InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland opens: China's giant new hotel inside a quarry

I am in the cavernous reception hall of the InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland when one of the beautifully besuited and immaculately coiffured executives here to celebrate the opening of this, IHG's 200th hotel, asks what I think of it.

"It's insane," says someone. Which seems a little rude until I realise it's me.

This pops out without permission from my brain, which is somewhat overwhelmed by a hotel which cascades 16 storeys down the side of an old quarry and cost gazillions to build. Exact figures vary (two billion Yuan [$A400 milllion] was mentioned, as was $US500 million [$A705 million]) but it's a lot of zeroes.

"Insane, but in a good way," I gabble, trying for a save, "not in a lunatic asylum way."

Luckily, the executive suddenly sees someone he knows across the room and politely extracts himself before the hole I've dug myself gets any deeper.

Which is an apt metaphor, given we're on the first floor of a hotel which has been built into the side of an 88-metre-deep disused hole in the ground in the boondocks of Shanghai.

Imagine, if you will, Hollywood decided to make a mash-up of James Bond and Thunderbirds (don't scoff; if Black Panther can get an Oscar nod anything can happen). Well, this place would double as both the Bond villain's evil lair and Thunderbirds' International Rescue HQ.

Standing on my 9th floor balcony that morning, drinking coffee and watching artificial mist pump out from the romantic, single-tree islet in the middle of the artificial lake below, I really expected the whole thing to roll back to allow Thunderbird 1 to take off.

About 100 years ago this was a tree-covered hill much like the one that overlooks the hotel now. However, thanks to the exigencies of building nearby Shanghai (many of the edifices there would contain rock from this site) it was gradually whittled away until all that remained was a large hole (one of a dozen or so locally).

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Abandoned in the 1950s, it took until 13 or so years ago for some lunatic, sorry, visionary to come along and say 'let's build a hotel here'. And so it came to pass - this being the People's Republic of China, where the impossible isn't so much impossible as put in the 'this might take a little longer than usual' basket.

And so they set about "turning the wound into a treasure" and creating a 'groundscraper' where you go up to the ground floor and down to the 'top' floor underwater restaurant and double-storied loft suites. Honestly, I got stressed out just pressing the elevator button.

The hotel opened in November last year and so far most of the guests have been local Shanghainese checking out the architectural wonder away from the hustle and bustle of their home metropolis.

We are here not only to check out the new hotel but also to commemorate the opening of the 200th Intercontinental hotel with the unveiling of British artist Alexander Hall's specially commissioned artwork of 200 individually painted champagne bottles (and, yes, Sydney and Melbourne are represented).

Among the luminaries present is Martin Jochman, the hotel's bow-tie clad chief architect, who answers his own question of 'why build this hotel?' with 'why not?'

"It was," he tells an audience of local and international guests, "an adventure, a challenge, something that hadn't been done before, totally unknown territory, a hotel in a scar on the face of the earth. This was architecture that comes out of nature, … and we had no limitations on how we would go about it; we just had to use the quarry as best as we could."

In the end, he explains, they settled on a design where "the two things work in unity, where the quarry becomes part of the hotel and the hotel becomes part of the quarry".

The hotel has been designed with Chinese feng shui principles in mind and, from above, its shape supposedly replicates the well-known interlocked ying and yang symbol. It has 18 storeys in all, more than 300 rooms, two main restaurants, a lakeside bar, conference rooms, ballroom, swimming pool, gym and even an al fresco rock climbing wall for adrenalin junkies.

The best way to get the full effect of the design is to leave the hotel and head around to the viewing platform on the other side of the quarry. The top two above-ground, but low-profile, levels contain reception, the ballroom, the breakfast room, the Cai Feng Lou Chinese restaurant and an open-air Star Deck. The general sci-fi air of the project is enhanced by the fact that these levels looks like a flying saucer has crash landed right on the lip of the quarry.

From here, a glass atrium which contains the elevators flows down into the depths of the quarry in conscious imitation of the man-made waterfall on the opposite side of the complex. On either side of the atrium the convex and concave residential sections sweep out left and right.

At lake level there is a small gym and a funky indoor pool that's a little perfunctory in that it too seems to follow the ying-yang configuration (so no power laps) and is only about waist deep. Next to that is the popular Quarry bar, which sports a low-key steampunk vibe and opens up onto a lakeside terrace which is perfect for watching the nightly son et lumiere water show.

Below this is Mr Fisher, the underwater restaurant which is surrounded by massive fish tanks full of tropical fish – in water transported from the South China Sea. In this up-market fish restaurant you can tuck in while watching colourful reef fish, small black-tipped reef sharks and sting rays wander aimlessly up and down.

Also down here are the top-of-the-range 'loft' apartments – two level suites with aquarium-view rooms, balconies that back on to the lakeside and a 24/7 personal butler service.

As far as the interior décor goes, no expense has been spared when it comes to geological motifs. There are enough faux rock faces, geodesic shapes, stone colour palettes and industrial chic touches to choke a panda but luckily it's been done with the utmost taste.

On the downside, the Intercontinental Wonderland (the name echoes an extant children's fun park on the opposite lip of the quarry) is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Outside the hotel there's a main freeway, an abandoned shopping mall (now getting a new and somewhat hopeful facelift) but little else.

This is because the hotel itself is the destination and, at a 90-minute drive from Shanghai through some horrendous traffic, it's too far to be used as a base to visit, say, The Bund or the French Quarter.

There's a word for this sort of place: a folly. In architecture this is an extravagant building built by rich people for decoration only, a popular name for any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder.

According to Wikipedia, the "connotations of silliness or madness in this definition is in accord with the general meaning of the French word 'folie'; however, another older meaning of this word is 'delight' or 'favourite abode'."

It remains to be seen which this is.

Take a look inside the InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland in the photo gallery above.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/china

ihg.com/intercontinental

FLY

China Eastern Airlines and Qantas (codeshare with China Eastern) fly non-stop to Shanghai from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. See oa.ceair.com/au/en

STAY

Rooms at the Intercontinental Wonderland Shanghai start from 3771 Yuan a night (about $A770). The hotel is at Chen Hua Road No. 5888, Songjiang district, about a 90-minute drive from Shanghai Pudong International Airport. See ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/us/en/shanghai

Keith Austin was a guest of InterContinental Hotels Group.

See also: Bucket list: The hottest new hotels and resorts of 2019

See also: Ten of the weirdest shaped hotels

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