Once in a Lifetime Journey was hosted by Alila Anji. As always, all opinions are honest, independent and our own.
Anji County focus on green
If like me, you have never heard of Anji before, let me give you a quick rundown of what to expect in this part of China.
Anji is a county located in the Zhejiang Province of China, adjacent to Shanghai, where I stayed at The Peninsula. The area is well known for three things: bamboo forests, white tea plantations and an Oscar-winning movie.
Bamboo forests cover 60,000 hectares of mountains and hills in Anji County and are an unmistakable symbol of the area.
The smaller white tea plantations in Anji produce the best tea leaves in China, Anji Bai Cha, prized for their delicateness and the fact that they can only be harvested once a year.
Famously unique Chinese action and martial arts movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2001 and is available on Amazon Prime, has several sword-fighting scenes shot in the bamboo forest of Anji.
But this is not all Anji is famous for, the purity of its air is the main draw for thousands of Chinese tourists that escape the polluted urban centers.
Unlike Shanghai, often engulfed in smog and crowds, or Hangzhou, the rather grey-ish city of a thousand lakes, Anji is green, sparsely populated, agricultural and clean. It has a long list of titles to prove its greenness.
Most notably, Anji was identified by the Government as the first National Ecological County, that is, there is an interest in keeping its natural environment clean with the objective to foster eco-tourism infrastructure.
Tourists have started to arrive but many more will come with the completion of the high-speed train linking Anji to Shanghai in 2020.
This green focus also means the expansion of agricultural land and other green projects to turn the area into the pollution-free fruit and vegetable basket of China as well as the source of bamboo wood and premium tea, one of the rarest in China.
Several projects and factories have also been closed and denied licenses in the last decade to maintain its cleanliness. As expected, this is also attracting a number of environmentally-conscious international hospitality brands among which Banyan Tree Hotels and Alila Hotels, as well as others like JW Marriott.
About Alila Hotels
This was already my third stay at an Alila property after nearby Alila Wuzhen and Alila Jabal Akhdar in the high mountains of Oman, from where I could explore the country’s most visited monument, Nizwa Fort, UNESCO-listed Bahla Fort and fascinating Jabreen Castle.
The Alila brand stands for wellness, sustainability, design and intimate local activities that go beyond the typical tourist landmarks to provide an immersive experience in the form of Alila journeys.
You can explore all the main places to visit in the area each hotel is situated in while also taking part in activities that are unique to the location and which are not what you would think of when you travel to an area.
For example, at Wuzhen you can take indigo dyeing classes, at Jabal Akhdar you can go on Via Ferrata climbs in the area or learn how the rose water is made when in season, and in Anji you can indulge in bamboo cuisine and immerse yourself into the seasons.
Architecture and design are two other elements that are at the core of every Alila property. You won’t find common elements in the look and feel of the different properties because they are all uniquely designed. But more on that in the next section.
As of 2019, Alila Hotels joined Hyatt Group and is also more accessible to those with World of Hyatt points who can redeem them at Alila properties.
The architecture and design of Alila Anji
Alila Anji is a sprawling property made of both fully bookable villas and suites that were in the process of being completed. Once the entire project is finalized, there will also be residential villas for sale and rent.
The resort is spread over several levels, the highest point of which is the reception area at 1,600m above sea level. The views from the reception are spectacular and as soon as you walk into the lobby you can’t help but be drawn towards the verandah.
I have included an architecture and design section in this review, which I don’t normally talk about, because Alila Hotels always put heavy emphasis on their design and are all different and unique, perfectly adapted and blending with the surroundings. Anji is no exception.
From above you can see the lines of villas and suites with white walls and grey roof tiles similar to the slate roof tiles you find in the Pyrenees or Andorra. The muted colors of the buildings are the perfect background for the bright green of the bamboo and the white tea leaves.
In the horizon, the water reservoir that provides clean water to the adjacent province (Anji County is at the border of Zhejiang Province) breaks the view until the thick and dense bamboo forests at the other side of the water.
