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Chongqing's charms

The Business Times | Debbie Yong | Monday, Apr 21, 2014

Banyan Tree's first hot spring resort, Chongqing Beibei.

The pagodas atop Jin Yun mountain try their best to motivate visitors.

Placards along the ascent beckon: "200 more steps to the summit". Our local guide boasts of the view, up top, over tranquil Bei Bei, a district north of Chongqing, while retiree residents from the 12-million-population city - drawn here for the much-needed oasis of calm - clamber past us gingerly.

But we plug on today, cramping calves and all, neither for the view nor for the potential shame in lagging behind geriatrics. Because the best reward is the one well-earned, the carrot on our stick, really, is the private hot spring soak that awaits upon return to our lodging for the trip, the Banyan Tree Chongqing Bei Bei.

The Banyan Tree brand's first resort in south-west China is also a first of its kind for the company: besides seven hot spring pools on the resort's main grounds - there are separate indoor hot spring baths for males and females. Outside, five pools offer a mixed bathing experience. But the key feature of the six-month-old resort is the private, in-room hot spring jacuzzis that feature in each of its 107 suites and villas.

The water used to fill each in-room jacuzzi is piped in from nearby natural hot springs and the water temperature is constantly kept at 38 degrees Celsius, which makes it both perfect for a balmy morning soak and a soothing way to rinse off a long, weary day - as we did after that mountainous trek. Ahh.

The next day, we repeat the work-reward cycle again, this time meandering along the caves and crevices of Jindao Gorge, a 10km, four-hour trek through verdant foilage. Wild monkeys, gushing waterfalls, turquoise lap pools mystically shaped like hearts and a short boat ride in between complete the Indiana Jones-que adventure.

But if you're the sort of weekend spa tripper (Chongqing is just a five-hour flight from Singapore) who still wants the buzz of city life, the resort will be able to arrange tours of downtown Chongqing, a 50-minute drive away, where you can pen in retail therapy sessions in destinations such as Hongya Cave. Built in the traditional stilted-house architectural style of the minority Bayu tribe, the recently refurbished complex is today a modern, commercial hive of late night bars, souvenir shops and hot pot restaurants etched into a cliff overlooking the Jialing river.

The best vantage point to take it all in is on a tranquil sunset river cruise, where you can watch the city slowly come alive at night - blinking neon lights and all. Or, if it all gets too tacky, seek solace from the madding crowd in the luxury boutiques and high-end department stores that make up Jiefang Bei, a pedestrianised network of roads that also serves as the city's central business district.

Businessmen looking for a quiet extended weekend stay after a long week of meetings in downtown Chongqing can have the resort plan a day trip out to Pianyan Old Town, a stone's throw north of Bei Bei. The 300-year-old ancient town was formerly the business centre of ancient China, but today plays home to a sleepy community of older folk who play high-speed Sichuan-style mahjong on circa-2014 automated mahjong tables. Join them for a round or kick back over a meal of traditional Sichuan delights such as beancurd dipped in chilli oil and spicy pig's ears, as the locals do, on dinner tables set right on the passing streams that criss-cross the town.

A more luxe dinner alternative, however, would be to head back to one of the Banyan Tree Chongqing Bei Bei's three restaurants. Ming Yue serves up international breakfast buffets and Cantonese dim sum, while Jin Yao Xuan is the go-to for the region's signature Sichuan hot pot, served in more hygienic individual hot pots. Those from a generation pre-dating the establishment of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority will revel in the availability of banned-in-Singapore animal innards such as pig's brains, duck's blood and the kway tiao-like duck intestines, all prepped fresh daily in Jin Yao Xuan's kitchens. For the squeamish, there is the more familiar fine Cantonese fare plated up at Bai Yun which, proud as native Chongqing residents are of their heritage, they will admit is one of China's finer cuisines.

Post-meal, head back to the resort's villas, built in the Min Guo architectural style - traditional Chongqing multi-storey folk houses that are a blend of Chinese and Western elements - and apply the relaxation ritual that has quickly become a daily mantra during our stay at the Banyan Tree Chongqing Bei Bei: Rinse, soak, repeat.

debyong@sph.com.sg

The writer was a guest of the Banyan Tree Chong Bei Bei and SilkAir Singapore. SilkAir flies from Singapore to Chongqing daily from $600 return.

This article was published on April 19 in The Business Times.

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