Stephanie Plentl’s discovery tour of Hainan, Chinese oasis
On arrival, I’m draped with a wreath of purple orchids and a layer of perspiration. With the comfort of heat comes the misery of humidity. Looking out of the window of our mercifully air-conditioned bus, I see green in abundance: coconut palms, rice paddies, rainforest. On the roadside, cows graze, scrawny chickens dart and hunched labourers in conical straw hats harvest the fields with scythes.
Hainan is 100 per cent agricultural, its main resources being fish, fruit and pearl. For 3,000 years it’s been home to the Li People, settlers from the mainland who live in hamlets of boat-shaped thatched bamboo houses in the mountains. Their unique woven brocades, made from rudimentary equipment while lying down, are the country’s oldest cotton textiles.
I’d heard little about Hainan, but then this Chinese oasis was only opened to visitors 20 years ago. Before that it was a naval base and strictly off limits. Earlier still, it was a place of exile for criminals and disgraced officials who’d dared criticise the emperor. Then, in 1987, the island was branded the "Oriental Hawaii’, in honour of its latitude sibling, and preparations made to turn it into a family-friendly holiday destination. The government recognised its potential – an hour’s flight from Hong Kong, making it a place you could drop after you’ve shopped, or flop after a cultural tour of China. It therefore encouraged Sanya’s residential and resort development: meaning lower taxes and a warm aloha-style welcome to foreigners. But so far, it’s mostly enthusiastic nationals who have been honing their hula.
As we arrive at the peaceful mangrove reserve of Yalong Bay, I see a cluster of new luxury resorts strung along the coastline. I check into the Ritz-Carlton, a vast complex with 950 smiling staff and countless infinity pools, fountains and corridors inspired by Beijing’s Summer Palace. In the evening, when the warm night air wafts through the silent, softly lit passageways, it takes on a rather magical quality.
Tempting as it is to loll on the beach, I want to explore the cultural curiosities outside the hotel. I’m taken to Sanya’s First Market, where locals jostle to buy live giant seafood, flapping fish, water buffalo legs and fresh tofu. Juicy crystal pear, mangosteen, custard apple and dragon fruit shine like jewels in front of their eager vendors. Fresh white noodles are dangled and dim sum shells are stuffed. Dried shark fin, sea horse and salty bugs hang in liquid limbo, waiting to be refreshed in soup.
I find further food for thought 40 miles away at Nanshan Mountain, renowned for its inhabitants’ longevity. The wizened, twinkly-eyed faces of all the resident centenarians are captured in a walkway of giant photographs. Lifestyle and the excellent air quality doubtless play a part but legend links the mountain’s power to the ancient Dracaena cambodiana trees that cover it. Some are 6,000 years old, and there’s a traditional Chinese birthday saying: "May you live as long as the pines on Mount Nanshan".
A large Buddhist theme park was built at the foot of the mountain 10 years ago and has become a popular pilgrimage. I’m whisked by mini electric train through gardens and koi ponds to the temple and on to the star attraction, the colossal offshore statue of the Buddhist goddess Guan Yin – some 50ft higher than the Statue of Liberty.
Cruising through Sanya Bay, the green turns to concrete. The long stretch of perfect coastline is flanked by new apartment blocks that herald a new Hainan and are being snapped up by thrifty Chinese.
Back in luxury’s lap, I watch the sun set on this intriguing island where so much is changing. I have grilled fish on the beach at supper, a stroll along the water’s edge and then melt into my king-size bed for the champion of deep sleeps. Mount Nanshan must be good for you.
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