It is a really good hotel, and most staff do try hard to live up to the Shangri-La brand. But you do have to remember it’s Harbin, and not Hong Kong. Be prepared for an unsophisticated tourist industry and do some planning before you arrive, and you’ll have a fantastic time.
We were originally booked into the Soffotel, but upon reflection after a few TripAdvisor reviews, decided to switch to the Shangri-La closer into town and the main attractions. Central Reservations were typically good, booking us in for two nights in a package deal that included airport transfers, breakfast and laundry service for around $250 per night.
We were met at baggage claim and whisked outside to the waiting car for the half hour or so drive to the hotel. Floor vents just inside the door blasted us with warm air, taking away the -20 degree chill of the outdoors. The literally warm welcome continued as Crystal from Customer Relations led us straight upstairs and checked us in in our room.
The room itself was alright, but a far cry from the Shangri-La in Kuala Lumpur. After we had a chance to catch our breath, we noticed the prominent smell of gas coming from the heater. We tried to settle ourselves with the thought that it was normal and everything would be fine, but the discovery of gas masks in the wardrobe and instructions of what to do in an emergency freaked us right out. We called down to reception for a room change, and Hanson was upstairs in a flash to show us some other options. He spoke excellent English and patiently escorted us to some other rooms. The next standard room also smelt of gas, which only left a smoking Horizon Club suite. Unfortunately Hanson was immovable on the price of the upgrade from a standard room to a suite, even though our original rate included most of the Horizon extras, so the additional $100 a night was a little hard to swallow.
However, the suite was immaculately clean and we couldn’t smell gas or cigarettes, and Hanson made the point of telling the housekeeper we passed in the corridor to take extra effort to deal with the smell. It was nice and big, with separate sitting room, two huge flat panel TVs with a decent selection of English channels, and a much larger bathroom than the standard rooms. My only criticism of the room, beyond the ‘80s Russian chic décor, was that the bathroom was by the front door, making the late night old man shuffles to the toilet a bit of a long journey through the sitting room.
The concierge was the villain of our stay, and had us desperately wishing for the abrupt disinterest of his counterpart at the Shanghai Soffotel. We emailed before we left, asking about tours of the Ice and Snow Festival, and were told to organise it with the concierge when we arrived. With the worst English of any of the staff we encountered, the concierge arrogantly leaned against the counter and chewed his face as he said tours would be impossible to arrange. He instead suggested that if we could find another couple, we could hire a taxi to take us to the major attractions, and have it wait out the front until we were done (because the taxis wouldn’t do it for just one fare). I know my wife and I are far from intrepid, but the fear of being left for dead out the front of some remote park in -18 to -33 degree temperatures didn’t really appeal to us.
We took up Crystal’s offer of “if there’s anything you need…”, and after being politely admonished for not arranging tours before we arrived, she promptly organised a private tour guide and driver for the evening. Peter was just lovely, picking us up from the lobby and taking us through the illuminated ice sculptures at Zhaolin Park, a freezing stroll down Central Street, and an obligatory stop at the Russian market. It was incredible!
Crystal was off the next day, so we did our best with the out of date guide book in the room and found Eric Lau from the Heilongjiang Overseas Tourist Corporation. Unfortunately Crystal’s Customer Relations colleagues made a bit of a scene when Eric picked us up, warning us that they didn’t know him, but I think it was more to do with his company falling out of favour with the hotel rather than any genuine safety concerns. But Eric was brilliant, handling the situation with real grace and class. He escorted us around the Sun Island snow sculptures, which felt like walking through C S Lewis’ Narnia, and then took us to the Winter Wonderland, complete with ice slide and KFC. Eric was invaluable and there’s no way we could have seen, and would have enjoyed what we did without him. He even recommended a great dumpling restaurant about 100 metres down from the hotel to the left.
The tour guides are all cash, but there’s a Bank of China ATM in the lobby, which links in with the international network, so you’ll be covered if you’re credit card reliant and a bit short.
The food at the Shangri-La was pretty good and diverse, from hamburgers and steak sandwiches to steamed bullfrog. Upon noticing I was vision impaired, the head chef, Lau, gave us a guided tour of the breakfast buffet and put his staff to work on made to order omelettes. The Horizon Club too was good, albeit looking like the bad guys’ lair on Miami Vice. The canapés were limited, but tasty, and the Harbin Beer they served was fantastic. The ice bar is certainly worth a look if you haven’t seen one before, but it was deserted when we went down for a peek.
Harbin is amazing in winter, and well worth a visit. We’ll definitely be back with our kids, and we’ll be happy to stay at the Shangri-La too. But we will be better prepared.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- A best business hotel in Harbin. It boasts a picturesque window view of the Songhua River. It is a 15-minute drive from an over-a-century Central Street featuring the Continental architecture, and from the Sun Island rated as a National 5-A Tourist Attraction. It is a 45-munite ride from the city’s international airport and 20 minutes from the railway station.The Hotel has 404 rooms with a spectacular view out of the river-facing windows, especially in icy and snowy winters. The rooms are finely decorated and fully equipped with free broadband internet access. The rooms are extremely clean and well maintained. The Hotel is well-known for its market-leading cuisines in its Chinese and Western restaurants. The Chinese restaurant serves Cantonese and local foods. The Coffee Garden caters international buffets, à la cart foods and beverages. In-room dining runs 24 hours. A vegetarian menu is available in all the outlets. Singing is performed in the Lobby Lounge every night. The hotel is really proud of its unparalleled catering services as well as its excellent banquet and conference facilities in the city. The hotel has a health and fitness centre, a business centre and a sundry shop. It also provides services like massage, air ticketing, laundry and limousine transport and parking. A waterfront park which stretches about 2-km is a few steps from the hotel. There you can enjoy a pleasant walk as well as a morning workout. An internationally acclaimed brand, professional service and hospitality philosophy will be an assurance of a high-end business traveler. ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Shangri La Hotel Harbin
- Shangri La Harbin