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Hangzhou brings to mind words that are not typically associated with modern China, said Stephen Drucker in Travel + Leisure. Several times a day, my tour guide called this metropolis of 7 million “the most relaxing city in China,” even though such salesmanship was unnecessary. Anchored by a famously serene lake, Hangzhou lies only 45 minutes from frenetic Shanghai by high-speed train yet feels a world away. “You can still feel the heartbeat of old China here—in the mists and reflections on the water, in the old teahouses and exclusive new clubs keeping alive the spirit of the literati who gathered during Hangzhou’s golden moment, a thousand years ago, as capital of the Southern Song dynasty.”
Under the spell of West Lake, “even the most driven person learns to be a little aimless.” I first got out on the water in a hired boat, taking the chance to admire historic homes along the shores. Walking the mile-long causeway that crosses the lake provided a better introduction to the city’s people, though. Families shared the causeway with fashion-conscious young women in five-inch platforms, as well as an army unit that jogged back and forth in the hot sun. At night, the lake “goes Vegas,” with a light-and-music show created by the director of the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremonies. A platform just below the water’s surface served as a stage, and “the sight of 50 people walking across West Lake carrying huge red-paper lanterns did unimaginable things” for my dream life.
China’s new rich frequently visit Hangzhou to soak up the finer points of their national culture, and I followed parts of the same curriculum. At a traditional teahouse, I marveled at the way a tea master guided the conversation while he worked, drawing every guest into “the cloistered world” of his table. At the extravagant Amanfayun resort, I ate a meal of 10 very small courses prepared by monks and intended to make you mindful of every bite. Finally, I arranged to meet with a distinguished Buddhist monk at Yongfu Temple. “If you want to be happy,” he told me, “you have to know what is enough.” What else could I do? I flew home the next day.
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At Amanfayun resort (amanresorts.com), doubles start at $717.