One of the challenges of scouting out interesting destinations for today's generation of luxury travelers -- those for whom cutting edge locations, in-depth experiences and eco-friendly properties trump straightforward pampering -- is getting the balance just right. The scenery may be breathtaking, but if even the best local hotels are third-rate, will even the most adventurous of your well-heeled clients be satisfied?
In China, that challenge is becoming easier to manage with a boom in high-end hotels and luxury tour operator packages in locations that range from A-list to obscure.
For example, China is one of 20 countries featured in Big Five Tours & Expeditions' Precious Journeys, Edition 1 collection this year.
"Precious Journeys was conceived for the next generation of luxury travelers; my generation, if you will. I have been fortunate to have traveled much of the world growing up, and I want to open that world to younger travelers," said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five.
"We have also looked for journeys containing an element of sustainability, as that is important to us and to our guests."
In addition to exploring the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian and the Forbidden City, the tour mixes in cooking classes and visits to archaeological sites as well as explorations into rural China.
Most of the hotels on the program are standard luxury brands, like the Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai and the Peninsula Beijing, and guests benefit from the company's White Glove Service, its own concierge brand.
Abercrombie & Kent offers a menu of China tours, including a two-week Marco Polo invitational program that traces the Yangtze and features a meditation session with a Tibetan monk in Meili and a performance of traditional music in Shangri-La. Accommodations are in several luxury boutique Songtsam properties, including the 10-room Songtsam Benzilan Lodge between Shangri-la and Meili and the Crowne Plaza Lijiang Ancient Town, where club cars are on hand to drive guests from the lobby to their villas.
Small Luxury Hotels of the World's China portfolio includes lesser-known boutique properties in locations that range from Beijing and Shanghai to the more far flung Tongxiang City and Nantong.
The Tengchong Hot Spring Spa Villas Resort, for example, is situated next to a National Geological Park, surrounded by volcanoes and hot springs. Accommodations are in 38 three- and four-bedroom villas with personal butlers, and the spa offers generations-old treatments using natural aromatics.
In Beijing, the 55-room Emperor offers a more contemporary vibe, with a rooftop bar and a spa, as well as a location next to the Forbidden City and near Tiananmen Square.
The Preferred Hotel Group touts one of its members, the 99-room Opposite House in Beijing, which mixes trendy, minimalist design elements with a display of sculpture and contemporary art installations by local artists. The hotel also offers a spa, three restaurants and a location near 798 Art Zone, Beijing's version of New York's SoHo, with modern and contemporary art galleries in former factories.
Clients looking for a glitzier luxury experience can work on their tans in Sanya, a resort city on China's Hainan Island on the South China Sea. In the last few years, infrastructure improvements include the construction of marinas for yachts and a cruise terminal as well as an influx of high-end hotels.
International brand hotels that have opened since 2008 include the 450-room Ritz-Carlton, Sanya, complete with an Espa-branded spa and eight restaurants; the Banyon Tree Sanya, which features 49 pool villas and a spa; and the 397-room Mandarin Oriental, Sanya, which wows with tropical gardens, on-beach dining, tennis and a spa and wellness center.
Big brands are also reaching into other parts of the country, including the W Guangzhou, the first W in mainland China, set to open early this year, and the first Ritz-Carlton in the northeast China city of Tianjin, set to open in mid-2013.