Island life

Island life

Keep it under your hat, but there’s more to China than the Temple of Heaven and Terracotta Warriors. Kaye Holland discovers the island oasis of Hainan

A few weeks from now you could a) be counting the shades of gray in an autumn day or b) lying on the sand in Sanya, working on the tan. Only a short three and a half hour flight away – you’ll be there before you’ve finished fiddling with your in-flight socks – China’s tropical gem will seduce travellers in search of guaranteed rays and near perfect air, without the need to fly halfway around the globe.

This oasis that sits on the same latitude as Hawaii hasn’t received the recognition it deserves, having only been opened to visitors 20 years ago. As a result, it’s not as fashionable as other Asian beach destinations, but who cares? We can probably all survive a holiday without bumping into reality TV stars.

Sanya marks the southernmost tip of the island, which is roughly the same size as Belgium. Dubbed “the end of the earth” (or the “tail of the dragon” due to its remoteness in relation to Beijing), this tropical city is famous for its beaches and doesn’t disappoint. Dadonghai Bay and Sanya Bay are both fine spots for those who want to fly and flop but, budget permitting, aim to base yourself 15km east at exclusive Yalong Bay. The beach here is the best and, unless you’re mad enough to go over Chinese New Year, it’s virtually empty.

There’s an ever increasing number of new hotels to choose from along Yalong Bay (the Sheraton, Marriott, Crowne Plaza and Kempinski have all taken up a tenancy), but it’s the Ritz-Carlton Sanya (www.ritz-carlton.com) that has won virtually every award going since it opened its doors in 2008. Inspired by Beijing’s Summer Palace with its corridors and fountains, the Ritz delivers everything on the check list: private villas replete with individual plunge pools, eight great dining options, a fitness center featuring a kinesis studio, a wealth of watersports, rain showers, crisp white sheets, countless infinity pools, the largest spa in the region, a designer shopping arcade, its own private chalk white beach, the lot. Of course paradise has a hefty price tag but, while the Ritz can be hard on your wallet, it is easy on the planet: This lap of luxury has been recognised by the National Green Hotel Committee and China Hotel Association for its commitment to environment protection.

Once you’ve checked in, make a beeline for the beach. Here you can relax on sand the color of sugar in between cooling dips in the sky blue water, admire the colors in your cocktail delivered by a smiling waitress and allow Sanya’s slack pace to work its subtle, inexorable magic. Yet while it would be easy to stay on your sun lounger listening to the lapping sounds of the sea, do make the effort to venture further afield – for there’s more to the island than sun, sand and sea.

For a change of pace, take a trip to Nanshan Temple, tramp through Jiangfeng Ling Forest Reserve (voted one of the top 10 most beautiful forests in China by China National Geographic Magazine), scale a mountain such as Mount Wuzhi, Mount Diaolu or Mount Qianxianling or hike to Hainan’s highlands – a collection of postcard pretty villages, situated slap bang in the middle of the island. It’s here that you’ll encounter the fabled Li and Miao minorities, who were among the first to settle permanently on the island some 3,000 years ago, and still live in the same boat shaped, thatched bamboo houses as they have always done.

Had your fill of culture? Why not sweep a perfect tee shot down a manicured fairway. Golf may have been banned in China as recently as 25 years ago, but today the country is obsessed with the sport and nowhere more so than Hainan which is bidding to become a golfing paradise. Case in point? Last October, Hollywood heavyweights Christian Slater, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hugh Grant and Matthew McConaughey all made their way to Hainan for the Mission Hills ‘Star Trophy’ tournament – the first major celebrity golf pro-am event to be held in China.

Throw into the mix the weather (when the leaves are falling in Beijing, in Hainan it’s hot), a warren of restaurants serving up delicious dishes like Hainanese chicken and the fact that the island doesn’t require a string of vaccinations to get to – and you’ve got a dream destination. Ironic really, given that Hainan was once hailed as the “gate of hell” in honor of it being a place to banish rebel officers.

And now is the time to go! At some point we’ve all gone green with envy listening to a lucky so and so regale us with tales about what a place was like back in the day. Well Hainan is still in the early morning of its day and, as yet, hasn’t registered on the travel radar. So whether you’re here for the sunshine, the fresh seafood or the forest now is your chance to be the one who got there first. Explore and enjoy, before word gets out that Hainan is open for business.