Twelve at Hengshan, Shanghai
Not all of Shanghai is a temple to the New Eastern Mammon. They occasionally need to relax in style. Ali Silk’s the Dhamma queen.
How often do you experience a moment of total clarity and peace, a moment so divine that it feels like the planets have perfectly aligned, so that you are in exactly the place in the world you are meant to be right then? So that, should God/Allah/a.n.other deity smite you down at that very moment with vengeance or flippancy (I like to occasionally imagine my divinities as comedians, as well as avengers), rather than cowering fearfully in a corner, you would throw your hands up into the air with rapture and proclaim: “Take me, oh holy one, for I am not afraid, my time on this mortal coil is at an end, I have nothing more left to do.”
In the swimming pool of the hotel Twelve at Hengshan in Shanghai, I experienced the aforementioned sensation. At the end of a gruelling three-month Asian sojourn, grey London looming, I slid gracefully (honest, there was no furious splashing) through the water, with the sunlight of that bright Shanghai summer day streaming through the glass in the skylight, and found myself feeling wonderfully calm and completely in harmony with the moment.
Although the large pool was edged with water-therapy Jacuzzis and overlooked by the floor-to-ceiling windows of a well-equipped gym, I didn’t see another soul in the fitness centre, pool or spa during my visit. Much like the rest of the hotel, the spaces are vast. The changing room stretched out before me, rows and rows of lockers and individual vanity desks that, when empty, felt a little like I was changing into my bikini post-apocalypse, casually sauntering to the spa for a self-indulgent pampering session as the rest of humanity struggled to survive on squashed cans of Spam, tubs of Tesco Value margarine and cannibalism.
High-tech and relaxing, with a tepidarium (for the fainter soul), a Himalayan Salt Stone Wall BIO sauna, Chinese herbal steam room and ice fountain, this spa did frustrate me when I could find no possible way of turning off the music emanating from the Four Sense Loungers. These relaxation beds, incorporating sound, light, olfactory and touch sensations based on traditional Chinese medicine to activate your chi, made me feel a little like I was in a sci-fi film. I did wonder if I’d drift off into cryostasis and wake up on some distant planet, the last remaining Earthling. Clearly my imagination was working over-drive. Which was a good sign that the actual important stuff I’d been working on had been forgotten.
Amazingly, not just for a hotel in a vast city, but also for a hotel in China, the rest of Twelve at Hengshan shared this feeling of serenity. With the business centre and meeting rooms at the front of the hotel served with different lifts and even a private entrance for the extra-I VIPs, work was left behind before heading to my bedroom. Cavernous, it looked out from a small balcony on to a genuinely zen central courtyard garden.
Italian architect Mario Botta’s creation reminded me very much of one of my favourite places in London: the Barbican complex, designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. Their utopian vision of socially conscious Brutalism uses water and greenery and stark building work to evoke exactly the same sense of peacefulness in the centre of a city as Botta has achieved here. His other key achievement is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
I loved much of the interior design: art deco-meets-Oriental merging with the best luxurious mod cons. There was, however, something about the décor in my room that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that gave it a slightly dated look. I’m not sure if it was the ever-so-slightly retro furniture or the muted colours that looked a little washed out. Perhaps it just wasn’t as brash as I’d experienced recently. Yet I enjoyed every aspect of my stay at Twelve at Hengshan immensely, from the kind staff to the delicious nibbles to the fabulous bathroom. Not so much the non-English speaking turndown maid who, despite my cries of “not now, please come back later, I’m very much naked and in the bath right now” took it upon herself to wander in. That said, I felt so relaxed anyone could have joined me. Nearly.
Some see its location, out of the centre of Shanghai in the former French Concession district, as a negative. For me, it is exactly this that gave it some of its appeal. Situated on Hengshan Road, lined with plane trees imported from France in the 1900s and immediately beside a metro station, travel around the city was not hard. Ex-pats still enjoy an array of nightlife – bars, restaurants, brash clubs and perhaps a few bars that you might not want to frequent unless you’re a lone gentleman looking to leave with a lighter pocket. I strolled happily among the European-style buildings to the local fashion boutiques, including my favourite, Mary Ching – “the Louboutin of Shanghai”. A luxurious, style-led side of the city I was pleased to see among the high rises and consumer-heaven malls elsewhere.
Twelve at Hengshan gave me precisely the feeling I wanted from a luxury hotel in China’s most populous municipality: closeted, protected, in a most stylish area and just on the fringe of the wonderful madness that I love so much.
Words, Ali Silk. Twelve at Hengshan is located at 12 Hengshan Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai 200031. Call (86)(21) 3338 3888 or visit starwoodhotels.com.