There are cultural trips, and then there are shopping trips. Beijing, is among the world’s most exciting and fabled cities known for both, and in 72 hours it’s possible to hit the highlights.
Within a labyrinth that holds 22 million inhabitants lies nerve-rattling traffic, dense smog, mind-bending food and a retail dream.
We traveled to Beijing with an in-the-know flight attendant. Those on this long-haul route are often a wealth of knowledge about shopping; they know who has the best prices and quality and are quick to deny favor if they or a colleague are deceived. There are cottage businesses in Beijing that are seemingly dependent upon flight crews that fly in daily. Think of it as a private shopping club, where these experts are only too happy to share tips with curious passengers.
We stayed at The Peninsula Beijing, a newly renovated hotel, which is within a walking distance from Tiananmen Square and the Wangfujing Street —known for its shops, restaurants, night market and snack street (a.k.a “bug alley”).
The Peninsula Beijing’s $123 million re-do is breathtaking. Here, Hong Kong designer Henry Leung of CAP Atelier has revived imperial Chinese artistry and combined it with modern Chinese art and Peninsula technology. Leung filled the hotel with 8,000 pieces of original art; the grand three-story lobby alone has 3,500 pieces of rare Palissandro marble — the same used to build Beijing’s Forbidden City and Summer Palace.
Nice Touch: The Peninsula collaborated with Beijing’s Museum of Contemporary Art for a museum-quality lobby collection that includes 16-foot abstract ink paintings (artist Qin Feng), bronze sculptures of tea drinkers (artist Zhang Du) and a hand-carved jade “Spirit Wall” (artist Belinda Chow) just beyond the royal entrance archway. It also added a rotating art gallery and launched an Art Residency program. In conjunction with MoCA Beijing, artists live and work for three months in a specially designed 14th-floor studio that guests can visit.
Jing is a farm-to-table restaurant that serves modern Mediterranean cuisine paired with more than 400 wines.
Of the hotel’s 230 new guestrooms, 61 are suites. Carved out of the hotel’s original 525 rooms, every guestroom was reimagined “suite style.” They begin at 645 square feet with separate bedrooms, living rooms, spacious bathrooms and enormous walk-in closets that include separate vanity (with nail polish dryer) and butler cabinet, into which everything from dry cleaning to room service and morning paper are delivered. Check-ins are now done entirely in-room, with a whirl of luggage-toting valets and a traditional tea service with sweets from Executive Pastry Chef Frederic Moreau. Other perks? Departing airline check-in and printed departure card are pre-arranged, and there’s no charge for the 24-hour check-out option that requires no predetermined departure time.
Tech Touches: Bedside and desk tablets can be pre-set in 11 languages to control all room functions and access room service menus and hotel services. The desk and bedside drawers reveal multi-brand chargers. A portable VoIP phone offers free international calls.
Amongst all of this, the ice bucket is miraculously filled at all times.
And if you happened to be there during our stay, Matt Damon was just down the hall. In fact, we were the only guests not associated with his movie “The Great Wall.” Damon, Willem Dafoe, the entire cast, producers and directors were in Beijing to promote the $175 million film. Casually ensconced in the hotel, they frequented our favorite restaurant, Jing, a farm-to-table concept that works with 22 local farms to introduce the relatively new idea of organic dining to Beijing residents. Chef de Cuisine Alberto Becerril sources herbs and vegetables from the farms (and his own onsite greenhouse) to present a Mediterranean-style menu inspired by his Spanish homeland and training in Michelin-star restaurants.
For more private dining, choose the 800-bottle wine room or the Chef’s Table overlooking the kitchen, both with 12 seats. Contact Becerril ([email protected]) for arrangements. A second restaurant, Huang Ting, provides Cantonese cuisine and re-creates a traditional Beijing nobleman’s courtyard home with exceptional details that include original floors and antique carved room dividers, Ming Dynasty-era tables and chopsticks resting on silver sampans.
We say the hotel’s Jing Lounge is destined to be one of Beijing’s top gathering places. Twenty-four-year-old lead mixologist Paul Zhang already has won several global competitions for innovative liquid art that include music, rice wine, fruit- and flower-infused liqueur, special glassware and rare spirits he tenaciously sources. One cocktail uses a teacup from a traditional Chinese service, while another uses a glass modeled after those from the Tang Dynasty.
