Deep underneath China is a sea of a bubbling froth. How else to explain the proliferation of hot springs resorts around the country? Though most of them are garish tourist traps overflowing with yucky water, that shouldn't stop you—there are diamonds in the rough out there.
You don't have to go further than Zhejiang to get steamy. Wuyi (武夷)--a little town just off the railroad track connecting Hangzhou and Wenzhou–is an odd place to find some excellent hot springs. Nonetheless, it’s a popular destination for Chinese tour groups. Shack up at the Tangfeng Hotspring Resort where a standard room runs RMB358 a night on weekends. A day pass to the hot springs pool costs an extra RMB90 (more if you’re not actually staying at the hotel). We recommend you splurge on a Japanese-style suite with its own private pool. The two dozen outdoor pools are co-ed, so they’re amendable to families and friends. There’s even a little water slide for kids. The best time to soak is evening when the tourists mob the buffet, leaving you alone to enjoy a genuinely tranquil atmosphere. Take the train to Wenzhou and get off at Wuyi.
If you’re after an adventure, head to Ninghai (宁海), about an hour outside of Ningbo, where you’ll find the Ninghai Forest Hot Springs. This is the most scenic of all the options because it really is surrounded by a forest and hills so you get a little of that misty nature thing happening as you soak outdoors. Day passes cost RMB198. Take an express bus (快客) to Ningbo, then hop off to Ninghai from the Ningbo South Bus Station.
Ninety kilometers outside Lhasa, find Yangbajing (羊八井), the highest hot springs in the world. It’s so good, Michael Palin stopped here on his way around the world. A constant mist swirls off the top of the superheated waters. For less than a hundred RMB you can have a soak while contemplating the biggest sky you’ve ever seen. Downside? The feng shui is compromised by a huge geothermal power plant that powers most of Lhasa. If you want something more au naturale, then head to the Pailong Hot Springs (排龙温泉) a bit further away.
Sichuan must be sitting on volcano, because it’s covered in hot springs. Chongqing’s got so many, they forgo names and just call them North, East, South and West depending on direction. But for our kuai, Emeishan has the right combo of natural scenery and nourishing waters. The two main resorts there are the Hongzhu (红朱温泉) and Tianyi (天颐温泉), and both afford views on one of China’s mystical Buddhist mountains. The hotel facilities aren’t the five-star that’s advertised, but there’s nothing better in the area.
The most famous hot springs in China are in Huaqing (华清), just outside of Xi’an and not far from the Terra Cotta Warriors. This where Tang Emperor Xuanzong and his number one concubine Yang Guifei used to double dip. The ancient marble baths are still there and so are the springs. For a hefty fee you can bathe in the springs on the ancient palace grounds. Lintong, the surrounding town, also has plenty of hot springs hotels.
Emperors loved their hot springs, and so it’s no surprise that Nanjing has them too, mainly concentrated in the village of Tangshan about an hour outside the city. The best option there is the Kayumanis Resort. Kayumanis is a legendary name in the Asia hospitality industry, and this property, composed of only 21 villas, made the Conde Nast Traveler Hot List in 2008. The villas all have private hot springs and cold plunge pools and are all surrounded by high walls, making bathrobes optional even in the heart of winter. You won’t find a sexier hot springs hideaway.
Guangdong might have the most hot springs resorts per square kilometer in China, but the most a famous of the bunch is the Zhongshan Hot Spring Hotel (广东中山温泉宾馆) which sits in a forest at the foot of a mountain near Zhuhai. The spa alone sprawls across 30,000 sq. meters and on a sunny day feels like Palm Springs. It’s a favorite destination of high rollers from Hong Kong and Macau, and the servers know how to make a splash.
And if you want a slice of true wilderness amazingness, there is a small natural hot spring just inside the entrance to the Aershan National Forest where Mongolia, China and Russia converge. It's not fancy, but it is very clean. With snow on the ground all around, it's a real winter wonderland.