Many tourists come to China for the culture but very few make the journey to the island known as China’s Hawaii. Time to grab the surfboard and bikini and head to Hainan...
Basking beneath the hot afternoon sun, a fruit cocktail at my side and palm trees swaying up above, I think to myself, I can’t quite believe I’m in China.
This lush, tropical island paradise, less than 50 kilometers from the mainland in the South China Sea, was once a place for political exiles until as late as the 1950s. Today, Hainan island is no longer isolated from the capital. It’s just a four-hour plane ride from Beijing, and there are direct flights from most other major cities.
Some say the turning point was the Miss World contest staged at the Sheraton Hotel in Sanya in 2003. It’s amazing what an internationally televised event with beautiful, bikini-clad women can do for a destination’s profile. So, in a matter of years, Hainan has been transformed into a resort destination.
It’s known as China’s Hawaii, partly because it’s on the same latitude and it’s the only place in China where you’ll find palm trees with coconuts. Large multinational hotel brands are scattered along Sanya's Yalong Bay and the nearby golf courses are popular with Singaporean and Korean visitors.
A short drive down the coast you’ll find the more accessible, public beaches in Dadonghai. This is an area overrun with Russians – even the street signs are written in Cyrillic. But the bulk of the visitors are China's affluent new consumer classes, who cavort on the beaches in Hawaiian shirts, riding on jet skis and snapping pictures with their digital cameras. There are also a growing number of expatriates working in China, many of whom come here, believe it or not, to learn to surf.
So I decided to take the plunge and try my hand at balancing on a thin fibreglass board, comforted by the thought that I don't know a single soul in Hainan. I enlisted the help of Brendan Sheridan, an American who's set up Surfing Hainan, a small company offering surf lessons and surfing safaris around the island. "It does surprise most people that there is surf in China," he tells me, as he waxes his board in a tiny office based near Dadonghai beach. "It’s not world class surf, not like Hawaii or Indonesia, but it's decent surf. During the fall and winter we get pretty consistent 6-8 foot swells here."
We drive north for several hours in search of waves, to a beach near Wenchang (incidentally home to the Soong sisters, the wives of Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek). Before we hit the water, I master the 'pop-up' - starting from lying flat on my stomach to standing up on the surfboard, in one smooth motion. This is simple enough when you're on solid ground, but in moving water, it's a totally different story.
After about an hour of arm-aching paddling backwards and forwards from the shore, and falling head first off the board in a number of ungainly positions, I finally managed to stand up. Fortunately for me, on the day I learned to surf the waves were relatively flat - perfect conditions for beginners. The beaches aren’t as crowded as other popular destinations like Hawaii or Indonesia, and you can make a fool of yourself learning the techniques without having to be mindful of other, more experienced, surfers.
While Surfing Hainan is based in the south, Monran is another surfing company based in the north, in the capital Haikou. It's been running surfing safaris, mainly for Japanese clients, for the last few years. Monran has established Hainan’s first surfboard-making factory and it’s where Sheridan gets most of his boards. If you aren’t linking up with a surf school in Hainan, it’s best to bring everything with you – like your wax, rash vest and board - as there are no surf shops on the island as yet.
While you’re in the north, the Old Colonial Quarter in Haikou is a good respite from the beach. You won’t believe you’re on the same island, as you stroll through bustling streets crammed with bicycles, trishaws and motorcycles, all streaming past restored, colonial buildings housing a vast number of local shops and businesses.
The mayhem of daily life is best observed during the early evenings, when the streets are brightly lit and bursting with shoppers and locals out drinking and eating. Some would say this is the perfect way to end a hard day’s surfing in Hainan.
Hainan's climate is far more temperate than the rest of China. Even in winter, average temperatures are around 21°C (69.8°F); the yearly average is 25.4°C (77.7°F). From March through to November, the weather becomes hot and humid. Typhoons usually descend on the island between May and October, and can disrupt transport and communication with the mainland.
There are regular domestic flights between Haikou and Sanya and other Chinese cities including Beijing, Guangzhou, Kunming, Nanning, Shanghai and Shenzhen. There are daily ferry and boat services to the mainland as well as a rail link from Haikou to Guangzhou, which takes about 12 hours.
Where to eat
Rainbow Bar and Grill, Sanya: recommended by the surfers at Surfing Hainan for the western food and drink, as well as satellite sports TV.
Sunset Bar at the Kempinski Hotel, Sanya: this is the perfect place to watch the sun go down. Casual poolside dining.
Forever Café, 4 Jichang Dong Road, Haikou
Best times to come are during the winter season, when northeast swells can be found on beaches on the eastern part of the island. During the summer months, south-facing beaches are better. There’s also the prospect of typhoons in summer, which could sometimes mean bigger waves, but it’s a little unpredictable.