . . . its elaborate preparation and presentation fascinate me. Pouring clockwise is a signal “I always move backwards to welcome you”, raising the cup to the eyebrows is a sign of respect and a “welcome to my tea party gesture”. As part of the tasting lesson, I am told to smell, sip slowly, then moves the tea around in my mouth as one does with wine. Some teas are too young to drink, and like wine get better as they age. Every province has a different style of cooking, and I learn to serve different teas with different dishes
DIM SUM MAKING IN THE KITCHEN
Vindry, manager of the Peninsula’s Spring Moon Restaurant, is also the Academy Coordinator. This course, which includes lunch, begins in the kitchen where we gather to watch Yip, the master dim sum chef, prepare the dough. He mixes high protein rice flour, cornstarch and hot water, hands each of us a lump of dough, and shows us how to roll and flatten with a knife. I mix green chives and shrimp for the filling; roll and wrap in saran; cut in slices; fold and pinch to close each dim sum . . . not an easy task. Once steamed they will be part of our five-course noon feast. Dim Sum, a variety of dumplings, literally means, “to touch your heart”, which is exactly what this hands-on culinary connection is all about. We move into Spring Moon hungry from our lesson, eager to savor some of the best Chinese food in Hong Kong.
At night, I sit in the Peninsula lobby dressed in Chinese pajamas, surrounded by Old World elegance, and feeling quite imperial in my own right. Candles flicker; a quartet plays cool jazz on the Mezzanine balcony; I am served a flute of icy champagne. I think I can get used to living here!
The tram ride up to the Peak offers breathtaking views of the city. Buildings electrically lit in purple, red, green, yellow and blue illuminate the August sky . . . the kaleidoscope of architectural shapes and colors fit together (thanks to an active planning board) like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The views from Café Deco are even more spectacular, and its art deco ambiance is punctuated with the largest collection of art deco memorabilia under one roof. A staff of 40 chefs from 6 countries prepare Asian and Western cuisine; a Japanese chef shucks oysters, flown in fresh from around the world, at an original 1930’s Parisian oyster bar; another oversees the sushi and seafood bar; live jazz mingles with foreign dialects.
I take the elevator to the Clipper Club on the 30th floor. A helicopter lands on the rooftop pad, and we’re off for an aerial tour of this fabulous city.
Cathy Pacific City is a huge complex near the airport. Its flight kitchens prepare meals for 85 % of all the airlines that fly out of Hong Kong. I don a white lab coat, paper shower cap, booties, and a mask for a fascinating tour. Room after room separates dietary restrictions. I watch a washing machine as it spins clean a hundred pounds of lettuce, and a mechanical robot that cracks, cooks and drops one egg at a time into cardboard boxes.
Lamey who works with Sian in publicity, takes us bargain shopping at Stanley Market, Ladies Market, Hollywood Road, Cat Street Flea market, wholesale showrooms, and to meet Sin Sin, a famous designer, where I buy my one treasure . . . a huge silver, mother of pearl and abalone shell ring.
For our last night in HK, the Peninsula surprises us with a gourmet odyssey dine-around-the-hotel. Each course is served in a different restaurant.
A Taste of Beijing
The Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Beijing takes three and half-hours.
My duplex suite at the Peninsula Beijing Palace is serene and understated in contrast to the Old World opulence of the Peninsula Hong Kong. My bedroom, reached by spiral stairs has panoramic windows that span both levels. The Peninsula Academy takes our group to: the Great Wall, on a rickshaw tour of the Hutong historic district (a neighborhood of quadrangle dwellings that are being replaced by more ambitious buildings, as Beijing trains to win major architectural and cultural awards), the Forbidden City, and through Tiananmen Square.
Stones used to build 4,000 mile Great China Wall can build another wall that would extend around the world. The Great Wall of China stretches in four different directions. Each dynasty built its own section. It is also the longest cemetery in the world. One million people who worked on the wall are buried under it. I cut out an hour and a half climb riding in a roller coaster type bobsled that runs alongside the wall. I could see Mongolia in the distance.
One of the highlights of my visit to Beijing is dinner at The Green T House, a restaurant/ gallery owned by 32 year old Zhang Jimjie, an accomplished classical musician and artist-turned chef, who as Beijing’s Queen of Style, transforms everything into a work of art
The Peninsula Palace’s Hung Ting Cantonese Restaurant hosts our farewell to China banquet. It resembles the courtyard of a traditional noble house. The chef and his assistants roll a trolley cart to the table. To satisfy my request, they have prepared a traditional Peking duck, which he carves in front of me. He wraps the thick slices, coated with scallion and plum sauce, into warm pancakes. I am in Peking duck heaven as I munch on the crisp succulent meat. Wine flows as does a bounty of courses: braised pumpkin soup with Pacific clams, sautéed prawns, wok-fried chicken tossed with Macadamia nuts, steamed spotted grouper, Yuanan mushrooms with green cabbage, crispy noodles with salmon and scallops . . . and to refresh our exhausted palates, chilled mango pudding with sago pearls and ginger ice cream. We all agree this was a feast fit for a nobleman.
It is time to start the long journey home. I look out my windows for the last time. Beijing is no longer “the Forbidden City”. It is a welcoming city, poised to emerge as an economical leader. The pace for now is slower than Hong Kong, but that will no doubt change.
We meet in the lobby at 6 AM for our flight to Hong Kong. We will miss the nonstop connection. Hopefully our upgrade to first class will clear?
Cathay Pacific’s Business and First Class Lounges are “ havens for relaxation”. With a three hour layover, there’s time to retreat into a private spa cabin for a soak in yes, an enormous bathtub; have a drink at the 89 feet long bar; slurp noodles cooked to order at the appetizing noodle bar, and still have time to browse the airport shops.
Thank goodness for big favors and generous treats, I settle into my first class seat which reclines into a flat bed. The partition that separates me from other passengers offers the privacy of a cozy cocoon. I am served what has been acclaimed as “the best Chinese food in the air” and some excellent wines; watch a movie; then drift off into a delicious deep sleep wrapped in a down comforter. Twelve hours later we land in Vancouver; get a chance to stretch our legs, then re-board for an equally luxurious four and a half hour flight home.