There’s nowhere to hide: everywhere you turn, there’s more Union Flag bunting and excited chatter about ‘London 2012’. I’m all for national pride, but there comes a time when you want to run away from all the flag waving. Far away. And you can’t get much further than the Far East, home to the thriving metropolises that are increasingly dominating life in the 21st-century world.
Hong Kong is full of colour and teeming with life. It’s known for its efficiency, its shopping and its cuisine – a true international metropolis. You can, of course, do all the traditional touristy things like suffering through the bad service at Luk Yu Tea House or browsing crafts and antiques on Cat Street, but for me, today’s Hong Kong is more about living the high life: great shopping, faultless restaurants, slick bars and superb hotels.
For a great urban retreat, look no further than J Plus Boutique Hotel, Philippe Starck’s first foray into Asia, where the food is as exquisitely designed as the furnishings. All rooms are light and airy, styled with the designer’s trademark white and a play of pastels on the fixtures and fittings.
In the unlikely event you get bored of the designer digs and glamour, be sure to grab a ride on the lower deck of the 100-year-old Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong. It costs just a few cents, the view is fantastic, and it gives you a real feel for the spirit of the city.
The Forbidden City, at Beijing’s heart, marks the historic nerve centre of imperial China, but the glossy skyscrapers, thriving street markets and buzzing bar and restaurant scene that surround it offer a very different perspective. Beijing, no longer content to remain Shanghai’s dowdier, bookish sister, is now a city that balances the best of both worlds: traditional courtyard houses (siheyuan) occupy the heart of the old city, but among and around them, the striking modern architecture forms a gleaming cosmopolitan cityscape of steel and glass.
Speaking of striking, the Opposite House is the shining boutique hotel centrepiece of the Sanlitun Village development. The exterior, a shimmering green sheet of panelled glass, is designed to resemble the traditional wooden latticework of Chinese craft. Inside, a lobby lined with modern sculpture leads the way to the bedrooms – light and modernist apartment-style studios, with deep oak bath tubs and rustic black stone walls – and the hotel’s quintet of restaurants and bars. There’s no need to go looking for the thick of the action: you’re staying in it.
Once upon a time Singapore was dubbed the most boring city in Asia, but scratch the squeaky-clean surface and you’ll find a wonderful blend of Malay, Chinese, Eurasian and Indian culture, neatly displayed against a landscape of glossy skyscrapers, lush parkland and tropical shoreline. I love that you can spend your mornings eyeballing designer clothes in huge, super-chilled (temperature, not ambience) shopping malls, stop for lunch in a curry house, then enjoy an afternoon exploring temples and poking around Chinatown, all within minutes of each other.
The Fullerton Bay Hotel is a favourite of mine, thanks to smart rooms designed with luxurious restraint by Andre Fu, its elegant French brasserie, and Lantern, the seventh-floor bar beside the rooftop pool. Try a Red Lantern cocktail, a lip-smacking blend of tequila, watermelon, cucumber, Cointreau and lime.
Compared to the Thai capital, no other city on earth offers such a staggering array of affordable pleasures (and I don’t mean in the red-light district). The ‘Venice of the East’ is crisscrossed with canals, thronging with traffic and brimming with temples, palaces, markets and malls. It’s a warm whirlwind of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. When I’m in town, I like to sample street food at Chatuchak Weekend Market, where Thais and foreigners alike flock to empty their purses and fill their bellies.
Bangkok can be overwhelming, though – and that’s just the heat. When it all gets too much, duck into the serene environs of the Sukhothai Hotel off South Sathorn Road in the embassy quarter. It’s like entering a 21st-century version of an ancient temple, with the reception an altar of black marble at the end of the central aisle. An air of spiritual calms drifts out into the courtyard, where the lush ornamental gardens and lotus ponds are dotted with stupas, sculpted stone domes that glimmer with candlelight as evening draws in.
And finally, Jakarta: the definitive south-east Asian megalopolis. It is sprawling, populous and busy to the point of frenzy, and it can take a day or two to see beyond the urban chaos on the surface to the historic grandeur and modern dynamism beneath. For bird’s-eye views of the cityscape, head up to the observation platform of Monas, the marble National Monument, which stands an impressive 137 metres above the ground.
It’s not a city where you’d necessarily expect to find a boutique hotel, but Kemang Icon by Alila is a bubble of sanity within the everyday craziness of Jakarta. The hotel pulls off the troublesome juggling act of ‘home from home’ and ‘ultra-modern designer pad’ with aplomb. The 12 gadget-packed suites are all individually designed by gifted modernist architect Sardjono Sani, and there’s a boutique shopping mall and a rooftop restaurant on site, too, all fashioned in onyx, granite and metal and encased in shimmering panels of glass.
Gleaming skyscrapers, beautiful temples, bustling markets: each of these five Asian destinations has earned its stripes as a great 21st-century city, without losing their old-world charm and unique character. A trip to any of them can feel like ten holidays in one.
For more information about travelling to any of the hand-picked hotels in Mr & Mrs Smith’s collection, visit Mr and Mrs Smith or call the expert travel team on 0845 034 0700
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