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Fine hotels, but not all 5-star-worthy

LIJIANG, China - You are lounging in a warm plunge pool in the garden of a private villa while listening to The Goldberg Variations. Your robe and slippers are on the floor, right near the giant, pillow-mounded platform bed. You are thinking about having a brie omelet for breakfast, then a spa foot massage or a ginseng facial. You know you won't have to tell the bartender how to mix a dry martini when you order one before dinner.

LIJIANG, China - You are lounging in a warm plunge pool in the garden of a private villa while listening to

The Goldberg Variations

. Your robe and slippers are on the floor, right near the giant, pillow-mounded platform bed. You are thinking about having a brie omelet for breakfast, then a spa foot massage or a ginseng facial. You know you won't have to tell the bartender how to mix a dry martini when you order one before dinner.

Are you at the Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur or the Plaza Athenee in Paris?

Not even close.

You are at the Banyan Tree in the mountains of southwestern China, at one of the sophisticated new luxury hotels springing up all over this country. In Beijing alone, several new high-end hotels - including a Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental - are scheduled to open for the Summer Olympics in August.

You used to be able to count the number of China's five-star hotels on five fingers, so the emergence of world-class accommodations is welcome news for travelers.

China's new luxe lodgings come with all the flourishes: state-of-the-art electronics, exceptional settings, international cuisine, dreamy spas and designer decor. Better still, the rates sometimes are appreciably lower than at such accommodations in the West.

But in other ways, Chinese hotels don't always live up to their stars, partly because the government-sponsored rating system is based on facilities only, neglecting the quality of service.

"There are many five-star hotels in China that would be lucky to achieve a four-star rating in other countries," says Damien Little, a director for the hotel consulting group Horwath HTL in Beijing.

The main stumbling block has been the dearth of well-trained personnel.

"The number of quality staff is limited, owing to the poor level of hospitality schooling in China," says Guy Rubin, Beijing-based managing partner of Imperial Tours, which specializes in luxury trips to China. "Graduates are surprisingly ignorant of the service levels expected of them."

Last year, wanting to find out what luxury means in China, I stayed at some of the highly touted new hotels: the Commune by the Great Wall, about 50 miles north of Beijing; the Banyan Tree in Lijiang; and the Hotel of Modern Art near Guilin in southern China.

There were wonderful surprises, but sometimes asking for a hair dryer caused enough consternation to make me feel like a despotic empress.

Commune by the Great Wall

It began as dream houses designed by 12 Asian architects for China's new moneyed class. The models, which won a special prize for art patronage at the 2002 Venice Biennale, line a dry canyon near the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

It got better in 2005, when the Commune created a hotel by replicating four of the original four- to six-bedroom models along a neighboring canyon. The Kempinski hotel group, based in Switzerland, manages the property, bringing one of the best wine cellars in northern China to the two stylish restaurants in the clubhouse.

The Commune also got a beautiful spa, where I had a blissful, traditional Chinese massage, and a state-of-the-art children's center with a kiddie-sized Chinese teahouse, art studio, costume shop and water slide.

As a hotel, the Commune has logistical problems caused by the hilly, dispersed layout that were only partly solved by the introduction of shuttle service.

And the more I came to know the Commune and its inept staff, the crankier I got - a state of mind hardly conducive to enjoying fine wine or blue-ribbon architecture.

My room was in a Bamboo Wall villa by Japanese architect Kengo Kumo, a stunning split level encased in curtains of bamboo. But the clone wasn't as harmoniously sited as the original house in the neighboring canyon, and my room didn't have a view of the Great Wall or much furniture besides a handsome Japanese-style bed on the tatami-matted floor.

Getting breakfast in my room was no easy matter. I called room service early and got a man who couldn't speak English. When I tried my fledgling Chinese, he giggled. I finally managed to tell him I wanted toast and coffee, but he said he had many orders to fill and only one delivery truck.

"You go to the buffet in the clubhouse, all right?" he said before hanging up.

I called the front desk and got a clerk who spoke English fairly well, I thought. After I explained my problem, he asked politely whether I wanted a truck. I must have gotten through to him, though, because my breakfast arrived about 30 minutes later.

Things got better when I went for a walk past the original dream houses, including the Twins, contemporary cottages by Kay Ngee Tan of Singapore, and Distorted Courtyard House, by Rocco Yim of Hong Kong.