The Lobby includes 16-foot abstract ink paintings, bronze sculptures of tea drinkers and a hand-carved jade “Spirit Wall” just beyond the entrance archway.
While we didn’t see Matt Damon’s guestroom, we’re guessing it was part of the portfolio of theme suites that comprise more than 25 percent of the hotel’s inventory. Loft rooms on the top floors are two-story private urban apartments with nearly 800 square feet of space and floor-to-ceiling windows. Combining two original suites to create a 1,776-square-foot residence, the 17 Beijing Suites have large living and dining areas, expansive dressing area adjoining the master bedroom and a private cinema room. The study / office can be converted into a second bedroom, and the hotel has partnered with Norwegian baby brand, Stokke, for parents with babies and toddlers in tow. The grand Peninsula Suite (Room No. 1360) has an impressive collection of Chinese art and antiquities. At 7,104 square feet, it has a large dining room with seating for 18, a separate kitchen, living room, study, private gym and second guestroom (a third can be added via an adjacent guestroom). A dedicated elevator from the lobby ensures privacy.
Peninsula ambassador Mary Li has been with the hotel for nearly 30 years and is the point of contact for VIP guests. She has served everyone from Robert De Niro to French President Jacques Chirac, and, with her team of butlers, knows guests’ preferences and delivers on special requests. Contact Li ([email protected]) for VIP bookings, as well as for transportation in the hotel’s fleet of Rolls Royces and BMWs.
The hotel’s newly designed second-floor meeting space lies at the top of the grand staircase and includes five conference / meeting rooms, a ballroom that accommodates 350 guests and a light-filled function space that Director of Events Angel Sun has converted into a garden wedding chapel. While we were there, Sun staged a spectacular runway show down the grand staircase with costumes from “The Great Wall.” Contact Sun ([email protected]) for meetings, special events and weddings, and Director of Sales Sharon Yuen ([email protected]) for larger group and meeting enquiries.
INSIDER'S SHOPPING TIPS
While The Peninsula Beijing’s three-story lobby is home to a 34-store designer shopping arcade, which includes flagship stores for Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Beijing’s only Harry Winston and Graff Diamonds boutiques, it is the siren song outside that calls to treasure hunters.
Here is an insider’s guide to a whirlwind 72 hours in Beijing in the company of an in-the-know flight attendant.
Note: Most recommendations are a short cab ride from The Peninsula Beijing. Always have the taxi run the meter for the best price (about $6).
Tianya New Pearl Market
ANNIE OPTICAL EYEGLASSES (Ground floor, outside entrance): Bring your eyeglass prescription, or Annie can administer an eye exam. Prescription glasses with frames start from $30. Reading glasses are from $25, both are ready in two days. Sunglasses cost between $5-$25.
CINDY & ELLA JEWELRY COMPANY (4th floor, 4a-21): Chunky statement pieces and scarves and jewelry classes. Best of all, Cindy is a personal shopper who guides visitors to wholesale markets and negotiates the best prices for custom suits, dresses, bridal gowns, silks, fur coats, jeans, shoes, home décor, diamonds and more.
LILY JEWELRY (3rd floor, 3C-02A): At this tiny, no-frills boutique you have generations of pearl farmer knowledge at your disposal for custom freshwater, Tahitian, Baroque and South Sea pearls at outstanding prices.
STEVEN ELECTRONICS (3C-01A, next door to LILY): “Hello, Friend!” is the genuine greeting when entering Steven’s shop for a mind-blowing selection of phone, electronics and travel accessories.
Hongqiao Pearl Market is frequented by high-end customers, including diplomats and celebrities.
HongQiao Pearl Market
SANDY PEARLS (4th Floor, No. 4116): Favored by diplomats, celebrities and the former First Lady of Canada, Sandy’s upscale boutique is another option for custom freshwater, saltwater, South Sea and Japanese sea pearls in silver, 14k and 18k gold.
Haidilao Hot Pot: One block from The Peninsula Beijing and a local favorite. Reservations are a must (ask the concierge) or expect a wait due to popularity. Friendly staff presents tea and snacks, or get a mani / pedi at the attached studio.
English-speaking private driver “Joe” will organize discount tickets to Beijing Opera and acrobatics, and take you to the Mutianyu Great Wall for cable car, hiking and wild toboggan ride down the mountain.