Passage to China Past
In the mountains just beyond shanghai, Cathy Wagstaff relives the colonial splendour of Moganshan steeped in French elegance.
it’s easy to see what first brought the burgeoning shanghai elite to Moganshan in the late 19th century. the hillside retreat is a balm for those scorched by the city’s blistering summers, blanketed in bamboo forests and scored with winding paths. at the height of its popularity in the early 20th century, more than 300 foreigners, alongside native shanghainese, came to Moganshan in summer for a non-stop parade of parties and social events.
in the last decade or so, Moganshan has experienced a renaissance. Villas have become hotels and inns, welcoming local and international guests alike. Few, however, have achieved the distinction of Le Passage Mohkan shan, nestled in the valley of an organic tea plantation and hailed as China’s first French luxury country house hotel.
echoes of France Winding down the driveway after a 2.5hour drive from shanghai, i am met with a gracious home that effortlessly fuses local architecture with French grace. the undulating hills seem to ripple as the mountain breeze catches the plantation’s tea leaves and the bamboo above, while thousands of blooming roses colour the garden in shades of scarlet and coral.
the overwhelming feel is one of nostalgia, which is just how owner and founder, French-born ‘friend of China’, Christophe Peres, and wife Pauline would have it. Le Passage Mohkan shan started out as a family retreat before Peres decided to open his slice of Moganshan to the world in 2012, and there’s a sense of intimacy that’s surprising when you consider the 40room hotel itself is a new build. the attention to period detail – worn leather armchairs, handmade cement tile floors, chandeliers, handwoven rugs – makes it seem a relic of a beautiful past.
this year, Peres and his team announced plans for La Residence, a standalone eight-bedroom villa perched on a private hilltop with a similar country-house aesthetic.
gourmet escape Le Passage has also garnered acclaim as a gourmet destination, and a leader of French cuisine in China. at lunch, executive head Chef Jackie Chen reveals little of the sumptuous delights to come in a three-course menu that enigmatically reads, “homemade smoked salmon – roasted chicken or cod fish – nougat glacée”.
the gourmet theme continues with an afternoon spent strolling the eighthectare biodynamic tea plantation, seeing the precision with which each leaf is picked. the gentle approach yields three high-quality teas, including an aromatic black brew unlike any i have tasted before.
My one night here is simply not enough to enjoy all that Le Passage and Moganshan have to offer. Museums, quaint neighbourhood shops, birdwatching locales and picture-perfect picnicking spots are on your doorstep, and those with an active streak have kilometres of trails for hiking and biking at their disposal. in fact, as a renowned cycling enthusiast who rode 12,000km across China, Peres himself is often your most enthusiastic guide.
For travellers seeking a hands-on culinary experience, the hotel’s French Cooking school inspires beginners and advanced cooks alike to learn the art of foie gras with in-house expert, Fabienne La Beyerie, and master the delicacy of the chocolate fondant.
the Lounge Bar and Fireside salon is a welcoming place for cocktails, before enjoying a relaxed dinner in one of the two pavilions beside the pool. Creative private dining spaces are dotted across the elegant estate, including an underground Wine Cellar that hosts tastings, surrounded by some of the finest vintages available in China.