And I envied the American family staying in the svelte, low-lying Furniture House, by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. It was built of laminated bamboo around a courtyard.

Groups willing to share bathrooms can rent the original villas, which seemed more rewarding than staying in a copy.

A path leading to a wild, tumbledown section of the Great Wall departs the road near Cantilever House by Venezuelan-born Chinese architect Antonio Ochoa.

Banyan Tree Lijiang

Since the hotel opened in 2006, it has provided blissful interludes to many weary road warriors.

Banyan Tree is a small hotel chain based in Singapore that specializes in flawless service, tasteful hedonism, eco-friendly operations and extraordinary scenery such as that around Lijiang, 120 miles from Yunnan's capital, Kunming, in the far southwestern corner of China.

Visitors come here to see the mountains and enjoy the culture of the Naxi people, one of China's most colorful ethnic minorities. Naxi arts and crafts are on display in the beautifully preserved old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of glacier-fed canals, cobblestone streets, bridges and shop houses.

Development is claiming the wide, mountain-rimmed valley, so it was wise of Banyan Tree to choose a site in the bucolic farm fields about five miles outside town, near the village of Shuhe. It was once a stop on the ancient Tea Horse Road between central China and Tibet, but now the village is a quieter, miniature Lijiang.

Besides strolling and shopping for Naxi crafts in Shuhe, hotel guests go horseback riding in the foothills or trek in nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge. But, it's difficult to leave the compound once you pass through the peak-roofed portal.

Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the hotel is symmetrically arranged around a series of ever-widening courtyards that yield to a shop, lounge, bar and the Banyan Tree's two restaurants, one serving elegant Chinese cuisine, the other contemporary Asian fusion.

Beyond that, canals feed into a broad reflecting pool fringed by weeping willows. The branches were strung with red lanterns, a breathtaking sight at night.

Most of the guests were tourists from the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan who could afford rates - starting around $500 - that are high by any standard. Besides the sophisticated, pitch-perfect staff, made up of workers from all over Asia, I saw few other people, because each of the hotel's 55 chambers is a supremely private, single-story villa surrounded by its own gray brick wall.

My simple but elegant quarters were decorated with contemporary Chinese fabrics, lamps and furniture. Spring green bamboo brushed against the window behind the bed. The bedroom opened onto a palatial bath with an exposed double tub and dressing area. A small lounge had a settee built into the wall.

But the room's true glory was the stunning view from the sliding glass window in front of the bed: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, actually a series of peaks, stretching 20 miles from north to south and topping out at 18,360 feet.

Hotel of Modern Art

The hotel, near the honeymoon capital of Guilin in the steamy-hot, deep south, stands at the threshold of Yuzi Paradise, a 1,320-acre art park. The park, marked by Yuzi Mountain, is the brainchild of a Taiwanese cemetery tycoon whose legacy is a garden for modern sculpture that's too massive to be shown in most museums.

I knew almost nothing about Yuzi Paradise when I arrived at the three-year-old Hotel of Modern Art, whose marble building looks like a half-eaten white layer cake. Its shaggy courtyard and wide, sparsely furnished lobby display contemporary sculpture.

Staff members explained my entertainment options after I checked in. I chose a bike ride in the park, a ceramics-making class, and a boat trip on the Yulong River in nearby Yangshuo.

On opposite sides of the hotel's ground floor are a small spa and an Asian-American fusion restaurant, where I had a terrific tuna melt sandwich and a cooling passion-fruit slush.

Hip, young staffers have the same loose style of service as those at American boutique hotels, and I saw evidence of cost cutting. To save money on electricity, the halls on upper floors were not air-conditioned, although it seemed as though the temperature was well above 100. The only swimming pool was neglected and unappealing.

Thankfully, the air conditioning worked fine in my $130 deluxe double. Like the lobby, the room didn't have much furniture, but what there was had been chosen with style and humor. The walls were pale green, accented by a yellow armchair and bubble lamp. The round bed was surrounded by white gauze drapes suspended from a track, and one side of the room was lined by a wide, curving bay window with a view of several peaks as bizarrely shaped as anything in Utah's Monument Valley.

Yuzi Paradise has since opened the smaller and more luxurious Hotel of Modern Art Relais & Chateaux in the park.