In a city with two of the world’s greatest grand hotels, The Peninsula and the Mandarin Oriental, it might seem perverse to go looking for alternatives, but I am always in search of smaller hideaway properties, which may offer greater intimacy and higher levels of personal service. On a recent trip to Asia, I decided therefore to try two Hong Kong boutique hotels, about which I had received favorable reports.
The Upper House, Hong Kong
Initially, I thought our driver had made a mistake when we reached the base of a gleaming tower that was clearly labeled as the JW Marriott. But at the last minute, we turned away to an adjacent entrance with a discrete logo that I recognized as that of The Upper House. Set in the Pacific Place complex, which also houses the Island Shangri-La and Conrad hotels, plus offices, serviced apartments and a four-story shopping mall, The Upper House comprises 117 rooms and suites located between Floors 38 and 49 of the Pacific Place tower. It is a sister property to The Opposite House in Beijing and The Temple House in Chengdu, all boutique hotels belonging to the Swire group, a British conglomerate dating to 1816, which also owns the airline Cathay Pacific.
The low-key style of the hotel manifests itself right away. No grand lobby, no imposing counter, just a coterie of young staff in dark suits who briskly check you in at a small podium, while tracking your luggage on iPads. A personable young staffer introduced himself as our “guest experience manager.” The appellation seemed a tad pretentious, but whether via email or in person, he proved invaluable throughout our stay.
The exceptionally attractive interior of The Upper House is the work of Andre Fu, a New York- and Seattle-based designer who also teaches at Cornell University, and it displays a spare Zen-inspired aesthetic that manages to be neither cold nor intimidating. A skillful mix of stone, wood and muted fabrics is combined with abstract sculptures and sensitive lighting.
To call the regular rooms “Studios” is no affectation, as they start at 730 square feet and hence rank among the most spacious in Hong Kong. Our “Studio 70” came with light wood accents, blue-gray fabrics and floor-to-ceiling windows that afforded a mesmerizing panorama of Victoria Harbour, with its perpetual traffic of watercraft set against a backdrop of the Kowloon skyline. The room’s unusual triangular configuration merely added to the drama. No detail had been overlooked, including a wine fridge, an espresso machine with a selection of teas and infusions, a 42-inch television with surround sound, a desk with multiple power outlets and unusually indulgent down bedding. We also appreciated the spacious dressing room and the “spa-inspired” bath with its dual sinks, walk-in rainfall shower and limestone-clad tub.
The 49th floor of The Upper House provides a spectacular setting for a superb restaurant, Café Gray Deluxe. Directing the kitchen is chef Gray Kunz, who made his mark at Lespinasse in New York’s St. Regis hotel. Here, Kunz oversees a menu that is season and market driven, but which, during our stay, featured dishes such as a cucumber roll of tuna tartare garnished with tobiko (flying fish roe); tortelloni stuffed with crab, spinach and ricotta; and quail glazed with verjus (the pressed juice of unripened grapes), with sides of grape chutney and couscous. The adjacent Café Gray Bar offers an exceptional list of wines and Champagnes.
Although The Upper House lacks a pool and a spa, it does offer a gym equipped with cardiovascular and weight-training equipment from Technogym, Precor and Keiser. And yoga classes are offered on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the delightful sixth-floor garden, The Lawn. (During the rest of the week, this secluded green space provides a welcome respite from Hong Kong’s hurly-burly, as well as being a relaxing venue for cocktails, wines and snacks.) The hotel is also an easy walk to Hong Kong Park, an oasis that also contains two fine small museums.
I found our stay at The Upper House satisfying in every way: The design is stylish; the atmosphere is hospitable; and the service was infallibly courteous and polished. I look forward to a return visit.
The Upper House 96
Refined design; spacious accommodations; an atmosphere of calm; the exceptional restaurant.
Not all cab drivers know the name, so it is good to have it written down in Chinese.
Good to Know
The hotel offers electric BMWs that are surprisingly peppy and comfortable.
Rates: Studio 70 Harbour View, $820.
Address: Pacific Place, 88 Queensway.
Hullett House, Kowloon
Across the harbor in Kowloon, just a short walk from The Peninsula, Hullett House provided an entirely different experience. The hotel comprises just 10 suites. Even more intriguing, it is housed within a converted colonial building, a rare survivor in a city that has a mania for destroying every vestige of its past. Built in 1881, Hullett House originally served as the headquarters for the Royal Marine Police. Back then, its slightly elevated location provided a fine view of the harbor. Now, alas, it is hemmed in by modern construction.
The suites are all individually decorated and generous for Hong Kong, ranging in size from 880 to 940 square feet; three have balconies. The various styles include art deco, Mao-inspired pop art, Confucian temple and Scottish baronial. It is undeniably kitschy, but at least the execution exhibits considerable artistry and craftsmanship.
Our suite, the “Shek O,” (named for a beachside village located on the southeastern coast of Hong Kong Island) was a fantasia in red and gold, and the embodiment of 19th-century Chinese opulence. Walls glowed with lacquer and gilded woodwork. Even in the spacious bath, the theme continued with a black lacquered vanity topped by a gold vessel sink. As much as I admired the theatricality of it all and the skill with which the concept had been executed, overall I found the effect claustrophobic.
Another shortcoming to the property, due to restrictions imposed on a “heritage” building, is the small reception area. It can accommodate nothing more than a check-in desk and a small counter. The space is so confined that whenever we went for concierge help — always obliging and reliable — we invariably managed to trigger the sensor that opens the front door. Also, the hotel lacks a gym, pool and spa.
Nevertheless, Hullett House contains no fewer than seven bars and restaurants. I especially liked The Parlour, a lovely spot for breakfast or early evening drinks. The walls of its East Room are decorated with hand-painted canvases of Victoria Harbour 100 years ago, while the West Room is dominated by a depiction of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a flamboyant illustration of the passion for chinoiserie in early 19th-century England. I also enjoyed Hullett House’s dim sum restaurant, Loong Toh Yuen, set within a re-creation of a classic Hong Kong teahouse, with dark wood furniture and elaborate carved screens. The menu features dim sum classics such as shrimp and pork dumplings with crab roe, steamed barbecue pork bun and steamed spare rib in black bean sauce, plus, unique to Loong Toh Yuen, shrimp dumplings flavored with rosé Champagne! This is a terrific spot for lunch whenever you are on the Kowloon side of the city.
There was much I liked and admired about Hullett House: the preservation of a fine period building; the distinctive décor; the variety and quality of the dining options; and the professional staff. But overall, it is not a place likely to appeal to a majority of Hideaway Report subscribers.
Hullett House 88
The distinguished colonial building; a location in the Tsim Sha Tsui that provides easy access to shopping and the Star Ferry.
Because the building is a repurposed historic structure, its layout is confusing and inconvenient.
Good to Know
The hotel has a vintage Bentley that can be hired for excursions.
Rates: Suite, $580.
Address: 1881 Heritage, 2A Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon.