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Luxury Hotels of The World: The Lalu Hotel (Taiwan)
To fully experience Taiwan's natural beauty, there's one destination that is universally praised: Sun Moon Lake.
It's the largest lake in Taiwan, and is so beautiful that Chang Kai Shek, Taiwan's first president, built a house there to vacation.
In 1997, after an earthquake destroyed his house, the lot was purchased and after five years of construction Taiwan's only six star hotel, The Lalu Hotel, was built. Shortly after it joined the ranks of Design Hotels, a premiere group of international boutique and luxury hotels.
I recently had the chance to stay there for a few nights and meet with the manager of the hotel to get the full tour.
When, after waiting a full six months, the chairman received the blueprints from the architect, he was furious. They showed a very simple design with long straight lines and no curves at all. For what would become the best hotel in Taiwan, it didn't seem very fancy.
The chairman was calmed down and after some convincing agreed to build the hotel according to the blueprints. The result, as it stands today, is a building which relies on high quality materials and workmanship, rather than gimmicks or fancy veneers.
This attitude doesn't stop with the architecture, but rather is echoed throughout the entire experience of staying at The Lalu.
Instead of waiting to be checked in, we were ushered to a couch in the lobby lounge, where we were served tea and almonds. When the room keys were ready, they were brought to us and we were led to our room.
The hotel is built on a hill which leads down to Sun Moon Lake. All of the rooms have huge balconies with tables, chairs, and daybeds on them, allowing you to enjoy the incredible view of the water whenever you're in your room.
The stained Cambodian teak floors of the room extend out to the balcony, creating a seamless transition when the full width sliding glass doors are opened.
The restauraunts were excellent. They have a Chinese restaurant, a Western restaurant (confusingly named "The Oriental Brasserie"), and a Japanese restaurant.
Our first visit to the Chinese restaurant was solid, but not noteworthy other than the view of the lake. The second time we visited was amazing. Particularly good was the eggplant and basil dish, which was so tasty that we ordered another plate of it after we'd finished the first.
Dinner at the brasserie was also excellent. My friend's steak was among the best he'd ever had. I couldn't find anything on the menu that meshed with my vegan and whole food diet, but the chef prepared a fantastic vegetable and pasta dish for me which was surprisingly well thought out and inventive for a last minute diet-appeasing dish.
Complimentary breakfast is also served buffet style at the brasserie. The huge selection ranged from sliced local fruits to grilled fish to traditional Taiwanese porridge. Even as a vegan the selection was so great that I had to get multiple plates to try everything I was interested in.
I'm so ticklish that I usually avoid massages. However, the Lalu offers Indian Ayurvedic massages which sounded so interesting that I had to try one.
I chose the strangest sounding one, which consisted of a head, neck, and shoulder massage coupled with twenty five minutes of pouring warm oil on the forehead.
The prologue to the massage was is adventure in of itself. When we arrived at the spa we were guided to the locker room.
Calling it a locker room is a gross understatement. Besides the usual array af lockers, the facility contains Japanese onsen style sit-down showers, a huge black stone hot tub with adjoining cool plunge pools, a cedar sauna, and a steam room.
After a quick shower and sauna I changed into my robe and was led to the massage room. Once there I was seated in a chair with my feet soaking in a cedar bucket full of warm water, smooth stones, and rose petals. Next to the chair was a pot of tea and some biscuits.
After a quick fifteen minute visit to the steam room in the massage room I got on the massage table for the Ayurvedic massage. I enjoyed the treatment a lot more that I thought I would, and even considered braving being tickled and going for another one the following day. The warm oil on my forehead seemed strange, but I was undeniably relaxed by the end of it.
I should take a minute here to talk about the tea. It seems like everything at the Lalu is accompanied by some sort of tea to match the activity.
At the spa the tea is light and refreshing, at the pool it's a sharp energizing ginger tea, and at check in it's sweet and satisfying.
My favorite tea by far, however, is the green tea delivered daily to the room. I'm a bit of a tea snob, especially with green teas, and I can easily say that it was the best green tea I've ever had. The best way I can describe it, which totally fails to do it justice, is to say that it tastes something like fresh steamed artichoke heart.
Every day I found myself using the room's electric tea kettle to heat up more water to resteep the leaves.
My only regret at the Lalu was that I didn't have a chance to visit the tea house next to the pool. I tried to go one day, but the rain had closed it down.
It would be easy to spend your entire trip within the confines of the Lalu, but this would be a serious injustice to the Sun Moon Lake area.
The landscape around the lake is a verdant mountainous jungle, punctuated by a temple and nine story pagoda atop a mountain across the lake from The Lalu.
In the middle of the lake is a tiny island which was once the top of a mountain before dams built during the Japenese occupation raised the water level of the lake. At any given time during the day there are a handful of boats docked around the island, with a few more coming and going.
A road leads around the lake to its various attractions: temples, hiking trails, fishing, a tea research facility, and a peacock garden.
We rented mountain bikes from the Lalu and made it to the Wen Wu temple and to the peacock garden. Even if you're a jaded traveler who has seen more than his share of temples, the Wen Wu temple is still worth visiting for its intricate design and breathtaking views.
The peacock garden was also interesting, although the peacocks were in cages due to the cloudy weather.
The next day, sore from biking and a visit to the Lalu's adequately equipped gym, we went down the street and rented electric scooters to get around.
Visiting the pagoda, built by Chang Kai Shek as a tribute to his mother, is a must for it's 360 degree view as well as the fun of ringing the giant bell at the top.
The service at the Lalu can best be described as perfect. The service is friendly and attentive without ever being overbearing. This comes as no suprise after Joe Tsang, the general manager, told us about the thorough training every staff member goes through.
Almost all of the staff speak English, despite the fact that only 5-8% of the visitors are from the US.
A perfect example of the service was a staff person named Mondo. I'm not sure what his actual job was, but when he saw us about to go biking he ran inside and got us water bottles and maps. Every time we saw him he would happily tell us about the area, ask about our bike ride, or apologize for the bad weather.
Having interactions like that really made us feel like we were guests, rather than customers that had to be catered to.
Attention to Detail
The attention to detail at the Lalu is legendary. More than just trivial afterthoughts, these considerations create an uninterrupted experience of genuine luxury and decadence.
A few of the more interesting things:
The shampoos, conditioners, and other shower acoutrements are housed in handmade ceramic jars
Two cages of songbirds hang near the entrance. At night they are replaced by lanterns.
The swimming pool, which is the longest in Taiwan, is cleaned daily by a scuba diver.
Honey served at breakfast drips from an intact honeycomb into a pot.
The mountain bikes for rent are perfectly washed and presented on a wooden floored showroom.
Chang Kai Shek's house was reconstructed on site complete with his office furnished with his original furniture.
Everything smells amazing, including the balconies which are supplied with incense that's lit at turn down service every night.
Fresh orchids are potted in every room.
After visiting the Lalu Hotel I understand why almost forty percent of their business is from repeat customers. Staying at the hotel is overwhelmingly relaxing and taking advantage of the activities in the surrounding area makes for a substantive and satisfying vacation.
My one complaint? The free internet in the room was distractingly slow. Then again, not being able to sit in front of my computer all day pushed me to get out of the room and enjoy everything the Lalu and Sun Moon Lake had to offer.
To read more about the Lalu or to book a room, visit their site at http://www.lalu.com.tw/