The quirky, contemporary Grace Hotel in Beijing's 798 art district gets top marks for service and all-round charm.
Colourful hideaway that's a living art gallery
After a white-knuckle taxi ride my nerves were soon calmed by the smiling staff, who rushed to offer drinks and insisted on carrying even the smallest of bags. In a city where vast, thousand-room imperial residences such as the Communist-owned Beijing Hotel dominate, this boutique hotel in Beijing's 798 art district is a reinvigorating change: no Politburo members here. Locals still refer to the old crystal factory site as the Yi House, as it was before the Grace Hotels chain took over in September, retaining its niche as a colourful hideaway in the polluted, traffic-choked megalopolis.
Although no longer so radical, 798 (pronounced "qi jio ba" in Mandarin) in Chaoyang District manages to convey a sense of rebelliousness in a country where creative expression is still heavily censored. A flowering of contemporary art galleries in the decommissioned munitions factories of the former industrial zone, the authorities tried to demolish it in 2004, then when it proved too popular they named it a cultural heritage site. Its proximity to the airport makes it a good choice for travellers who want to avoid Beijing's notorious traffic jams, but less convenient if you want to be central - it is almost an hour's taxi ride into the city.
Each of the 30 rooms is distinct, but all adhere to a decor that the French manager Yves says is inspired by the Ming Dynasty and contemporary art. Mine had scraped wooden floors and turquoise and lime green furnishings - lovely, pared-down luxury. In keeping with the hotel itself, the rooms are small, but cosy rather than claustrophobic. It isn't the ideal choice for business travellers, however - the desk is on the small side and the internet connection is patchy.
Service in China frequently lags far behind the US and Europe, but this place has it just right. Personal and friendly, it is far removed from the overbearing, not-allowed-to-take-the-lift-on-your-own attentiveness of bigger luxury hotels, but I never felt neglected. Despite their excellent English, the concierge staff were more than happy to indulge my halting efforts in Mandarin. The waiters were warm, room service was prompt and I was thoroughly won over when, after enquiring where I could find batteries, the young receptionist insisted on rushing out to buy them for me.
Seventeen years after the first artists set up camp here, there's still a freshness about Beijing's emerging art scene and despite Grace's style credentials, I didn't feel that I would be arrested by the cool police for wearing trainers. In sometimes-stuffy Beijing, the Bauhaus buildings feel like an outtake from East Berlin, not surprising given that former Communist Germany helped to design the factories in the 1950s. The clientele appeared to be a mix of trendy creative types - China fashion week was taking place next door - together with families and businesspeople busy pretending not to be.
Swiss head chef Christian Hoffman is an organic food fanatic who grew up on a farm and is something of a rarity in a country still in the throes of a love affair with MSG. Under his cleaver, Grace is gaining a reputation for culinary excellence, and the weekend brunch sees the place overrun by discerning Beijingers who think it well worth making the trek. The Yi House bistro - a nod to the hotel's former identity - specialises in seafood, with the Grace Seafood Parade Platter a fishy world tour on a plate: Alaskan crab, poached Boston lobster, New Zealand scampi, oysters, mussels, sashimi and scallops for 1,288 yuan (Dh751) for two to four people. The Asian-Mediterranean breakfast was also good but I was disappointed to find that the newspapers were a day old.
Beneath my window, builders rampaged on until 2am carrying out noisy construction work, then restarted at six the next morning. It's hard to say whether this is a regular occurrence but the hotel needs to insist that the workmen be more considerate.
The smoky dark wood and velvet sofas of the downstairs bar, with its exceptionally strong coffee. The place feels like a living art gallery: I was lucky enough to catch the opening of a photographic exhibition of Polish artist Ryszard Horowitz, which, despite the top-notch curation felt like hanging out in someone's front room. The outside courtyard would be lovely in warmer weather.
There can be few art hotels so well positioned for serious gallery exploration, with almost a square kilometre's worth on the doorstep. The Grace builds on the reputation of Yi House, in being a quirky spot for travellers wanting to take a sideways look at Beijing.
The bottom line
A superior king-size bedroom costs from 1,000 yuan (Dh582) per night, including breakfast and taxes. Grace Hotel Jiuxianqiao Lu, 2 Hao Yuan, 798 Yishu Qu, 706 Hou Jie 1 Hao Beijing, 100015, China (www.gracebeijing.com; 00 86 10 6436 1818).