Joanna Booth explores Hainan, China’s tropical island paradise

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Paddle, paddle, paddle. An ungainly pop-up. A moment’s wobbly surfing, before toppling into the water. In many ways, it was pretty similar to the other surf lessons I’ve had in my life.

But this time, I wasn’t in Queensland or California, but China. In a destination more associated with walls, pandas and warriors made of clay, a visit to China’s tropical island of Hainan can come as something of a culture shock, even for those who think they know what to expect from the country.

With its white-sand beaches and green volcanic peaks, hot springs and surfing breaks, and more luxury hotels than you can shake a Louis Vuitton at, it’s little wonder that Hainan gets nicknamed China’s Hawaii – it’s even on the same latitude.

“Hainan Island has some beautiful beaches plus some excellent five-star hotels,” says Charlie Cooper, China Links Travel UK sales manager. “Many people think of Hong Kong as an add-on and forget about Hainan, but being in the south it’s blessed with good weather and is the perfect location to relax after a tour of China.”

After a relatively hectic schedule of sightseeing on the mainland, those who can afford to stay away from the UK a little longer will welcome a few days of downtime in the sunshine. The beaches of Hainan are glorious and there’s a surfeit of internationally-branded luxury hotels, but this is still China, so clients can remain immersed in the culture right to the end of their trip.

With two airports – Haikou in the north and Sanya in the south – with good connections to a variety of Chinese airports, plus international flights from wider Asia, it’s simple to tag time in Hainan on to a longer trip.

Stunning Stays

Hainan’s south-coast hotspot of Sanya is not short of hotels. You might be hard pressed to find another beach resort on the planet where so many Eastern and Western brands rub shoulders, from Conrad to Kempinski, Ritz-Carlton to St Regis, Anantara to InterContinental, Mandarin Oriental to Marriott and even an MGM Grand.

Even though UK visitor numbers are currently relatively small, Hainan is hugely popular with the domestic market. Last year the number of rooms on the island doubled, and standards in the luxury hotels I visited were high.

My villa at Banyan Tree Sanya, one of just 49 at the property, may have been the entry-level deluxe pool villa, but at a vast 310sq metres it’s still one of the largest I’ve stayed in. Open the gate to your walled courtyard, and ahead of you a path leads to a 50sq metre private pool, a Jacuzzi, and a sundeck.

To one side, a pavilion with towering ceilings houses your bedroom and a bathroom with access to an extra outdoor tub, to the other, a second pavilion with a living and study area, which quite frankly I only discovered just as I was about to leave because the whole villa area is so darn big. Surrounded on three sides by a courtyard wall and on the fourth by vegetation and a lagoon, the villas are utterly private – ideal for even the friskiest honeymooners.

With villas spread through mature gardens dotted with hammocks, even at 100% occupation, as it was when I visited, the property feels quiet. It’s set on 800 metres of private beach on Luhuitou Bay, known as Lovers’ Bay by locals, and faces west into the sunset. As it sinks, the hotel offers free drinks and shoulder massages. The spa is large, with a huge range of treatments and a hammam circuit. Alongside the restaurant, private dining experiences are easily organised – we ate on the beach with our toes in the sand.

The Banyan Tree is ideal for couples seeking seclusion, but for those who want a lively resort, or families, the 448-room The Westin Sanya Haitang Bay is a far larger but still stylish option. From the road approach, the interwoven ribbons of its facade give it a look of Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium, and at the other side, two wide arms of rooms stacked a handful of storeys high curve towards the beach, embracing the pools and garden.

Inside the feel is clean, contemporary and spacious, with soaring atria and long corridors. Even entry-level rooms start at a generous 65sq metres, with a sleek, slate, open-plan bathroom with a smooth ovoid soaking tub as the centrepiece.

It’s worth upgrading to a sea-view room so clients can make the most of the balcony overlooking a huge network of pools that lead to the beach. There are so many different ‘waterscapes’, with hundreds of loungers and cabanas, so it’s easy to find a spot, lively or more secluded, to suit your mood.

Signature restaurant Five Sen5es serves beautifully-presented high-end cuisine from China with regional Hainan specialities, including the tender boiled Wenchang chicken and Jiaji duck.

Banyan Tree Sanya

Island Adventures

Although most clients will see Hainan as a relaxing beach stay to add to a tour, there’s no need for them to get stuck on a sunlounger – unless they want to.

The island’s volcanic origins mean the landscape inland is lush, green and mountainous, and one of the most beautiful spots, near to Sanya, is the Yalong Bay Tropical Paradise Forest Park.

This area – the size of more than 2,100 football pitches – has been developed into a sort of nature playground and is incredibly popular with Chinese visitors, not least because it’s home to the Guojianglong Rope Bridge, which features in a pivotal scene in the popular domestic movie If You Are The One. Visitors can cross the bridge and take nature walks through the park, and there are secluded villas at the Yalong Bay Earthly Paradise Bird’s Nest Resort.

Hainan’s southern location makes it culturally and ecologically different from the more northerly areas of mainland China most Brits visit. It’s home to some Dan communities, whose traditions are different from those of the Han Chinese and who have lived in floating villages for generations. Their seafood cuisine is legendary, and a range of floating restaurants can be accessed from the Houhai pier at Tielu Gang.

We feasted on a veritable banquet during our lunch at the simple but spotlessly clean Haitang Impressions – crab congee, steamed crab, a range of different clams, tiger fish, squid, an unexpectedly tasty dried carrot omelette, all with the traditional dipping sauce made from yellow lantern chilis. Clients should get their hotel or a local tour company to organise a lunch, as restaurant staff won’t speak English.

For another local food experience, the Haikou City night markets, in the north of the island, are bustling and packed with everything from the more pedestrian barbecued squid to more challenging options. Spicy steamed duck necks were surprisingly tasty, but I think my first chicken foot might also be my last.

It’s new to Chinese culture, but surfing is catching on in Hainan. The Riyue Bay Surf Club is owned and run by Californian Brendan Sheridan. “The waves are good, but not world class,” he tells me. The waves are more than big enough for me, I think, as I manage another millisecond on the board before falling in.

Nearby, a group of Chinese school-kids are doing much better. “One of the local kids could be really good,” Brendan says. “Surfing is growing in popularity, but they have to get over the barrier that most Chinese don’t want to tan.”

This is one of the things that will make a trip to Hainan so fascinating – you can watch how the Chinese holiday. Despite heading for the tropics, a tan is a no-no, so there are many parasols and balaclava-like face-kinis in evidence.

Brits are more likely to want to bask in the sunshine, and the local government is keen to help them. Huge investment has been made in airline subsidies and the Hainan Tourism Development Commission has begun promoting the island to international markets, with the aim of making it an international resort destination on a par with Hawaii by 2020.

Hainan is now visa-free for UK nationals, and although this will be largely irrelevant – most visitors will come via the mainland, for which they will need a visa to enter – it demonstrates the openness of the island to foreign tourists.

Guojianglong Rope Bridge

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