Treaty of Nanking

Modernising Ming

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am


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Suzhou - a popular day trip from Shanghai, as the journey takes about half an hour on the zippy Shanghai-Nanjing bullet train - is feted for its Ming dynasty gardens, well-preserved temples and canals framed by ancient stone bridges.

Described by Marco Polo as one of the most beautiful places in China, it was the world's biggest producer of silk in the 14th century, and 600 years on, Suzhou is still proving its economic prowess as the world's leading maker of laptops.

This 2,500-year-old city is an important business centre - the Suzhou Industrial Park on the city's outskirts is one of China's 14 Special Economic Zones - and now it is into the boutique hotel business.

The Hotel Soul opened in May as a property of Hong Kong's GR8 Leisure Concept, which also manages the Dada-esque Luxe Manor in Tsim Sha Tsui. The Soul's decor fits in with that of the city's multinational accommodation.

A strong geometric motif echoes throughout the hotel. (Check out the mirrors.) Sculptures and paintings - the hotel has a permanent collection from the Suzhou Art & Design Technology Institute - add to the ambience, as do the three themed lifts, best of which is the spaceship elevator displaying footage of spacemen and the moon.

The hotel pays homage to the city's history with its rooftop garden, but elsewhere modernity reigns, with designer chairs and contemporary artwork in all 272 rooms.

Oversized lotus lamps - the flower is the hotel's symbol - add visual wow. Even the toiletries are in lotus-shaped bottles.

The restaurant, Brasserie 101, dishes up elegant French fare in an upscale bistro setting, with chandeliers illuminating the grandly framed pictures of Mao Zedong et al on the crimson walls.

The menu is overseen by Jaakko Sorsa, head chef of Finds, the hotel's sister restaurant in Hong Kong, and features dishes such as duck leg with mashed potato and orange sauce and foamy, light-as-a-feather mushroom soup. There is also a juice bar, iSpace, that's handily located next to the gym, which is open 24 hours.

It is five minutes' walk from Guanqian Street, a shopping area next to the incense-cloaked Temple of Mystery. It's also close (10-15 minutes) to Pingjiang Road, in the city's old district, where weather-beaten whitewashed buildings line the canals and long wooden boats lazily traverse the water lanes.

There are some niggles. It takes a while for a taxi to arrive if you're heading out to the nearby towns of Tongli and Mudu with their own ancient canals and gardens. A long soak after a tiring day is out of the question; the rooms have no baths.

But international guests will be pleasantly surprised with the staff's good grasp of English, the relatively broad choice of Western TV channels on offer in the rooms and the great cup of coffee at breakfast. And while Hong Kong boasts many boutique offerings, the Hotel Soul is the first of its kind in Suzhou, and its playful interior and hip surrounds might just entice design-conscious travellers to explore this ancient city.

Hotel Soul

Where: 27-33 Qiaosikong Xiang, Ping Jiang district

Rates: 1,080 yuan (HK$1,320) for a premier king, 1,380 yuan for a business king and 1,680 yuan for a business studio king.

How to get there: fly direct from Hong Kong to Shanghai Pudong in 90 minutes, then get the bullet train to Suzhou; it takes 24 minutes from Shanghai's main station and costs 35 to 44 yuan. The hotel is two kilometres away from the train station, and a taxi will cost about 30 yuan.