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by Helena Iveson

Well-priced boutique hotels are all the rage in Beijing and Shanghai, writes Helena Iveson

JUST a couple of years ago, travellers to China had two options: high end, high-rise chains or grimy youth hostels with squat toilets and snarling service. But as China booms, so does its hotel industry, and there has been something of a revolution in Beijing and Shanghai, driven in the former's case by the Olympics in August and, in the latter's, the 2010 Expo.  


Hotel Kapok: This was Beijing's first real boutique property when it opened in 2006; it's five minutes walk from the towering east gate of the Forbidden City and its eye-catching, glowing, grid-like exterior, supposed to resemble jade, makes it impossible to miss. The hotel was created by one of China's best-known architects, Zhu Pei, who has designed one of the most prominent buildings in the Olympic Park.  

With the reworking of the traditional Chinese symbol for jade, plus the bamboo-filled courtyard in the centre of a small atrium, you couldn't be anywhere else but China, albeit a chic, minimalist version. Book a courtyard room opening on to a small garden and with a huge round bath. From 800 yuan ($124);  .  

Guxiang 20: Away from the tourist sights and set on one of Beijing's most gentrified traditional alleys, or hutongs, Guxiang 20 is a chic new boutique hotel with more style than you would expect from its low tariff.  

The reception areas are welcoming and filled with bamboo and antiques, but in its 28 guestrooms designers have gone for a more modern aesthetic: expect a charcoal and beige colour scheme,

flat-screen television, wireless internet and fab views over traditional Chinese rooftops. From 750 yuan;  .  

Hotel de Cour SL: Even more secluded, this hotel is down a winding alley that hasn't fallen victim to the Olympics building boom and where the only noise comes from bicycle bells. With its stylish and secluded courtyard, lit with glowing red lanterns at night, the hotel may have an odd name but there's plenty of charm in the converted courtyard style. Hotel de Cour SL has 14 individually decorated rooms, all of which face the garden and fuse luxurious amenities with stylish antique surrounds (the mosaic bathrooms with huge shower heads are lovely). A peaceful night's sleep is helped by double glazing, goosedown duvets and luxurious bed linen. From 1265 yuan;  .  


This go-ahead city has more than its fair share of five-star lodgings but, to experience a taste of old Shanghai, avoid the futuristic skyscraper hotels of Pudong and stay in the city's most attractive district, the tree-lined former French concession, or in Jing'an, which is not (yet) as gentrified as other parts of the city. In Shanghai, you won't find hutongs but lilong, or converted alley houses, which date back to the city's glamorous golden age of the jazz-filled 1920s and '30s.  

Old House Inn: A delightful converted lane house, this inn has brought a breath of fresh air to the local accommodation scene, thanks to its small selection of beautifully renovated and stylish rooms at reasonable rates. The creaking wooden staircase leads to charming guestrooms decorated with antiques rescued from demolished Shanghai houses. The most expensive room, with an antique

four-poster bed and new grey-tiled bathroom, is worth splashing out for: it's all '30s elegance with seductive lights and blood-red walls. The hotel's restaurant, A Future Perfect, is one of Shanghai's funkiest. From 700 yuan;  .  


Urbn Hotel: Shanghai always has an eye for the latest trends and the new 26-room Urbn Hotel ticks the environmentally friendly box as well with its carbon-neutral status and recycled materials (the building was once a factory). Guests walk through a bamboo-lined courtyard and past a reception area decorated with antique suitcases; corridors on the four floors are lined with bricks taken from demolished factories, and the wood used on the floors and in the rooms is recycled Chinese mahogany. One of the two expat owners is from Sydney and they have tried to make the rooms as different from a standard hotel as possible; there are sunken baths, low Asian-style beds and wrap-around couches that are great for lounging and watching a massive TV. It's a buzzy place to stay in an interesting part of town near the glitzy Jing'an Temple. From 1400 yuan;  . 


No.9: If relentless trendiness isn't for you, try staying at No.9, which is more like being in a friend's beautiful and surprisingly rustic '30s house than in a hotel. The Taiwanese owner has converted his grandfather's home and, with only five rooms, it's a world away from most anonymous hotel experiences.  

You'll find this delightful B&B, with its walled garden, down a lively back lane where life continues in much the same way it has for centuries. But be warned: taxi drivers can struggle to find No.9 as it doesn't announce its existence and there's no website.  After a frantic day's sightseeing, rooms feel like havens, though it's something of a lottery as to what kind of facilities you'll enjoy. Some rooms have more add-ons than others. But all blend China's past and present with art deco furniture and hi-tech touches we've come to appreciate, such as wireless internet and heated mattresses. From 700 yuan. 9 Lane 355, Jianguo Xi Lu; phone + 86 21 6471 9950.  

Lapis Casa Boutique Hotel: Guests here couldn't be closer to the action: the hotel is a block away from Shanghai's main entertainment complex, Xintiandi.  

This small and elegant place opened in May 2007 after its brother and sister owners spent two years converting the unassuming building into an antiques-filled hideaway. Guests enter through large wooden doors before reaching the stone-floored reception area and corridors lined with lovely stained glass. The 18 guestrooms have different themes, though all are from the past; the favourite (and most expensive) is the corner suite with its 1900s traditional Shanghainese decor, wooden floors, soft lighting and red carpet. If you like what you see in your room, you can take it home, as all antiques here are available for purchase. From 1500 yuan;  .  

Jia Shanghai: Describing itself as a residence rather than a hotel, the 55-room Jia Shanghai opened at the end of 2007 and has seen a host of stars through its doors (although presumably someone escorted them in as there isn't anything as boring as a sign).  

The original structure was built in 1926, but few traces of the past remain inside; instead, like its original sister hotel in Hong Kong, it is cutting-edge design all the way.  The corridors are dark and mysterious but open on to bright, white guestrooms equipped with the latest entertainment systems and small kitchens.  The hotel throws in a lot of extras including free internet access, the use of an iPod, DVD library and swanky toiletries.  

There's a complimentary breakfast served in the arty lobby as well as free afternoon tea and cocktails all evening.  From 1395 yuan;  .   

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