Northern exposure Winter temperatures are now well below zero in the Manchurian city of Harbin, and the river that runs through it, the mighty Songhua, has – as it does every year in this coldest corner of China – frozen over. The brand new 344-room Songbei Shangri-La hotel is scheduled to start taking guests next month, though its older sister property, the Shangri-La Hotel, is located closer to the historic, largely Russian-built centre of town.
The 110-year-old Modern Hotel has an even more central location, near the grand Russian Orthodox St Sophia Cathedral, offers cheap rooms, and employs a lobby pianist to play the theme tune from Doctor Zhivago at tea time. (It also gets mixed online reviews – you really do get what you pay for at the Modern, but I usually stay there anyway.)
The famous Ice Festival, which runs from January 5 to February 25, doesn’t seem to have an official English-language website this year (icefestivalharbin.com) looks to be run by a travel agent of the same name), but you can just show up and enjoy the bone-chilling weather, cheap Russian vodka and city-wide ice sculptures on your own.
There are, sadly, no non-stop flights currently operating between Hong Kong and Harbin (they’ve been on and off since the 1990s) but Shenzhen Airlines can get you there a few times a week via Jinan, in just under seven hours in total. Speak to a travel agent or try your luck at global.shenzhenair.com. It’s also possible to reach Harbin by train from Hong Kong, via Beijing. The journey takes about 36 hours each way, and is worth doing once. See www.seat61.com/china for details.
Change of direction The 137 Pillars House, in Chiang Mai, has earned a reputation as one of the best resorts in northern Thailand since it opened almost five years ago. It’s been so successful, in fact, that its Thai owners created an eponymous hotel group earlier this year (137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts), with plans to open 20 more properties in the next decade, starting with one in Bangkok in January. The resort claims a strong connection to what it calls the East Borneo Trading Company (or sometimes just the East Borneo Company) and offers themed accommodation including East Borneo suites. There are also suites named after former employees Louis Leonowens (son of Anna Leonowens, of The King and I fame) and William Bain.
The problem here is that there never was an East Borneo Trading Company. It was simply the Borneo Company that had its Chiang Mai headquarters on the spot where the resort now stands, and for which Leonowens and Bain worked at various times. Perhaps there was some confusion with the East India Company, or perhaps it’s just me, but it seems a lazy mistake to make by a business leaning so heavily on another company’s heritage and the people who worked so hard to build it.
Roman remains The Hotel Eden, in Rome, has missed its scheduled autumn reopening and is instead taking reservations from April 1 next year. Unusually, neither the hotel’s closing or reopening announcements put a price tag on the eagerly awaited “extensive renovation” (which began last November) but as the Eden is owned by the Sultan of Brunei, through his sovereign wealth investment agency, it is likely to have been a substantial sum. Little of the budget, though, seems to have been spent on the website’s pre-launch CGI images, which resemble screenshots from an old CD ROM point-and-click adventure game for Windows 95. You can find those, and make reservations, at www.dorchestercollection.com/en/rome/hotel-eden.
Deal of the week Farrington Vacations’ two-night Bangkok package has a small but good choice of hotels on offer until March, including the Hotel Indigo (from HK$2,550 per person, twin share), the St Regis (from HK$3,090) and the Grand Hyatt Erawan (from HK$3,250). Several other properties are offered with this package, which includes flights with Cathay Pacific and daily breakfast, and which you can find at www.farringtonvacations.com.hk.