No matter where you stand in Alila Anji, the views will find you. I found myself drawn to the window at every occasion, always veering towards the floor to ceiling glass walls.
Bamboo forests and tea plantations have come inside the hotel in the form of wall panel decorations, paintings and patterns that blend in perfectly with Chinese accents and elegant orchid flowers.
Arrival and check-in at Alila Anji
Our stay at Alila Anji followed a shorter stay at sister property Alila Wuzhen so the hotel’s driver and car took us from one property to the other in the comfort of a very nice leather-seat 4×4 car.
Most of the drive is through great highways until the last half an hour which zigzags along the reservoir and bamboo forests in the area. After several sharp turns on the snaking narrow road, we finally arrived at the base of Alila Anji and alighted at the Welcome Hut.
There the Guest Manager, Ming, was waiting for us with a golf buggy to take us up to the reception. Our luggage was taken separately directly to our villa.
The reception, as mentioned before, is impressive, and you can’t help but be drawn to the views. At that point, we were offered the first of many white tea cups which we enjoyed outside with the views as Jack, the General Manager, introduced the property to us.
After the introduction, we were escorted to our villa by buggy and were welcomed by a handwritten note left on the villa’s hall window by Ming.
The suites and villas at Alila Anji
Alila Anji only has 40 rooms and 32 villas split into two major sections, standalone villas located in the rows below the reception and the rooms slightly lower in altitude and in separate buildings with three levels.
There are only two categories of villas depending on the view and whether it is full lake or partial lake and bamboo forest. Rooms can be double or twin. Inside, all rooms and all villas are largely the same.
Rooms are compact but can accommodate up to two adults and one child in the daybed by the window. Although they are not as spacious or impressive as the villas, they are cozy and offer the same stunning views as the rest of the property.
We stayed at one of the stand-alone Lakeview villas and it was absolutely fabulous. Villas measure 136 square meters and are split into five spaces: bedroom, living room, bathroom, walk-in closet and outdoor terrace.
Both the bedroom and the living room have fantastic floor to ceiling windows with incredible views. The terrace is accessible from both spaces and has a small sheltered pagoda with an outdoor table and chairs.
Inside, villas are designed with simplicity and warmth in mind. Caramel wood panels and bamboo are used throughout with simple decorations including bamboo stalks and plum flowers typical of the area.
The bedroom palette was neutral, with wood colors, white and beige used throughout and a bit of pastel orange and muted green thrown in. There was a large four-poster double bed, two bedside tables, an inviting daybed by the window, a desk and a TV.
The bathroom was spacious, entirely covered in marble, from the floor to the walls and the double sinks, and had a large bathtub for two, complete with pillows and bathtub salts.
A generous amount of Alila Living bathroom amenities were available and a full-length mirror was very useful. Thankfully, the toilet was in its own enclosure and the bathroom had actual doors.
The living room was as big as the bedroom and had two sofas, a coffee table, TV and console, and a table with chairs for in-room dining. Fabric with bamboo designs and bamboo stalks brought the outside vegetation into the room.
There were several details throughout the villa which made us feel as if a lot of thought had gone into getting the rooms ready.
Firstly, the staff had placed an easel by the window in front of a chair with a white board for us to paint the views. We didn’t get to it (I am a terrible painter) but it was a nice touch.
Every evening, we received a handmade sweet which included honeyed chestnuts on one occasion and a herbal tea on the last night, served inside personalized bamboo thermos with our names on them.
There were also handy tips from the spa, written on bookmark sided cards, that explained how to use pressure points to address specific ailments, like stress or indigestion.
Dining at Alila Anji
Alila Anji serves some of the most interesting and intriguing Chinese food I have ever had. Forget anything you know about traditional Chinese recipes and let the local chef delight you with his seasonal creations.
