From a sleepy backwater to a modern tourist destination, Hainan Island, off the south coast of China, has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past 15 years.

With its tropical climate, people from colder parts of China have long flocked to the island for relaxing holidays, while international tourists are now discovering its attractions.

Hainan's main draw is the city of Sanya, on its southern coast, which boasts many five-star hotels along its white-sand beaches. Its turquoise waters and swaying palm trees make for an idyllic beach retreat.

But there is more to the island than sun and sand. The best known attraction near Sanya is Nanshan Buddhist Cultural Park, which contains a number of sights, including Nanshan temple and the Brahma Bell Garden representing the ancient bell culture of China. However, the park's main draw is the Nanshan South-Sea Kwan-yin Bodhisattva statue, a three-faced sculpture standing more than 350 feet above the sea on a small promontory. The three faces symbolize peace, wisdom and mercy.

Inland from Sanya, the countryside becomes mountainous and heavily forested. The island's original ethnic groups, the Li and Miao, have maintained many aspects of their culture to this day.

The Li engage in traditional crafts including brocade, spinning and weaving, woodcarving (their totem poles are spectacular), making of potent rice wine and pottery. Many older Li women have tattoos on their face and legs, while the younger women eschew this practice.

At the end of my visit, a group of young men and women performed traditional dances, some of which involved intricate steps around long bamboo poles manipulated from the side.

About 20 miles north of Sanya, the Yanoda Rainforest Cultural Tourism Zone is a popular tourist attraction, with visitors taking paths past waterfalls and large lotus pools.

Excellent accommodations are found at the Narada Resort & Spa Qixian Mount in the nearby Mount Qixianling National Forest reserve at Baoting. Spectacularly situated among verdant vegetation with the well-named Five Finger Mountain providing a backdrop, the resort offers attractive accommodation and dining options, and each room has a hot spring spa on its balcony. Visit

Haikou, the capital city of Hainan Island on its north coast, also offers plenty of attractions and has some excellent five-star hotels.

The old town has narrow streets lined with interesting, fading buildings that contain many small shops. Haikou's Qilou Arcades are a fusion of European and Asian architecture and form an exotic street landscape. If you are prepared to accept lesser brand names and knockoffs, then this is the place to go.

For a unique theatrical event, see "Impression Hainan," an artistic interpretation of Hainan life directed by Zhang Yimou, the architect of the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics and director of films such as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Hero." With over 250 performers, this hour-long production takes place on an open-air stage with the ocean as backdrop. Dance, costumes and videos capture the essence of Hainan life, its history, ocean and local traditions. Shows are held nightly at the Impression Theater and cost about $60.

Only 10 miles from Haikou's center is a world geological park. The northern part of Hainan Island was subject to volcanic eruptions many centuries ago, and the Leiqiong Haikou volcanic cluster (dormant for more than 8,000 years) offers a place to explore the weird and wonderful shapes caused by lava flows. Visitors can climb up to the rim and look down into the crater, now full of greenery, and enjoy lava tunnels and colorful flowers. Also nearby, the nature lover will enjoy the Hainan Tropical Wildlife Park, with 10 tigons, the world's largest surviving group of the tiger/lioness hybrids.

One of the most recent developments near Haikou has been to transform the desolate and rocky volcanic plateau into a number of championship golf courses.

Quite remarkably, the volcanic landscape now boasts 10 courses within the Mission Hills complex (the same company has exclusive courses at Shenzhen and Dongguan near Guangzhou), with many volcanic boulders used as walls and hazards. The World Cup of golf was held there in 2011 on the aptly named Blackstone championship course. The construction was a huge undertaking; at one stage there were over 500 digging machines clearing the ground and bringing in soil.

In addition to the courses and huge clubhouse, a luxury, 518-room hotel on site offers a unique design and amenities ensuring the highest level of comfort, with natural springs, spas and 12 restaurants.


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