Big and sprawling, China has a wide range of landscapes, but it’s hard to picture a tropical island—Polynesian palms, curvy crescents of white sand—in the mix. Yet the “Hawaii of the Orient” does indeed exist, a lovely slice of the tropics floating in the South China Sea in the steamy monsoon zone. Hainan Island’s palm-fringed beaches and surfable waves are being discovered by beach bums and surfers and travelers looking to holiday on uncrowded sand. The air is clean, the water is a sparkling blue, and mossy green hills framing sun-dappled beaches present a picture-postcard Polynesian silhouette.
Situated 48km (30 miles) below the country’s southernmost tip, Hainan was long China’s unloved stepchild, a place of exile for dissidents and undesirables through centuries of dynastic rule. After the Japanese occupation during World War II, Hainan continued to get no respect: Its forests were unceremoniously stripped to plant cash crops in the warm, wet climate. But since tourism became the main source of income, Hainan has been on the upswing. The island is now a regional breadbasket, growing mangoes, coconuts, pineapples, and sugar cane; and succulent tropical fruit is on the menu wherever you go. The island has even been designated the latest space launch center for the country’s space program.
In recent years, Chinese mainlanders have helped make Hainan the country’s second-most-visited destination. Though these visiting mainlanders disdain basking in the sun à la Coppertoned Westerners, resorts and international hotel chains (Ritz -Carlton, Hilton, Marriott, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Sheraton) have elbowed their way onto Hainan’s comely coastline. The island’s capital city, Haikou, on Hainan’s north coast, is the major entry point. Just 15km (9 1 ⁄ 4 miles) southwest of the city is the Haikou Shishan Volcanic Cluster Geopark, where you can see the 10,000-year-old remnants of volcanic clusters and lush “lava landscapes” that include an ecological garden and a volcanic crater garden. After seeing Haikou and the park, most people head to the port city of Sanya, on the island’s southern coast, and its national resort district. (A new railway linking Haikou and Sanya is expected to be completed in late 2010.) Twenty-four kilometers (15 miles) east of Sanya is Yalong Bay, perhaps the island’s prettiest beach; also popular are Tianya Haijiao (which is pictured on the Chinese two-yuan note) and Dadonghai Bay.
Golf courses are popping up like mushrooms; the island now has 16 courses. And if you’ve never surfed, this is a good place to learn; Surfing Hainan provides lessons in prime spots like Houhai Bay. If you’re a seasoned surfer, know that the best surfing waves arrive in fall and winter—and if you can wait out the typical ankle-biting wavelets of summer, a typhoon sweeping by is guaranteed to kick up some wicked peaks.