An urbane five-star "city resort" in the making: Le Méridien Xiamen, part 1

Culture | by David Perry
Posted: February 1st, 2011 | Updated: March 31st, 2011 | Comments
Yue Minjun sculpture at Le Meridien Xiamen Just under a year out from its launch in early 2010, Le Méridien Xiamen has established itself as a promising entrant in China's booming luxury hotel scene, bringing a global brand that bespeaks sophistication in all things, but especially the aesthetic pleasures to be had when a hotel balances international art, design and fashion smarts with a savvy, creative-minded global clientele and a deep respect for and engagement with local culture, landscape and architecture. That's not to say that Le Méridien Xiamen has arrived, but it's certainly on its way. The hotel is still working out a few wrinkles and finding its identity, even as finishing touches are put on its hillside garden villas and the signature cultural programs that go into what Le Méridien calls "a curated experience for the creative guest."  Led by General Manager David Katemopolous' experienced team of hospitality professionals, seaside Xiamen's newest five-star holds great potential as a "get away from it all" green hillside oasis that also happens to be in the midst of one of China's most interesting and pleasant cities—what Katemopolous likes to refer to as "a city resort...."  [callout title=Getting to Le Méridien Xiamen]The hotel is only about 20 minutes by car from Xiamen's convenient mid-sized airport. A taxi runs about RMB 30, but to smooth your trip and to save some time, car or van pickup is available. A luxury Mercedes or Audi sedan can be had for RMB 400; a Toyota sedan for RMB 200. Large groups (up to 20) can arrange pickup for between RMB 250-350, depending on group size. The hotel enjoys an isolated perch on the side of Xianyue Hill, a picturesquely lush rise typical of the rugged mountains that ring Xiamen and extend far into Fujian's interior. This means views and a lot of distance between you and the noisy city below, but it also means you'll want to take a car or taxi to most destinations in and around Xiamen. Taxis are quite affordable, starting at RMB 8 for the first 3 km (about 1.9 miles), and RMB 2 for the next 5 km plus a 50% surcharge for each extra km. Front desk or lobby staff are on hand to assist in obtaining a taxi. [/callout]Xiamen is regularly ranked among the top five of wind and kite surf scene, proximity to Fujian's ruggedly beautiful forested mountains, and the Western concession-era architectural charm of Gulangyu Islet, Le Méridien is well positioned to prevail as one of Xiamen's top hotels. As a Starwood Hotels & Resorts brand, Le Méridien prides itself on establishing a smooth balance between local color and culture, European sophistication and natural beauty, and its new Xiamen hotel has all the necessary ingredients. Getting what we wanted for Christmas My wife and young daughter stayed with Le Méridien over the recent Christmas holiday and, despite a few glitches and surprises, had a pleasant experience, both at the hotel and out and about, especially on the one-of-a-kind garden islet of Gulangyu, with its car-free streets and colonial-era villas, townhouses and former consulates. After a quick trip in from the airport, we were graciously ushered via golf cart to a hillside villa overlooking the main hotel complex. Set amidst beautifully landscaped gardens, the villa appeared, at first, to be a Christmas dream: Our two-year-old daughter could have the run of the place and we could relax as a family in luxury and privacy. After a brief—and, as it turned out, slightly incomplete—introduction to the villa and its facilities, my wife decided to get started right away with a long hot bath for herself and my daughter. Meanwhile, I took a look around. We had been told we were the first to stay in the building, and, with some time to look around, telltale signs of its absolute newness began to show. The furnishings and carpet were, of course, immaculate, but the final pieces of the Le Méridien experience seemed lacking: The walls and shelves were bare; no art, no books... the place felt oddly empty. Le Meridien Xiamen's hillside villas Then my wife called down: "There's no hot water!" Uh-oh. It turns out that there was hot water—plenty of it, great water pressure—but the hot and cold taps had been put on the wrong pipes, and we were the first to discover the mix-up. A glitch. Next, we realized that the split level villa, with its upstairs master bedroom and huge bathroom, wasn't ideal for our exceedingly active toddler: the sharp-edged stairs could do a good deal of damage if she took a tumble. Finally, while wondering out loud what other little surprises we might encounter, we realized that we didn't know where to put the leftovers we'd ordered from room service—we wanted to save the noodles for our daughter, who, like all toddlers, can be a picky eater. Was there a fridge? Where was it? We looked, but did not find.... Could it be that we were somehow without a fridge? A quick call to the desk revealed that we were indeed outfitted with a fridge and stocked mini-bar; it was just that they were cleverly concealed behind a mirrored sliding door and we, frazzled from our flight with a fidgety girl, weren't clever enough to uncover it ourselves. Not anyone's fault, really, but yes, it would have been nice to have been shown everything when we were introduced to our villa. View from the Le Meridien Xiamen This is not at all to suggest that the villas are not beautifully designed and situated, and that, once complete, they aren't likely to make for wonderful stays, especially for couples away for a romantic holiday. The potential is great, and as minor glitches are worked out, it will be, I'm sure, realized. But it wasn't right for us, there and then, on our family's Christmas Eve. Fortunately, after a