There are two main dining spaces at Alila, Chinese cuisine Hidden Dragon restaurant and Lake View serving international fare.
Breakfast is served at Lake View which, as the name suggests, has spectacular views over the lake and forests below. It also has an outdoor terrace that must be divine in the summer months. What a way to start the day.
Like most restaurants in luxury hotels in China, Lake View serves the usual suspects in a breakfast buffet (porridge, noodles, dim sum) as well as continental options (bakery, eggs) and seasonal dishes like roasted chestnuts and steamed sweet potatoes in Autumn.
There is a list of dishes you can order from a menu and if the hotel is not full, the buffet is smaller and the a la carte longer. I would highly recommend ordering breakfast in-room, I can’t imagine a more romantic and magical way to get out of bed.
For lunch and dinner, guests can opt for either Hidden Dragon or Lake View. Hidden Dragon is where the local chef shines with his unique interpretations of regional dishes that incorporate ultra-local ingredients that Anji County is famous for.
Lakeview is where you can go for comfort Western and international dishes that make everyone happy. As I always want to eat local, Hidden Dragon was the choice for every meal.
I absolutely loved every single one of the chef’s dishes here, none of which I had ever tried before. In our first meal, we had fried chicken with white tea leaves, beef with chestnuts, tofu and white fish broth served in a bamboo cup.
The meal was accompanied by white wine and also sweet plum liquor typical of the area. After all, Alila Anji is located in Plum Bay.
Every dish was beautifully presented and served in thoughtful plates that only elevated their taste. Jack explained that the chef had risen the ranks from a shy sous-chef to the current Executive Chef role and had come up with a lot of the recipes himself using what was available.
Groups of friends or families will appreciate the private dining rooms at the hotel which share the same impressive views with both restaurants.
Families (and anyone really) will particularly enjoy booking Le Petit Chef. This 3D dining experience projects an animation on your plate before each meal showcasing a small French chef putting together each dish before the real food is served.
It is a clever and entertaining experience available across the world and that Alila Anji has been offering for a few months.
Although there are only two restaurants to choose from, Alila Anji offers several private dining experiences apart from Le Petit Chef that are more personalized.
We were treated to a private lake-side dinner on our last night that could not have been a better way to wave goodbye to a perfect stay.
Set on the platform by the lake, the space is used for weddings or corporate dinners but can also be adapted for romantic dinners. Looking out to the still water as the sun set, we were welcomed by white tea martinis as we watched the last rays of light dissipate.
The table was elegantly set for us and a team of waiters and the chef himself served us pretty dishes in delicate shapes and forms, all the way from the kitchen. There was background music and unique foods I had never tried before.
The meal consisted of a set menu with six dishes that had been designed by the chef to showcase Anji, with his unique signature take.
We started with a pretty avocado salad served in the shell and decorated with edible flowers. There were fresh bamboo shoots we picked from a bamboo cup and peeled with our hands. The main dish of slow-cooked beef with mushrooms was incredible, some of the best meat I have ever had, and melted in my mouth like candy.
Of course, there were palate cleansers and four mochis in the shape of mid-Autumn mooncakes, typical for that time of year, flavored after local ingredients for dessert. Fair to say it was a feast for the senses.
Last but not least, there are also two other dining experiences. Afternoon tea is Godiva themed and served inside pretty wooden boxes to take away. The box contains not only Godiva chocolate treats but also some locally-inspired bites.
We loved the afternoon tea experienced which was coupled with a boat tour around the lake in the late afternoon as the sun was going down, it was one of the most indulging and relaxing ways to spend an afternoon.
For those with a penchant for drinks, the resort did away with the concept of a bar instead of using the lobby space for a tea lounge where you can also order a drink. For something a bit more sophisticated and private, ask to be shown to the speakeasy, Crouching Tiger.
This by-appointment-only bar opens by request and can be booked for two hours including a bottle of wine or drinks. In there, you have sofas and board games but can also watch a movie from the extensive library. We enjoyed a girl’s evening with a movie and wine.
