By Allison Tibaldi, Taking the Kids correspondent
As I exited the airport in Shanghai, my preconceived notions about China seemed initially accurate. It was my first time visiting this country and I imagined I would be stepping into a land that had come too far too fast. I anticipated encountering a host of problems stemming from too-rapid development. Indeed, the air was smoggy, traffic was bumper-to-bumper and a general air of chaos was palpable.
But first looks can be deceiving. I boarded a high-speed train to Suzhou and in thirty minutes, I was transported to the kinder, gentler China of my travel dreams. If you’re looking for an experience that harks back to the China of yesteryear, Suzhou merits consideration. With its gardens, scenic network of canals, tallest Ferris wheel in Asia and kid-approved food, families should have a grand adventure.
Garden cheat sheet
Suzhou is known as the garden capital of Asia. Cities and towns around the globe have photo-worthy gardens, but Suzhou’s gardens are so unique, nine are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While Suzhou is a thriving metropolis, it enjoys a somewhat tranquil pace. For traveling families, space to run and breath can be a lifesaver while on the road. While traditional Suzhou-style gardens are not wild or rambling, they are a welcome respite from urban strife.
Classical Chinese gardens are precisely manicured and combine four elements: rocks, water, plants and pavilions. With a so many world-class gardens, your toughest decision may be choosing which ones to visit.
The Master of the Nets Garden is my top choice. It perfectly demonstrates Chinese garden designers’ sublime skill at synthesizing art, nature and architecture. This garden is more compact than most but its frugal use of space gives the illusion of grandeur. For a New Yorker like myself, it all looked strangely familiar. Why? Ming Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is modeled after the Master of the Nets Garden, so it’s no wonder I gravitated towards this serene place. You can take the girl out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the girl.
The Venice of Asia
Located along a series of scenic canals, Suzhou is called the Venice of Asia. It enjoys a reputation as China’s most beautiful city, thanks to its patchwork of waterways crossing the city. The best way to experience this city is on the water. Boat rides and kids go together like milk and cookies, and gondola-style vessels are at your fingertips, beckoning you to hop on board. Young visitors should be quite pleased to discover Suzhou from this vantage point.
Slurp some noodles
Suzhou is surrounded with lakes and rivers. The aquatic bounty translates directly onto your plate with artfully presented seafood. Deep-fried Squirrel Fish and Hairy Crab are specialties. Children do not live by fish alone and perhaps most appealing to young palates are the Fengzhen noodles. Long and thin, they are served soup-style with broth and meat. We slurped a giant bowl of these treats at Tongdexing, a casual eatery on Pingjang Road. If your family enjoys indulging in street food, Pingjiang Road and Shantang Street are venerable shopping streets and the perfect places to nibble on adventurous snacks, from zesty to sweet. Don’t miss this convivial mish-mash of grassroots entrepreneurial energy.
Ride the tallest Ferris wheel in Asia
Suzhou Industrial Park, often called SIP, is home to several modern marvels, but none more kid-friendly than the largest Ferris wheel in Asia. The 60 cabins take 300 passengers up to the top for a stellar view of Jinji Lake and Suzhou’s skyline. Visit on a Friday or Saturday evening at 8 pm and you’ll be treated to a dramatic waterscape show, the largest and most spectacular in Eastern Asia.
For additional trip planning information, visit http://www.traveltosuzhou.com