Conventional wisdom has it that the more you travel, the more comfortable you become with people from other countries and cultures. Finding common interests, exploring local food, sharing a smile over a cute baby can all combine to make a traveler feel at home, even when very far away.
I would argue that seeing exotic animals can have the same effect, especially when those animals are the inexplicably adorable giant pandas of Chengdu, China.
I recently had the chance to spend a morning gawking at and taking a ridiculous number of photos of the massive creatures at the invitation of the Temple House, a five-star property in Chengdu, and Hainan Airlines, which recently launched nonstop flights between New York JFK and Chengdu and neighboring Chongqing.
Long before we set out to see the pandas, a sense of ease had already set in on arrival, despite the fact that we'd flown about 15 hours to reach Chengdu. Thanks to lie-flat seats on the carrier's Dreamliner, we'd all had at least some sleep on the overnight flight, and the drive to the hotel took just over a half-hour.
We arrived just in time for an early breakfast at The Temple House, a 100-room Swire Hotels property that blends the authenticity of a Qing dynasty temple with a distinctly contemporary vibe.
The breakfast menu at the Temple Cafe includes Sichuan and Western fare, and most of us took advantage of both before heading to the Temple Top for an open-air yoga class strikingly similar to classes I take at home.
Other amenities at the hotel include the Mi Xun Spa, where I enjoyed one of the most rigorous massages I've ever had from a deceptively tiny spa therapist and where a sauna, salon and relaxation teahouse also are available. The beautiful underground swimming pool is unusual for its iridescent blue color, which reflects a series of concentric circles that mimic the circular tea gardens that characterize the hotel landscaping and which are traditional in the Sichuan region.
Tivano, the Italian restaurant at the Temple House.
There are three restaurants at the property: the Temple Cafe, with its French bistro concept; the Mi Xun Teahouse, which serves vegetarian Chinese cuisine; and Tivano, an Italian restaurant.
Although the property takes dining seriously, it also injects fun into the process by offering picnic lunches on the lawn on Saturdays. An outdoor grill provides a variety of meat and chicken dishes, served alongside containers of finger foods; baskets of wines, smoothies and other beverages; and platters of desserts.
Art plays a big role in the hotel's decor, especially the silver sculptures of leaves and feathers that line the entryway, and in the Art Space, which offers exhibitions that rotate every two months. The bamboo reception desk in the lobby and metallic wall features are a nod to the role bamboo has played in the history of the Sichuan province. There is a library with books in English and workspaces where guests can relax for a spot of reading or quiet conversation, along with the indoor-outdoor Jing bar, whose bartender specializes in inventive Negroni cocktails.
Guestrooms feature the amenities you would expect from a five-star property, including Bose Bluetooth speakers, 46-inch interactive TVs with streaming for Android and iOS devices, Bowers & Wilkins sound bars in select room types, WiFi, massive bathrooms with soaking tubs and walk-in showers with rainfall showerheads, espresso machines and Maxi Bars with refreshments.
Suites range from about $395 per night for the Temple Suite, where we stayed, to about $9,440 for the penthouse suite.
A giant panda placidly feasts on bamboo at the Chengdu Panda Base. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Of course, a big appeal of the hotel is the charm of the city itself, and the location of the hotel makes it easy for first-timers to get around. Directly adjacent to the hotel is the Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li Chengdu area, full of familiar high-end shops like Armani and Hermes; local boutiques like Gentle Monster, Valextra and Thom Brown; and historical buildings, like the ancient Daci Temple, incongruously located amid the stores and restaurants.
Designer Jimmy Choo, who has done a dessert collaboration with the Temple House this year, is a presence in the area, and his shoes are among those on display at a pop-up Victoria and Albert museum exhibition showcasing all manner of outlandish footwear throughout the centuries.
For most of us, though, the top attraction was the Chengdu Panda Base about a half-hour away, where we spent much of our second day. I was expecting to see a few pandas in an enclosure, but in fact the base is a nearly 250-acre botanical garden housing more than 100 pandas from babies to full-grown adults — so many, in fact, that it takes hours to cover the grounds.
Though spring is high season in the Sichuan region, there seemed to be very few tourists among the throngs of fellow onlookers at the panda base, and while there was virtually no English being spoken around me, the dazed smiles on everyone's faces left no question that we were all sharing a moment.
Interestingly, the admission price is less than $10, and the proceeds are dedicated to protecting and breeding the animals. One tip is to plan your visit for the morning, since pandas don't do a lot besides eat and sleep, and by noon they are mostly passed out from the massive quantities of bamboo they've been eating.
We also spent a morning wandering through Wide & Narrow Alley, a section of Chengdu where locals whose businesses were displaced during the construction of modern buildings now sell their wares. Comprising two parallel streets, Wide & Narrow Alley is a riot of colors, sounds and scents that, while popular with tourists, still retains the unmistakable essence of the city's culture.
A lesson from Sichuan Gourmet Trails on preparing the spicy Chengdu specialty mapo tofu in the city’s Wide & Narrow Alley. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Spice up your life
Here we met up with the Chengdu Cultural Department for a hands-on cooking lesson with a company called Sichuan Gourmet Trails. A chef offered us instruction on making mapo tofu, a dish redolent of the spices for which the region is famous. We stayed for a lengthy, multicourse lunch at Ting Xiang restaurant, where a seemingly endless parade of dishes made their way to us via a giant Lazy Susan.
Speaking of food, the culinary scene in the Sichuan region is famous, especially for its hot pot restaurants, but a note to the uninitiated: When the menu says "spicy," they mean spicy, so be forewarned. The hot pot dinners we attended also offered non-spicy options, served with beer, milk or, at one restaurant, sippable yogurt.
One of my favorite meals was at Ma Wang Zi, within easy walking distance of the hotel. This is a BYOB, bistro-style restaurant with traditional Sichuan cuisine served in small enough quantities that you can try multiple options from the menu to find dishes you like.
We also dined at Xiao Long Fan Da Jiang Hotpot, again within easy walking distance of the hotel. A giant dragon at the doorway attracts tourists and diners for selfies, and various traditional, costumed acts entertained us during our meal.
You won't find English-language websites for these off-property restaurants, but the concierge at the Temple House will help orchestrate your dining experiences at these and other eateries in town.
The dinners, along with the authentic activities we participated in at the hotel — including a tai chi class and a calligraphy lesson using ancient techniques traditionally only passed down through generations of women — offset the preponderance of high-end but somewhat generic international shopping venues near the hotel.
A lot of the activities, from the yoga and tai chi to the lawn picnics and themed evenings at the Jing bar, are the brainchild of general manager Kurt Macher, who credits travel agents — particularly Virtuoso and American Express agents — and high-end tour operators for a significant percentage of bookings.
"Most of our guests are from China, and the rest are from other Asian countries, Europe, Australia and America," Macher said, noting a "healthy increase in American guests from 2017 to 2018."
Couples are the primary market, but the property has seen a spike in family guests in the past year, thanks in part to a recent slew of international awards.
The Temple House is the fifth hotel of Swire Hotels in Asia and the third property of the House Collective.