Built in 1917, during China’s republican experiment, this hotel was situated within the territory of the French Legation and known as Le Grand Hotel de Peking. The original Art Deco design was not carried out in its entirety, leaving the building and facade lopsided, but Le Grand immediately established itself as the city’s premiere hotel by dint of its luxury and proximity to the Forbidden City. That ubiquitous tourist George Bernard Shaw was a guest in the 1930s, as was Field Marshall Montgomery, a great supporter of Mao Zedong, in the 1940s. When Mao took power in 1949 he celebrated in style at Le Grand.
Under Communism the hotel was handed over to the ministry of tourism, which still owns it. The ministry built a number of new larger hotel buildings on either side of Le Grand and the whole interlinked complex, taking up the length of an entire city block, became known as The Grand Hotel Beijing. In 2005 the old central block was closed for refurbishment as a historic and luxury destination hotel. Beijing Tourism Group looked for a partner that could bring the right level of kudos and expertise to such a project and finally got into bed with Raffles, the upmarket chain that grew out of the phenomenal success of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel.
After massive renovation, the Beijing Raffles opened in 2006 and the building once again quickly established itself as the hotel of choice for celebrities and politicians. The quality of service is very good indeed, though it still has some distance to go before catching up with its alma mater in Singapore. The staff are friendly and efficient but their level of English is variable. Nevertheless, if you can afford it, this is the place to stay in Beijing.
Track It Down
Raffles is situated on East Chang an Avenue, which leads to Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City. This is the most prestigious and central location in Beijing.
A taxi from the airport will cost 100 CNY (£.7.25). Journey time 30 minutes if traffic is good.
It can take an hour in bad traffic and even longer if the airport expressway has been closed off for the arrival or departure of some visiting dignitary. (Beijing takes VIPs extremely seriously.) You will quickly get used to being stopped going down roads or into sights because a government guest or senior party member is passing through.
Raffles will send a car and a bellhop to meet you at the airport. This service costs 400 CNY (£29) if you are met in an Audi and 800 CNY (£58) if you request a BMW. It’s well worth ordering the transfer, particularly if you’re arriving after an overnight flight, as the bellhops in their red coats and pillbox hats really look after you well.
All the guest relations staff speak English and Mandarin Chinese. Check-in is in the beautiful marble lobby. VIPs are escorted immediately to their rooms for in-room check-in. The hotel decides who qualifies for this service.
Room to manoeuvre
There are 171 rooms and suites in total, with VIPs tending to stay in the presidential, “personality” or “grand hotel” suites. It is not uncommon to be asked to use another lift because someone with a fear of assassination is about to come down.
Original artwork lines the walls. In the opinion of Singaporean designer Grace Soh: “A hotel’s major product is its rooms.” Grace has worked hard here to create a look that is grand but comfortable.
Towelling robes are disappointingly skimpy by western standards, but the delicious-smelling bathroom products are by Amrita Spa. The bathroom sinks drain in a leisurely fashion, but you get used to that.
Guest rooms are graced with a large wall-mounted televisions (42in and 37in) which have access to 48 channels, including CNN, BBC and CCTV, the local English Channel. DVD players available on request but they only play Region 6.
Each room is equipped with a two-line Teledex Hotel Phone featuring voicemail and speaker. In-room WiFi is provided free of charge as are ASDL cables. The internet connection is variable, but the hotel has recently changed the server in an attempt to improve this.
There is a hotel business centre offering laptops and computers, high-speed broadband connection, print and fax machines, and word-processing services.
The Amrita fitness centre and pool is located on the second floor of the new extension immediately behind Raffles. It is open under supervision 6am-11pm but the manager says it can be opened at other times for those with chronic jet lag.
There is also an indoor tennis court, a squash court and rooms for bowling and table tennis, as well as a comprehensive weights area and running machines with individual televisions.
Raid the minibar
Best advice is don’t. A small can of Tsingtao beer costs 60 CNY (£4.35) and a 375ml bottle of Penfolds white or red 250 CNY (£18). Worse, the red is kept in the fridge!
Much better to go down to the Writer’s Bar on the ground floor where a beer is only 55 CNY (£3.90) and you can listen to live music as you check out the photos of previous Raffles guests, including Mao Zedong, Zhou en Lai and Ho Chi Minh. There are also a few cocktails worth trying. The legendary gin-based Singapore Sling (invented at Raffles Singapore) costs 80 CNY (£5.80) as does the local vodka-based Peking Sling. The bar is open daily 12noon till 12midnight.
Sadly the only newspaper you’ll be offered over breakfast is the English-language China Daily (aka Pravda) which devotes page after page to its campaign against the Dalai Lama. It would be nice to think that once the international situation has calmed the hotel will allow in the International Herald Tribune.
Breakfast itself is a buffet held in the East 33 restaurant (6.30am-10.30am). The food (both international and Chinese) is uniformly excellent. The sushi rolls are highly recommended. The coffee disappoints - best stick to the tea which does not. Service is extremely attentive; your napkin will be refolded while you are up at the buffet.
Breakfast is included in the tariff. Breakfast in your room is charged at 118 CNY (£8.50).
East 33 is also open for lunch and dinner. The seafood supper on Friday and Saturday nights at 299 CNY (£22) is excellent value as “unlimited wine” is included. When you consider that a glass of Chablis in the hotel’s Sino-Franco restaurant, Jaan, will set you back 150 yuan (£11) this is a bargain. Moreover, if you look carefully there’s a promotional voucher in your room offering you 99 CNY (£7.15) off the price if presented on arrival.
Jaan is opposite the Writer’s Bar, the two separated by the hotel’s original dance floor from 1925 where the great Zhou en Lai is said to have tangoed. It’s waiter service and expensive a la carte, however, the two-course set menu is very good value at 199 CNY (£14.40). A basic bottle of Burgundy to go with the meal will set you back 500 CNY (£36).
Rooms start at 4,100 CNY (£297) per night, but you’ll also have to pay a 15 per cent “room charge” bringing the total to 4,715 (£341). Suites go up to 90,000 CNY (£7,495 with room charge) per night.
Raffles Bejing Hotel, 33 East Chang an Avenue, Beijing 100004, People’s Republic of China (00 86 10 65 26 33 88; beijing.raffles.com).