Filled with towering mountains, rolling hills, lush bamboo forests and calm rivers, landscape paintings have been considered the highest form of Chinese ink art since the early 10th century. Artists produced shanshui or ‘mountain water’ paintings not to capture the scenery as it appeared but as a subtle means to convey emotions. Generations of literati sought refuge with their brushes in nature. Today’s travellers too seek sanctuary at China’s scenic sites, albeit with significantly more comforts and luxuries.
Banyan Tree Yangshuo
Karst limestone peaks rise above rivers and rice paddies, providing the classical southern Chinese scenery that surrounds this resort two hours from Guilin. Wing-tipped rooflines cover this low-slung sprawl of traditional architecture, yet the interiors of these 142 wood-clad suites and villas feel decidedly modern, with plush king-size beds, oversized soaking tubs and Banyan Tree’s signature bath products. Even standard rooms have private verandas with captivating panoramas. Enhancing the lost-in-time effect here are romantic bamboo raft rides on the famed Li River – subject of countless imperial-era scroll paintings – and visits to 800-year-old Fuli village, with its stone alleyways and paper fan-making workshops. Active guests may paddle or cycle past the emerald green scenery to Dutou village or kayak to karst caves hidden nearby. banyantree.com
Built to keep out foreigner invaders, today the Great Wall of China is not only one of the country’s top tourist attractions, it’s also the setting for this boutique inn popular with Beijing’s expatriates. Converted from a tile factory by the husband-wife couple Jim Spear and Liang Tang, these 25 industrial-chic rooms and suites with exposed brick walls and Chinese antiques all boast unobstructed views of the Wall’s Mutianyu section, which dates to the 14th century. The Chairman’s Suite extends to a living room with a fireplace, a private courtyard and a Japanese soaking tub facing the legendary defensive wall. For everyone else, the spa’s Jacuzzi also overlooks this remarkable feat. Homemade is the mantra at the hotel’s cosy eatery, where everything from the breads to ice cream – with different flavours each day – is produced on the premises. theschoolhouseatmutianyu.com
Four Seasons Resort Hangzhou at West Lake
Thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo reportedly referred to Hangzhou as ‘the most splendid city on earth’ for its gently undulating landscape and ‘an endless procession of barges thronged with pleasure-seekers’ on West Lake. Today that same lake attracts business and leisure travellers to this luxury hotel. Perched between Hangzhou’s famous gardens and the tree-shaded walking paths that line West Lake’s banks, the hotel incorporates architectural details inspired by the surrounding Buddhist temples into its dramatic rosewood-accented public spaces and 81 guest rooms, some with idyllic water views. Between business meetings, guests can cycle to scenic local spots with whimsical names like Orioles Singing in the Willows Garden and Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge. fourseasons.com
Aman Summer Palace
A refuge for Chinese imperials escaping the heat of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, built in 1750, is an unlikely setting for Aman’s ultra-pared-down aesthetic. Founder Adrian Zecha turned a collection of dwellings originally used to shelter visitors awaiting an audience with Empress Dowager Cixi into 51 guest rooms surrounding nine intimate courtyards. Latticework doors slide open to reveal polished clay tiles, exposed wood-beam ceilings and silk-covered opium beds. Modern facilities include a cigar lounge, a Kinesis-equipped gym and a 25-metre indoor pool. Guests get to skip the ticket queues to enter the public areas of the UNESCO-listed Summer Palace, with its 3,000 palaces, pavilions and gazebos. Instead, they use a private-access door near the East Gate, which opens up to a view of elderly locals flying kites from the bridges over Kunming Lake and practising tai chi among the weeping willows. aman.com