Facilities and things to do at Alila Anji
At such a sprawling property, you can expect a wide range of activities and things to do onsite. You really don’t have to leave the property to be entertained for days, even if you are there on a team-building offsite.
Alila Anji offers a range of activities for couples, families and groups of friends, both indoors and outdoors. As would be expected of a property in China, there are karaoke rooms, only these ones are silent, and can accommodate couples or larger groups.
There are also mahjong rooms with great lake views and a pool room for those who want to challenge their travel companion. A game room has lots of board games guests can borrow too.
For those interested in physical activities, the hotel offers complimentary morning yoga at the indoor yoga studio room and Tai-Chi classes on the outdoor platform as well as bookable Kung Fu lessons in a pagoda on top of the hill.
We took the sunrise Tai-Chi lesson with the master, in Chinese, which was fun but also quite tiring and difficult, it is not as easy as it looks despite the slow movement. I highly recommend it.
There is a gym onsite with great views, although it is a bit limited (best to exercise outside through all the other activities available), and an indoor heated pool.
Hiking paths including an hour-long steep loop through the bamboo forest and a running path along the lake could not be a better way to start the day. Maps with the marked routes are available in the villas.
The hotel also has bikes you can borrow to cycle around the resort, avoid trying to get up to the reception as it is really steep and instead follow the path along the lake.
If you are keen to enjoy the lake, the hotel owns an electric boat (the only one) that takes guests on a 45-minute boat ride around the reservoir so you can get up and close with the bamboo forest on the other side and enjoy the peace of the water.
We took our afternoon tea boxes onboard and it was a very pleasant experience. You can request pretty much any kind of experience onboard. You can even ask to be taken to the other side of the lake for a quick walk among the bamboo forest.
For those who just want to spend time in nature or take Instagrammable shots, both the tea plantations (like the ones in Sri Lanka or the ones in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands) as well as the bamboo forests, which can be reached by buggy or on foot (or by bike) are the perfect backdrop.
Not only are the forests huge, but they are completely empty as they are part of the hotel’s property and only accessible to guests. A dream come true and similar to Kyoto’s Arashiyama Forest minus the crowds.
As you can see, there is a lot to do at Alila Anji. Best of all, activities are seasonally-themed which means you can come at different times of the year and have a new range of activities on offer.
During Autumn, we were able to go chestnut picking in the forest nearby. Equipped with leather gloves, baskets, aprons and hats, we went in search of fat chestnuts that had fallen from the many chestnut trees in the area.
From Autumn till the beginning of Spring, the hotel offers visits to a bee and honey farm nearby. The nomad bee farming family spends a few months of the year in the area and then moves to another part of China following the blossoming flowers.
Dressed with protective headgear, the husband and wife team will show you everything about bees and honey. It was fascinating to get up and close with these majestic and essential creatures. I even bought two pots of honey to take home.
In Spring, come to learn more about white tea, this is the season when the leaves get picked and you can participate and pick your own.
Additionally, true to Alila’s philosophy, and the General Manager and team’s attitude, nothing is too much of a hassle and if you have an idea for an activity, they will help you put it together.
This is particularly true when talking about corporate retreats and team off-sites. The hotel has a dedicated activities area for paintball, archery and other activities which can be adapted to host anything.
If you are looking for a place to get away from it all and enjoy the peace of the forest and the views, there is a small hilltop spot with a hammock, table and chairs and panoramic views. Bring a book and enjoy the sound of the birds.
Last but not least, Alila Hotels are known for their wellness focus and the Spa at Alila Anji was all but as expected a wonderful experience. The main spa area is located by the reception but there is also a spa villa where we enjoyed our treatment.
In true Alila fashion, we skipped lunch as we were not hungry from the large breakfasts and knew there were early dinners coming. Instead, we requested some snacks and sweets with our massage which we enjoyed before and after together with a bottle of champagne and white tea.
