Club Med brings its signature bonhomie to Guilin in an ambitious venture, writes Mal Chenu.
The message in Mandarin and English at the resort entrance proclaims: "The goal of life is to be happy. The Place to be happy is here. The moment to be happy is now."
But after the long march to Club Med Guilin Resort - a 10-hour flight from Sydney to Guangzhou, an hour's flight to Guilin and another hour by coach to arrive here just after midnight - it feels more like an edict from the Little Red Book of Tourism Slogans than a sage Confucian insight. But over the next few days, I start to believe.
The Club Med GOs or Gentils Organisateurs (that's staff to you and me) greet us warmly, cheering and clapping and offering drinks. They have come straight from that evening's party at the world's newest Club Med. Set in a rural area between Guilin and Yangshuo in the Giangxi province in south-eastern China, the resort is the latest and perhaps most ambitious venture of the iconic French tourism operator. Where else can you start the day with tai-chi and a buttery croissant and end it with mah-jong and champagne?
The resort is as big as the ambition - a 46-hectare French/Chinese/English cultural potpourri of sculpture and art, deck chair-studded pools and recreational facilities, open spaces and quiet nooks, and trademark Club Med exuberance. The lavish welcome centre is a promising start with a spectacular view over the sculptures and lake in the enormous central park out to the hills (which they sanguinely call mountains) in the distance, romantically shrouded for my entire visit by the dark remnant clouds of Hurricane Usagi.
If you think the Club Med model of rough-around-the-edges in-your-face organised fun and pink cocktails went the way of cheese fondue, singlets and sunburn, you are half-right. At Guilin, the brand is polished, professional and obliging. The pink cocktails have survived, however, as has the family-friendly focus, which they say will suit the new cashed-up Chinese holidaymakers.
The all-inclusive food, drinks, entertainment and accommodation package that was invented by Club Med also remains, as does the wide range of activities. Think yoga, tai chi, rock climbing, tennis, archery, cycling, karaoke, pitch and putt golf, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, badminton and a well-equipped gym plus three pools. And if you're inspired by all the art, you can try ceramics, jewellery-making, Chinese calligraphy, painting and basic sculpture, all at an extra cost. The Comfort Zone spa has a sauna and steam room and a range of massage, reflexology and beauty treatments, also extra. All in all, Club Med Guilin is like a 46-hectare cruise ship.
The GOs are all from shiny happy people central casting. Delightful and eager to help, they seem to know just when to join in and when to disappear and their name recollection borders on the psychic. And when it starts to rain, the golf carts zip around and pick up people or bring them a brolly.
On an escorted bike ride we splosh through Usagi's muddy puddles and pass rice fields as we head out towards the hills that surround the resort. Toothless locals in conical hats drive their buffalo and geese and wave and smile rather than offer you discounts on something you don't want. You're just a 20-minute pedal from your next bourbon and coke but the feel out here is distinctly rural.
We're told the Guilin region is the prettiest part of China and the 50-odd surrounding karst hills/mountains make a lovely cradle for the nascent resort. More than 110 installations by artists from around the world dot the resort landscape and certainly add a touch of class, even as they compete for sensory supremacy with the pop music emanating from the regularly spaced in-ground speakers. You can get around by jumping on and off the 10-seater golf carts that cruise the pathways but the peaceful nature of the place lends itself to walking.
There are two separate hotels, in the disparate styles of architecture that typify the buildings around the resort - blocky poured concrete meets intriguing modern design. HOMA (Hotel of Modern Art) Chateau is home to 46 individually styled rooms better suited to couples and is set among a secluded Zen garden, terrace and more artworks. HOMA also has the relaxed Moon Bar, if you want a quiet tipple. The newly built 284-room Courtyard Hotel accommodation is better suited to families and has views of the central garden or surrounding "mountains".
Atelier (French for artists' workshop) is the centre of the action, housing the main restaurant, a large funky bar and quite a professional theatre. The approach to Atelier is via a long red carpet past immaculately maintained ornamental and swimming pools and the view from the bar and restaurant through floor-to-ceiling windows is of a cascading waterfall, a serene backdrop for a hearty breakfast.
The buffet restaurant offers an international cuisine including Sichuan, Canton and Hainan styles plus Yum Cha, Italian, roast dinners, curries, seafood, salads, fruit and cheese platters and desserts. Cooking stations offer any-style eggs for breakfast and more options for lunch and dinner.
A more intimate a la carte Chinese or western dinner is available at the Lotus Restaurant at HOMA at no extra charge.
You can also feast on Mongolian barbecue or hot pot in the rooftop Panoramic Restaurant in Atelier or grab a snack at the all-day noodle bar in the Courtyard Hotel.
If there's one thing Club Med does well, it's the nightly party. After another sumptuous dinner and the evening show - tonight a trapeze act by acrobats in impossibly tight lycra - the music and dancing take over, the drinks flow like Kool Aid and everyone bops with the energy of a thousand coal-fired coal stations. It's electric and infectious and the conga line is having a twerking good time.
Up early next morning, I observe two items of interest. The enormous grassed area in the middle of the resort is being hand-mowed by three dedicated employees, criss-crossing each other as they take on their Herculean task. And the waterfall has been turned off. Yep, that tranquil restaurant backdrop is ornamental. I probably should have realised there was no river running through the resort but I was too engrossed in my pork buns to notice.
The writer travelled courtesy of Club Med and China Southern Airlines.
China Southern Airlines has a fare to Guilin for about $950 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including taxes. Fly to Guangzhou (about 10hr) and then to Guilin (1hr 10min); see csair.com. From there it's another hour by coach to Club Med (transfer included). Visas are required for stays longer than 72 hours.
Packages vary according to dates and promotions. A current promotion available until February 18 is as follows: Seven nights: $1035 for adults; $390 for children (4-11) in a Club Room (Courtyard) for departures from May 1 - June 22 and from October 11 - November 2, 2014. Package includes accommodation, three meals daily, open bar and snacking service, Kids Club, sports and activities with tuition, daily and evening entertainment, return airport transfers and Club Med membership with travel insurance.
Sweet and sour
The Club Med Guilin Resort excursion program includes tours of the Yulong River on a bamboo raft, Longji rice terraces, Guilin, the Li River, Yangshuo and the Sanjie Liu Impression Show in the evening.
We take a cruise up the Li River and are assured we will see fishing cormorants. We do, but they are on the dock sitting at either end of a pole with their traditionally dressed owner charging five yuan (about a dollar) for a photo. Sweet and sour capitalism.
The cruise ends at Yangshuo, a tourist shopping city.
We wander past stalls knocking out embroidered Mao tea towels, pottery, stone carvings, bracelets, pashminas, scroll paintings, fans, silk everything and assorted plastic and wooden tat. There are lots of noodles, meat on sticks and beer fish, a local "delicacy". Caricatures of Mao, bin Laden, Hitler, Castro, Guevara and Stalin sit alongside Obama without a hint of irony.
Chinglish is alive and well and living in Yangshuo too. I decide against buying "Vigra" , which I imagine is generic brand Viagra, and a "Chinese Humburger" despite the hand-written "no good, no pay" sign and opt for a "scrapping pediruce", which turns out to be a callous-scraping pedicure.
Sadly, the Sanjie Liu Impression Show is another victim of Hurricane Usagi and is cancelled at the last minute.
The singing, dancing and light show spectacular is performed on rafts on the Li River and is produced by the guy who did the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Those who have seen it rave about the grand production that features a cast of more than 600.