A long-time lover of a tropical holiday in Bali, Sarah Richard discovers an unexpected new favourite getaway in a different direction altogether: Yunnan Province in China.
When it comes to travel, I generally know if I’m going to like a place or not almost instantly upon landing. The atmosphere, the smells, the people, the surroundings: those first few hours in a new place are the most exciting. I knew I was going to like Lijiang from the start; but I never realised quite how much I would fall for it. This is a place unlike any other, much of it is far less explored and spoken about than touristy beach destinations, and truly magical.
It’s also close to Hong Kong. Within a few hours of leaving my apartment in Central, I’d flown to Lijiang in Yunnan Province, been picked up in a private car at the airport, and swiftly taken to my accommodation, the Banyan Tree Lijiang.
My room, one of the resort’s Garden Suites, felt more like a cosy apartment. Welcome features included the timeless oriental décor, huge bed, and my own private garden looking out onto the famous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. For those who are looking for an additional touch of luxury, there’s a range of Pool Villas and Jet Pool Villas.
Wherever you lay your head, it’s clear that Banyan Tree takes each of its five stars very seriously. From the gowns hanging fresh and ready for you every morning, to the seasonal fruit and complimentary snacks, you can expect to find every added extra.
For me, though, the most specular thing about the property is its surroundings. My first night was spent gazing at the breath-taking mountain views – to the point that I was in danger of spending more time on my balcony than in my bed. That was until I realised that the bed was possibly the comfiest I would ever sleep on.
Despite all this, I was up early and raring to go after a buffet breakfast of Asian and Western food had set me up for a day that will stay in my memory for a very long time!
Our English tour guide was waiting for us at reception with a huge smile on her face. “You’re going to love Lijiang, Sarah,” she said, and I couldn’t help but smile straight back at her and reply, “I think I already do”. Heading up through the mountains, the sun beaming onto our windows, we passed fields of sunflowers that were just coming out of season yet still dominating the fields.
Arriving at our first destination, the Wenhai school, we were shyly greeted by local children hiding one behind the other. As soon as I said “Hi”, they all burst into giggles and ran in circles around each other. Banyan Tree helps local schools in the surrounding areas in many ways, such as funding infrastructure and education, and providing clean water; it was great to see how much the children appreciated the resort’s kindness and obvious presence. Overlooking the school is Wenhai Lake, home to wildflowers, cows, sheep and an incredibly peaceful atmosphere. I stood and took in the view, feeling a million miles away from my everyday life in Hong Kong.
Next stop was Baisha village, one of Lijiang’s old towns, bursting with life and character. I immediately fell for its charm. Local Naxi women sold fruit while men showcased old antiques. Just wandering around the streets was great entertainment in itself, with new sights at every corner. My tour guide happily spent hours talking me through Lijiang’s history and culture, and I couldn’t help, while listening, admiring how beautiful and unique every building, tree and person was.
We headed back to the Banyan Tree for lunch at Ming Yue restaurant, which serves superb local and international dishes. With the weather being so nice, I sat outside while I ate, enjoying the picture-perfect views of the snow-peaked mountains. An added bonus came when the waitress told me that most of the vegetables I’d just eaten in my chicken and blue-cheese salad were in fact grown in Banyan Tree’s own garden, which she proudly showed me on my way out.
I could have quite happily stared at that vista all day, but there was more exploring to do. The ancient town of Shuhe is just a short walk from the resort. Here, autumn was in full bloom and colours were popping in every direction. Locals and tourists buzzed around, and the restaurants and cafes gave off sounds of laughter and clinking coffee cups. It felt like a European metropolis yet with a distinct Chinese feel, a place you always wanted to visit, yet never knew existed. Shuhe became my new Milan: little streets, great coffee and interesting architecture. I couldn’t quite believe this was all happening in a relatively unknown Chinese town.
Of course, by now I was completely in love with Lijiang, but I was also here to relax. Banyan Tree really is the ultimate relaxation resort; the rooms are beautifully arranged, providing complete privacy, with breathtaking views either from a balcony or a private garden. I got into my bath that spread across two huge windows, put on some music, lit the complimentary incense and shut off from the outside world. By the next morning I’d almost melted into my bed.
In a strange yet comforting way, Lijiang made me feel nostalgic. It reminded me of childhood summers in my hometown in England, surrounded by sunflowers and cobbled streets. I’d completely fallen head over heels in love with it, and I really didn’t want to leave.
Happily for me, the adventure wasn’t quite over. I was now heading to the world famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, and then to my next destination: the Banyan Tree Ringha. Could it be as incredible as its Lijiang sister? You’ll have to wait until February to find out!
Getting there: China Air flies daily to Lijiang via Kunming, in just under four hours.
Visa: Hong Kong residents or non-residents who don’t hold a Chinese passport require a tourist visa to enter China, to be obtained before arrival. Different charges apply for different nationalities, so check the government website before you travel.
On arrival: Banyan Tree staff will be waiting for you at Lijiang airport in a private car, ready to take you direct to their haven.
Weather: The weather in Lijiang is generally mild, with an average annual temperature between 13 and 20 degrees Celsius, and not much change between seasons. Even in winter, the mountains block the cold air from northern China, so it remains almost as warm as spring on most days; but make sure you bring warm clothes if you plan to head up into the mountains. Summer and autumn are the busiest tourist seasons.
Things to do: Banyan Tree offers an extensive tour package from cycling around old towns to exploring one of the tallest glaciers in the world.
Info and reservations: Call +86 888 533 1111 or head to their site for more details.