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Beijing: A Visit to the Summer Palace

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TravelPulse LogoBy James Shillinglaw

After two days visiting some of the iconic sights of Beijing, including the Forbidden City and Great Wall, our Imperial Tours fam trip spent a final half day visiting the famous Summer Palace in the outskirts of the city. Beijing was still cold but the weather had turned clear as we left the Raffles Beijing by bus to drive through the wide boulevards of the city.

We passed massive government buildings, high-rise corporate headquarters and traditional “hutong” courtyard buildings (what old Beijing consisted of before the capital was rebuilt in its current form). And yes, we got a good look at the “Bird’s Nest,” the now famous stadium where those spectacular opening and closing ceremonies were held during the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

In about half an hour, we arrived at the Summer Palace, which is actually a complex of buildings and gardens in park located next to a large lake. The complex centers around Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake, which is entirely man made. Construction was begun in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong. In 1888, it was given the name, Yihe Yuan, and served as a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi, who reconstructed and enlarged it. In December 1998, UNESCO put the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.”

Like many other parks in Beijing, the Summer Palace serves as a gathering place for the local residents, who use it for outdoor dancing, exercise and games. You can rent small pedal boats on the lake and see a giant stone boat (not one that floats) used for ceremonies at one time and parties today. Our guide Carl showed us many of the palace buildings, including a long covered passageway used to access the lake.

After a walk through the grounds, we met a representative of Aman Resorts, which has a hotel adjacent to the Summer Palace. The great thing about this property is that its buildings fit in well with those of the palace itself. Indeed, some were former palace buildings while others are replicas. The Aman at the Summer Palace Beijing (www.amanresorts.com) has just 57 rooms spread out among nine courtyards. A common room displays Chinese artifacts, a library and demonstrations of Chinese calligraphy.

Accommodations include eight guestrooms, 10 courtyard guestrooms, eight suites, 17 deluxe suites, seven courtyard suites and an Imperial Suite. The latter has three separate pavilions, including one devoted to living/study, another private pavilion, and a formal pavilion, all with high ceilings and traditional furniture, and even a private massage room.

While the Aman property is very traditional in its accommodations, it offers a giant spa, pool and fitness center (a total of 29,000 square meters) that is one of the best I’ve ever seen – capable of serving far more than its guest population. The indoor pool is incredibly beautiful and inviting. There are also squash courts and a large screen room with reclining chairs. Altogether, the property offers a very different experience than the hotels in downtown Beijing. It is indeed a palace by a palace. And like the Raffles Beijing and Park Hyatt Beijing, it’s one of the luxury properties offered to guests of Imperial Tours.

We had lunch at the Aman and then departed on a short ride to the airport for or flight to Xian, our next destination on our 10-day trip offered by Imperial Tours, the upscale operator that features private and small group programs to China. Tomorrow, I’ll detail our visit to Xian and the famous Terracotta warriors. Next week look for columns on Guilin and Shanghai.

 

James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of Performance Media Group, LLC, parent of TravelPulse.com, Agent @ Home magazine, Vacation Agent magazine and Virtual Travel Events.

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