QINGDAO, China - As millions of tourists crowd into Beijing for the Summer Olympic Games, thousands will come here - 430 miles east of the capital on the Yellow Sea - for 11 sailing events. In addition to boasting China's only major marina outside Hong Kong, the city is a miniature Bavaria in a country of plain white concrete - a century-old destination where the likes of Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek came to quaff beer, play in the surf, and bed down in German mansions.
I visited Qingdao in late March, when the peach trees that line the hilly streets were beginning to bloom and a light mist hung in the air. The 77,000-square-meter Sailing Center and Olympic Village remained under wraps for landscaping and other finishing touches. Still, groups of Chinese tourists in matching hats and T-shirts packed the Olympic Memorial Bridge that overlooks the center, snapping photos.
Construction of the center started in 2004, following a major cleanup of Fushan Bay. International Sailing Federation president Goran Petersson recently called the center, which will house 400 athletes from 53 countries, "the best venue I have ever seen." For spectators, a 438-room Intercontinental Hotel is scheduled to open in time for the Games.
But it is Qingdao's Old Town, three miles west of the Sailing Center, that contains the city's real architectural gems. For centuries a small fishing village, Qingdao was conquered by German forces in 1898, and German settlers built colorful stone mansions, churches, and the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery on the hills lining the area's six beaches.
Although the Germans abandoned Qingdao after World War I, their Christian legacy is apparent in St. Michael's Cathedral, a red-tiled Gothic church with twin spires that sits atop a hill overlooking the city. Despite being badly damaged, the cathedral's stained-glass windows and dome fresco survived the Cultural Revolution, and the restored white-and-gold interior is open to visitors.
The most costly building in Old Qingdao is the Governor's Mansion, built for the German governor-general in 1903 for 2.45 million taels of silver - $46 million today. Visitors are free to examine the mansion's rooms, filled with green-tiled fireplaces, wrought-iron light fixtures, and dark, heavy furniture.
In 1957, Mao stayed there with his wife and children on a summer vacation, and the house's managers seem to find this the only history worth noting. Placards detail what the Chairman did in each room, and the arrangement of his bedroom has remained unchanged for more than 50 years.
There also are tours of the Tsingtao Brewery, China's biggest beer-maker. The brewery, which was run by the state until private owners took it over in the 1990s, displays antique equipment, its modern packaging center, and a collection of beer ads through the years - and serves a half-pitcher per person. The popular beer is available on tap at convenience stores, carried home in plastic bags.
To satisfy a hearty appetite, the Monnemer Eck German Bar & Restaurant serves homemade sausages and Wiener schnitzel with hot mustard and fried potatoes. German beers such as Erdinger Weiss are on tap, but the Black Forest cake, fresh from a Chinese bakery, isn't quite as authentic.
The Zhanqiao Prince Hotel, formerly the Prince Heinrich Hotel, boasts the best location in Old Town, with rooms overlooking the rocky bay where residents gather clams at low tide. Reasonably priced rooms combine historic photos (Republic of China President Sun Yat-sen once stayed here) and fleur-de-lis wallpaper with flat-screen televisions offering English and European channels.
The hotel is next to No. 6 beach, a short swath of clean sand where Chinese men in Speedos play soccer, do handstands and swim - even in the gray, early spring.
In hotter months, beachgoers can take a break from the crowds and seashell vendors at Ajisen Ramen, a popular chain restaurant across the street. The extensive selection of noodles, such as clam and seaweed noodles, are served in deep clay bowls filled with rich broth. Then there's the best ice-cream floats on the beach, drowned in lemon soda or fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.
Wandering along the immaculate pathway connecting No. 6 beach to No. 1 beach, you can almost forget you're in China. Pretty green parks border the coastline, whose rocks glow a warm gold on sunny days. In the distance, the bells of St. Michael's Cathedral clang the hour.
Then giggling teenagers lounging on the rocks cry, "Lao wai!" (foreigner), and it's clear that Qingdao is still China after all.
Qingdao is a one-hour flight from Beijing or Shanghai. Air China offers several flights daily from Beijing to Qingdao, starting at about 410 RMB, or $59. There are direct flights from Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea.
Places to see
For a blast into Qingdao's Christian past, visit the hilltop St. Michael's Cathedral (15 Zhejiang Lu), whose twin spires can be seen from any spot in Old Town. Then examine the faded opulence of the former Governor's Mansion (26 Longshan Lu) and count all the placards marking a one-time stay by Chairman Mao. No visit to Qingdao is complete without a tour of China's most popular beer factory, the Tsingtao Brewery (56 Dengzhou Lu; www.tsingtaobeer.com),
but use caution in the Drunk Simulation room.
Places to stay
The Zhanqiao Prince Hotel (31 Taiping Lu) boasts an excellent location in Old Town and a historic feel. Doubles without a sea view start at a modest $54, while those looking out at the bay start at $100. The hotel's larger, more modern neighbor, the Oceanwide Elite Hotel (29 Taiping Lu), has four stars but less charm. Doubles start at $137.
Places to eat
For authentic German sausages and schnitzel, visit the Monnemer Eck German Bar & Restaurant
(173 Jiangxi Lu) on the east side of town.
Ajisen Ramen (www.ajisen.com.cn), conveniently located at No. 6 beach, serves cheap bowls of noodles and refreshing ice cream floats. Try the clam and seaweed noodles or the lemon-crush float, each about $2. When visiting the Olympic Sailing Center, which will host 11 events from Aug. 9 to 21, wander along Yunxiao Street just north of the harbor for a bite. Restaurants offer tanks of live seafood to choose from and multi-page menus of items such as "The Squid Was Asked."