James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon introduced readers to Shangri-La, a fictitious paradise, an exotic place of peace and tranquillity. Fitting, then, that the resort that housed SI's crew on its 10-day shoot in south-central China had the same name. The sprawling Shangri-La Hotel in Guilin is perched in the karst mountains that overlook the Li River. Even the smell of the place lures you in: Guilin means "forest of sweet Osmanthus"—the fragrant, flowering trees that grow all over the city.
The surrounding areas contain even more natural treasures. Take a 2½ hour car ride followed by a long hike up a mountainside and you'll wind up at Dragon's Backbone, where ripe green rice terraces stretch majestically for mile after mile, coiling around the mountainside. Or hitch a ride on a fisherman's bamboo raft—as Jessica Gomes did—for a leisurely ride down the Li and soak in the rolling landscape and untouched beauty of the province. (Though when it comes to hitching a ride, it really does help to look like Jessica.)
But a visitor need not be so adventurous to have a great time. Shangri-La—with its motto of "to treat a stranger as one of our own"—offers a wealth of alternatives. Spend the day being pampered in one of the spa's eight private treatment rooms (Mountain, Water, Sun, Moon, Star, Morning, White Cloud and Blue Sky) each offering a unique relaxation experience. Street markets serving, among other things, chicken feet, are within walking distance, while the on-site dining offers Cantonese, Hunan and Huaiyang cuisine, as well as mouthwatering local Guilin delicacies.
In Lost Horizon, the denizens of Hilton's utopia hardly age. Guilin's Shangri-La is so soothing, one suspects it might have the same effect on its guests.