The first hint of what the Aman at Summer Palace is about came at the airport. Instead of a bored-looking driver holding up my name in the arrivals lounge, I was met on the air bridge and shepherded through the baggage collection process and then to a VIP section of the airport where the Aman Volvo station wagon was waiting. A chilled face cloth and a bottle of water were inside for me as the driver made his way to the Summer Palace on Beijing's north-west outskirts. The closest he came to acting like his maniacal taxi brethren was a quick mobile phone call while driving, but this proved to be him discreetly alerting the staff at the hotel to my impending arrival so I could be greeted by a man who introduced himself as Mark and a coterie of smiling staff. It was only later I found out this was Mark Swinton, the general manager.
For generations, the ruling class used the cooling effect of the artificial lake and the breezes from the hills surrounding the Summer Palace to mitigate the worst of Beijing's summer heat. Its current opulence hails from the late 19th century when Cixi, a ruthless one-time concubine who became the dowager empress, diverted money intended to refurbish China's navy and lavished it on building this private palace on 290 hectares. China's navy was crushed by Japan's soon after and the empire fell, but the Summer Palace remains. The resort is actually a part of it, albeit not a section that was open to the public. The 2.8-hectare site includes pavilions built in the 1860s and used by officers of the imperial guard. Onto this a new section has been built but so faithful is it to the materials and style of the original that it's a struggle to work out what is old and what's new. There's also a modern two-level underground bunker housing a spa, 37-seat cinema and pool.
There seem to be two distinct groups of patrons. One tends to be the stealth-wealth brigade who don't reek of money but value authenticity and for whom the inoffensively unmemorable five-star hotel chains would be anathema. The other group tends to come to impress, be it for celebratory weekends or for business meetings. But even when half full (as when I was there mid week) it was rare to encounter other guests.
The 51 rooms make it the biggest of the 20 Aman resorts worldwide, a compromise between the company's emphasis on small and personal hotels and making the most of one of the world's great hotel sites. For anyone who hates hotels where the interior design informs you of the brand of the hotel but not what city, country or even continent you're in, the Aman is the perfect antidote. The furniture and decor are all designed specifically for the hotel in the Chinese style and there is a conscious decision not to have corporate logos on display, which includes not even a sign at the street entrance saying it's a hotel. My suite was mid-level in the accommodation stakes but huge, comprising separate bed and lounge areas and a bathroom bigger than my flat in Abu Dhabi, featuring a monsoon shower head that had a flow roughly similar to the Yangtze.
With a ratio of about six staff for every room, this is where Aman really stands out. If you've stayed at any other Aman resort around the world your preferences are on a database used to personalise your service at this one. Nothing was too much trouble.
The three restaurants serve Chinese, Western and Japanese-French fusion cuisine. Being in China, I went for the Chinese, and Aman's "this is your home" philosophy meant I dined with the general manager rather than alone. We had what he dubbed the "meeting menu", in effect a degustation where a series of plates were brought to our table, including duck, dumplings, steamed vegetables, prawns ... I lost count after eight but it was one of the best meals I've had anywhere.
The attention to detail, be it architectural or personal, in everything. The way you rarely encountered other guests. Best of all was the hotel's private gateway to the Summer Palace, giving after-hours access to avoid the hordes of visitors. You can watch the locals doing tai chi by the lake at dawn or stroll through under a full moon and get a taste of how the emperors lived.
Nothing, but there were a couple of niggles which it seems almost mean-spirited to mention. The taps for the shower were in French, with F and C for froid and chaud, but with the taps transposed so that C really did stand for cold. The paint touch-ups where some of the walls had been knocked about were a little slapdash. But that's it. Really.
There's good and there's "oh my gosh" good, and the Aman at Summer Palace was firmly in the latter category.
Rooms cost from $632 (Dh2,321) and go up to $4,370 (Dh16,050) for the Imperial Suite. The airport pick-up is $95 (Dh349) extra per car each way (www.amanresorts.com; 0086 10 5987 9999). firstname.lastname@example.org