Hainan Island – The Chinese Hawaii

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.