Uncovering the Secrets of Zhujiajiao with PPJ Tours

zhujiajiao teahouse view
The view from an ancient teahouse veranda in Zhujiajiao. Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.

Lower Yangtze River Water Towns

If you’ve ever been to one of the “water towns” that dot the lower Yangtze Delta, you’ve probably just followed the tourist hoards as they weave through the lanes and over the bridges, snapping photos where you can and buying the occasional souvenir.

I've been to several and while always fun for different reasons, I do find them a little similar in many ways - to the point that I am not sure if I've visited that particular one before. In fact, I have been to Zhujiajiao several times.

Recently I went along with Platinum Private Journeys, a tour company that offers bespoke tours to cultural cities within a few hours of Shanghai. (I have also visited Yuyuan with PPJ, read more.) But the visit there with PPJ was nothing like what I'd done before. On my own, I'm never quite sure where to go and it's easy to get lost in the winding lanes and alleys of these old towns. Visiting with PPJ opened my eyes to what treasures there are to see and allowed me to see the ancient city in a new light.

What to See in Zhujiajiao

Platinum Private Journeys has created an itinerary that guides visitors to Zhujiajiao through the ancient city and beyond the tourist hoards, a feat that the lone traveler certainly finds difficult. PPJ's guides point out the sights you'd probably pass right by when visiting on your own (like I did!). Right on Zhujiajiao's North Street, one of the most trafficked, PPJ revealed an ancient pickle shop at #287 that’s been selling its secret recipe snacks for over 100 years. It's fun to stop in and peruse the storeroom and even try some of their samples.

Right down the road at #309, you can stop in for a snack at a historic restaurant that’s also been there for over a century.

On our walk, we then headed through the crowded street to go up the stairs at #327 to discover a large, quiet room with large tables and open windows that look out over the rooftops of the city. Here in this quiet book-filled salon, PPJ can arrange for you to have a sculpture or paper cutting class. Unfortunately we didn't have time so had to move on.

From there, we crossed the quaint, covered Lanqiao Bridge to the City God Temple. Our guide told us funny stories about the history of the temple including why the stone lions here look a little different than the ones you normally find outside a temple.

We continued our walk to West Lake Street over the Yongfeng Bridge to a much quieter part of the town where the canals are lined with small guesthouses and inns. We stopped into My Way music café where the owner was tuning his guqin and I thought how nice it would be to sit and have a cup of tea and listen to him play.

Time didn't allow but we then turned a corner to find and ancient Post Office at #37 West Lake Street. Now a museum, you’ll discover the fascinating history of China’s postal system from ancient times to the Qing Dynasty. You can even write yourself a letter to the future.

A few more steps lead us to the boat dock where a private boat was waiting to move our walking tour to Zhujiajiao’s ancient canals. We got off at West Well Street and in a few steps were inside the delightful Kezhi Garden, a classical Chinese garden. Now only a fraction of its original size, the Ma Family garden is as grand and exquisite as only an ancient Chinese garden can be. It is here that the Chinese opera Peony Pavilion that is performed once a week within the garden.

Where to Eat in Zhujiajiao

PPJ has access to things the normal tourist doesn't. This became clear when we climbed the steps of a centuries-old teahouse that has now been restored to its full glory and offers one meal a night to lucky diners who are in the know.

We were treated to a traditional Chinese meal in a setting that seems like it’s been torn out of the pages of a historical novel. The main dining room is a classically decorated large open space where the ceiling is the painted rafters under the roof. It opens out to a long veranda that overlooks one of the rivers that snake through Zhujiajiao. In one corner, gongfu cha tea ceremony ware is out and you might be invited to sit and enjoy that cup of tea. In another corner, a large guzheng sits ready to be played.

 

In the center of the room an enormous round table was set with delicacies from the region presented beautifully on gorgeous porcelain. As the evening wears on and we enjoyed dish after dish, our host offered us her locally made tea-infused wine while we listened to her tell ghost stories – of which the teahouse has many.

Where to Stay in Zhujiajiao - Shan Yue Boutique Hotel

We stayed in the beautifully appointed Shan Yue Boutique Hotel. This small, luxurious inn bridges the old quarter of Zhujiajiao with a renovated new quarter called Shang Du Li along the riverfront. The hotel itself is a mix of new and old – with modern takes on the traditional architecture and decoration of the region.

This design-hotel has only four rooms so it's very intimate even though the structure seems quite large. Rooms are appointed with beautiful wooden floors, fine linens and ultra-soft beds. You’ll also enjoy ultra-deep bathtubs for soaking tired feet from sightseeing.

The hotel can arrange all meals. Breakfast is a traditional feast of rice porridge, tea eggs, dumplings and fruit as well as coffee and tea. You can relax in the afternoon with tea or a glass of wine in the tranquil ground floor lounge.

Where Else to Stay in Zhujiajiao - Ahn Luh Zhujiajiao Resort

While the small and lovely Shang Yue Boutique hotel is more my style, we did also visit the enormous Ahn Luh Zhujiajiao Resort. Just arriving at the driveway of the Ahn Luh is awe-inspiring.

The spectacular entrance of the resort has an ancient Qing Dynasty opera stage that has been reconstructed on one side of the drive and on the other side, becoming the main lobby of the hotel, an enormous 600-year-old Ming Dynasty Huizhou-style manor home. Both buildings were saved from decay and destruction and moved to the location from Anhui Province.

The painstaking renovation is obvious in the beauty of the outer courtyard building as you walk to the inner main house that serves as the lobby of the Ahn Luh Resort. The only modification to the original architectural features is the addition of a roof over the lobby. The two-floor main building once housed the family’s daughters in ancient times but now serves as a reading room and library.

Beyond the ancient walls of the lobby, accommodation at Ahn Luh Resort is hidden away in various forms of villa-style rooms, all with private gardens, though some even have their own swimming pools. There’s also a year-round heated pool near the main restaurant.

Booking

Seeing Zhujiajiao with PPJ really opened my eyes to how much I miss when I travel on my own - and I consider myself a well-traveled person whose specialty it is to uncover the hidden wonders of certain locations. I'll definitely be exploring more with PPJ Tours.

Contact Platinum Private Journeys to create your itinerary.

Note of Disclosure: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.