Weekend in Huzhou

Hot springs, infinity pools and name-making architecture

With its spectacular architecture, Huzhou’s newest hot springs resort is putting the city on the map and aiming to draw people to a lesser-visited section of Tai Lake. Time Out takes a look around.

You might not have heard of Huzhou before, but you’ve probably seen a picture of its most remarkable hotel. While the city has remained in the shade of Suzhou and Wuxi on the other side of Tai Lake, the Ma Yansong-designed Sheraton Huzhou received a considerable amount of International attention for its architecture when the structure was completed in 2012. The 100-metre high hotel stretches up and over a short expanse of water like a giant Slinky – a landmark building on an otherwise unremarkable location.

Yet Huzhou is an increasingly popular weekend getaway for Shanghai residents, and Sheraton (together with the local government) is hoping to cash in on this status with an eye-catching building and an accompanying hot springs resort, which fully opened earlier this year.

Inside, the hotel is just as extravagant. The lobby features 20,000 Swarovski crysals hanging from the ceiling, while precious stones from across central Asia, including a giant, 28-ton chunk of jade which the local businessman owner had shipped from Iran, decorate the walls and floor. There is a method to MAD’s unusual exterior design however: all of the guest rooms get plenty of natural light and are afforded views of either the lake or the hot spring hills behind.

As unique as the main hotel’s architecture may be, it’s the hot springs that provide the real attraction here. The site includes over 100 natural spring water pools, 39 of them as part of a string of private villa complexes that runs between the main hotel and a spectacular hot springs centre. Also housing a spa and healthy eating restaurant, the hot springs centre looks like something from the Shanghai Botanical Gardens, with its retractable glass roof housing myriad pools dotted among a wide range of flora.

If you’re after more of a swim than a soak, there are two pools back at the main hotel complex – one indoor and one outdoor. The latter is a smallish infinity pool which gives the impression of swimming out over Taihu Lake (though this is probably the closest you want to get to such an experience given the questionable hygiene of Taihu’s water). A small flotilla of junks, anchored in a suspiciously picturesque formation but with fishermen present on board at times, provides a romantic backdrop.

The pools and the hot springs centre are likely where you’ll split most of your time on a visit here, with few attractions in the surrounding area. An adjacent development of restaurants, entitled Fisherman’s Wharf, doesn’t offer much to compete with the hotel’s own culinary offerings, which include a split Japanese kaiseki and Sichuan hotpot outlet at the top of the hoop and a specialist lobster spot beside the water. Boat trips are available from the opposite end of the wharf, starting from 30RMB/person for an 8-10 minute ride, but there’s little of note to see. If you really get stir crazy in the resort, downtown Huzhou features a surprisingly pleasant ‘old street’ of bars and cafés, with several providing courtyard-set outdoor cinema screenings in the evenings – head to Qingu Xiang, near Yichang Jie (钦古巷, 近衣裳街) for the best spots.

Generally, however, there are few reasons to leave the resort, and that’s likely the point. While the Sheraton’s website points out that the mountains of Moganshan are around 40 miles from Huzhou and that the pretty water town of Nanxun is even closer, you’re not really here for strenuous hikes or doses of culture and history – you’re here to relax and not do very much at all. And for that, the hotel is well equipped.

Rooms at the Sheraton Huzhou Hot Springs Resort start from 1,491RMB/night. Usage of the hot springs for hotel guests starts from 198RMB/day. There are two high-speed trains a day to Huzhou, leaving Hongqiao station at 7.10am and 6.05pm, taking around two hours and costing from 94.50RMB one way. For more details, see www.starwoodhotels.com