phone call to the exceedingly busy desk—the hotel was, we were told, at full capacity for the holiday—an alternative was promptly found. We packed up and were brought down the hill to the main building where we took up residence in a beautifully appointed and flawlessly functional Le Royal Club Room just down the hallway from the Presidential Suite. Similar in design and furnishings, our new room also featured striking contemporary artworks on the wall and a built-in set of shelves lined with attractive books on design, art, Chinese culture and cuisine. It is indeed the little things that make the difference when it comes to a five-star experience, and the details were finally coming into focus. We settled in quickly and got ready for Christmas Eve dinner in the Latest Recipe, the hotel's Western restaurant. On our agenda for the rest of the weekend: A Gulangyu visit, some time in the pool, and a few good meals. Though we had appreciated the gesture of being the first guests to stay in the villa we'd been given, we were glad to have a room that was fully complete and far more representative of what Le Méridien Xiamen is all about. Le Meridien Xiamen Club Royal Room Cultivating the arts & becoming an integral part of Xiamen's cultural life And part of what it's all about is art and design, and the integration of all Le Méridien hotels into the cultural life of their surroundings while maintaining a smooth sense of connection and continuity with a cosmopolitan brand originating in France that has become a hallmark of sophisticated international travel. In Xiamen, Le Méridien's signature Xiamen Piano Museum, a fascinating part of Gulangyu and Xiamen's long history of East-meets-West cultural interaction. Over 200 pianos from the collection of a successful emigrant son of Xiamen, Hu Youyi, are part of what lend Gulangyu its "Piano Island" nickname, along with the rich history of a music-cultivating population of European residents who left their mark not only with the islet's architecture, but also with a passion for the piano. However, as GM David Katemopolous admits, Xiamen is hardly on the level of cultural and artistic hot spots like Beijing or Shanghai, let alone many global destinations boasting Le Méridiens of their own. This, however, is seen as an opportunity and challenge by Katemopolous and Le Méridien's LM100 team of artists, designers and creative consultants. Xiamen is fast developing its own unique arts scene, one rooted in local traditions and its multicultural past but also informed by exciting developments in Chinese and international contemporary art. In fact, in talking to Katemopolous, one of the facets of Le Méridien's mission in Xiamen that he finds most exciting is its artist-in-residence program, which will see world-class artists living and working in the hotel's Grande Villa in the years to come. Gulangyu architecture Artists will not only be given time and means to create work that will grace the hotel's well-lit space before being auctioned off; they will also go out into the Xiamen community, leading workshops and giving talks at local schools. For guests, this means the opportunity to stay at a hotel that is cultivating organic connections with the surrounding community while also introducing vibrant, new perspectives from around the globe. Katemopolous, a hospitality professional with over 20 years' experience managing luxury hotels in Asia, is equally excited about the opportunity he sees to introduce local Xiamen residents and Chinese visitors to elements of foreign culture that are still relatively new to many of them. Despite its long history as a treaty port, Xiamen is not as international as Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong or Guangzhou, and Katemopolous relishes the opportunity to not only introduce Xiamen to world travelers, but to introduce something of the world to Chinese guests, whether it be French cuisine or international art and design trends. Art and design are, of course, built into the Le Méridien in myriad subtle ways, from the contemporary sculptures gracing the airy entrance hall to the original artworks in the hotel rooms (and soon to be in the villas), to the signature 24-hour-long ambient musical loop by composer Henri Scars Struck playing softly on the elevators, to the careful use of scents to get you in "the right frame of mind" unobtrusively but effectively. Of course, this is all "standard" (and yet exceptional) at all Le Méridien hotels worldwide—the real taking advantage of the unique charms of Xiamen to create a truly unique experience for guests. Given the presence of Gulangyu, which has all the makings of a top-flight artist colony, from a lively cafe scene to quirky old buildings perfect for galleries and studios, the potential for a vibrant Xiamen creative community is certainly there. It's not hard to imagine that in, say, ten years' time, Gulangyu could become something like a Carmel-by-the-Sea or Provincetown. And though Le Méridien is not on the islet, it's a convenient 15-20 minute cab ride from its perch above the city to the Gulangyu Ferry, and just another 15 minutes across the channel. And with the active engagement with Xiamen's creative community that Katemopolous envisions for his hotel, it's easy to imagine that Le Méridien will indeed succeed at becoming a vital part of the city's growth as a creative center—and at fulfilling its mission of delivering "a curated experience for the creative guest." This is part one of a two-part profile of Le Méridien Xiamen. Part two will focus on another key dimension of Le Méridien's mission: A refined, creative and, of course, delicious culinary experience. Stay tuned for more on what's cooking at Le Méridien Xiamen, as well the story of the rest of our stay.

Xiamen guide | More Xiamen posts on the China Travel Blog

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