Chill-out China: tropical island adventures on Hainan

The view from the knockabout beach bar is a classic: the afternoon sun glares off sugary sand as the ocean steams and rolls on top of it. A group of after-school teenagers run out in their wetsuits, planting board to belly as they plop into the surf. One of them is wearing a tell-tale straw hat tied around her chin.

This is not California or the Gold Coast of Australia; this is Hainan, China’s largest tropical island and a beach-fringed playground.

Sugary sands and pink sunsets on Hainan. Image by See-ming Lee / CC BY 2.0Sugary sands and pink sunsets on Hainan. Image by See-ming Lee / CC BY 2.0

Visiting Hainan today, it is incredible to think that this island the size of Belgium was an isolated backwater only a few decades ago. Its rainforests, white-sand beaches and tropical climes lie just a few miles from the tip of Guangdong province, but until the economic boom of the last 30 years remained largely ignored by the mainland. Today the island receives over 35 million tourists a year (the majority domestic) and the coastline has been transformed, the main beach resort of Sanya coming into view as a comb of high-rises. Hainan is flush with money and now one of China’s most popular and luxurious getaways.

All this means some of the country’s most opulent hotels can be found on Hainan’s southern shore, and with regular flights and a high-speed rail link between the capital Haikou and Sanya, the island’s charms are very accessible. Once you’re weary of touring the ancient sights and frenetic cities of the mainland, take some downtime on the beaches of Hainan. Paddle in the warm waves of China’s surf capital, dine with boat-dwelling Dan people, cycle cool rural highlands, or just watch the sun sink over the South China Sea while breathing in some of the cleanest air in the country.

Riding the waves of China’s surf capital

Hitting the waves at Sun and Moon Bay. Image by Dora Whitaker / Lonely PlanetHitting the waves at Sun and Moon Bay. Image by Dora Whitaker / Lonely Planet

Hainan is the centre of China’s nascent surf scene and while its waves are no match for Hawaii’s giant swells, its bays offer up a mix of breaks that are challenging enough for it to host four annual surfing competitions. And it’s still possible to find you’ve got the waves to yourself, especially in the midday sun. Sun and Moon Bay (日月湾; Rìyuè Wān) and Shimei Bay on the east coast are the best spots, with point breaks and beach breaks to please both beginners and the more experienced. Dadonghai and Houhai further south have more placid but warmer waters and are suitable for absolute novices.

Make it happen Board rental and surf lessons from an ISA-certified surf instructor are available from Surfing Hainan, which also has dorm-style rooms available. Rental and basic lessons are also available in Sanya at Sanya Backpackers.

Dining at a Dan boat village

Fresh crabs at Haitang Bay Impression Seafood Restaurant. Image by Dora Whitaker / Lonely PlanetFresh crabs at Haitang Bay Impression Seafood Restaurant. Image by Dora Whitaker / Lonely Planet

Boat-dwelling Dan communities have existed in the provinces of southern China for centuries. Once forbidden from living on land, they have made a watery life on the rivers and estuaries of coastal regions, setting up their buoyant villages for a generation at a time. Floating restaurants in the village at Haitang Bay are fashioned on large platforms with fully equipped kitchens and submerged containers where you can watch your order come flip-flopping out of the water beside you. You choose whether you want your catch steamed, fried or barbecued and then tuck into the freshest crab, tiger fish, squid and shrimp, all spiced with a little of Hainan’s yellow lantern chilli.

Make it happen Restaurants at the Haitang Bay boat village in Tielugang are accessed via Houhai Pier, a 40-minute drive from Sanya. If you lack the language skills, a trip can be arranged through local hotels or tour agencies, as the restaurant staff don’t speak English. Haitang Bay Impression Seafood Restaurant (+86 138 7669 2525) is one of the more upscale options.

Sybaritic stays

A dreamy setting in Yalong Bay. Image by Sino Images / GettyA dreamy setting in Yalong Bay. Image by Sino Images / Getty

Luxury hotels are popping up like well-appointed mushrooms on Hainan. Intercontinental, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and St Regis (with a marina for your private yacht should you so need it) have all opened branches on the island. The Westin Sanya Haitang Bay Resort is situated away from the tourist bustle of Sanya but smack dab next to the world’s largest duty free shopping mall. Rooms and villas surround a huge water garden with lagoon pools, Jacuzzis, cabanas and a ribbon pool where you can drift down to the beach and back again.

Couples on retreat are particularly well-served; there are over 500 wedding photographers on the island. The hushed and lovely Banyan Tree Sanya offers the duel combo of complete privacy and utter indulgence: dining in the sand, free massages, petal-strewn bathtubs and other Babylonian extravagances are all available.

Nestled into the jungle: Earthly Paradise. Image by Dora Whitaker / Lonely PlanetNestled into the jungle: Earthly Paradise. Image by Dora Whitaker / Lonely Planet

Away from the beach, the Yalong Bay Earthly Paradise Bird’s Nest Resort is located in a tropical forest where individual villas perch like luxury bird boxes in the treetops. Outside bathtubs, flitting butterflies and an infinity pool accessed via a series of treetop walkways complete the jungle experience.

Cycling in Hainan

Hainan’s clean air, low traffic, green peaks and pretty farming valleys make for some excellent cycling terrain. Along the north coast you can ride alongside sandy beaches before making a foray into the interior to find waterfalls, jungle and indigenous villages. Haidian Island’s rural landscapes and fishing villages are just a short peddle from Haikou.

Cycling in search of an indigenous Hainanese village. Image by Chris Mellor / GettyCycling in search of an indigenous Hainanese village. Image by Chris Mellor / Getty

Make it happen Mountain bikes are available to rent at Haikou Banana Youth Hostel for ¥50 a day. Check out the hostel’s website for detailed information on cycling around Hainan. There’s also a Giant Bicycles (hncycling.com) shop in Haikou that does rentals.

Getting there

Hainan has two international airports: Haikou Meilan Airport in the north and Sanya’s Phoenix Airport serving the resorts at the south. Both are well connected with China’s main cities, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore and Taipei. Sanya also serves Malaysia, Japan and Russia (in season).

When to go

November to February is the driest season and also the best time for surfing and inland cycling. This is also the prime holiday period for Chinese visitors. April to October is the best time to grab a hotel bargain, but these are also the hottest and wettest months. Hainan usually gets at least one typhoon during this time, which can cause some travel disruption.

Dora Whitaker travelled to Hainan with support from Hainan Tourism Board (visithainan.gov.cn). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies for positive coverage.