For all the burgeoning tower blocks in Shanghai, its French Concession, the old trading quarter run by colonial France, remains a charming low-rise neighbourhood of tree-lined avenues. Here a few small, intimate hotels have opened over the past 18 months.
The most stunning is the Mansion Hotel, a gracious and spacious 1930s villa which has been fabulously renovated. This was once the clubhouse of Du Yue Sheng, aka “Big Ears Du”, one of the city’s wealthiest and most notorious gangsters, and the property has been beautifully refurbished to reflect a suitable sense of history – and luxury.
Period fittings include rosewood cabinets, chic Art Nouveau lights and Shanghai-style 1930s winged armchairs. Corridors are lined with sepia-tinted pictures of the city and glass cases containing intriguing exhibits of old documents and scrolls.
But it’s not all nostalgia here. The fifth-floor restaurant presents a modern European menu and has a lively bar area and terrace with spectacular views of Shanghai’s skyline. The first-floor dining room offers a contemporary take on traditional Cantonese dishes.
Track it down
The Mansion Hotel is about a 20-minute taxi ride from The Bund, Shanghai’s iconic embankment, and a 15-minute drive from The People’s Square in the heart of the city. It is opposite a splendid onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church, now a library, and is close to little boutiques and cafes along Xinle and Shaanxi Roads. Shanghai Pudong International Airport is about 40 km to the east (an hour or so by taxi and train); Shanghai Hongquia Airport is about 20 km to the west - a taxi ride of about half an hour.
Dapper bellboys usher you through the main sitting area and past a collection of wind-up gramophones and antique cameras and typewriters, to reach the reception desk. Meanwhile, the 1930s atmosphere is enhanced by period Chinese opera music playing gently in the background. Check in is swift and professionally friendly. Chinese from other cities may tell you that Shanghai has a reputation for surly service and attitude, but here staff are efficient and helpful – and speak good English.
Room to manoeuvre
The 30 bedrooms are generously sized and feature large, very comfortable beds with silk cushions and elaborate fretwork headboards. Big flatscreen TVs, printers, faxes and scanners are standard fittings in each room. Decked in pleasing creams and browns, my room had a fireplace, armchairs, ottoman and a big desk. The bathroom was huge and equipped with a double Jacuzzi tub, separate shower with a dinner-plate-sized rainhead fitting, and an “Intelligence” toilet with heated seat and other (frankly baffling) attributes. Amenities included a charming old Chinese beauty box filled with moisturisers and soaps; Sicilian Tarocco shampoos and gels in the shower; and silk embroidered slippers placed by the bed.
Each room is equipped with free Wifi and also offers free broadband access.
There are no on-site fitness facilities. For morning exercise, stroll across the road to the green retreat of Xiangyang Park, where you can jog or discreetly tag along to tai-chi groups that meet daily.
Raid the minibar
Glass-and-wood cabinets display gin and whisky miniatures. Beneath is a fridge filled with Tsingtao beer, Perrier and Coca Cola in special Olympics packaging. A kettle, teacups and (free) green tea are also provided.
The English-language China Daily is delivered to foreign guests - and is well worth looking through if only to appreciate just how tightly controlled the country’s media is.
Double rooms cost from US$284 (£145) excluding breakfast.
The Mansion Hotel, 82 Xinle Road, Suhui District, Shanghai (00 86 21 540 39888; www.chinamansionhotel.com)