36 hours in Chengdu

I was lucky enough to visit Chengdu this autumn with Dorsett Hotels & Resorts. Set on the western edge of the Sichuan basin, China’s forth city is not only thriving with cultural history and world-class cuisine, it is also the gateway to the country’s most magnificent natural wonders, not least, 80% of the world’s panda population. Unlike its bigger sister cities such as Beijing, Chengdu boasts a far more jovial rhythm, a captivating local culture and a plethora of tourist attractions.

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Giant Pandas playing in the early morning sunshine

Vibe

Despite being home to more than 14 million people, Chengdu is notably laidback. Whittle away the afternoon in one of the many traditional teahouses (do as the locals do, and try your hand at a game of mah-jong) or take a wander down Wide & Narrow Alleys, stopping to try local delicacies such as Dragon’s beard candy (a delicious Chinese sweet similar to spun sugar) as I did.

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Street food and culinary delights at Wide & Narrow Alley

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Wander

….down Jinli, an ever-popular and vibrant street, Jinli’s history can be traced back to the Qin Dynasty of 221BC. Soak up the atmosphere, inhale the spicy and irresistible aromas wafting up from tea stalls, and take your pick from one of the many Sichuan snacks, or xiaochi. Everything is rustled up on the spot and this place is the only street in town that you’ll get anywhere close to trying Chengdu’s 5,000-plus specialities, from rice glueballs to wontons and boiled dumplings.

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Beautiful tree decorations on Jinli Street

Ignite the taste buds

…with a Chengdu hotpot. The capital of the Sichuan Province, Chengdu has the highest density of restaurants and teahouses of any city in the world – some 42,000 at the latest estimate. Food crazes blaze across the gourmet scene like prairie fires, but the hotpot has been a longstanding Sichuan delicacy and is here to stay. With good reason, Unesco designated Chengdu the first City of Gastronomy in Asia, ahead of Singapore, Tokyo and Singapore in 2010.

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Sizzling Sichuan hotpot

Dine like a king

…at Yu’s Kitchen. This magical restaurant is by reservation only. Referred to by Fuchsia Dunlop as China’s answer to El Bulli, manage to secure one of the six tables as we did and you won’t be disappointed as chef Yu Bo delights the senses with an idiosyncratic display of gourmet Chinese dishes. Marvel at the beautifully-presented plates on the 32-course tasting menu, from alligator to truffle to edible ‘calligraphy brushes’ with sweet tomato dipping ‘ink’, all washed down with spherified jasmin tea.

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Just one of the dishes on the 32-course tasting menu at Yu’s Kitchen

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Our table at Yu’s Kitchen

Drink

…Tea. Natural wonders and food aside, it’s not just tea aficionados that should experience one of Chengdu’s greatest traditions – the teahouse. Traditionally synonymous with cards and mah-jong, discover these inviting houses nestled among the quieter corners of the city, perfect for a chrysanthemum or flowering osmanthus tea – a show in itself!

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Tea and spice markets

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Too many tea infusions to choose from

Cuddle

…A panda! These cute furry friends are the city’s main attraction, and the Giant Panda Research Base is an easy taxi journey (6 miles) from downtown Chengdu. Encompassing a vast 600 acres, this panda mecca is home to Giant Pandas and Red Pandas. The latter, smaller in size and rather endearing to watch as they happily played among the grass at breakfast time. Go at dawn when the pandas are most active, rolling around and climbing trees. For a hefty fee (circa £95) you can even cuddle one!

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Young Red Panda cub

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Just chillin’

& if you’re lucky

…catch a glimpse of the utterly adorable baby panda cubs, like we did!

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Little baby pandas, born just one week prior to our visit

Sleep

…In the comfiest beds in town. The beautiful Dorsett Grand Chengdu is perfect for those keen to explore both the city and surrounding areas. Fresh off the plane, the large bathtub and array of delicious lotions and potions made for a welcome night’s sleep as I dove face-first into this cloud of a bed on the 39th floor. With the curtains drawn, the room is enveloped in complete darkness guaranteeing even the most troubled sleeper an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

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Spacious, airy bedrooms and irresistibly comfortable beds at Dorsett Grand Chengdu

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Beautiful interior design in the lobby at Dorsett Grand Chengdu

Location is also hard to beat when it comes to Dorsett Grand Chengdu. Ideally situated in the lively Luoma Market area of the city, the hotel is just moments from the bustling Chunxi Road and renowned Chengdu sports centre. Metro stations just across the road render exploring the city cost-effective an hassle-free.

www.dorsetthotels.com/chengdu

Getting There

Many airlines fly from London to Chengdu, and BA launched a direct flight route from London Heathrow just earlier this year. Flight time: under 11 hours.

