Female sommeliers are often encountered in the west but to meet up with the Chinese Sommeliers’ Champion 2012 – and the Best Chinese Sommelier for French Wines 2011 – Ying Guo, is a real treat. She is head sommelier at the six-month old luxury hotel that is Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai at Pudong and, she tells the gal in faultless English, she was destined to do this. Her parents are in the drinks business, and once introduced to it, she quickly knew wine, particularly fine French, to be her passion.
It is fortunate that her (German) boss, Rainer Stampfer, believes in only the best. In the bedrooms, he has commissioned exclusive Italian toiletries, from Villa Lorenzo Villoresi, in six-sided red rubber bottles with silver stoppers. He has called his main restaurant Camelia, not only for memories of Chanel but because a quarter of Chinese cook, at home, with camelia oil: here he has brought in both a Japanese master chef, Usao Takizawa, and a French chef, Benjamin Brial. There are therefore, as you might expect, two Hermès-look leather-covered menus, turquoise Japanese and orange French.
We start with a bowl of sashimi. We go on to Takizawa-san style rolled maki and fish-on-top nigiri sushi, and then I proceed to a Parisian version of black cod. Ying Guo, faced with an easily surmountable challenge of red with fish, chooses Marsannay 2009 Les Longeroies Olivier Decelle. We are, as you would imagine, drinking out of Riedel glass, and eating off Bernardaud plates. The cutlery, which looks as if it has lost all its shine, is an unusual matt Christofle. There is something about these hotel guys in Shanghai. It is not so much that they try to outdo each other, more that they cannot lose face by being left behind.
Up in my room I find a 12-inch wide pair of red lips, rather like a pillow but actually a top-only shelf. The lips are surrounded by standing lipsticks, clear plastic outsides, real chocolate (milk or dark) inside. I have the tea presentation that is the norm when arriving at any good hotel anywhere in China. Here the teapot has a clown’s nose as its lid’s knob. I wonder if has been borrowed from the Power Station of Art, the newish gallery of modern art that is a conversion of Shanghai’s 1897 Nanshi Power Plant (it is currently, through end July 2013, showing an Andy Warhol exhibition).
I do wonder sometimes if my life story is becoming boring – but I rely on my critics to let me know if performance is not up to par. I return to a final workout in the gym, wall sculptures and all, and then, for variety, run along the road outside. This is easy as the pavement sidewalk is wide and meticulously clean, but it is also frustrating as traffic lights do not allow plenty of pedestrian time. Solution, gal? Run round and round a block rather than trying to cross roads. You also know, this way, that you will not get lost.
Back in time for breakfast, I consider Chinese specialties, say shao mai dim sum or vegetable buns, or deep-fried dough sticks and vegetable spring rolls. I could try congee, and/or fried rice and ‘scalding’ vegetables. Sorry, even in this luxury hotel I chicken out, order wholegrain toast, to eat with French jam, French butter.
Fashion and hotels are becoming more and more interlinked. Some designers put their names to hotels, with Armani and Versace, and possibly Missoni, leading the success stories when it comes to wear-gear, and Bulgari in the jewellery sector. The gal is day-dreaming, as she rides at 300km per hour, by train. What would a Vivienne Westwood hotel look like? Ghastly. A Tom Ford luxury hotel would have kids’ toiletries, a gesture to his own son. A Chanel hotel could be divine. And what with new fashion brands coming up the whole time there is plenty of room for scope. First Lady of China, Peng Liyuan, for instance, wore Ma Ke designs (Exception de Mixmind and Wuyong brands) on her trip to the USA – finally there is a currently first lady to compete with Valérie Trierweiler when it comes to style.
A Chanel hotel might even look halfway like the six-month old Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai at Pudong, where the front desk ladies look so exquisite you want a photo. In June 2012, yes before it was open, the 55 curving stone steps up from the lobby to the next floor became a catwalk for a getting-to-know-you party. The girls, and some of the guys, managed to process up and down without tripping, showing off the Chanel-type outfits that are actually work uniform (they are designed by Masaru Mineo). Today, as I take the steps up to look at the Chinese restaurant on that second floor, I glance back down, to a chandelier that hangs over the reception desk, and to Hirotoshi Sawada paintings.
Someone has done a brilliantly witty job in selecting artworks for this hotel. Walk along to the gym and an inset ridge along one of the corridor’s walls has a back-lit triathlon of 12-inch high figures, hanging through hoops, cycling, turning inside out and back again. These were all made in Bali by Jeffrey Lee. It is always inspirational to have photos on the wall that encourage you to work out even harder, even faster (love the decorations in the eyrie gym of the Hotel Bristol, Vienna), but somehow having actual sculptures has even more effect.
And look at the figures in the gym itself. Here more Lees are set on one wall. Four groups, each of four, appear to be climbing up as a team. One group is far ahead, trying to go faster. This is unique and deserves a prize. It is actually quite difficult to think which gyms would warrant awards for anything other than equipment – perhaps Mandarin Oriental Jakarta, for setting all main pieces of equipment in a circle, facing inwards. But have you noticed how unfit those who organise awards, both in newsletters and at ceremonies, must be as they reward spas but never gyms? The only exception here is any publication to do with Nancy Novogrod, who until it closed for renovation used the gym at the Loews Regency when she was in New York.
Now, she tells me, she has to go to an Equinox, and when Loews Regency re-opens the gym will only be for hotel guests (shame on you Jonathan Tisch for turning the Editor-in-Chief of Travel+Leisure’s publications away, not a good idea). Anyway, back here to this sensible Shanghai hotel, which has its lobby on ground floor, and only one elevator block, up to whichever floor you want. Say the pool. Oh YES, once past the gym you come to this big indoor pool, with an LED screen at one end which shows, ceiling-high, flames evolving into woodland flowers and then to rocks.
I am going to the spa, next to the pool, where I am greeted by more young ladies in ‘Chanel’ and pearls, with lots of orchids around. After my blissful hour, during which I sleep like a baby, I head downstairs, for yet more beauty, in the form of flowers in the lobby of this luxury hotel.
Simply Sunday, and another week gone by, on the road and in the air. Three meals a day – or sometimes more – means the gal needs to exercise more and more as she travels the world. Looking at luxury hotels and experiencing them, seeking out hidden gems when it comes to museums and other culture, shops and other money-guzzlers, all this takes a toll on one’s body unless you take action. As my friend John Wallis says, most travellers put on three pounds or so on a trip. Eating simply helps. Steak and salad (no dressing), pasta with no cream sauce but a little olive oil, and spinach with everything… add megafoods for energy. Loved this fruit starter on British Airways London Heathrow to Shanghai, First Class of course.