Queen of Kowloon

A legend in the hotel business, the Peninsula has unveiled a thoroughly modern new look, writes Sarah Maguire.

Ambitions for the Peninsula Hong Kong have always been grand. It was built in the 1920s with the intention of being the "finest hotel east of Suez", and nearly 85 years later the Kowloon landmark, the flagship of the 146-year-old Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd, remains known as the Grande Dame of the East.

And now the dame has had a 21st-century makeover. Any vestiges of chintz, pastel and bling have been stripped away, leaving rooms that are clean-lined and neutral, with only the finest materials and craftsmanship employed.

With the rooms so different from their former, plumper selves, loyal clientele are baulking at the changes. The hotel, however, is unperturbed. Before the renovation, unveiled in September, the rooms were more than ready for a going over. "You couldn't not say that it was slightly dated," a spokeswoman says. "No one could say it was of the moment."

And it is that now: in this $HK450 million ($55 million) refurbishment, the first since 1994, the pare-it-back-and-keep-it-beige design juggernaut has arrived at this venerable, 300-room hotel, bringing with it its colours of cream and caramel, walnut and dark chocolate.

From my tower room, the outlook is across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island and its densely packed city, one of the world's great urban views. Inside, however, apart from the spray of stainless steel, laser die-cut peach blossoms that decorate a wall in every room, you have to look for the evidence that this is a hotel room of the East.

There are touches of chinoiserie in the curved lines of table legs, calligraphy-inspired fabrics and in the sliding screen that shuts off the bedroom to the hallway, so your room-service breakfast can be wheeled in and left without hotel staff having to come face to face with your scary morning self.

Otherwise, a more direct Hong Kong fix might have to come from the room service menu, in a bowl of congee, for instance, eaten with that magnificent view spread before you, across a mahogany table and through big picture windows.

And there is always the lobby: that elaborate, gilded space, with its soaring ceilings, neo-classical arches and white-liveried bellboys in pillbox hats, retains the look-at-me glory of more showy eras, with the dress code to match: proper footwear, no athletic gear, and long pants after 7pm, please gentlemen.

Over breakfast in the China Clipper lounge, general manager Rainy Chan, impossibly elegant herself, says the hotel's new look is about less being better; everything is there, it's just not in your face. "We're going with the feel of a private jet or private yacht," she says. "Residential luxury" is another term used. That is, they want you to feel at home, if home is an exquisitely finished paean - complete with Italian linen, Poltrona Frau dining chairs, glossy burlwood cabinetry, mood lighting in a marble bathroom and walnut vanity table with retracting mirror - to the finest things in life.

But technology is the true standout of the renovation, Chan says; it sets an international benchmark in those stakes, she says, in keeping with expectations for the flagship property of a group that now has Peninsula hotels across Asia and the US, and with its first European hotel opening in Paris in 2013.

Some of the technology is in the form of in-room tablets on which guests can do everything from order room service and a movie to turn off the lights and operate the TV. You want a glass of iced water? Make the right taps on your tablet and it will be there in 15 minutes. Complimentary wi-fi access allows guests to make free international VOIP phone calls, and digital wall panels will summon the valet and check the weather.

But heritage and tradition remain integral to the hotel, the China Clipper lounge being a case in point. Open only to guests flying in the hotel helicopter, either on sightseeing jaunts or to and from the airport (you can also arrive and depart in one of the hotel's 15 Rolls-Royce Phantoms), it commemorates the World War II era of the Pan Am China Clipper seaplanes, which flew between San Francisco and Hong Kong. Photographs show wealthy passengers seated around a full-sized dining table and waving from bunk beds, not a seat belt in sight, more like a chi-chi guesthouse in the sky than a commercial airline on a mail run.

For lunch one day, we dine at Chesa, the hotel's Swiss restaurant which, apart from the upholstery and the carpet, has remained unchanged since 1965, right down to the crockery. It is one of only two Swiss restaurants in Hong Kong, the predominance of Swiss managers at the Peninsula explaining the presence of a restaurant designed as though it's snowing outside. In dim, cosy, chalet-style surrounds, as we twirl skewered chunks of bread in cheese fondue and eat boneless beef spare rib braised in beer, the sun is shining outside. Unusually for Hong Kong, even Victoria Harbour is a sparkling Sydney Harbour blue.

We know this because while the Peninsula might trot out dishes with caviar and black truffle and devote 40 staff each day to polishing the silver, it also encourages guests to look beyond the luxury, to get among it and find out a little of what makes Hong Kong tick.

On an Art of Hospitality tour, we are whisked around studios and galleries to see the work and meet the artists of an emerging Hong Kong art scene. Some of what we see, such as the giant pink tank at Kacey Wong's studio in the former industrial area of Ap Lei Chau, is a protest at the influence of mainland China; other work laments development that puts the price of property, in an already notoriously expensive city, even further beyond the reach of locals.

In a tiny nine-square-metre exhibition space at the back of a bookshop in Sheung Wan, a series of photographs by Ramond Ho show newly built high-rises shooting up behind the sort of old, low-rise apartment blocks that have been disappearing to make way for unaffordable new flats. The locals are bitter. Some of them are forced to rent spaces no bigger than a Peninsula Rolls-Royce; others remain with their parents indefinitely, even after marriage.

This gritty reality tends to fall away as the doormen usher you back into the cool of the Peninsula lobby where, if it's afternoon, a quartet of piano, flute, violin and cello will be playing on the mezzanine, a spot of entertainment for those who wait in the long queue for the hotel's famous afternoon tea. Come evening, jazz musicians will provide the live soundtrack to all the privilege and plenty.

When we leave, it is by Rolls-Royce; white-gloved chauffeurs make sure we don't bump our heads as we climb in; there is carpet beneath our feet and glossy wood panelling all around. We don't touch our luggage. All is looked after. In a hotel like this, one doesn't lift a finger.

It is a standard of service that is part of the Peninsula's legend. The Grande Dame's rooms might look thoroughly 2012, but some things haven't changed.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Cathay Pacific has a fare from Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong for about $1122 low-season return, including tax. From Melbourne there are three flights a day, taking nine hours 10 minutes, and four a day from Sydney taking 10 minutes longer. See cathaypacific.com/au.

Staying there The Peninsula Hong Kong, Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Grand deluxe harbour view rooms cost $HK8580 ($1055) a night plus 10 per cent service charge. Helicopter airport transfers cost $HK17,000 one-way; Rolls-Royce transfers cost $HK1500 one-way. Phone +852 2920 2888, see peninsula.com.

Touring there Art of Hospitality tours cost $HK6800 plus 10 per cent service charge (minimum two guests, maximum four). Helicopter flight-seeing tours (15 minutes) cost $HK6500.

Sarah Maguire was a guest of The Peninsula Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific.

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