Modern comfort, historical charm and towering karst hills
Alila’s latest property at Yangshuo, fashioned out of a 1960s sugar mill, blends so seamlessly with the surrounding scenery that I only realised we had arrived when the car pulled up along a driveway and in front of the main building.
A red circular sunken sofa in the middle of the lobby and an eclectic array of armchairs at different corners provided a dramatic contrast to the ancient stonewalls. It was the perfect past-present embodiment of the Chinese saying “Remember Your Country, Keep your Eyes on the World" that was emblazoned across the building’s exterior.
The cluster of buildings retain vestiges of their past life. The pressing room is now the swanky 1969 Bar with industrial chic furnishings and a glass floor ensconcing the room’s original stonework like an art installation. Outside, a dramatic swimming experience awaits in a pool framed by a towering truss once used for loading sugar cane onto boats.
The main building housing the guestrooms is a majestic structure of modern stone and bamboo from the area merging with old masonry to create a karst cave-like architectural statement while perpetuating the sense of straddling time. The minimalist room interiors are enhanced by rustic touches such as criss-crossing ropes on the ceiling of my Garden Townhouse and modern creature comforts like a capacious bathtub big enough for two.
More design wonders remain to be discovered, this time underground in Spa Alila. A stone spiral stairway leads to the spa, which is carved out of an old rotunda that once housed sugar stock. At the end of a dark corridor lit by flickering tea lights, a world of sweet treatments awaits. Signature treatments feature the local black sugar and calming bespoke blends of local herbs – sweet almond and olive oils infused with mandarin, chamomile and geranium.
The Sugar House Therapy is highly recommended after a day of active adventure. After a deep tissue massage with the oils, sticks of warm local bamboo are rolled across my back in an echo of the area’s traditional massages. I felt every muscle in my back relaxed and soothed by the skillful strokes, and a delightful calm descended until I was lulled to slumber. Feeling particularly indulgent? Take up the head-to-feet Sugar and Spice treatment, which includes a full body exfoliation with a concoction of raw sugar, cinnamon, lemongrass and lavender on a marble hot bed followed by a bath in local osmanthus extracts.
Yangshuo is well-known for its towering karst hills and with two of them right at the hotel’s doorstep, I could not pass up on a chance to clamber up, even while fighting off a cold. Clad in snug climbing shoes and accompanied by my instructor, Xiao He, the adrenaline rush gave way to anxiety only halfway through the 15m beginners’ route. “Keep going, you’re almost there!" said Xiao He chirpily, using a laser beam to designate the next hold I should aim for. It was exhilarating when I finally touched the top chain and abseiled down the rock face, with scratches on my bare hands as proud battle scars.
A less strenuous activity might be to spot the hotel’s resident unofficial mascots – a pair of mandarin ducks often seen taking serene paddles across the courtyard pond and strolls on the cobblestone walkways, and a rabbit duo so elusive that staff declare it fortuitous to spot them, lending an extra air of romance and mystery to this magnificent hideaway.