Nancy Kim and Guy Rubin are two of our top tried-and-tested China outfitters. As the heads of Imperial Tours (888-888-1970; imperialtours.net), this Beijing power couple creates itineraries for first-time visitors and committed Sino-philes who seek to understand the country’s complex cultures. Their inside track includes a little black book of must-visit hotels, restaurants, spas, and everything in between, plus an impressive Rolodex of specialists. (New for 2010: Randall Peerenboom, an American with a Ph.D. in comparative philosophy and an easygoing manner that belies a vast knowledge of China’s political spectrum; and Zhang Lijia, a commentator and author of the memoir Socialism Is Great!) We asked Kim and Rubin to update us on the best of the People’s Republic right now.
Serving contemporary Chinese cuisine that emphasizes tea—specialties include Autumn Sky, roasted lamb on a bed of oolong leaves—Green T. House has been one of Beijing’s most important restaurants since it opened in 1997. Now it has launched Green T. House Living Bath House Residence (from $880; 86-10/6434-2519; green-t-house.com), a four-bedroom vacation villa and day spa in the city’s Wenyu River district. Therapies focus on tea’s healing properties, with everything from a chakra-balancing treatment for $115 to a signature four-hour, ten-hand massage, with a scrub, a bath, and a facial, for $980.
During his tenure as Chairman Mao’s chef, Cheng Ruming cooked for dignitaries from the Dalai Lama to Puyi, China’s last emperor; in a show of gratitude, Mao bequeathed Cheng an aristocratic courtyard house near the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese leadership. Today, Cheng’s grandson, a chef himself, serves private dinners in the Qing dynasty residence’s four small, antique-packed dining rooms. The food ranges from the spicy Hunan fare Mao favored to a subtle chrysanthemum soup made with tofu shredded to resemble flower petals. Imperial Tours can coordinate the eight-course dinners, which start at $250 a person.
When it opened in 2007 in the southern Chinese city of Guilin, the Hotel of Modern Art injected a jolt of energy into the country’s budding design-hotel movement. An eye-poppingly original 46-room hotel and 1,500-acre sculpture park, the property recently added the Dinner Cave (86-77/3386-9066; guilinhoma.com) to its roster of eccentric but tasteful contemporary follies. There, guests dine in a limestone cave typical of the region’s weirdly magical rock formations. The venue is lit primarily by candles, with a dramatic chandelier in its inner chamber, which seats up to 30. And the menu features modern Chinese creations like a bird’s-nest soup served with lily buds in a papaya boat. To reserve the cave, parties must spend a minimum of $740, with dinner starting at $120 per person.
Australian-born Michelle Garnaut made her name combining European, Mediterranean, and North African cuisines at the Hong Kong restaurant M at the Fringe. Then, with Shanghai’s M on the Bund—which arrived in 1999 and is still among the city’s buzziest spots—she became one of the first restaurateurs to bring up-to-the-minute gastronomy to the mainland. Now she’s come to Beijing, debuting Capital M (dinner, $60; 86-10/6702-2727; m-restaurantgroup.com), overlooking Tiananmen Square. The kitchen sends out piled-high open-face sandwiches, as well as more formal options that showcase signature dishes like crispy suckling pig and slowly baked, salt-encased leg of lamb.
With properties already up and running in Hong Kong and Beijing, the Peninsula completed its China hat trick with the October debut of its 235-room Shanghai hotel. The Peninsula Shanghai’s (86-21/ 2327-2888; peninsula.com) location on the grounds of the former British Consulate, near the northern end of the Bund, puts it on the right side of the Huangpu River for the best skyline views as well as top shopping and restaurants. (The hotel has five restaurants of its own, plus an Espa outpost.) Opening rates of $300 for Superior Rooms will remain in effect until March, when they’ll go up to $470.
In 1923, when Emperor Puyi suspected his eunuchs of stealing from the Forbidden City, he ordered an audit of its holdings; the eunuchs had to cover their tracks, and the Garden of the Palace of Established Happiness, a complex built in 1740, was damaged in a fire, its nine ornate pavilions and maze of walkways, courtyards, and gardens remaining closed to the public ever since. Now, however, one of the pavilions, with unbeatable views of the 178-acre complex, has been restored and opened for private banquets of up to 75 people. Imperial Tours can arrange a rental, but such privilege comes at a price: $40,000, sans catering.