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August 2, 2009

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Escape to rare imperial retreat

MORE than a a century ago, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) spent all her summers at the Summer Palace in the northwest of Beijing's core, leaving the Forbidden City for the relative cool of the hills and lake.

Built in 1750, the beautiful garden estate dotted with palaces around contemplative Kunming Lake long served the Qing Dynasty as an imperial retreat for fleeing the summer heat.

Today, behind the East Gate of this 259-year-old World Heritage site lies a peaceful retreat that offers a high-end escape from hectic city life and a peek through time to the romance of a bygone era.

Those lucky enough to stay at the hotel Aman at Summer Palace, Beijing will be able to enjoy scenes of intricately latticed wooden walls and imperial-style dwellings, tranquil evenings when candles are lit on the lakeside walkways and to explore parts of the enclosure that are less well-known.

It is housed in a series of dwellings, some of which date back over a century. The original complex was once guest quarters for those awaiting an audience with the Empress Dowager.

Amanresorts, a luxury hotel chain started from Phuket, Thailand, got the valuable opportunity to renew and conserve the complex, and has preserved the original architecture during the restoration process.

Aman at Summer Palace takes visitors back to the period when the empress spent all her summers at the adjacent palace. Replete with Ming Dynasty-inspired furniture and decor, the overall atmosphere is reminiscent of the old Beijing hutongs, quiet, private and inspirational.

Serenity and peace exude from the private gardens leading to each siheyuan (courtyard building).

Open the door to a private room or suite and the simple elegance of wood and imperial fittings dominates, from the inviting opium bed with its soft covers or the spacious bathroom.

The resort offers a variety of accommodation which pays homage to traditional Chinese architecture and celebrates the courtyard style of imperial China with eight guestrooms, 10 courtyard guestrooms and 25 suites.

Every room has its own unique layout and orientation with roomy bathrooms featuring island bathtubs and separate shower and washroom areas. Simple, elegant and redolent of the past, rooms and suites also feature traditional wooden screens and bamboo blinds, creating a mysterious sense of looking through the veil of time to the romance of another era.

An underground area dedicated to fitness with a spa and indoor pool makes the visitor feel how one would expect to be treated and pampered as an empress in old Beijing.

In terms of dining and relaxing, the retreat offers a wide and sophisticated choice. From the lounge area's seating and its continental treats, to the Chinese restaurant offering a mix of imperial and Cantonese cuisine, there is also a fusion French-Japanese restaurant offering Gallic technique with a Japanese sense of artistry where the chef cooks in front of the guests.

The curious visitor walking on a journey back through ancient times between the red walls of the buildings, some a few centuries old, will encounter a peaceful pond with a musician performing at its side.

This is also the place to have a drink or a cigar in the late hours of the day in some of the quietest surroundings the capital has to offer.

Beyond the pond and the peaceful alleys, there is a door. That door can be opened at the guest's discretion and it leads straight to the Summer Palace gardens. Who wouldn't want to push that door at least once to sample the mythical regal retreat?


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