It's hard to imagine that Shanghai, the eighth largest city in the world, didn't really exist until 1843, about when the New Zealand Wars broke out. Today it seems every man and his dog is scrambling for a piece of Shanghai and it is breathtaking to see the city's rise from down-and-out harlot, to one of the planet's most exciting and cosmopolitan cities.
China's second city is known for its big-brand hotels, opened before last year's Shanghai Expo, where a staggering 74 million tickets were sold, but a clutch of new boutique properties are changing the face of Shanghai. Here are some of the best:
Art Deco beauty
Shanghai's most eagerly awaited historic restoration project, the Fairmont Peace Hotel, has finally been unveiled and the piece de resistance is the hotel's original lobby. Underneath its huge octagonal glass skylight, a string trio play, and two petite Chinese girls whirl across acres of marble while gawking tourists snap photos. Curious tourists come in droves to see the lobby of the 270-room hotel, which re-opened late last year after a $US65 million facelift, befitting one of China's most iconic hotels. They also come for perhaps the city's best-known attraction - the Peace Hotel jazz band, featuring six veteran members from the 1950s. The oldest is 93 and the youngest is 75.
Jazz has been the music of the city since the hotel, originally called the Cathay, opened in 1929 as real estate tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon's jewel in his Shanghai crown. Two bands from the United States played when the hotel opened and local musicians embraced the new form of music with gusto.
Since then there has always been a Chinese jazz band at the Peace Hotel, aside from the Cultural Revolution when jazz was seen as bourgeois, but that's a whole other story.
The old guys play every night and even if jazz is not your thing, it gives you a sense of the mood, the period and the glamour of the city's heyday; a time when Noel Coward was holed upstairs completing his play Private Lives, and Charlie Chaplin was one of many famous guests.
You can't say you've really been to Shanghai without at least propping yourself up at the island bar, ordering a whisky sour from the black-and-white-clad bartender listening to a number or two. Everyone from presidents to film stars will have sat on your bar stool, doing the exact same thing.
Just a couple of kilometres south of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, The Hotel Indigo Shanghai, by a propitious sweep of fate, has a prime river-front position on the Bund. The city's most prestigious stretch of real estate looks across the Huangpu River to the steel and glass of Pudong. As it was originally a rather drab 30-storey bank, the strict height laws that now control the Bund were bypassed, giving the hotel some of the city's most enviable views.
The 180-room boutique property is also the work of acclaimed design firm Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), who were largely responsible for the Peace Hotel. Unlike other Shanghai hotels however, Hotel Indigo's design doesn't hark back to the Art Deco period, already well represented on the Bund, focusing instead on both the ancient walled city and the modern, exhilarating city of today.
Australian general manager Bruce Ryde says this was deliberate, but nonetheless a gamble. The Chinese market has long held a preference for hotels with grand marble lobbies and chandeliers, and Hotel Indigo with its chic, futuristic feel is at the other end of the spectrum entirely.
My bet is Kiwis will love it. Despite the distinct local flavour, there's a cosy familiarity to the property, perhaps in no small part to Aussies holding two leading managerial roles. As well as Ryde, executive chef Julie Donohue previously worked for Neil Perry's Rockpool and Wokpool in Sydney.
The sixth floor Quay eatery, is similar to cafes you'd find in Sydney or Auckland, with cafe-style food (there's even a blat on the menu) alongside traditional Asian or Japanese breakfasts, good Illy coffee and help-yourself glass bottles of fresh juice from a communal fridge. The elegant Char, on the 29th floor and boasting gob-smacking Pudong city views and one of only three Chinese sommeliers in Shanghai, feels like Sydney's Rockpool.
Aside from the terrific food, there's an intimate library, futuristic pod-like lounges for movie viewing, and an eye-catching lobby with a shipping influence. The lobby's design reflects the stack of historic steamers that used to dock at the nearby historic and recently renovated Shuliupu quays. A wall leading to the elevators was constructed from rusted pieces of old ships sourced from a local scrap yard. Ryde said the Chinese workmen who erected the wall were almost embarrassed by the recycled material they were given to work with, however the end result is striking.