 

The Most Delicious Place In The Maldives

When I told a travel editor I was going to visit the Maldives for four days and that the resort I was staying at had 12 – yes 12 – restaurants and bars, she wondered if I could visit them all. The challenge was set. Could I visit all of the eateries at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, the resort with the most bars and restaurants in the Maldives, in four days?

I arrived at Malé airport tired and hungry, keen to get to my final destination to begin my challenge. The Conrad team there appeared like a mirage – I was whisked up to their private lounge to wait for my seaplane transfer, and a masseuse offered me a soothing back, shoulder, neck and head massage to counter the long flight. There was breakfast and wifi too. Happy days!  photo 1

It wasn’t long before I was transported from one cocoon to another, with a short seaplane hop. As we approached the resort we could see the two islands and the long bridge that connects them, stretching across the most perfect calm blue waters I have ever seen.

Cold towels and a chilled drink await as you step off the plane and onto the resort’s welcome pontoon. From there I was whisked to my room, a beach villa with tropical outdoor bathroom – including a giant rain shower and a square bathtub beneath a canopy surrounded by candles and leafy foliage.  There are a number of different rooms at the resort, including the iconic villas on stilts above the water, but I loved being right on the beach and having a little sandy pathway from my  door to my sun lounger by the sea.

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I had three mornings so plenty of time to try breakfast at both Atoll Market, the buffet style restaurant, and Vilu, located across the bridge with really amazing views out over the beach and sea. Atoll had a fantastical, mind boggling choice of dishes and a troop of chefs on hand to make any breakfast dream come true including a green juice bar and plump dim sum. Vilu was my favourite though – it was more boutique in feel with a small buffet and a la carte menu. They made a great Maldivian reef fish omelette with chilli and herbs,  delicious with fresh watermelon juice.

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Conrad Maldives_ Atoll Restaurant (4)

The Rangali Bar on the beach was a lovely spot for lunch as well as refreshing cocktails before dinner – the menu there was classic dishes and deli dining, lots of great wraps and salads. I loved Mandhoo Restaurant, opposite the spa. It follows the spa’s five elements philosophy, and you choose depending on the elements you feel inspired by. Or just what sounds good on the menu! Really great fresh seafood and fish that practically jumps off the plate – in an amazing setting. If you are lucky you can spot manta rays swimming past you.

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Dinner was where choices started to get really difficult! So many places to choose and so little time. A highlight for me was an amazing Japanese tasting menu at Koko, an intimate little restaurant that sits a very small group, sunken into the sand. The Maldivian chef whipped up melt in the mouth sashimi and perfectly cooked Kobe beef right before our eyes and spoke perfect Japanese to one of our fellow diners.

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I also made it to Sunset Bar and Grill to tuck into local lobster and wine from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s French estate, Miraval – a beautiful rosé that the Sommelier managed to lay his hands on because he worked there previously.

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Another evening we paired fine wines with tapas and delectable cheeses at the Cheese & Wine Bar – an amazing room underground where guests can enjoy a menu of 101 of the world’s best cheeses and wines to match. The floor in this hidden away room is silky, cool sand that you can dip your toes into.

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I failed my challenge though – I needed a few more days and a few more dinners. Ufaa, a brand new gourmet Chinese restaurant – was soon to open (it is now), and I had a look around Ithaa, the amazing famous underwater restaurant but will save dinner there for another trip.

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The wine cellar was somewhere all the guests were talking about – I popped down to check it out and it’s quite a sight – thousands of bottles of the best wine kept at perfect temperature and displayed beautifully underground. Guests are given fluffy slippers and blankets to keep cosy while they enjoy a personalised wine tasting experience with the Sommelier, paired with a delicious degustation dinner.Conrad Maldives_The Wine Cellar (7)

I also found time amidst the wining and dining to try outdoor yoga, snorkelling around the house reef, and a visit to the fantastic Spa to visit Christelle, the resort Naturopath for energy-boosting ear acupuncture and reiki. I actually didn’t feel jet lagged at all, during or after my stay and I’m sure the treatments helped. I did however feel rather full – I’ll be working this trip off for a while!

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www.conradhotels.com/maldives