Retreat from the pollution, bustling streets and extreme population of China’s major cities and enjoy wind down time at Tai Hu Home. This Chinese retreat is difficult to describe, a luxury boutique resort on the south coast of Tai Hu Lake, located in Changing County about 100 miles from Shanghai. It’s not your typical hotel, and Tai Hu Lake region is not your typical Chinese destination either. This boutique resort is a combination hotel, commune and cultural retreat, set in the countryside on the outskirts of Suzhou.
Arrival at Tai-Hu Home
Our journey from Shanghai with a stop in Suzhou was a long one, but not because of the distance. If you’ve traveled to China, you already know; it’s the endless traffic and traffic jams. Most would opt for the high speed train, but with all of our luggage, we piled into a bus for the 100 mile drive from Shanghai to Suzhou. After spending an afternoon exploring the canals of Suzhou, we drove toward Lake Tai Hu, the third largest freshwater lake in China.
Once we left Suzhou, we passed through a myriad of tiny villages, shrines, and monastaries, with scenic mountains, and trust me, it’s difficult to resist the beauty of each of these (and many we didn’t resist). Our arrival at Tai Hu Home, which our tour hosts, Mandarin Journeys, remind us that this is not a hotel. We were told we were going “down the rabbit hole of cultural immersion.” My first clue was the quiet, traffic-less, backroads, winding to the entrance of the resort (of sorts).
This resort is spread out across different types of accommodations, all focused on experiential cultural immersion, accommodating adult and family retreats, and business meetings. It also caters to the new wave of wealthy Chinese, moving toward the healthy and feng shi life style. Other guests include foreign travelers like me and my 4 new girlfriends, from all over the U.S., all on our first visit to China and invested in learning more about its culture.
Privately owned, Tai Hu is self-described as a “four nuturing resort: nurturing one’s heart, body, temperament and wisdom.” The decor is very simplistic, starting with the white-washed buildings, including our villa suites to the right and back of the reception area.
Enter the main building and reception area, again white walls, scattered cozy, white seating with two reception desks. With just 28 “hotel” rooms, Tai Hu employees 70 staff members with 40 housed on-site. Literally, guests to employees are nearly 3:1. Even with 6 of us (including our guide Marc) descending at the same time, the two staff members checked us in quickly.
Simple, clean and relaxing are the words that come to mind about our accommodations in our “villa rooms.” Some of the configurations include family-style with 2 bedrooms, larger living and dining areas, as well as a deck.
My room consisted of a oversized queen bed below and above a closet, small area with a coffee pot, and a surprising large bathroom. WiFi was included, but for me it was super slow. Seriously though, the point of this retreat is, well, to retreat, so if you arrived to remain connected, then perhaps the Tai Hu Home is not for you?
Dining at Tai Hu
For our program, we dined privately in a separate room (although many of the guests opt for more communal, buffet style dining in the “main hall).
About the food, all I can say is WOW. The Chinese style of cooking and serving takes a bit getting used to as the staff continue to bring more…and more…and more food to our table. The centerpiece is a glass lazy susan, where more dishes, creatively presented, are added, and the guests at the table simply move the glass around the circular table to serve themselves.
Local food dishes included jelly fish, bamboo, lotus root, fishead, duck tongue, pigeon eyes, drunkin (freshwater) shrimp, fish from nearby Tai Lake, steamed rice and rice cake. Seriously, dining here is a job AND an adventure.
Cultural Immersion at Tai Hu Home
The main focus of this Chinese retreat is cultural immersion. Prior to arrival, guests choose from many activities, ranging from Chinese cooking class, pottery making, Mandarin lessons, tea experiences, Tai Chi lessons in the ancient courtyard, and/or exploring China via day trips. In 2016, Tai Hu will also be offering summer camp for ages 12-18.
We indulged in many activities from pottery making (with lessons from one of the important pottery families in China); cooking class — dumplings; and Tai Chi lessons in the ancient courtyard. You are also welcome to explore the owner’s private art collection, which consists of pieces from the Qing and Ming dynasties — ad fossilized dinosaur eggs.
You are in the middle of the country, but twithin minutes you can walk to the tiny (tiny tiny) village which offers a community center with a museum which documents the region’s fishing history and Lake Tai Hu. Also nearby is a small 150 year-old garden moved from Suzhou by the owner.
After spending 2 nights and 3 days at Tai Hu, I agree that it is a cultural immersion, the Chinese version of Eat Pray Love (in my opinion). The pace is slow, but after the culture shock of a few days in Shanghai, I absolutely welcomed the opportunity to unwind and unplug at Tai Hu Home. If you’re searching for a true Bucket List China experience, you should add a stay at the Tai Hu boutique resort.