“Zdravstvujtye,” said the bikini-clad Chinese girl who approached me, her hands full of brochures for recently opened dance clubs. I shook my head.
“I don’t speak Russian,” I said, drinking in the view of the half-deserted beach and aquamarine water before flipping over in the sand.
The residents of Hainan Island off the southern coast of China mistook my nationality during most of my four-night stay in the resort town of Sanya. Hainan, often called the “Chinese Hawaii,” has long provided a wintertime escape for mainland Chinese tourists and their Russian neighbors. But a growing number of Western travelers are discovering the tropical island’s perfectly formed waves and white-sand beaches, only a 90-minute flight from Hong Kong and three hours from Shanghai.
Compared to the sometimes drab gray cities of mainland China, Hainan seems landscaped in Technicolor, with vivid blues, greens and yellows in every imaginable hue. Despite its booming tourism industry, much of the island’s flora and fauna remain untouched, and the dense jungle with its ropy vines extends all the way to the beach in most areas.
Once a backwater populated by exiled officials and ethnic Miao hunter-gatherers, Hainan was named one of China’s Special Economic Zones in 1988, and a construction boom ensued. The city of Sanya, stretching for 25 miles along Hainan’s southern coastline, exists almost solely for the sake of tourism, with new 4- and 5-star resorts cropping up every few months.
For over a decade, Sanya’s hotels, decked out in over-the-top themes like “African safari” and “Mayan temple,” catered to the hordes of mainlanders who descended on the island each winter. But in the past several years, foreign hotel brands including Ritz-Carlton, Marriott and Banyan Tree have erected resorts around Sanya.
The more crowded Dadonghai Beach on the western end of town houses most of the 3-star hotels among white concrete high-rises and rickety souvenir and produce stands. Yalong Bay, on the east side, features one luxury resort after another, each with its own private stretch of sand.
Because the major Chinese holidays fall during January and February, Yalong Bay sat virtually empty when my boyfriend and I visited in May; a walk along several miles of hotel beaches turned up only a couple dozen people.
Lured by a $73-per-night deal, we began our stay at the ostensibly 4-star Universal Resort. But the animal prints covering every surface and larger-than-life elephant statues spraying water from their trunks soon wore thin, especially after wandering over to the more tasteful Mangrove Tree Resort.
There the rooms are situated on elegant, well-manicured grounds that feature secluded hammocks, a lagoon pool and a floating bar that serves gelato and baked Alaska on hot afternoons. Rooms are still a steal, starting at $130 — without an ocean view but with outdoor balcony showers that enhance the hotel’s open-air feel.
Travelers looking for more of a splurge can enjoy maximum privacy and pampering at the Banyan Tree Resort on Luhuitou Bay a few miles west of Sanya. The villas, starting at $250 a night, are set around a sculpted tropical lagoon within quiet, impeccably designed grounds. Guests can unwind in any of eight outdoor pavilions, each featuring two of the Banyan Tree’s signature spa treatments, or experience The Rainforest — a trail that progresses through a series of hot and cold hydrothermal cabins.
While each of Sanya’s hotels and resorts offers its own 4- and 5-star dining experiences from Thai and Chinese food to international fusion, venturing out of the resort district and into downtown Sanya turns up a number of interesting eateries. At midday when the beach grew too bright, we strolled through the stalls of Jiefang Road’s Number 1 Market, where hawkers sell fresh seafood, tropical fruits and cheap souvenirs, and snacked on fried squid, bottled Coke and ripe mangoes in the sticky heat.
Later in the day, the Cyrillic signage in Sanya drummed up a powerful craving for vodka and potato pancakes, so for dinner we joined Hainan’s largest international tourist population at Wooden House Russian Restaurant along the main street, stuffing ourselves with draniki, pelmeni (dumplings with meat filling) and vodka flights for less than $10 each.
Since Hainan happens to be the only place in China where surfers can catch a decent wave, visitors looking to take lessons or rent boards will want to stop in Dadonghai at Surfing Hainan, an American-owned shop that organizes surfing trips to more remote parts of the island in winter.
During the summer months, the beaches of Sanya offer the only viable surfing, and the waves can be small. But late one afternoon, after I failed to catch a single wave in Dadonghai the previous day, a series of perfect swells began to roll in on Yalong Bay. Bobbing alone in clear, green water the temperature of a warm bath, I decided my favorite surf spot in the world was not in Australia or Costa Rica, but Hainan.
Though opportunities abound to enjoy the ocean, Kevin Westmoreland, an English teacher visiting from Ningbo, China, admitted he preferred the lush, tropical wilderness of interior Hainan. “I wanted a beach vacation and all of my students had been telling me that Sanya has the best beaches in China, but it’s everything outside the city that impressed me,” he said.
Leaving downtown Sanya, the concrete buildings and neon signs vanished within minutes to reveal densely forested hillsides and fields of rice, coffee and coconuts where farmers trailed behind water buffalo. Small puffs of smoke hung over the fields and dark clouds passed over the mountains as we embarked at dusk for Hainan’s famous mineral springs.
