Sheer class
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-09-17 10:31

Sheer class

Raffles Beijing displays a fusion of French opulence and Chinese sophistication.

Sheer class

Jaan serves a light, innovative French cuisine with a modern edge.

Sheer class

The lobby at Raffles Beijing encapsulates the hotel's aesthetic - not big, not ornate, but pure "refined luxury". File photos

To step into Raffles Beijing Hotel is to be transported back 100 years. Here, you are likely to encounter the ghosts of Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Bernard Shaw, Bernard Law Montgomery, Charles De Gaulle and Dr Sun Yat-sen. Saunter into the ballroom, and you may even invoke a glimpse of Chairman Mao Zedong or Premier Zhou Enlai doing a waltz.

As Raffles Beijing, the hotel opened in December 2006. But the history of the building goes back to the early 20th century when it was one of the earliest modern hotels in the city, then known as Grand Hotel de Pekin.

To clear up the confusion, here is a brief history lesson: The Beijing Hotel, as it is now called, stretches a whole block. It includes buildings added in later periods, incorporating not only different architectural styles but also different hotel brands. What is now Raffles is actually Beijing Hotel as it was before 1949, which is the oldest premise. As such, it basks in the afterglow of all the illustrious people who once frequented this venue of privilege and luxury.

The Writers' Bar, a perfect hangout for cocktails and snack, may be named in honor of Shaw, Rabindranath Tagore, Chinese writer Guo Moruo and the like, but it was also the place where Communist leaders, such as Mao and Zhou, met foreign dignitaries and held private parties. "The floor for the bar and the restaurant Jaan is French polished timber, which used to give dancers a special bounce," whispers an insider.

Or you can check into one of the nine Personality Suites, where you can attempt to conjure up the spirit of the luminary from the photos on the wall and period bric-a-bracs throughout the suite. These include a gramophone, antique-style furniture, such as intricately carved bedposts, a map of "Old Peking" of 1936, postcards of the hotel photographed from the bygone era, and a sheet of bedtime reading, called "Fables of the exotic East".

The 171-room Raffles Beijing is a model of exclusivity and a fusion of French opulence and Chinese sophistication. Never before have a French couch and a Chinese coffee table meshed so well; or a French chandelier above a hand-made Chinese rug; or a Chinese vase next to a French candlestick.

Whether you choose the 888-sq-m Presidential Suite or a dynasty-themed room, "the understated elegance", in the words of Riaz Mahmood, the hotel's general manager, is something you can savor for days. There is such meticulous attention to detail that even the throwaway slippers is a souvenir to keep. (It has the print often associated with shirts worn by girls from southern China water towns and comes stringed with a cloth ribbon with a red ball. A true touch of refinement.)

Such a quintessentially French hotel has got to have an authentic French restaurant. Jaan serves a light, innovative French cuisine with a modern edge. If you want respite from the Gallic ambience, East 33 at the back of the building has a dizzying array of international dishes, from rustic wood-fire pizzas to crispy Peking Duck, and on weekend, abundant seafood. The Boston lobster is a star attraction.

Raffles Beijing has a lobby that encapsulates its aesthetic. It's not big; it's not ornate; it's pure "refined luxury", as Mahmood would say. "We don't have a band. But we have a harpist at the intermediate platform of the staircase." And the live music is floated into other places, such as the elevators, adding to the soothing and aristocratic atmosphere.

When you walk out the door, you'll be more acutely aware what a heritage gem the building is. Turn west and walk for 10 minutes, you'll be in the heart of China - Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City.