The place they call ‘China’s Hawaii’ offers fabulous food and outstanding beaches

Approaching Hainan by water, my first sight is high-rises, spiking into the sky, backed in the distance by jade-forested mountains. As my ship snugs into port, I spot a gaggle of fishing boats, their rigging aflutter with little red Chinese flags, some bleached pink by the South China Sea sun.
Gorgeous, long beaches with good surfing can be found on Hainan Island. It’s also a mecca for golfers.
On Phoenix Island, where we put in, a short causeway leads to Sanya, a city of nearly 700,000. A towering quintet of bulbous buildings—their exteriors sheathed in computerized lights that glow red, green, blue, with huge spotted patterns—appear to be giving us five “thumbs-up” for arriving at this booming tourism centre.
I’m here in Hainan, China’s southernmost province—and largest island—to see if it lives up to its reputation as “China’s Hawaii.” Last year, 33 million tourists visited Hainan, but only about half a million were from outside the country. And of that number, nearly half were Russian. In fact, as I spot Russian lettering on signs throughout Sanya, I begin to think it may be more appropriately dubbed “Russia’s Riviera.”
Chinese nationals are considered to have “made it” if they can afford a trip to one of the two dozen five-star resorts that sprawl along nearby Yalong Bay or Dadonghai Beach. So visitors can expect an experience tailored to wealthy Chinese tastes. That means packaged-tour sights, golf and shopping—plenty of shopping. In fact, the world’s largest duty-free center is scheduled to open on Hainan next year, targeted to capture all the yuan now lost to other duty-free havens.
In Sanya, a friend and I poke our heads into the Summer Mall, packed with international designer labels and fronted by a Pizza Hut. But for us, the alley behind the mall is far more interesting. It’s filled with stalls selling fruit (Hainan is known for coconuts, bananas and mangoes), tourist knick-knacks made from shells and a tea shop.
The woman tea-vendor invites us to taste tiny cups of tea she makes with ritual efficiency, anointing her pot with hot water and discarding the initial brew made merely to wet the tea leaves. Her shelves are stocked with fragrant loose leaves and large pressed disks of tea.
At a nearby intersection, cab drivers flap brochures at tourists, hawking trips to an eco-park, a Li ethnic minority village and Yalong Bay’s beaches.
Using gestures and pointing at brochure photos, my friend and I negotiate a trip to what appears to be a natural area with lofty views, followed by a visit to Yalong Bay.
I pat the hot sidewalk with my hand to make sure the driver understands our deal includes returning us to this same spot.
A wild 15-minute ride later, we’re delivered to a groomed “eco-park” with a hefty 135 yuan (about $30) admission. Not what we’d had in mind. We direct our cabbie to take us on to Yalong Bay. Clearly, he’s bereft of an expected kickback from the eco-park, because when we reach the bay, he now demands we pay the meter price—double what we’d negotiated for the entire round-trip. We throw some rumpled yuan at him, more than we’d agreed, and walk away as he hurls curses at our backs. The 7 kilometre long beach lives up to its billing. It’s nearly level, pristine and vanilla-white. We stroll past upscale resorts, where waiters deliver cool drinks to guests lounging under thatched sunshades. Jet skis and banana boats dart across the clear, turquoise water. Not willing to gamble on another taxi, we learn from a resort bellman that we can hop a bus back to town. So we pay our 5 yuan and sway along with backpackers and locals.
We get off along the Sanya River, on Hudong Road, and wander streets filled with food vendors. I buy a coconut from an elderly woman who whacks off the top and inserts a straw so I can sip the juice. Refreshing, but rather like lugging along a bowling ball.
We cut over to Shangpin St. and sample fresh-cooked dim-sum dumplings, custard tarts and barbecued duck parts (“No thank you, not the head,” we gesture). The vendor offers a plastic glove to wear while gnawing on the duck-snacks, so we don’t get our hands dirty. Brilliant!
We check out a chic liquor shop displaying racks of Great Wall Chinese wine, then cross over an undulating pedestrian bridge to the other side of the river, admiring the white herons perched in shrubs along the bank.
We come upon Baijiahui Supermarket and explore the strange and wonderful items neatly displayed in its aisles: dried starfish, take-away dumplings, pineapple beer.
Back on Heping St., seamstresses work their foot-powered sewing machines along the sidewalk. Betelnut vendors roll little packets of nuts and leaves. A woman peddles still-warm sweet rolls from a case on the back of her bike. Men ponder mahjong plays.
I don’t for a minute regret passing up a visit to the Disneyland-like ethnic village. For visitors from the West, the vibrant city of Sanya beats any contrived interactions a tourism bureau could dream up.

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