At Nantian Hot Springs, spa patrons soak in pools with grand names like Imperial Concubine Spring. The most novel attraction is the Fish Therapy Pool, where tiny, translucent carp called Garra rufa nibble away at the dead skin on your body. Sometimes called “little dermatologists,” the fish were used to treat psoriasis in Turkish spas before their debut at Far Eastern resorts.
Not all of Hainan’s attractions involve the water; two of the nation’s most popular cultural sites can be found here. Just 15 miles west of Sanya lies the boulder-strewn beach of Tianya Haijiao, an otherworldly spot with bizarre rock formations that appear on China’s two-yuan note. Famous Chinese love poems (“I will follow you to Tianya Haijiao”) make frequent mention of this beach, so for newlywed couples it serves a Taj Mahal-like purpose of ringing in a blessed marriage.
Traveling 12 miles further along the coastal highway, we arrived at the largest Buddhism center in China and one of the most popular sites for Buddhist pilgrims from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. There the 350-foot Buddha Lustration Center (a fancy way of saying statue) protects the entrance to China and the South China Sea. The bronze representation of the bodhisattva Guan Yin, which was enshrined in 2005 with tens of thousands of monks in attendance, is currently the fourth-largest statue in the world.
Fortunately for Western travelers, the picture-perfect Hainan getaway still doesn’t require splurging. Most hotels offer deep discounts during the summer off-season, and tacking on a flight to Sanya during a scheduled trip to China can be quite inexpensive. Just don’t expect this to remain the case as word spreads in the West about “the Chinese Hawaii.”
I, for one, have told everyone I know about Hainan. But that’s because it is where, early one morning on the empty beach, my boyfriend proposed.
Whether you’re an experienced surfer or hoping to catch your first wave, you’ll need to stop in Hainan’s first and only surf shop, Surfing Hainan (8 Huayun Road, Dadonghai Beach, tel 86 135 1980 0103), for rentals, lessons and advice on the island’s best breaks. Lessons, including transportation and board, start at $52.
Need a break from the water? Golf enthusiasts will no doubt want to take advantage of the Yalong Bay Golf Club (Yalong Bay Resort District, tel 86 898 8856 5888), designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. This dragon claw-shaped club overlooks the water and has played host to tournaments on European and Asian tours. Visitor greens fees are $148 for 18 holes on weekdays, $177 on weekends and holidays.
After a long day at the beach or on the greens, relax in the cool of evening at Nantian Hot Springs (Tengqiao Highway, tel 86 898 8881 9888), located 30 minutes outside Yalong Bay. More than 60 pools set within the lush jungle grounds offer a range of temperatures and experiences, including Fish Therapy. Admission is $30 not including extras like massage or the nightly dinner buffet. Free shuttle buses to the springs depart daily from Intime Resort in Dadonghai; a taxi costs about $10 each way.
The boulder beach of Tianya Haijiao lies 15 miles west of town. Tianya Haijiao, meaning Edge of the Sky and Rim of the Sea, is the southernmost point of China’s land area. Tourist buses run between Underwater World in Yalong Bay and Tianya Haijiao every 30 minutes and cost $1.50 each way. Travel 12 miles further along the coast to reach the Nanshan Culture Tourism Zone and the Buddha Lustration Center with its enormous bronze statue of Guan Yin.
Info To Go
Flights from Beijing (PEK), Hong Kong (HKG), Shanghai (PVG) and Guangzhou (CAN) arrive at Sanya’s Fenghuang International Airport (SYX). Taxis to Yalong Bay, 15 miles east of Sanya, cost approximately $10, and from Yalong Bay into downtown Sanya about $6. Most luxury hotels and resorts offer airport pick-up and drop-off. Visit www.hainanislandtourism.com.
Banyan Tree Sanya
The resort includes 61 private pool villas set around a sculpted tropical lagoon and eight outdoor pavilions with signature spa treatments. 6 Luling Road, Luhuitou Bay, tel 86 898 8860 9988 $$$$
The Ritz-Carlton, Sanya
Expansive grounds on a secluded section of Yalong Bay include four pools, luxury shopping and the largest spa on the island. Yalong Bay National Resort District, tel 86 898 8898 8888 $$$$
Yalong Bay Mangrove Tree Resort
This 5-star Thai-style hotel has an open-air feel, from the outdoor balcony showers to the hammocks strung between palm trees. Yalong Bay National Resort District, tel 86 898 8855 8888 $$$
Number 1 Market
Fresh seafood like fried squid on a stick makes for a tasty lunch at this bustling downtown market’s outdoor stalls. Jiefang Road, Sanya $
The American-style bar serves inexpensive ribs, burgers and brews and offers free nightly entertainment from local bands and DJs. 99 Yuya Road, Sanya, tel 86 898 8821 5700 $
Wooden House Russian Restaurant
Mix with Hainan’s biggest tourist population while noshing on authentic Russian favorites like stroganoff and potato pancakes. Yuya Road, Sanya, tel 86 898 8821 1527 $$
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