The plane has barely touched down in Beijing before the rabble is up and fighting the overheads for crammed cases. We join the surge and jostle out of the plane, then, like sun seeping through cloud, the crowds part and we’re greeted at the gate by a serene, professional smile. If it weren’t for that grin we’d swear we’d done something wrong. Guiding us through the bedlam is Lara (not Interpol), who escorts us swiftly to the pick-up point – now this is service.
Feeling a little like Posh and Becks, we wonder where all the paps are as our driver helps us into the four-door Maserati. That’s right, Maserati baby, a Quattroporte,’ we exclaim with wild gesticulation, transformed into elegant sophisticates.
Gliding through the chaos, we swap highway for boulevard in the shade of the leafy embassy district and cruise towards the Opposite House. Betwixt the cafés, restaurants, bars and high-end shops of the north and south Sanlitun Village, the hotel is hard to miss; its form is confidently squat, like a crafted lacquer box.
Faced with an attractive Abercrombie-like army of receptionless receptionists, we are treated to a hi-tech, low-stress welcome. We’re introduced to Frank, who checks us in on his iPad as we sit eyeing the crisply beautiful surroundings.
Beyond the lobby, coolness pervades a bright atrium, where billowing steel drapes skillfully diffuse the light as it seeps into the 22-metre stainless-steel pool below. ‘Yep, he definitely knows what he’s doing,’ I mumble, trying not to dribble too much. If architecture is the masterful, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light, then Kengo Kuma, the Japanese architect of the Opposite House, has hit the nail on the head. We like. A lot.
Filled with shiny curios, such as Chen Wenling’s Red Memories, a series of gawky, oversized and undernourished figures, the art-flaunting lobby gets us excited about the burgeoning Chinese art market we’ve heard so much about. Frank tells us where it’s at, but we decide not to stray outside just yet, and settle into the hotel instead.
So far, so ace. Every little detail has been thought of, and all those other things you couldn’t possibly imagine have been fastidiously sorted. When Frank enquires if there’s anything he can do for us, I balk at a diva request (a white tiger, 57 bottles of Cristal, a Learjet and private council with Wen Jiabao) and instead ask for his dinner recommendations. The hotel’s line-up includes The Village Café and Mediterranean eatery Sureño.
We’re led into our Studio 45 room, which resembles a Japanese master’s inner sanctum, with clean lines and natural materials that convey a Zen sense of calm. Frank guides us through the hi-tech extras: those nice shiny buttons don’t launch sub-orbital nuclear warheads, they control the Denon/Bose sound-system that also plays in the shower. And that one closes the blinds with a gentle whirr. With an all-in minibar, 24-hour room service and an endless supply of Opposite House jelly beans, it’s hard to leave this refuge of luxury… but leave we must.
Jolted by a memory of the lobby, I stand and declare to a long-suffering Mrs Smith: ‘We need art!’ Gently reassuring her that our apartment isn’t big enough for a Chen Wenling piece, we head off in search of collectables, on the condition that we see some sights first. Minus Maserati for this outing, we take in the real Beijing, and head to the hutongs, the city’s fast-disappearing communes. Braving the throng of the hutongs is fun: all manner of things are for sale, such as tempting scorpion-on-a-stick treats, flowering teas and calligraphy knick-knacks. Art, art, art, we must acquire art, damn it. We flag down the nearest cab and head to 798 – Beijing’s premier design district, darling.
This converted industrial zone’s seemingly endless spread of warehouses, factories and units are filled with installations and pieces by some of the country’s most sought-after emerging artists, so this is where it’s at: cheers Frank. While Mrs Smith is preoccupied with more manageable acquisitions like postcards, I sidle off to the nearest gallery – and narrowly escape buying a 700,000 RMB sculpture. It seems all that numerical banter and hand-waving stuff was auction action… Yikes, that was a close one.
Empty-handed except for Mrs Smith’s postcards, it’s with great relief that we return to the Opposite House’s serenity and 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Room service has left a hand-written note along with two facemasks. So skipping the Spa, we don the masks and soak in our room’s beautiful oak bath with some soothing Mongolian BaYanKaLa salts.
When it does come time to rouse ourselves from our langour, we’re whisked away to the airport in an Audi Q7. As we step back into the mayhem, I realise it’s the little things that have made a difference to this stay: even before we arrived at the hotel we were made to feel special, which in the maelstrom of daily life in China is a coveted commodity. With the right designer and 50,000 hours of Venetian polish, any hotel can look stylish, but substance is harder to achieve, and the Opposite House has it in spades. We will be back – and not just for the Maserati.