Federica and I were set with a fantastic massage (I even snoozed a little) with an aromatherapy oil of our choice. We finished the bottle of champagne in our villa while continuing in our girl’s weekend getaway mood.
If you are staying longer or want to explore the area, there are two places around Alila Anji worth a trip, and probably many more, including Hangzhou which is a mere 1,5h hours away by car.
The first one is Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest, Da Zhu Hai, which is renowned for being the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, given Alila’s location among the forests, you may not need to get away to experience the this.
Secondly, and the one I would recommend, you can go on a half or full-day exploration at the newly opened Sky Land alpine entertainment area complete with glass-bottomed bridges, viewpoints, swings that fly over the abyss and many child and family-friendly activities.
If you decide to go, allow for enough time and maybe consider stopping there on the way to or from Shanghai as it is one hour from Alila Anji and it takes 30mins to an hour to get all the way up depending on the queues.
Sky land is accessible by bus and then cable car operated by the company that manages the park. To get to the bottom of the cable car you need to first take a bus ride from the main parking station. Add 10mins for the bus and 20mins for the cable car plus any queueing for either of the two.
Once you get to the top, the area is massive and requires quite a lot of walking and going up and down steep mountainsides via stairs. So budget a minimum of 2 to 3 hours at the top to be able to enjoy the area, ideally longer.
We had two hours and had just enough time to go up and down and enjoy 45mins there, which only allowed us time to get to the first glass-bottomed bridge and back. On weekends, the area is absolutely packed so try to go during the week.
The service at Alila Anji
In a property of such a size, the General Manager and the whole team have the opportunity to make the guest’s stay truly memorable and I believe Jack and Ming, plus the rest of the team, did just that for me and Federica.
No detail was too small and no request too big for them to simply make it happen. We never waited for the buggy to pick us up (and oftentimes got the panda-themed one for the best photo op), everything ran incredibly smoothly and all the changes we requested were always done without any issues.
The team was friendly and helpful, always willing to accommodate any change and despite the language barrier with some of the team, more accustomed to deal with Chinese guests, a smile and Google translate always resolved any questions.
I found every member of the staff incredibly welcoming and with a smile, you could tell that they were proud and happy to work at the hotel. For a small rural community like the one surrounding Alila Anji, a development like this one can provide valuable opportunities.
Alila Anji employs a majority of local staff and only one foreigner, the General Manager. Most of the staff members come from Anji and the villages around it, not just from China. They take the initiative, they have made the hotel their own. And this translates into genuine and caring service.
Additionally, all the small details in the evening turndown service, the messages left in our glass window and the personalized gifts were very special.
We left Alila Anji with a basket filled with mochi that the chef had prepared for us because Federica had mentioned how good they were, and a small bamboo pot filled with white tea because I indicated I wanted to buy some as a souvenir.
The verdict: Review of Alila Anji
This is one of those hotel stays I probably don’t need to spell out my opinion on. If you have read it all up to here you’ll know that I had a terrific stay and that everything was absolutely perfect and exceeded our expectations.
I left Alila Anji completely relaxed, even disconnected from social media, despite having full access and the WiFi signal was strong throughout. I returned home in such a state of zen that I almost could not believe I had just spent a few days in China.
This was a Chinese experience that defeated every perception I had. The government is indeed making a good job at turning Anji into a green and clean county and brands like Alila are better placed than others in providing the kind of warm service and offering that matches the purity of the surroundings.
You don’t come to Anji to tick items off a bucket list. Before arriving I knew almost nothing about the area and could not find any major tourist sight to visit. You come to find peace and calm, and who can put a price on that?
But just to be sure, I always look at the value for money equation, even if this stay was fully hosted. Rates for one of the villas during the spring start at USD600 per night. Considering the service level, facilities and comfort in the villas, I believe this is an adequate rate, on par with what would be expected for similar quality elsewhere.
Book your stay at Alila Anji here.
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