The marketing materials say that Hainan, China’s southernmost island and province, is the country’s equivalent to Hawaii. Following that logic, Sanya, the island’s main resort town, should be a budding Waikiki.

The reality doesn’t quite match the hype. A boom in hotel and condo construction has rendered Sanya’s thoroughfares overcrowded and dusty, and the town lacks the glamour and relaxing vibe of the American beach destination.

Still, Sanya’s mild climate, sandy beaches and numerous hotel-resorts are already a draw for Russian and Chinese tourists, as well as a sizable number of Westerners from Hong Kong and China.

Sanya hasn’t always had such lofty ambitions. The island was a penal colony during imperial times for officials who fell out of favor with the emperor and remained mostly an agricultural and fishing backwater until 1988, when the region was designated by the Chinese central government as a special economic zone.

Today, Sanya’s accommodations include some of the world’s top hotel brands. There’s also a yacht marina and luxury condo developments, and a reputation for being a playground for China’s rich and famous: Sanya has hosted the Miss World competition five times in the last 10 years. The city of more than half a million received about nine million visitors in 2010, almost three times the amount that came here in 2004, according to the China’s official statistics.

Our evening begins away from the crowds, at the Sunset Bar in the Mandarin Oriental hotel. An open-air space with a beautiful sweeping view of Dadong Bay, the Sunset Bar is the best place in town to watch dusk fall over the South China Sea. Sipping a mojito in a rattan chair, it’s possible to believe that perhaps Sanya might achieve its luxurious ambitions.

Off to dinner, and given Sanya’s oceanic location, seafood is the obvious choice. Beachfront options abound, but a taxi driver recommendation is the Binhai Seafood Village at the corner of Sanya Wan Lu and Youyi Jie. Diners pick from clams of all shapes and sizes, tropical fish and several species of crabs and prawns. The seafood is plucked straight from the tank, weighed in front of you, then cooked according to your choice—steamed, sauteed, spicy, with black bean sauce being a few of the more popular options.

Among the offerings is puffer fish—a pricey choice at more than 500 yuan (US$77) for a single fish of about 1.5 pounds. It’s also a risky option—a local fisherman died of poisoning in November from eating an ill-prepared puffer for lunch, a sobering reminder of the perils of food adventurism. Instead, try steamed grouper with ginger and scallions, sauteed conical clams with chilies, steamed scallops with garlic and bean thread noodles and coconut rice—a local specialty that involves cooking glutinous rice in coconut shells.

(For Western food, Fat Daddy’s along Sanya Bay serves burgers, quesadillas, nachos and pizza, as well as a decent white wine sangria.)

After dinner, head to Times Coast Bar Street, which is better known by locals as Jiu Ba Jie (literally “Bar Street”). Clubs lining either side of the road blare out international dance hits from Lady Gaga and her ilk. Inside, locals and tourists grind it out no matter what day of the week. The bars and clubs are basically interchangeable, though MJ, located near the entrance of Jiu Ba Jie and along Yuya Road, is a bigger hit among the Western tourists and expatriate crowd.

For a more relaxed drink with tolerable music in the same vicinity, visit Rainbow Bar & Grill, where ‘80s hits reign and draft Anchor beer is the drink of choice. Located on the edge of Sanya River, the outdoor patio overlooks a crowd of wooden fishing boats—a reminder of what Sanya was like before the tourists came.

There’s a shortage of cabs in Sanya—motor rickshaws are both more plentiful and more fun. A five-minute drive toward Dadong Bay, Dolphin Sports Bar & Grill has a nightly Filipino acoustic cover band and a steady feed of ESPN sports programming on its screens.

When it comes to late-night munchies, the local specialty is a dish of wok-fried rice noodles with pork, bean sprouts, scallions, and a dose of the local yellow-pepper chili sauce that varies in strength from stall to stall and can sometimes singe the tongue with it spiciness. Wherever there are busy bars in Sanya, a stall serving these cheap noodles can be found.

But the best late-night treat found in town is at the corner of Yuhai Road and Yuya Road, where a couple of transplanted Northern Chinese are serving up steamed buns and dumplings filled with pork and chives. Chow down on these with other late-night revelers and you’re reminded that while Sanya is no Waikiki, it has its own unique charms.


Sunset Bar, Mandarin Oriental Sanya

12 Yuhai Road

+86 898 8820 9999

Binhai Seafood Village

Corner of Sanyawan Lu and Youyi Jie

Fat Daddy’s

No. 1 Villa, Lan Hai Hua Yuan, Sanyawan Lu

+86 898 8839 1046

Rainbow Bar & Grill

Yuya Road, near the Eadry Resort Hotel

+86 898 8860 6063

Dolphin Sports Bar & Grill

99, Yuya Road, Dadonhai

+86 898 8821 5700




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