One of my favorite memories is looking out over the bustling river from a freestanding bath, as a constant stream of cargo ships, barges and leisure craft passed by. I leafed through books on Shanghai and Chinese literature thoughtfully left in my room, with its hardwood floors, Oriental lamps, silk print wallpaper, antiques and hand-selected ceramics.
It would be easy to hole up here, but be sure and get out and explore the neighbourhood. A few steps out the front entrance will find you strolling the iconic Bund with thousands of leisure-seeking Chinese. Nearby is the historic Yu Garden and Bazaar, while to the right of the hotel is The Cool Docks, tipped to become the "next Xintiandi" of Shanghai with hip bars, restaurants, clothing and jewellery shops.
1930s Shanghai style
Not far away, in perhaps my favourite part of Shanghai, Le Sun Chine. The former Sun family home has been converted into an elegant 20-suite hotel in the French concession, within walking distance of the bustling, arts precinct Taikang Lu. It's one of the few remaining historic residences in this area, and is owned and run by young Chinese entrepreneur, Sebastian, who by coincidence shares the Sun surname.
The hotel has recently become a member of luxury boutique hotel and restaurant association Relais and Chateaux. As I sit and chat with the owner in the downstairs bar, with its English gentleman's club feel, we realise another coincidence: the same designer responsible for Hotel Indigo, British expat Julian Coombs, also designed this charming property. Balconies with columns, antique furniture, embroidered hangings, vinyl record players, creaking old floorboards and high ceilings with fans conjure the heyday of 1930s Shanghai.
The hotel is hidden down a quiet lane on the border of Shanghai's old British and French Concession areas. It embodies the elegance of the era in which it was originally built, right down to the custom-made shoes staff wear.
Each of the 24 guestrooms is distinguished by different architecture and palettes and is named after a historic street in the area. Now that I know the link with Coombs, I see his understated yet sophisticated touch everywhere.
Each morning a beautifully presented breakfast tray is delivered to my room and I enjoy looking out over the busy neighbourhood, strings of washing drying in the autumn sun, while tucking into piping hot, dumpling soup and baskets of steamed yum cha.
Afterwards I roam the narrow enclave of twisting laneways in the French Concession, now home to boutiques, cafes and galleries, before returning to a slice of Shanghai heaven.
Where to stay: The Fairmont Peace Hotel offers 270 luxurious, art Deco-inspired rooms and suites. Its "Perfect" package is priced from 1700 yuan ($323) plus tax and includes a dining or spa credit, for stays until December 31. Phone +86 21 6321 6888.
Hotel Indigo Shanghai: Rates, including breakfast, from 1480 yuan ($281) plus tax for a deluxe city view room. For a room with a view of the Bund or Pudong city skyline add 400 yuan plus tax. Phone +86 21 3302 9999.
Le Sun Chine: Rates start from 1598 yuan ($303) plus taxes per night for a superior suite including breakfast for two, if booked at least 21 days ahead. Phone +86 021 5256 9977.
Getting there: Air New Zealand offers three direct flights, increasing to four next month, from Auckland to Shanghai (around 12.5 hrs).
Shanghai's Top 5
Flight Centre's Angela Stockdale has just returned from Shanghai and shares her top five must-do's:
1. Stroll down the Bund. This famous waterfront is regarded as the symbol of Shanghai. You can look the river across to the Pearl Tower in Pudong.
2. Have dinner at the Fairmont Peace Hotel overlooking the Huangpu River, followed by an evening walk down Nanjing Rd. This is one of the world's busiest shopping streets.
3. Head to the top of Jin Mao Tower. This 88-storey skyscraper is the fifth-tallest building in the world and gives exceptional views of the city.
4. Spend a leisurely day in the French Concession. Visit Fuxing Park for people watching and learn about China's modern history at Sun Yat-Sen's house.
5. Enjoy an evening dinner cruise on the river and watch the lights turn on around the city.
* For more information on Shanghai, contact Angela Stockdale at Flight Centre on 0800 427 555.