Where art meets nature

MODERN TWIST: The rural sights at Club Med Guilin are spectacular.
MODERN TWIST: The rural sights at Club Med Guilin are spectacular.

Until recently, when I thought of China images of super-cities would spring to mind; high-rise buildings and bright lights too. But the China I discover is secluded and peaceful. I am in a Club Med cocoon where the culture is rich and the landscape dominating.

The karst mountains had us surrounded. These spikes rise out of the earth like giant teeth biting through the land. They are beautiful, arresting. Made of limestone, the formations populate the landscape.

Club Med Guilin is bordered by them, and it is this attribute that has given the area its Unesco World Heritage Site status, and is a main reason why it is such a popular tourist destination.

Located in the south of China in northern Guangxi, it is a 12-hour flight from Auckland to the metropolis of Guangzhou, then an hour-long flight to Guilin. After that, a 45-odd minute drive finds true seclusion.

We have arrived at Club Med Guilin in the middle of the night, but staff still provide us with an energetic welcome. With the resort shrouded in a dark cloak, it is not until morning that I see the real beauty of the land.

Spread across 47 hectares, the resort describes itself as being "where art meets nature".

It's a marriage that brings together art work from more than 150 artists from 30 countries. The pieces, which include a giant jacket on a coathanger protruding from a rocky mountain, are dotted about the property.

The land itself is an art work, resembling an oil painting with lush greenery and a bold blue sky punctuated by those mountains. Indeed, poet Fan Chengda of the Song Dynasty wrote of the area: "I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw."

I feel this is the case with my photographs, too.

At Club Med Guilin you can view the superb landscape from a number of locations. Gaze at it from one of the pools; stare at it while sipping cocktails in one of the bars; or watch it as you swing from a flying trapeze. You can do as much or as little as you like here; stay indoors for the whole time enjoying spa treatments and curling up in your room, or get active with golf, mountain biking and excursions.

But whatever kind of holiday you choose, be sure to make an appearance at one of Club Med's famous parties. We experience one on our second night. The staff appear to be having as much fun as the guests as they work the room, talking with us like we're old friends.

This is when the fun spirit of Club Med shines through. There's a DJ, disco lights, someone strutting about in a robot suit, and flashy dancers. We are encouraged to get involved as staff teach us basic dance routines. Everyone participates. Nowhere else would I shimmy in public, or join a conga line. But tonight we give in to the heaving, happy mass of people.

The night is topped by an elaborate fireworks display to mark the resort's opening. It is magnificently juxtaposed against that tranquil landscape, where the mountains are silent giants illuminated by the bursting colours.

Exhausted, exhilarated, I flop back to my room. There are two guest properties on site, the HOMA (Hotel of Modern Art), where I'm staying, and the Courtyard Hotel with 284 rooms with views.

The HOMA building is a white triangular structure with a grassy roof and is home to 46 rooms, each one individually designed and decorated.

While it would be easy to just slip into the pool for the day, or gaze at all the art, we are in China after all, and Club Med offers excursions to experience the local culture. Our first is a cruise down Li River. It's a trip that requires a bus ride into Guilin that sees us pass countless rice paddies, and farmers with buffalo.

Li River curls around the misty mountains, offering unforgettable scenery. The rain arrives so we spend some of the journey with our noses pressed against the glass, watching fishermen on the banks as we pass by.

After disembarking we wander up West St, a shopping area in Yangshuo. It's a pedestrian street, cobblestoned and lined with shops predominantly aimed at tourists; a one-stop street for pedicures, scarves, fake Rolexes, bag stores and postcards.

Walking up from the river, things quickly become more commercial near the top of the street, with a huge Nike store, and what could well be the most picturesque McDonald's in the world. These golden arches are nestled between historic buildings with, you got it, mountains behind.

We don't stick around to find out what a Big Mac tastes like in China; there are plenty of dining options back at home base. We enjoy most of our meals at Atelier, Club Med's main restaurant. It's a grand dining hall with many cuisines offered at the buffet: local noodle dishes, European options, a table full of dessert.

There are three other restaurants at the resort: The Lotus, a specialty option located in HOMA offering a la carte; the Noodle Bar; and the Rooftop Restaurant, offering Chinese specialties.

After enjoying a laid back day we decide to go on a bike-riding excursion the next morning. It has been a good decade since I last employed my bike-riding muscles, so I'm off to a shaky start but our guide, Kate from Christchurch, quickly gets us on the right path.

We take the easy track around the Club Med property. The land is expansive but only a portion of it is the resort itself, so it's not long before we're surrounded by bush and the hotels are long gone from our sights.

It's an enjoyable ride that features an interlude at the Limestone Cave. We hoist ourselves off our bikes and venture down a flight of stairs where staff have left morning tea for us inside the cave, complete with a coffee machine. If the staff were trying to make us feel special, it worked.

The cave is also available for special events - it would make a surreal wedding venue - and we're lucky enough to attend a cocktail party there during our stay (this time we get there on resort buggies, not bikes); the coffee machines replaced with canapes and champagne. I can't think of anywhere else you could enjoy a cocktail inside a limestone cave.

Our final excursion is a trip back to West St for more shopping.

We were also hoping to be in the audience for the Li River "impression" show, but bad weather means the river's current is too strong and the show cannot go on.

By all accounts this is a spectacular event featuring 600 performers - that's right, 600 - who stage a light show on the water.

It stretches for two kilometres down the Li River, with 12 mountain peaks as its backdrop. The directors - including Fan Yue, a choreographer of the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics - have crafted a show on what's described as "the biggest natural stage in the world . . . creating a dreamlike world".

We're fortunate enough to return to our dreamlike resort instead.

At Club Med Guilin, the landscape will beguile you and the resort's spirit will captivate you. Plus, you'll pick up a few dance moves along the way.

The writer travelled courtesy of Club Med.

Sunday Star Times