French country house near Hangzhou offers a cool respite from the city, says Nick Taylor
Moganshan, in Zhejiang province, has long provided an escape from the punishing heat and noise of Shanghai. A century ago, well-heeled families would spend their summers on the cool slopes of this lush, green mountain. In the 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek was a regular visitor, as was the gangster who ran Shanghai's opium trade, "Big Ears" Du.
The mountain now sits in a national park bristling with bamboo forests about an hour from the city of Hangzhou, and is once again a refuge for those worn out by the relentless pace of urban China. Le Passage Mohkan Shan, which opened in October, is a 28-room country house that aims to recreate the former elegance of the mountain's past.
When the French owner Christophe Peres bought the land six years ago, there was nothing here except a disused tea factory. He and his wife restored the building using historic timber, local stone and antique, hand-made tiles.
They added a library and a cigar room, sunk a heated saltwater pool and planted a garden of 12,000 rose bushes. The result is laid-back and rustic but has an understated chic that's not often found on the mainland.
Food is the main focus of Le Passage. Peres has brought in Denis Jacques Lartigue to run the kitchen. Lartigue has worked at The Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong, the Conrad in Bangkok and the Hilton in Shanghai. He specialises in using ingredients grown on the property or sourced from farms in the area, but prepared using traditional French cooking methods.
On the night of our arrival, he served foie gras terrine with a bamboo shoot salad flavoured with black truffle. The bamboo is sourced locally and the foie gras is made on site. The dish was paired with a 2007 Loire Clos du Breuil - almost all of the wines served at Le Passage are sourced from small bio-dynamic French vineyards.
Despite the fine dining, the atmosphere is far from stuffy. Guests lounge in the library. Two friendly dogs plod around and the smell of burning logs infuses the air. Peres sits down with us to talk about the menu over a glass of wine.
He wants the property to be like a country home, a place where guests can come for some peace with their families and feel welcome. After dinner, he invites everyone out to a bonfire by the pool, and we all raise a glass and swap stories until it is time to slip off to bed.
A morning bicycle ride through the local villages burns off some of rich food from the night before, and after a lunch of freshly made pasta, roast beef and salad, we're led out to Le Passage's tea plantation.
Every April and May, the hotel harvests its crop of Mogan Huang Ya or Mogan Yellow Bud tea, and guests are invited to help out with the picking. A tea master shows us how to select and pluck the choicest leaves. The tea is then dried on site and parcelled up for us to take home, with the rest of the harvest served at the hotel throughout the year.
Pears are grown on the property, and those that don't wind up on the dessert menu are used to make brandy. Later that afternoon, Peres takes us to his wine cellar to show us the two antique stills he brought over from France.
That evening, we fall into bed, exhausted by the biking and tea picking, and thrilled to be savouring a side of luxury that hasn't graced these slopes for more than 70 years.
Le Passage Mohkan Shan Hotel
Xianrenkeng Tea Plantation, Ziling Village, Deqing County, Zhejiang
Getting there: China Eastern, Cathay Pacific and Air China fly non-stop from Hong Kong to Hangzhou. The hotel will arrange a pick-up.
Staying there: deluxe rooms cost from 1,500 yuan (HK$1,870) per night, including breakfast.