New wealth, newly unleashed creativity, new China. The ever-growing mega-rich strata of Chinese society has an increasing hunger for travel, leading to a swathe of luxurious hotel openings and upmarket experiences across this vast, diverse country. And UK tour operators are raring to share them with British travellers.
It's perfectly possible to piece together a trip by yourself, but travelling with a high-end tour operator will probably enhance your time in China immeasurably. In a country where fluent English is not widely spoken outside the major cities, a decent travel company will have great guides and excellent connections, a finger on the pulse of the expanding luxury scene, and a handle on all the red tape.
Some, such as Abercrombie & Kent (01242 854 966; abercrombiekent.co.uk), have offices in the country; while others, including Wendy Wu (0844 998 3973; wendywutours.co.uk) will guide you from the moment you book, making all the arrangements for your visa.
Among the new hotel openings is Sunrise Kempinski (00 86 10 6961 8888; kempinski .com), a spectacular glass-and-steel sphere on the banks of Yanqi Lake, about an hour from Beijing, which after a soft launch in November was completed this month.
China in style
China in style
1/6 China in style
The boutique Songtsam Lodges in Yunnan
2/6 China in style
Mandarin Oriental Pudong
3/6 China in style
Touch the sky: Shanghai
4/6 China in style
Cruise vessels purr along the stretch of the Yangtze between the city of Chongqing and the Three Gorges Dam
5/6 China in style
Terracotta Army at Xi'an
6/6 China in style
High life: some luxury tours include bubbly on the Great Wall
Spa resort group Banyan Tree (banyantree.com) now offers three rural retreats: at Ringha in Yunnan's Shangri-la valley; in the Jinyun Mountain Reserve near Chongqing; and in the Xixi wetlands near Hangzhou city.
Aman Resorts (amanresorts.com), meanwhile, opened Amanfayun, a recreation of a traditional Chinese village in a valley near Hangzhou, in 2010, and has just completed Amandayan on a hilltop above Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan.
Elsewhere, at Dawang Mountain Resort, near Changsa city in Hunan Province, construction has started on the futuristic Deep Pit Ice and Snow World – a 270-suite hotel and resort being built in a disused cement-mining quarry. The resort, with an indoor ski slope and swimming pool, is scheduled to be finished in 2016 – that's how quickly things are taking shape.
Infrastructure has improved in recent years, with the Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway opening in 2011. It takes you the 820 miles between the two cities in five hours, and a VIP ticket will get you a reclining seat in the "sightseeing compartment" plus an onboard meal and station lounge access.
Private aviation is also on the up, with companies such as Air Charter (00 852 2167 8853; aircharter.com.hk) offering private jet travel across China. And in January, Shangri-la's China World Summit Wing (00 86 10 6505 2299; shangri-la.com), a five-star hotel towering over Beijing in the1,083-foot-high China World Trade Centre, launched a helicopter service which offers guests transport to Beijing airport, the Great Wall and other sites – leaving the traffic jams below.
With a wealth of sybaritic facilities now readily available, the ultimate luxury is enjoying extra-special exclusivity: access to private art collections, fashion shows and more.
Luxury Concierge China (00 86 1350 166 290; luxuryconciergechina.com) is a classy outfit run by two American expats. Among their appropriately named "Exceptional Experiences" is a day course in Beijing learning how to make Peking duck, and an introduction to new China during which guests are taken to the hottest lounges, spas, clubs and more in Shanghai or Beijing. Rates for a day with guide and transport start at US$1,800 (£1,200) per couple or small group.
A&K can provide a host of special additions to a trip, such as tickets for the 2015 British Polo Day in September. For this event, it suggests a four-day stop in Beijing, taking in the classic sights, meeting the polo players, and enjoying a day watching the sport at the Tang Polo Club – with a champagne reception to start. The price of £1,350 per person (based on two sharing) includes accommodation at the InterContinental hotel and all guidance and tickets.
This break could be included as part of A&K's 14-day Classic China trip, which costs from £3,755 – the price covers flights (with British Airways, Cathay Pacific or Virgin Atlantic) from Heathrow to Beijing and back from Shanghai, and all accommodation, guide and transfers.
Cruise vessels purr along the stretch of the Yangtze between the city of Chongqing and the Three Gorges Dam – a contentious feat of engineering, completed in 2012, which tamed a turbulent stretch of the Yangtze but also forced countless towns and villages to relocate higher up the banks.
With many seminal sites of China's history dotted along the way, the journey offers an extraordinary insight into past glories as well as 21st-century innovation. Some of the most comfortable trips are on Victoria Anna (00 86 23 6163 7688; victoriacruises .com), which takes up to 266 passengers and has facilities from a spa to mah-jong rooms. However, for the ultimate Yangtze cruise, book a berth on Sanctuary Yangtze Explorer (01242 546 609; sanctuaryretreats.com), which offers capacity for just 124 passengers, one-to-one service and beautifully devised furnishings.
