Story and photos by Sharon King Hoge

Hangzhou Stone Gate

Hangzhou -- A Visit to the "City of Heaven"

Beijing and Shanghai are must-see stops for visitors to China, but another city should be added to the mandatory itinerary. In contrast to those  capitals of modern urbanity, Hangzhou (say Han-Zo), the country's garden city situated just southwest of Shanghi, offers breathtaking vistas and a medley of cultural options.

Seven centuries ago, medieval Italian visitor Marco Polo declared it the  "City of Heaven the most beautiful and magnificent in the world." With much of its locale preserved by foresighted contemporary officials who  opted to outlaw heavy industry and focus on tech and tourism, Hangzhou  remains a city of unsurpassed beauty.

Hangzhou's heart is West Lake, a poetically beautiful body of water located right  in the center of town. Crossed with picturesque paths, bridges, and  causeways, it offers dazzling perspectives at every angle. Boats lazily float across to picturesque islands for picnics. "Impressions of West  Lake," a sound and light show created by the director of the Beijing  Olympics opening ceremony is presented nightly on a submerged stage so  that the actors appear to be walking on water. On another side of the  lake, crowds gather on shore every night edge to see a show of dancing  fountains.

Hangzhou, lake boat anchored for picnic

Water is also an urban focus at the Grand Canal. Hangzhou is terminus of the world's longest artificial river which since the 5th century has been  an artery linking Beijing and the sea. To this day freight-bearing  barges and ferries transverse the canal passing historic buildings and  warehouses lining its banks. Near its highly arched stone Gonchen  Bridge, the informative Grand Canal Museum describes the important role the waterway has played in unifying China. Across that bridge,  strollers find waterside cafés. museums devoted to fans, umbrellas,  knives, and a handicraft workshop where skilled craftspeople demonstrate traditional crafts from bamboo weaving to shaping purple sand teapots.

Hangzhou fan open

To the west of the city, XiXi Wetland Park acknowledges another vital role water has played in the city's past. Incorporating the charming wooden structures of converted fishing villages, the park is essentially an  four-mile square "pool" of water crisscrossed by meandering footpaths,  causeways, and islands. Local fishermen demonstrate how fish are caught by tossing out nets or by retrieving fish from the mouths of cormorant birds trained to dart into the water for prey and to bring them back. Visitors can glide through astoundingly beautiful vistas on quiet rented boats for picnics or stop at restaurants ranging from the funky Shenma  Commune Mash teahouse to the elegant open air restaurant at Misty Water  Fish Village.

Hangzhou wetlands fisher boat

Tea and silk are important products of the region. The pale yellow Dragon  Well variety grown in outlying Longjing is said to be the finest green  tea in China. Displays in the excellent Tea Museum illustrate the six  types of tea, it's role in history, and the proper ways to brew it.  Nearby the Silk Museum is devoted to what was once a principle product  of the city. The Zhejiang Provincial Museum chronicles the important  role of ceramics and porcelain. One of the country's most important  religious sites, the Lingyin Temple attracts visitors to its grand halls and peripheral limestone carvings of gods and deities. An extensive  Zoological Garden and the woodsy Hangzhou Zoo -- featuring two popular  accessible pandas -- are among other attractions.

Hangzhou Feilai Buddha

For shoppers, the town is scattered with upscale malls offering goods from Gucci, Armani, Hermes or Chanel.  Perhaps a little "touristy” the  Qinghefang Historic and Cultural district is a 2-3 block stretch of  classic buildings which have been restored and converted to shops  selling "silk" scarves, "jade" statues, and other take-home items, but  it does give an impression of the bygone city.  Another option is a  pleasant stroll down Middle Zhongshan Road lined with shops selling tea, silk, scarves, garments, snacks.

And then there's the matter of food -- so delicious that I never once had  to call for soy sauce. For breakfast, locals stop in the casual Ji Wei  Guan for dim sum, congee or noodles. 

A fish feast  at the Misty Water Fish Village starts, of course, with  fish soup but proceeds to beautiful delicacies such as a little bamboo  basket of fried sardines. At the Sunny Hotel, chef Jack Son has created a multicourse Tea Banquet with all dishes based on varieties of the  beverage. 

Hangzhou -- tea infused quail eggs

Hangzhou -- Restaurant Mash Radish

A former communist guest house, the Shangri-la Hotel, is set within a 40-acre garden set back from West Lake. In contrast, the ultra modern Hyatt with its bulging facade and efficient concierge is located right  beside the shore.

Currently a "Modern Marco Polo" has been appointed to highlight the city's  attractions. People who plan now can get a jump on the overseas  travelers his film and stories are bound to bring to the city of "Living Poetry."

Hangzhou Shangri la lobby mural

Logistics.

While there are direct connecting flights from Beijing to Hangzhou, the hour drive from the airport into town is almost equal to the travel time  from Shanghai.  Chinese visas are required.

In town, taxis are very inexpensive -- few trips cost over $5, but be sure to bring along the name of your destination written out in Chinese  script. The favorable exchange rate carries over to food and  accommodations with luxury hotels available from $100-$300.

© July 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.

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