China’s crowded, traffic-congested, chaotic cities call for a place to escape the stress and wear and tear, and the solution is Hainan Island, the country’s designated vacation spot — a mountainous, tropical forest ringed with white, sandy beaches.
In 2009, the State Planning Council launched ambitious plans to develop the main island of its southernmost province into a major tourist destination, “the Hawai’i of the East.” The 39,000-page “2010–2020 Hainan International Tourism Island Development Planning Outline” furthers the government’s provisions to cultivate additional areas of tourism, add international air routes, develop infrastructure, expand green options and improve living standards in order to achieve a “worldwide first-class island resort” by the year 2020.
Comparable in size and topography to Puerto Rico, Hainan is situated just 20 miles south of Guangdong’s Leizhou Peninsula across the shallow Qiongzhou Strait. Almond-shaped, the 13,000-square-mile island measures around 100 miles wide and long, encompassing cocoa and coffee plantations, sand and surfing beaches, colonial towns, heritage sites, gargantuan shopping malls and two gleaming cities. Around the same latitude as Hawai’i, it experiences reliably warm weather year-round.
Serviced by two international airports, with a well-developed highway system and an efficient high-speed train whizzing along the north-south corridor at speeds up to 120 mph, Hainan is easy to access and navigate. Taxis are inexpensive, and many resorts provide car service. The challenge is deciding where to begin sampling the island’s treasures.
Hikers and sightseers might want to head straight for the central highlands. Vivid green plantations bracket roads lined with hedges and lush palms leading to the sleepy small town of Tongshi/Wuzhishan, with its main street overshadowed by giant banyan trees. Nearby namesake Wuzhishan Mountain — the island’s highest and nicknamed Five Finger Mountain because of its resemblance to a hand — is marked with trails through pine-fragrant forests and valleys. You can hire a guide at local hotels, which range from chalet accommodations to luxury spas such as Doubletree’s Qixianling Hot Spring resort.
The highlands are the home of the autonomous Li and Miao minority populations, and some of their ethnic villages welcome visitors. You can explore a full survey of prehistoric stone tools, woven textiles and other artifacts of their culture at the Hainan Nationality Museum, once designated by the government as the best museum in China.
Devoted trekkers may prefer the tougher challenges of the Jiangfeng Primeval Forest Reserve located in Hainan’s less-developed southwest. Set up to counteract deforestation, its mature woodlands are harder to access, with only modest accommodations, but offer hardier hikers the chance to tour a region with bountiful plant and insect life and indigenous deer, partridges and gibbons.
The island’s predominant focus is serving travelers seeking sheer relaxation along the glorious white-sand beaches which wrap around the east coast from north to south. Surfers may stop off at Qingshuiwan and Shimei Bay, but many tourists fly directly to Sanya or jump directly on the high-speed train from Haikou and head down to the magnificent bays and beaches in the south: Haitang, Yalong, Houhai and Dadonghai. Strips of white sand, they are lined with elegant global brand resorts — Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Shangri-La, Sheraton, Westin, Conrad — each offering magnificent views, luxurious rooms and delicious cuisine.
More cosmopolitan sun seekers may choose to stay around the capital city with historic attractions and urban resorts augmenting its tropical ambience. A sprawling city of around a million people, Haikou is interspersed with parks and civic monuments. Just beside the reconstructed clock tower, a bustling market dominates the historic Old Quarter with storefronts and booths selling an array of clothing, souvenirs and local dim sum and hot pots.
Displays in the excellent mammoth Hainan Provincial Museum showcase renowned local artists and trace the history of indigenous crafts: porcelain, embroidery, bronze, pottery and calligraphy. A short ride away, the Temple of Five Lords honors historic out-of-favor exiled dignitaries who were banished to Hainan but made substantial contributions to the city’s cultural and educational development during their exile. Just outside town, the 150-square-mile Leiqiong Global Geopark documents the island’s volcanic history with exhibits of ropy, coral-like, twisted lava flow rock; lava tunnel caves; the Corridor of Amusing Rocks; and the actual crater of extinct Fengluling with stairways leading visitors down into its center, now a jungle of bright green foliage.
For all its high-rise towers and throughways, Haikou is a seaside city, and a gorgeous beach lined with green plantings, golf courses and pavilions sweeps along the coast. West of town lies the three-mile stretch where cyclers, picnickers and joggers enjoy public Holiday Beach. Adjacent to the convention hall and government center, the Shangri-La Hotel Haikou proves a popular refuge for people on business or vacation. Above the extensive marble lobby which stretches almost the length of a city block, all guestrooms feature sea and garden views, overlooking the strait which lies beyond the meandering outdoor swimming pool with three natural hot springs for bathing. Also in the hotel garden, Sirena, the city’s only seaside dining room, serves Mediterranean cuisine, and early-rising hotel guests can personally select their own fresh seafood by accompanying the chef to the small cove adjacent to the hotel where fishermen arrive daily with their catches.
Remote from Beijing and named a Special Economic Zone after it became an independent province in 1988, Hainan became a “Wild West” of free market trade. The economy has settled down but still includes giant outlet malls where tourists and locals shop for luxury goods duty-free. South of Haikou in Wanning, up to 300 international brands — such as GAP, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Versace, North Face and Samsonite — are represented at the Capital Outlets, which includes a bar, a children’s playground and serviced apartments with several nearby 5-star hotels. In the south near Sanya, the gigantic, swoop-roofed CDF Mall with luxury brands Prada, Gucci, Dior, Chanel and Rolex is the largest duty-free mall in the world.
For the time being, only 10 percent of Hainan’s visitors come from outside the Far East. Resort executives are eager to increase the number of overseas guests, courting international flights and adding English-speaking staff. Tourists are treated with great hospitality when they come to discover the wondrous island deliberately emerging as China’s No. 1 vacation spot.
Hainan Info to Go
Numerous international and domestic flights arrive at Haikou’s Meilan International Airport (HAK) and Sanya’s Phoenix (SYX), with expansion plans to open eight international routes in 2015. The efficient high-speed railway stops within a terminal at Meilan Airport. From Sanya Phoenix, the train station is six miles distant. Taxis are inexpensive, with a $1.25 drop charge covering the the first two kilometers (a little more than a mile). A 30-minute ride costs about $30. The extensive bus system is convenient and reliable for small distances. A 35-cent public bus fare covers the hour-long ride from Haitang Bay into downtown Sanya.
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