Cox and Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) has a 14-night Grand Tour of China that features a three-night Yangtze cruise on either vessel, plus stops at Xi'an, Chengdu and Guilin. Included in the package: B&B at five-star hotels and full board on the cruise plus flights from Heathrow to Beijing, returning from Shanghai. With a cruise on Victoria Anna it costs from £3,795pp; a tailor-made version of the tour, with a cruise on the Sanctuary Yangtze Explorer costs from £4,295pp.
Beyond Beijing's Forbidden City and Summer Palace, China's big hitters include the Great Wall (also accessed from the capital), the Terracotta Army at Xi'an and the giant pandas of Chengdu.
Wendy Wu (0844 998 3973; wendywutours.co.uk) has a Best of China tour that offers several added insights and luxury tweaks such as a calligraphy class in Beijing, champagne on the Great Wall, a dumpling-making class in Xi'an, and an expert-led trip to the Chengdu panda research centre. The 10-day trip costs from £3,690pp which covers flights from Heathrow to Beijing and back from Chengdu, all accommodation, transfers, guidance and visas.
Ampersand Travel (020 7819 9770; ampersandtravel.com) has a two-week Dynastic Discovery tour, starting in Beijing and visiting the walled city of Pingyao, Xi'an, and the ancient capital of Hangzhou, before a final stop in Shanghai. The cost, from £4,945pp, covers flights, accommodation, bullet train travel, guidance and transfers. Suggested extras range from a helicopter ride over Beijing, to a vintage side-car trip through Shanghai.
Life's a beach
With its golden beaches, palm trees and surf scene, Hainan island, a land mass a little larger than Sicily just off the south east coast, is increasingly regarded as the Hawaii of China. It has frequent domestic air connections from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and other major cities.
Sanya, at the southernmost point, has become a haven of upscale resorts complete with ever-more sophisticated fine dining and glamorous spas.
Anantara Sanya (00 86 898 8888 5088; sanya.antanara.com) opened in 2012 with a seaside golf club, flow pool and state-of-the-art spa. Doubles from £148, B&B.
Shangri-la's Sanya Resort (00 86 898 8875 8888; shangri-la.com) launched in October, offering a great range of activities from yoga and tai chi plus two free-form pools. A large spa is due to open later this year. Doubles cost from £146, B&B.
Sanya Park Hyatt (00 86 898 8820; sanya.park.hyatt.com) was launched this month, a stylish retreat with 207 generously sized bedrooms and five pools. A spa is due to be unveiled here this year, too. Doubles cost from £240, B&B.
Experience a sensory overload in China's two most buzzing cities. In the capital, one of the most anticipated openings is the Nuo Hotel Beijing (00 86 10 6432 6826; nuohotels.com), due to launch this summer. It takes its design inspiration from the prosperous Ming dynasty, and has its own high-end travel service and a dedicated "art consultant".
Recent launches include the hip W Beijing (00 86 10 6515 8855; starwoodhotels.com/whotels), which opened in November, with doubles from £238 including breakfast.
If you're after an exclusive experience, Aman at Summer Palace (00 800 2255 2626; amanresorts.com) has a back door into the gardens of the eponymous palace, with doubles from £360, B&B.
In Shanghai, check into the elegant Peninsula (00 86 21 2327 2888; shanghai.peninsula.com) which offers doubles from £280, B&B, or the Mandarin Oriental Pudong (00 86 21 2082 9888; mandarinoriental.com), completed in 2013 and with doubles from £208, B&B. More openings scheduled this year range from Bulgari Shanghai (bulgarihotels.com) and J-Hotel (jinjianghotels.com), in a 125-storey skyscraper.
Audley Travel (01993 838 000; audleytravel.com) offers a stylish six-night Beijing-Shanghai trip from £4,250pp, including flights from Heathrow, accommodation at the Aman at Summer Palace in Beijing and the Peninsula in Shanghai, bullet train travel, guidance and an evening cruise on Shanghai's Huangpu River.
Off the beaten track
Beautiful, mountainous northern Yunnan has become a remote luxury retreat thanks to small and chic accommodation developments. Among those are the boutique Songtsam Lodges, founded by a local film-maker.
Steppes Travel (0843 778 9926; steppestravel.co.uk) has a 13-day Shangri-La and Beyond trip that moves between these glorious lodges and visits monasteries as well as giving scope for hiking. It costs from £3,495pp including flights from Heathrow to Beijing, five days in the capital, onward travel and B&B in Yunnan.
The three leading airlines flying between the UK and mainland China all serve their hubs from Heathrow: Air China (020 3275 0200; airchina.co.uk) to Beijing, China Eastern (020 7935 2676; flychinaeastern.com) to Shanghai and China Southern (020 3668 0866; csair.com) to Guangzhou.
Hong Kong is the country's main gateway, served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0344 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.co .uk) and Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888; cathaypacific.com) – which also flies non-stop from Manchester. Cathay's domestic subsidiary, Dragonair, offers connections across China.
British nationals must acquire a visa before entering mainland China. Tourist visas cost £66 and are available from the China Visa Application Service Centre in London, Manchester or Edinburgh. They are also available by post, with forms and addresses downloadable from visaforchina.org. Some travel agents include visa costs and arrangements in the price of their trips – check before booking.