Chinese travellers have a secret – they don’t spend their precious holidays in the smog-thickened air of Beijing or the overwhelming metropolis of Shanghai but instead flock to the southeastern port city of Xiamen. The city formerly known as Amoy has an enviable reputation, boasting a trophy cabinet full of accolades from ‘most liveable Chinese city’ to ‘cleanest air.’
Outside of Asia, it’s a different story – Xiamen isn’t yet ‘on the map’ but all that could be about to change. The city is developing at a break-neck speed and as a new wave of developments gets underway so the city’s cultural evolution gathers pace.
Siming Central Business District is where it all happens and that’s where I’m headed. Moments from Baicheng beach and the Shapowei Art Zone sit two sleek, sail-shaped skyscrapers that newly dominate the city skyline. Occupying the top of one tower is the Conrad Xiamen, the first of a new wave of luxury hotel openings in the city.
Following a ruthlessly efficient check-in I’m ushered into the high-speed elevator to my sea-view suite in the clouds. The room is a sophisticated haven of tranquility. From the hydrotherapy shower to the Bose speaker, the complimentary pillow menu and ginormous bed. The pièce de résistance is the bath, sunken deep into a marble setting and surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the ultimate ocean view. Beyond the glass sit fishing boats strewn across the harbor; the city on one side and Baicheng Beach on the other.
Some cities can be approached casually, safe in the knowledge that you’ll stumble across decent eateries, happenings and watering holes without any real forethought. Xiamen isn’t one of those cities; there are temples, islands, skyscrapers, beaches and malls to navigate and my language skills make that less than viable. Thankfully, the Conrad has an answer, an in-house initiative called ‘Stay Inspired’ which offers a curated collection of authentic local experiences broken down into one, three and five hour recommendations – providing even the most time poor of business travellers with an excuse to the leave the hotel.
There are myriad activities on the Stay Inspired menu but to get straight under the skin of the city I head to the bustling Eighth Market, under the expert shepherding of a local. Stalls proffering street food of all flavours and colours line the narrow streets – oyster omelettes, seaworm jelly and exotic fruits all feature highly. I’m mesmerised by a third generation street vendor stuffing pork into perfect little spheres as she hand-makes fish balls before serving them up in a delicious bone broth, a Fujian specialty.
Xiamen will win the hearts of any sweet-toothed travellers; from peanut soup to coconut tarts and Taiwanese Pineapple cakes stuffed with spiced jam, there are sweet treats on every corner. Unable to resist temptation we stop for tea and cake on a rooftop high above the hustle and bustle of the market. The panoramic view is one of constant contrasts; skyscrapers dominate the skyline yet plants, trees and flowers fill every space between. Xiamen is proud of its International Garden City status – and rightly so.
The other noticeable feature from on high is the number of locals speeding around on two wheels. Xiamen boasts the world’s longest elevated cycling route, designed by Danish firm Dissing+Weitling Architecture – the super highway allows thousands of cyclists to make an eco-friendly commute above the city each day.
Exhausted from the heat and the excitement of exploring I take a hiatus from sightseeing to cool off in the Conrad’s pool, encased in wrap-around windows 37 floors above the city. The hotel facilities are second-to-none and the fact the gym is open 24/7 is a godsend both in terms of my lingering jetlag and my inordinate dumpling consumption.
A highlight of my trip is a wander to the old ship building port of Shapowei, now home to Xiamen’s artist, fashion and startup communities. Abandoned industrial buildings form the backdrop to street art, skate ramps and sculptures in what is now known as Shapowei Art Zone. It’s here in this mini Shoreditch that I spot my first Xiamen hipster; horn-rimmed glasses, handlebar moustache, lumberjack shirt – all the trimmings. There’s an unmistakably European vibe in this up and coming part of town.
Candy-coloured nail bars, neon food trucks, a pea-green ‘matcha train’ and vintage vinyl boutiques – there’s nothing typical about an evening spent in Shapowei. I’ll readily admit that a German micro-brewery was at the bottom of the list of things I’d expected to find in this tropical port town, but Fat Fat Beer Horse was a nonetheless welcome discovery! And not just craft beer, but comedy too. We creep in and watch the tail end of an ex-pat comedy night before winding up in the neighboring Mojito Bar, full of raucous western students, cheap drinks and bad pop music. It’s Wednesday but the mood screams Friday and we lose a good hour or three dancing by the pool table like teenagers.
It’s impossible to travel Southeast Asia without taking in a temple or two. There are scores of Buddhist sites in and around Xiamen, Nanputuo at the foot of pine-clad Wulao Mountain is the most famous – hence also the busiest. For a more peaceful experience head to Hongshan Temple, a hidden oasis in the city, a labyrinth of bridges, ponds and pagodas. When we eventually make it to the top of the hill we are rewarded with panoramic views across the city as the sun begins its descent for the day. My guide, a Xiamen native, refers to it as ‘Magic Hour’ and she’s not far wrong – the sunsets in this city are something else.
I can’t bid the city farewell before visiting its most famous tourist attraction, Gulangyu Island. Xiamen is the centuries old ‘gateway to China’ and Gulangyu was once home to the diplomats, tycoons and traders who passed through it.
A twenty minute ferry from Xiamen port and I arrive on a car-free island a world and a half away, all colonial architecture, opulent mansions and botanic gardens. At first sense Gulangyu has a Disney-esque feel to it but as delving inland, beyond the Chinese tour groups crowding the island’s edges, it’s a privilege to see daily Chinese life in action.
On the return journey to the mainland I take in the view ahead of us. Xiamen is a thoroughly modern city, a heady mix of urban energy and natural beauty. The temperate climate, unspoiled beaches, lush gardens and burgeoning artistic scene give it a Mediterranean feel – and it won’t be long before international tourists flock there in droves.
Conrad Hotels & Resorts’ Stay Inspired initiative immerses guests in a destination by providing them with 1, 3 and 5 hour itineraries that explore local food, art, culture and adventure. For more information on Stay Inspired and the Conrad Xiamen visit www.conradhotels.com
Flights from London to Xiamen take around 16 hours and are operated by Air China, Cathay Pacific, KLM, Xiamen Airlines and others.