Reimagining Ruins: Converting An Old Sugar Mill Into The Alila Yangshuo Hotel

Not too long ago, a journey through the mountains of China’s Yangshuo county would reveal a group of crumbling — if still imposing — structures. Nestled in the landscape between two karst mountains stood the ruins of an old sugar mill, originally constructed in the 1960s and left to be overtaken by time, eventually destined to be reclaimed by weeds and wildlife.

But thankfully, this was not to be. The building was purchased by Alila Hotel Group with a vision of turning these vast structures into a modern-meets-retro resort known as the Alila Yangshuo Hotel. The company enlisted the services of Vector Architects, a Beijing-based firm, to transform the existing facilities into a luxurious oasis, while preserving elements of the original buildings to celebrate its history.

The result is a retreat that functions as a particular gem of the mountainous Guangxi region, a hotspot with tourists for its striking topography. The existing complex of structures was repurposed and reimagined, while new structures were built to stay in keeping with the established industrial aesthetic of the sugar mill.

Interiors were designed by the award-winning Ju Bin of Horizontal Space Design. Natural and local materials like stone and bamboo are used throughout, a choice the hotel describes as one that creates the perfect balance of hard and soft. The main guestroom building emulates the “feel of exploring a karst cave” and sits in harmony with the surrounding landscape.

Guests have a variety of options here when it comes to accommodations. First up is the Sugar House Retreat, which opens onto a private terrace that offers a panoramic view of the karst mountains. The room features two twin beds, a rain shower in the washroom, and a luxury double vanity.

The Sugar House Deluxe Retreat, on the other hand, features a luxurious king size bed and deep bathtub.

The Sugarhouse Family Loft is the perfect option for travellers with young ones in tow. This room features a children’s room with bunk beds as well as a separate, private space for adults.

The Garden Townhouse boasts a sleek, minimal aesthetic. Floor-level suites offer a peaceful view of the surrounding heritage buildings, while suites on upper floors overlook a lush bamboo garden.

The Pool Villas are designed for “private indulgence,” with alcoves for in-villa dining and a private pool and garden for those looking to reconnect with nature.

Perhaps most breathtaking are the hotel’s two Heritage Suites. Located on the upper floors of the old sugar mill, these luxurious spaces — each occupying an entire floor — combine rustic elements with a clean, contemporary aesthetic. These rooms overlook the south-flowing Li River and surrounding green hills.

Guests in search of a fine meal can visit the Sugar House restaurant, which is located in the historical Sugar Pressing Room. The restaurant is farm-to-table, using fresh local ingredients to create a menu that fuses traditional Chinese fare with Western dishes. The restaurant also offers two seating areas: a relaxed, windowed indoor space, and an outdoor terrace that overlooks the lush green canopy of foliage.

The hotel spa is located in a cavern-like setting, inspired by the caves of Yangshuo’s karst mountains. A twisting staircase, built into the old sugar stock rotunda, leads down to an underground oasis. Here five VIP treatment rooms feature services that combine traditional Balinese wellness traditions and techniques with local ingredients for a soothing, invigorating experience.

This unique hotel is more than its accommodations; it is also a hotbed of cultural activity. Guests can partake in Literature Afternoon Tea, an event that pairs the treats and delicacies of traditional high tea with literature and art. The menu is decadent, with tropical pudding, opera cake, imported clotted cream, sweet potato layer cake, and more, all to be enjoyed in the bright sunshine. Various event spaces make this hotel ideal for larger events like weddings and family reunions. Also perfect for professional gatherings and important meetings are its unique outdoor creative spaces. It’s hard not to feel productive and inspired when gathered on plush furniture and surrounded by the lush greenery that hems the slow, sparkling river.

Steeped in heritage and infused with industrial chic, the Alila Yangshuo is a soothing getaway in one of China’s most breathtaking regions. And with recognitions and awards from Conde Nast, National Geographic Traveler, and InStyle, there are plenty of reasons to add this rustic-meets-modern getaway to your travel bucket list.


Images via Alila Yangshuo