Sascha Matuszak heads for "China's Hawaii" and The Ritz-Carlton Sanya to discover his inner gentleman and a taste of luxury living.>>>
When I was growing up, if someone said a certain thing was "ritzy" or that a place was "the ritz," that meant it was out-of-my-league rich. It meant gold watches and diamond cuff links and the wide smiles of people who've made it in this world, money-wise. It referred to a place where I would either stand out awkwardly or be an employee.
When I finally did sit down upon the soft cushions of a Ritz-Carlton sofa, it was in Sanya and the wide smile was spread out across the face of Michel Goget, the general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Sanya who is both charmingly French and disarmingly American. If the Yalong Bay.
"Sanya is a lot like Florida back in the 1980s," Goget explains. "Back then, Florida was the getaway place for America's rich and wealthy and today, Sanya is the same thing for China."
If Sanya is the getaway for China's rich, then Yalong Bay is their private strip with the Ritz-Carlton as the crown jewel in a glittering necklace of luxury resorts that includes the Sheraton Sanya Resort, Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa and a St. Regis on the way.
The people's hotel
I am not sure what I was expecting at the Ritz. Gold-flecked coffee served in rare porcelain? Uncomfortable silences after I mention how I make a living?
Whatever childish impressions were flowing through my head at the time, none prepared me for Uncle Martin's garden. Goget's right-hand woman, Stella Zhang, was telling me about a garden and an engineer as we descended from the balcony to the kid's swimming pool below and I was nodding absently until I saw the baby pigeons and a tiny plot of bulbous gourds with handwritten labels like the ones you might find in an A.A. Milne story.
As I tried to reconcile this earthy little scene with the images that the word "ritz" inspired in my mind's eye, Stella took me by the hand and led me away from the hotel toward the rest of the garden...
Uncle Martin's Garden isn't some gimmick for the kids, it's a place to get lost in. There are baby chickens running wild, squirrels and birds perched in rare tropical trees watching the chicks, massive blooms swaying lazily in the sea breeze and living parapets that oversee the blooms.
Uncle Martin is an uncle out of a child's movie. He is large and round and smiling and the glint in his eye never fades. He's also the Chief Engineer of the hotel--the guy that fixes pipes, unclogs drains and other jobs that require care and a pair of deft hands. He has a couple guys that silently follow him around--engineers and landscapers no doubt--who react to a pointing finger or a grunt by moving some more hay into the mama chicken's coop or clipping a particularly fat lotus bloom for Claire Palumbo, the hotel's Romanceologist.
Romanceologist? Who else but cherubic Claire from France who says the word "love" like an incantation can claim Romanceologist as a job title? Claire's job, among others, is to personalize the luxury getaway for certain couples looking to ignite, rekindle or just plain detonate a flame of love while on the beach... at the Ritz... in a villa. A man and wife show up for their anniversary and Claire is in their villa beforehand, spreading rose petals about and twisting towels into suggestive shapes. For a young couple on a weekend of love, Claire makes sure the lawn is clear for their dinner by the sea... white silk in the breeze and an uninterrupted sunset.
"We get calls from people all of the time, they are asking for something special, maybe an anniversary or just a vacation from work and when I tell them that I am a Romanceologist and my job is to do these things for them, many of them are surprised and they ask questions. But when I tell them that the whole hotel will be aware of their love and will make sure that everything is perfect for their vacation, they are convinced. Everyone is satisfied so far."
Maybe this is normal for luxury hotels, but as I listen to Claire breathlessly describe her plans for a seductive spa session, my mind's eye experiences a revolution.
The Ritz, as I learn later, was founded by a man named Cesar Ritz, in Paris (where else?) at the turn of the 19th century. His hotels were known, for one thing, to have a 2:1 staff to guest ratio which helped maintain an atmosphere of total elegance. Kings called him "the King of Hotels" and his name became synonymous with superior luxury in the minds of young children a century later.
Cesar's empire of opulent hotels collapsed after he died, because there was no one to maintain his lofty standards. The Great Depression, the death of an entire class of people and WWII may have had an impact as well. His sole surviving heir was the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, a magnificent hotel that still serves guests today. The Ritz-Carlton Boston was revived in 1983 by a group out of Atlanta with Horst Schulze managing the hotels. The group built 30 more hotels in less than 10 years under Schulze's ritzy motto: Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.
I stand dazed between massive pillars of stone just inside the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Sanya, with Michel Goget and Stella Zhang smiling at me. I've seen the rooms with a view of the South China Sea, the massive conference halls and the private villas like mansions for rent. I've stepped inside renowned chef Massimo Magglieta's "Sophia" restaurant and lost myself in thought walking barefoot along the Ritz's private patch of Yalong Bay's soft white beach. The tour is over and it's time to say goodbye.
I'm in shorts and my face is covered in stubble. I have Crocs on. But there is no question in my mind that I'm a gentleman and when Michel offers me a room at the Ritz "anytime I want it" I am completely seduced. In my mind's eye the revolution is complete: alongside those beautiful ladies, just next to the silk curtains, leaning against a bar with a smile on his face is my gentleman vision of myself, sharing a private joke with the bartender who calls me by my first name.