Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai, China
Style: Divine Art Deco
Scene: Right on The Bund
Seen in the Lobby: History lovers, sightseers, Shanghai high society
Walk through the Art Deco doors of the newly restored Peace Hotel in Shanghai and you are walking back in time. A man in a creased white linen suit is checking in before me, he looks like a refugee straight out of the 1930s and isn't that a ghostly whisper of Noel Coward I see heading for the lifts cigarette holder in hand? Coward wrote Private Lives in room 314 the year the hotel first opened.
Between the two World Wars Shanghai shone: deliciously decadent, cultured, yet corrupt it was a place where the pursuit of pleasure was second only to the pursuit of wealth. Businessmen, adventurers, aristocrats, opium traders, crime bosses, prostitutes and assorted refugees all partied with aplomb in Shanghai in the 1930s and at the heart of it all was this hotel.
"The higher the buildings, the lower the morals."
-- Noel Coward
The Cathay Hotel (as it was then known) opened in August 1929. At a' dizzy ' 12 storeys it was the first high rise in china. Decked out in all her Art Deco finery - Lalique Chandeliers glittering like drop-earrings, marble floor shimmering like a silk evening dress - the hotel became the toast of Shanghai. It was billed as the Claridges of the Far East, which meant a lot to all those European empire builders employed by the British East India Trading Company. And those flooding off the Blue Funnel Line steamers in search of fortune and fame.
"Please, I don't want anyone to apologize for over dressing."
-- Noel Coward, on entering a white tie and tails party wearing an ordinary suit
The hotel was the creation of the legendary Sir Victor Sasson a canny businessman and renowned bon vivant, so it is no surprise that his new hotel's 'state of the art' wood-sprung dance floor was soon the venue for all the best a parties. The hotel's tea dances were booked up for months in advance.
Now The Cathay has been reborn as the Fairmont Peace Hotel in all her original style - and then some. Heritage hotel specialists at Fairmont worked close with designers, architects and historians and the result is a hotel which is an authentic as it can be in, give the demands of 21st century guests. Fairmont have taken on a few historic hotels of late; earlier this year they re-opened The Savoy, London (another Deco gem) and The New York Plaza Hotel and the Fairmont San Francisco are also under their wing.
Sasson's apartment has been lovingly restored as the Sassoon Presidential Suite at the top of the hotel with spectacular views cross the Huangpu River. As I wander around its oak panelled rooms I can still sense the power and the prestige of the man who once lived there. But then the Fairmont Peace Hotel is like that. Its past seeps out of the stucco and curls up from its mosaic floors until everyone who stays here is somehow time-warped by it. In the Jasmine Lounge one night F Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age seems to be alive and well and influencing us all; cocktails are consumed with abandon, the women are wittier, the men are better dressed and everyone stays late.
"I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me." -- Noel Coward
I am staying in the India Suite, one of the original Nine Nations Suites created by Sasson in the 1930s. This has been lovingly restored by Fairmont. It is wonderfully over-the-top and kitsch in the best way. The walls are festooned with prints of bejewelled elephants, opulent carpets cover the floors and the brocade chairs look like so many maharajah's thrones. There is filigree plaster work on the walls, but best of all when you look up the ceilings are a riot of colour and intricate patterns The suite has a living room, dining room, bedroom and bathroom with jewel-like tiles.The beautiful leadlight windows in the India suite are original. Through their filmy coloured glass the new high rises of Pudong across the river appear softened and muted like a Chinese water colour. The windows open onto the Bund, which I think is wonderful since fresh air and five star often don't mix and I can lean out and watch the early morning Tai Chi sessions below.
My windows also let in the traffic noise along the lively night-time Bund. I don't mind it's the price you pay for authenticity but a fellow traveller in the China Suite is less enamoured of the fact that she can't plug in her kettle without crawling on the floor.
"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Private Lives
Some of the original staff still seem to be around too. One evening I head for the Jazz Bar where the famous Old Jazz Band has played since before the war. The word 'old' is not to be taken lightly. I swear they've been here since the 1930s with just a dust sheet thrown over them in the intervening years. The drummer was born in 1918, the trumpeter in 1920 but 'the boys' are geriatric mega-stars,. Despite their age, frailty and cheesy repertoire the atmosphere is electric. As I order my cocktail a line from Private Lives springs to mind: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." The band is not unaware of the humour of the situation and play "I'd Like to get you on a slow boat to china" with a twinkle in their eyes.
The hotel is big on traditions. It was the first in Asia to immortalise the great British institution of afternoon tea and in the daytime the Jasmine Lounge serves a splendid tea from Art Deco cake stands accompanied by a whole menu of teas chosen by the resident tea sommelier. I choose a delicate white Chrysanthemum blend from the East and then devour greedy Western -sized portions of scones and jam.
There are dark times just around the corner. There are dark clouds travelling through the sky. And it's no good whining about a silver lining. For we know from experience they won't roll by." -- Noel Coward
The Peace Hotel has seen it all. From her rooftop a young J.G Ballard (author of Empire of the Sun) watched the full of Shanghai. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 she was divided and partitioned. False ceiling hid her art deco splendours (and as it happened preserved them for posterity). Her stucco was as chipped as old nail polish. All around her the beautiful building on the Bund fell into disrepair.
But like an aristocrat down on her luck The Cathay was tougher than she looked. The hotel survived. Born again as The Peace Hotel in the 1950s and 60s she hosted Soviet bloc guests , Chinese bigwigs and European diplomats. I wander around the Peace Gallery on the mezzanine floor and stare at the fading photographs. Pictures from the time show little frippery and visiting dignitaries posing on uncomfortable sagging sofas.
It makes me grateful for the 21st century luxuries that have been added to the hotel. New suites in cream and gold have large bathrooms with bath-side LCD screens. There are also flat-screen plasma TVs , Blu-ray DVD players and Wi-Fi. And In a new wing the luxurious Willow Stream Spa balances ying and yang with a mix of ancient Chinese techniques and some distinctly modern pampering.
I am especially grateful for that.
The Luxury Travel Bible takes a tour of the Fairmont Peace Hotel India Suite
Check in: 20 Nanjing Road East ,Shanghai, China 200002
Ultimate Luxury: The historic Sassoon Presidential Suite and the Nine Nations Suites although we're also partial to the new Signature Riverview Suites.
Most Indulgent Moment: A Mystic Peace massage in the luxurious Willow Stream Spa.
Insider Secrets: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks stayed in 1931, Charlie Chaplin in 1936, in room 51 (now 519). Don't miss the Peace Gallery displaying wonderful B&W photographs of days gone by.
Junior Luxies: Nothing special for the kids here, although they'll love the afternoon tea.
Dress code: A touch of 1930s style rewritten. Think Marlene Dietrich meets Collette Dinnigan.