The Pleasure Dome

Arriving at Moganshan, the transition from one of China’s most tumultuous cities to the simplest of out-of-town pleasures is so rapid it shocks. Long known as a popular summer retreat and playground for Shanghai’s elite, the mountain area two hours from the city is a different world: dense forests of bamboo and pine crisscrossed by hiking and biking trails — a lovely, tranquil oasis high above the East China plain.

At the end of the 19th century, missionaries and well-to-do expatriates sought relief in the cool hillsides during Shanghai’s stifling summer months. Then came Chinese gangsters, who made the outpost their hideout in the 1920s. Later still, the upper echelons of Chinese society arrived, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong among them. After 1949, it was the turn of Chinese Communists to populate the mountain’s stately villas.

Having faded into the background for decades, Moganshan has only recently reclaimed its status as a popular holiday retreat. This resurgence is visible in the discreet luxury resorts and eco- tourism ventures launched by a handful of hospitality entrepreneurs dedicated to bringing back the area’s golden age. These pioneers have been hard at work transforming and building new, sustainable properties in Moganshan, aimed at urban Chinese vacationers as well as foreigners looking for an alternative, discerning destination.

Occupying 60 acres (24 hectares) of its own secluded valley and surrounded by bamboo forests, tea plantations and farming villages, Naked Stables Private Reserve is China’s first sustainable luxury wellness resort and equestrian center. Opened in 2011, it is the ambitious project of Grant Horsfield and his architect wife, Delphine Yip, who first created Naked Home Villages, consisting of eight hillside village homesteads, in 2007.

Naked Stables is a more refined concept than its older sibling. The idea sprang from the desire to provide an accessible beauty spot near Shanghai. “Having lived in the amazing surroundings of Moganshan for the last five years,” says Horsfield, who is originally from South Africa, “I wanted people to be able to experience the same feelings I do every day. With Naked Stables Private Reserve, we are aiming for what we call ‘sustainable luxury,’ inspired by the recuperative power of nature.”

The result is a sort of safari-meets-resort holiday village. Each of the resort’s 121 villas — divided between Tree-Top Villas and Earth Huts — has a personal butler. Cars are barred (guests are encouraged to walk or use solar-powered golf carts) and a range of customized activities (horseback riding, guided mountain hikes, kite- flying, yoga and meditation courses) is available.

The Earth Huts — essentially Westernized versions of African huts — boast environmentally friendly rammed-earth walls and vernacular design features like thatched roofs, raw-wood furnishings and cowhide rugs. The Tree-Top Villas have energy-efficient prefabricated panels, high ceilings, tactile wood surfaces and African- inspired hangings. Guests, however, may be most impressed by the balcony hot tubs offering panoramic views of the huge woodland canopy.

Naked Stables features its own fully equipped Equestrian Center alongside two infinity pools, a hidden plunge pool on the hilltop and the Naked Leaf Spa and Wellness Center, with nine treatment rooms, built on stilts, located deep in the woods.

Kikaboni, the property’s chief restaurant, is set among the bamboo forests of the resort and was inspired by dining spots like the French Laundry in Napa, Terroir restaurant in South Africa and Kikunoi in Kyoto. Recently relaunched under the Michelin-starred chef Stefan Stiller, it has nine tables, a degustation-only policy and a menu that changes every four to six weeks.

Naked Stables is not the only resort enticing well-heeled guests back to Moganshan. The Frenchman Christophe Peres and his wife Pauline Lee spent nearly five years building the upscale 40-room hotel Le Passage Mohkan Shan, opened last fall. Nestled in a tea plantation, it was inspired by the former manor houses on the mountain and the décor of French country houses, and built using reconditioned materials and timber as well as handmade French-style tiles for the floors.

Styled as “China’s first French luxury house hotel,” Le Passage is first and foremost a family- run business. “Moganshan was originally our weekend getaway,” says Lee. “When we first bought the land, there was little more than a hut here and an abandoned tea factory. Slowly, as a family, we started renovating it to create our own vacation house. Then the idea to add a few more buildings came about and, before we knew it, Le Passage was born. It was almost by chance.”

This personal, intimate approach to the property shines through the attentiveness and personalized service, where each guest is treated like an old acquaintance and a sense of being part of a small, bespoke community prevails.

The lodging has all the features of a comfortable family country house. Alongside the renovated tea factory, the couple have sunk a heated pool (fed by springwater), planted a 12,000-bush rose garden and built a library. Two dining rooms complement the complex, while a wine cellar is stocked with biodynamic French wines and Peres’s homemade pear brandy, Poire Pauline, sourced from local pear farmers.

Set in a dale called the Valley of Fairies, the resort is surrounded by hiking and biking trails, bamboo forests, a reservoir and small villages, and offers private yoga classes, flower-arranging courses and wine tasting and appreciation sessions. The aim, Lee explains, is to provide an experience-based retreat while embodying the spirit of a sojourn in provincial France.

“Le Passage, to me, is a bespoke, elegant and low-key escape,” says Peres. “A place where the decadence and wealth of Moganshan’s heyday can come back to life.”

First appeared in Inessence magazine, Autumn/Winter 2013.