SHANGHAI With its improbable skyline of art moderne buildings that seem inspired by Flash Gordon in some far-off century, everyone's focus in Shanghai these days seems directed to the future. But standing in the panoramic window of my room of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, I can't resist looking down onto the exciting present.
Those cottony white things floating outside the window are the tops of clouds, and when they part, they reveal futuristic towers shaped like rocket ships, ray guns and exclamation points. A construction boom is creating an instant skyline that dwarfs the once-dominant stone buildings of the historic Bund district and I am staying in the tallest new building of them all. The Grand Hyatt Shanghai occupies the upper floors of the 88-storey Jin Mao Tower and bills itself as the "highest hotel in the world."
The eight-lane expressway from Shanghai's international airport, known locally as "capitalist road," has been open only three years and is already jammed with the Buicks of a suddenly affluent suburban population. This spring, a unique magnetic levitation train started offering an alternative that makes the trip from the airport at more than 200 kilometres an hour to Pudong, where the Hyatt is located.
Little more than a decade ago, this section of Shanghai along the Huang Pu River across from the Bund was dominated by rice paddies, but today its broad boulevards are lined with construction cranes raising towers for burgeoning financial and fashion businesses.
Upon arriving at the rocket-shaped building, a doorman escorts me to an elevator that is pressurized, so the almost-instant trip up to the 54th-floor hotel entrance doesn't create an eardrum-ringing pop.
As the elevator opens onto a soaring, glass-walled lobby, a hostess dressed in flowing silk is there to meet me with a bow. "Welcome to the Grand Hyatt, Mr. Immen. May I show you to your room?" she offers. We don't need to stop at the reception desk to check in; all the paper work has been done in advance.
Instead, she leads me to another elevator that arrives at a vast beehive-shaped atrium 33 storeys tall that glows with sunlight at its apex and is home to the hotel's rooms.
Because the hotel is one of the more technologically advanced buildings in the world, the rooms are a marvel in themselves. The lamps are touch-sensitive and brighten with a wave of the hand. The 21st-century décor might be described as minimalist or functional, but the well-cushioned chairs and bed have a remarkable comfort quotient. The bathroom, with a glass sink and shower stall, has half a dozen different levels of mood lighting.
And you'll want to sit and be amazed by the view. With the touch of another button, motors part the floor-to-ceiling curtains to reveal that view, which from this height also reveals the curvature of the Earth.
The entire hotel seems bathed in a warm, ethereal glow befitting of its place in the clouds. Everywhere you go there is someone who speaks perfect English to guide you through what could otherwise be a maze of restaurants, lounges and spa facilities.
I'm told this hotel has one of the highest ratios of staff to guests in the world and they are wired with technology to make sure that if you are having drinks in the bar, someone is discretely ready to guide you to the restaurant of your choice after you've finished your drink.
The hotel, in the middle of Shanghai's fashion district, seems to be a magnet for young hip Shanghaiese and clothing buyers from Europe and North America.
Wealth in Shanghai still doesn't boogie the way it does in Hong Kong. But when members of the newly affluent class want to have fun, they deck out in their evening best and ride up to Cloud 9, the art deco cocktail lounge on the Grand Hyatt's 87th floor. Food and drink
The hotel's Club Jin Mao has one of the more extensive menus in Shanghai. Pork features in many dishes, along with seasonal specialties including hairy crab, a local crustacean whose meat is so rich that it should be eaten with ginger, which contains an enzyme that aids in its digestion. The hotel also offers Cantonese specialties in a restaurant zone on the 56th floor, and neighbouring restaurants feature Japanese and Italian cuisine.
That old sleeping beauty Shanghai has come awake after half a century of slumber. A stay or even just a cocktail at the top of the Grand Hyatt is a must for understanding the booming city of the future this city has already become.
Grand Hyatt Shanghai: 88 Century Blvd., Pudong; 86 (21) 5049 1234 or 1-888-591-1234; http://www.hyatt.com. Rooms start at about $300 a night.