Beyond Shanghai

A weekend retreat and water towns

A Haven in Hangzhou
A very famous Chinese saying compares Hangzhou to paradise on earth; indeed, poets have for centuries rhapsodized about its famous West Lake, which is nestled in a ring of velvety green mountains. In more recent years, Hangzhou—90 miles from Shanghai and used by its residents as a weekend retreat—has transformed into a happening urban center in its own right, as it has bloomed with high-end shopping, restaurants, and hotels. (Fact to know: With a population of more than six million people, this city in eastern China is reported to have more millionaires than any other place in the country.)

The most notable newcomer is FUCHUN RESORT (the best hotel still being the Grand Hyatt), in those velvety verdant hills above the city, less than an hour away from downtown. The place is a masterpiece of minimalist design: 70 rooms and suites plus 17 villas in a collection of low-slung pearl-colored buildings with traditional dark-wood roofs. Many of the rooms, as well as the restaurant, overlook a lake flanked by rolling hills. The 18-hole golf course, one of the most beautiful in mainland China, is built around a working tea plantation. This is where the nation's business elite gets away to be pampered in the spa and take a dip in the stunning onyx indoor pool. You won't see many Western travelers here—not yet anyway—but you'll be in good company. From $230 to $2,000. At Hangfu Yanjiang Rd.; 86-571/6346-1111;

Taking to the Water
The countryside west of Shanghai—an hour or two out—bears little resemblance to the kinetic space-age jumble of skyscrapers and packed streets of the city. And thank goodness. Like most urban dwellers (and visitors, too), Shanghai's residents regularly flee for cleaner, greener, calmer climes. A favorite getaway spot is the region of so-called Water Towns, which stretch along canals built to provide trade routes, some dating back as far as 2,000 years. In these ancient merchant posts—Zhujiajiao, Zhouzhuang, and Tongli—rural China seems preserved in amber: River barges breeze past rice paddies, fishermen haul their nets onto weather-beaten wooden boats. An increasing number of travelers are discovering these mini Venices, where artists set up easels on cobblestoned bridges, teahouses serve rare infusions, and family-run restaurants dish up the catch of the day. Hoteliers are ready to pounce, too. So go now, during the week, when tourists will be at a minimum. Your hotel can arrange a car to take you there and back for around $100.

The Caogang River flows through and around Zhujiajiao, a serene little village just an hour from the city. Here archaeologists have unearthed evidence of civilizations dating back 1,700 years; showcasing their finds is the ANCESTOR POTTERY AND JADE HALL (40 Meizhou Rd.). Like the bustling roads of Zhujiajiao's sister towns, North Street, the main strip, is lined with stalls selling silk and freshwater pearls as well as kiosks cooking steamed rice dumplings, river shrimp, and stewed pork. From this point, a labyrinth of lanes and stone bridges crisscross the canals and river. The best way to see them—and the charming whitewashed houses—is to hire a wooden gondola navigated by a cone-hatted boatman. Over a pot of jasmine tea on the balcony of AH PO TEAHOUSE ($ 122 Dongjing St.; 86-21/5923-1428), you can watch boats pass beneath the five arches of the humpbacked FANGSHENG BRIDGE.

It was Chinese artist Chen Yifei's mesmerizing portrait of Zhouzhuang that helped make this 900-year-old town 90 minutes from Shanghai so popular with Chinese travelers. Now hotel developers also have it firmly targeted, a sure sign that the days are numbered for a quiet visit to its famous examples of waterside architecture: the stone DOUBLE BRIDGE and ZHANG'S MANSION. The latter, a sprawling low-slung structure beside the Ruojing River, was erected more than 500 years ago. Many of the rooms and courtyards are decorated with traditional wood furniture and carvings. The nearby QUANFU TEMPLE and gardens are filled with pagodas, pavilions, and gold Buddhas.

A well-kept secret until recently, Tongli is the farthest from Shanghai—a good two-hour drive. Though the distance has helped reduce tourist traffic for years, the crowds have now picked up. Regardless, it is the most authentic, if least polished, of the canal towns. The water gardens are still relatively uncrowded—elderly men play seemingly endless games of mah-jongg on the wide canal banks while old women, perched on cracked pavement, spin silk in the alleyways. We also came across something a bit more surprising: the MUSEUM OF ANCIENT CHINESE SEX CULTURE (86-512/6332-2973), which details the history of the Middle Kingdom's libidinous predilections. The 49 stone bridges and the peaceful Tuisi Garden are lovely, but Tongli's unpredictability is a big part of its charm.

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