Tony Atherton’s impression of Hainan Island, the Hawaii of China
"Muck-zeem," he finally growls in response to our clumsy hand gestures, and we get it: Maxim. He walks away rolling his eyes, a study in Slavic disdain.
Travelling in Asia, one experiences a lot of "where-the-hell-are-we" moments, occasions when the glamour, the kitsch or the squalor (more often, all three) overwhelm the senses. Nowhere is this giddy surreality more palpable than at Dadong Hai, the long, gorgeous horseshoe beach in Sanya at the southern tip of China’s Hainan Island.
The Chinese call Hainan "the Hawaii of China," because the island, China’s southernmost territory (not counting a handful of much smaller islands whose sovereignty is disputed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei), is at a latitude roughly parallel to Hawaii. And because the island offers, in Sanya, the country’s only tropical beach resort.
If it strikes you that "China" and "beach resort" shouldn’t be in the same sentence, take it as fair warning. Incongruities abound in Sanya.
More than 18 million tourists flock to Hainan Island every year, yet it is all but unknown outside China, and Sanyo’s beautiful beaches are practically empty all day long.
Unlike every other beach resort in Asia — from Thailand’s Phuket to Bali’s Khuta and the Philippines’ Borokay — almost no one in Sanya speaks English. But everyone, from the desk clerks to the beach touts, speaks some Russian to anybody who is not obviously Chinese.
You’ll look long and hard to find a decent hamburger in Dadong Hai, but if you have to stroll more than 100 metres for a good blintz, you’re not paying attention.
Outside China, Sanya is perhaps best known as the site of a not-no-secret nuclear submarine base, whose construction made headlines in 2008. But for the Chinese, it is a seaside resort that is warm in the winter yet doesn’t require all those tedious exit permits and entry visas that are the bane of would-be tourists in mainland China.
For western expats based in southern Chinese cities such as Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau, Sanya is the perfect weekend getaway, barely an hour away by air, but boasting beaches as good as you’ll find anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Its attraction to the Russians who make up the bulk of Sanya’s foreign tourist trade is not as obvious. Sanya is neither nearby (most Russians have to fly six or more hours to get here), nor politically convenient (all foreigners, including Russians, need visas to visit China).
Chalk up the phenomenon to some savvy entrepreneurship back in the late ’90s when Sanya was just beginning to be developed as a tourist destination. Sergey Zhang Sha, the Russian-born son of a Chinese circus performer who visited Hainan soon after it was made a province in 1988, brought his first Russian tourist to Sanya in 1997.
Since Russians were the first foreign tourists, services developed that catered particularly to Russians. This attracted even more Russians. Now most of the service-related signage in Dadong Hai is in Russian as well as Chinese.
The Russian tourists are about the only people you’ll find among the phalanx of beach lounges during the day (other than the strolling pedlars and the beachside masseuses). The Chinese share a national trait that makes a beach holiday counter-intuitive: many do not like the sun, and avoid it as if it were emitting some deadly radiation from outer space. (Oh, wait a minute … )
The most prevalent product on cosmetic shelves in China is whitening cream, so sunbathing is about as popular a seaside activity as impaling yourself on a beach umbrella. As a result, Sanya’s beaches are all but empty until the sun starts to throw long shadows about 5:30 in the evening.
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Then the shore is crowded with merrymaking Chinese, who will continue to frolic in the surf until long after dark, 10 p.m. at least.
We stayed at the Pearl River Garden Hotel right above the boardwalk on Dadong Hai. It’s a Chinese-style four-star hotel, which means the beds are about as comfortable as a sheet of plywood, though you can coax the front office staff to send you more bedding to cushion the slab.
On the plus side, our room was spacious and clean and had a long balcony overlooking the hotel’s large pool and that beautiful beach, all for the equivalent of about $100 Cdn a night, including a buffet breakfast
If you go
When to go: The drier and cooler months (temperatures in the mid-20s) are December through March, but even the rainiest months have plenty of sunshine. The Chinese New Year holiday break (January or February, depending on year) finds Sanya crowded and expensive, so be forewarned.
How to get there: There are direct flights to Sanya airport from most large cities in mainland China as well as Hong Kong. There’s also a train from Guangzhou that is loaded, in its entirety, aboard a ferry to reach Hainan Island before continuing to Sanya. The trip takes about 15 hours.
What you’ll need: A passport and a valid China visa.
Where to stay: Dadong Hai has a marvellous beach, good restaurants fronting the beach and plenty of good, reasonably priced Chinese hotels. If you’re looking for international-style hotels, check out Yalong Bay, an enclave of high-end resorts operated by Sheraton, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Holiday Inn and the like. There are also youth hostels and budget hotels in Sanya City and Dadong Hai.
Where to eat: Russian and Chinese food is everywhere in Dadong Hai. If you must have western fare, try the Sanya Rainbow Bar & Grill at 99 Yuya Rd. in Dadong Hai, where pasta, Tex-Mex, burgers and beer are available at reasonable prices. Pizza Corner, right off the boardwalk on Dadong Hai, has some of the best pizza we’ve had in Asia. Get a takeout order and eat on the beach.
What to do: All the typical beach resort activities are available: Sea-Doo rentals, parasailing, glass-bottom boats, snorkelling and scuba expeditions. Or you can take a tour to Nanwan Monkey Island to frolic with the macaques, or visit the Betel Nut Ethnic Minorities Park about 30 kilometres outside Sanya. But nothing beats lying on that underpopulated beach.
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