I have a friend who decided she had to stay in every single Anantara resort and hotel after she fell in love with her first one in Thailand.
After her rave reviews I decided the time had come for my own first Anantara experience, and soon found myself facing a very difficult decision. Which luxury resort in a beautiful part of the world should I visit?
There was a lot to choose from, and most were in places that I wanted to visit and hadn’t yet been to. In the end I decided to head somewhere a little unusual for western tourists, somewhere that I have a feeling we’ll hear a lot more about in the years to come.
The Anantara Emei Resort and Spa is found at the foot of Emei Mountain (Emeishan) in the Sichuan Province in Southwest China.
The mountain is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most popular summer destinations in China. In 2013 the area had almost 30 million tourists (29,948,900 to be exact), and of those only 46,000 were from countries other than China.
Last year Anantara became the first international hotel near Mount Emei, and now a couple of other luxury resorts are busily building to join them.
And in December a new high-speed railway from Chengdu started running, slashing the time it takes to get from the nearest international airport from two and a half hours down to 50 minutes.
The area is definitely getting ready to welcome more international travellers, but what can you expect when you get there?
The Golden Summit and Buddhist Temples of Mount Emei
The tallest of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, Mount Emei is the birthplace of Buddhism in China and an important Buddhist pilgrimage.
There are over thirty temples around the mountain, and it is also home to the largest Buddha in the world, the 71 metre high Giant Buddha of Leshan which was carved into a hillside in the 8th century.
You could spend days exploring all of the temples and Buddhas on the mountain, but one absolute must do is the Golden Summit.
I’m told in summer the temperature on the summit can be 14 degrees cooler than down below, and that people love to escape the heat as they visit the temples.
But when I was there it was a grey, misty, wintery day down below and I was all rugged up as we caught the bus most of the way up the mountain.
It was so misty that even after we got out of the bus and started walking up a series of steps I’ll admit I was thinking that I really could be anywhere.
I couldn’t see the view, the monkeys I’d heard of were nowhere to be seen, the combination of the altitude and a lot of steps was making me breathless, and I was starting to wonder what on earth I was doing up there.
Then we took a seat in one of the cable cars, and after grey, grey, grey and more grey outside our windows as we rose up the mist around us went white, and then we burst through to the other side.
All of a sudden the skies were blue, the trees were green, you could see snow-capped mountains in the distance and we were surrounded by white clouds, a far as the eye could see.
The Golden Summit’s Sea of Clouds
As we stood more than 3,000 metres above sea level, looking out over the sea of clouds I realised I wasn’t the only one who was blown away.
Anantara Emei’s lovely PR, Sunny Wang, was keeping me company and being my guide for the day, and despite visiting the Golden Summit many times before she had never seen it quite like it was that day.
It felt like we were up amongst the gods, or in a special corner of heaven, the real world left far behind. I could only imagine how incredible it must feel for pilgrims who take days to walk all the way up the mountain to be greeted by such a sight.
But it was more than the natural beauty that surrounded us. After taking in the view we walked further and I saw the rows of white elephants leading to a giant golden Buddha, 48 metres high for the 48 vows of Amitabha Buddha, with ten faces to look in every direction out over the world.
After visiting the Golden Summit’s temples, and just sitting in the sun, soaking up the view it was time to make our way back down the mountain.
As our cable car descended once again we went under the clouds into a grey day, but this time the mist felt magical. It also added extra drama to the monkeys, which were out in force on our way back down.
When I saw just how big those monkeys were, and the size of their teeth I was very glad I’d taken Sunny’s advice and made sure I didn’t have anything on me that the monkeys might want. Those guys looked like they could definitely rumble me for some food, and that’s one mountain experience I’d rather not have.
Of course when you think of China, monkeys aren’t the first animal that comes to mind.
Panda lovers know that Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, and as I had to fly in and out of Chengdu that meant it was the perfect opportunity to go and visit lots of pandas, including some baby ones.
But if you don’t get to the research base, there are also three adult pandas in a Tea Garden not far from the Anantara Resort, where you can also get a good fix of these adorable creatures. Oh yes, it was panda love for this girl and I could have watched them for hours.
Getting the Anantara Resort and Spa Treatment
There may have been plenty to see and do around Anantara Emei, but I could easily have spent days without leaving the resort.
From the moment you drive through its big gates (gates that some wedding parties have their photos in front of, even if neither the wedding nor the reception are held on the other side) it’s like being in your own little world.
There are 90 guest rooms, 40 pavilion rooms and 20 villas in the resort, including a presidential suite that has its own pool and jacuzzi.
My pavilion room had a view over the resort’s lake where I could watch swans swim by, and I had a walkway to my own little terrace where I could sip tea, have a drink or even do a little work on the free WiFi in the fresh air.
The artwork above the bed depicted the sea of clouds that I had seen from the Golden Summit, and the bed felt like I was sleeping on them, while I welcomed the sight of a nice tub to have a soak in.
The resort has one of the finest Chinese restaurants in Emei, where locals love to come and eat and where travellers like me can try some local delicacies and dishes for the first time
Guests can also take cooking classes where they go into the local market with the chef to see where their food comes from and then go back to the resort learn how to cook a dish or two. But beware, there is a live animal section to the local market and some bloodshed so if you’d rather not meet the meat, ask to stick to the fresh fruit, vegetables and spices areas or give that one a miss.
There are outdoor spas, a large swimming pool and a children’s pool, along with tennis courts if you’re feeling sporty.
Anantara Resorts are also known for their spas, and it was here that I finally had the chance to try one for myself. After being taken into a beautiful treatment room I took a soak in a rose petal filled spa bath, before being scrubbed and massaged with local herbs, and eventually floating back to my room.
Speaking the Language
The first time I travelled to China with a friend back in 2002 we made our way around with a small phrase book and a copy of the Point It Book.
As I mentioned earlier, the Mount Emei area is a very popular spot for Chinese tourists, but as international tourists are still very much in the minority there can be challenges if you’re like me and don’t speak the language.
Fortunately I had Sunny with me, but the team at Anantara Emei are able to arrange English speaking guides who can take you up the mountain, or to visit the pandas, or anywhere else you would like to go, so you can simply enjoy the experience rather than stressing about whether you’re on the right bus or going the right way.
They can also help you find some great local food experiences, including the One Arm BBQ, where you sit and BBQ foods over hot coals in the middle of your table as you drink hot spiced beer. Believe me, it works.
And remember while there may be some lost in translation moments when you’re travelling if you’re patient most people are friendly and happy to help. Brush up on your charades, learn a few key phrases and have where you’re staying written down in the local language so you can always find your way home for the night.
It’s a plan I hope to have the chance to use at other Anantaras around the world. My friend was right, it’s a great ambition to stay at every single one. Now that I’ve ticked my first one off the list, the question is, where to next?
Amanda Woods stayed as a guest of Anantara Emei Resort and Spa but all opinions and thoughts remain her own.
Amanda flew from Sydney to Chengdu with Cathay Pacific and DragonAir via Hong Kong. You can check out her review of Cathay Pacific Business Class here.