Above, from left: The cowhide-covered lounge area in
Naked Stables’ Clubhouse; one of the 20 horses stabled on-site.
Luxury, sustainability, and adventure combine at Naked Stables Private Reserve
By Amy Fabris-Shi
Photographs by Todd Anthony Tyler
As resort welcomes go, this one is a little different. The resident steeds poking their noses over mud-brick stable walls as you motor up the long driveway to the Clubhouse seem to say “welcome to our world.” It’s hard to believe that we left heaving Shanghai just before the evening rush hour, and arrived in a Chinese tea valley in time for pre-dinner drinks around the bonfire, beneath a star-pricked sky.
Located 200 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, Naked Stables Private Reserve is nestled at the foot of Mount Mogan (Moganshan) in rural Zhejiang. These leafy slopes have served as an escape from Shanghai’s summer heat since the turn of the 20th century, when the city’s concession-era elite began building grand stone mansions, villas, and churches amid Moganshan’s bamboo glades and freshwater springs.
After Mao’s 1949 revolution, the hill station served briefly as a Communist Party sanatorium before gradually falling into disrepair. In recent years, however, China-based tourists have begun returning on weekends to enjoy the peaceful, undulating landscapes and hike amid the mountain’s bamboo forests, tea valleys, and villages. A century after it was established as a retreat, Moganshan is flickering back to life.
This revival is closely associated with one man: Grant Horsfield. After moving to Shanghai in 2005, the 34-year-old former cricketer from South Africa found himself lost on a cycling trip when he encountered a 20-person hamlet called Sanjiuwu, or simply 395. Charmed by the bucolic hillside setting and the warmth of the residents, Horsfield rented three stone farmhouses. Together with his architect wife Delphine, he set about converting them into rustic but comfortable eco-friendly lodgings catering to weekenders.
“I grew up on a farm and missed being close to nature and having a sense of quiet,” Horsfield says. “China is a bit behind when it comes to rural retreats and I wanted to offer urban dwellers a chance to get back to a simpler, more sustainable way of life—more ‘naked,’ if you will.”
Horsfield’s Naked Home Village debuted in 2007 and quickly expanded to include eight restored cottages; the families of Sanjiuwu supplemented their incomes by cooking meals for guests using produce from an organic farm. A model of sustainable, back-to-nature tourism had sprung up as swiftly and randomly as a bamboo shoot.
From such modest beginnings, Horsfield’s next project took on a scale and momentum that surprised even him. Having gained the critical backing of local government chiefs, he acquired 24 hectares of land lower down the valley. Plans were drawn up for Naked Stables Private Reserve, a US$29 million, 121-room luxury eco-resort that soft opened in October.
“This is a whole new level of nakedness,” grins Horsfield. But his vision is serious. “We are defining what sustainable luxury hospitality is in China in terms of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. It’s a model we hope to replicate across the country.”
Naked Stables set itself high targets, significantly upping the luxe factor from its sister property while staying true to a core vision of sustainability and integration with the local economy. The entire resort has been designed and built to achieve Horsfield’s goal of attaining LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
“We used three separate environmental consultancies,” Horsfield says. “Rather than just telling people it’s green, we want to prove it with certifications for all 70 buildings here.”
The property’s development involved a mix of pioneering and age-old building techniques, from prefabricated structural panels that reduced construction time (and thus the impact on the site) to vernacular stonework and rammed-earth walls assembled by local craftsmen. All water is recycled, bamboo pellets fuel boilers, organic gardens supply fresh ingredients for the three restaurants, and solar-powered electric buggies shuttle guests around the grounds.
The easiest way to reach Naked Stables is by high-speed train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, a 45-minute journey. (Hangzhou’s airport also receives direct flights from Singapore and Hong Kong). From there, a driver collects guests for the one-hour transfer though winding mountain roads and farming villages.
A gated driveway announces your arrival at the resort. Past tree-fringed dressage fields, the low earth-brick Clubhouse crouches beside trimmed lawns and a 20-meter lap pool. You’d almost expect to be greeted at the door by jodhpur-clad colonial gentry. Instead, your personal “host,” dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, arrives in a buggy to whisk you to your room.
Thick with fragrant pine trees, the adjoining valley has an entirely different feel from the clipped equestrian entrée. Steep forest trails lead to the beautifully styled guest rooms—either Earth Huts or Treetop Villas—while a stream at the bottom of the valley trickles into a reservoir beside an Afro-Asian restaurant called Kikaboni (Swahili for “organic”).
Designed for couples, the Earth Huts are inspired by traditional African rondavels, with conical grass roofs, circular beds, and crescent-shaped terraces. Their most distinctive fea- ture is the rammed-earth walls, which are both energy-efficient and ingrained with wavy terracotta sediment lines that contrast nicely with the draped-linen ceilings, crimson sofas, and log side tables.
On the ridges above are the double-level Treetop Villas, with two to four bedrooms. Set on stilts, they afford the most dramatic out-look over the reserve. Bedrooms on the lower levels are angled toward huge valley-view windows, with bathtubs built into a ledge. Upstairs, open-plan living areas decorated with cowhide rugs and African tribal accents provide plenty of room for lounging, and lead out to wooden sundecks complete with barbecue grills and hot tubs big enough for six.
Tempting as it might be to spend your days lounging, it would be a crime not to take full advantage of Naked Stables’ roster of outdoor activities, be that a gallop around the equestrian fields, a game of croquet on the lawn, or a fishing trip to one of the nearby lakes. Five kilometers of nature trails have been carefully laid down within the reserve itself. More ad-venturous guests can hike to hillside villages and steep bamboo glades of orderly bright- green trunks, each marked with the name of the family permitted to harvest them. Another trail leads through Sanjiuwu, where you can stop at Naked Home Village for a hearty meal of free-range chicken and bamboo shoots before continuing up the mountain to the original settlement of Moganshan. At the summit, be sure to visit Moganshan Lodge, owned by Mark Kitto, a former Scottish Guards soldier who went on to become a Shanghai publisher before retiring here to write his China Cuckoo memoirs. A keen local historian and genial host, he mixes a mean Bloody Mary and is happy to recount tales of Moganshan’s colorful past.
Less physically demanding activities are available as well, like learning how to harvest and roast tea leaves from Naked Stables’ own white tea terraces, or joining a pottery or calligraphy workshop. Bliss-seekers can avail themselves of a forest spa, while a kids’ club and programs like kite flying cater to younger guests. All of which makes for a broadly appealing retreat that will likely attract families and groups of friends—but it’s got plenty of sex appeal, too. A table for two set up on the property’s highest vantage point makes for an incredibly romantic dinner as the sun sinks behind the mountains, bathing the valley in purple light. For something even more intimate, inquire about the secret pool hidden on a rocky hillside outcrop. Communing with nature never felt so naughty.
Naked Stables Private Reserve, 86-21/6431- 8901; nakedretreats.cn; doubles from US$410, with a two-nights-for-one special until Feb. 29, 2012.
Originally appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mountain Magic in Rural China”)