Escape to the beach: Living it up in sunny Sanya

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: June 2nd, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Sanya skeptic Sascha Matuszak heads south to "China's Hawaii" to see what all the fuss is about. Will he be converted by swaying palms and a taste of luxury living, or is it all just tourism industry hype after all? Read on to find out. >>> I finally made it to Sanya last weekend after years of spurning the place due to tales of rampant commercialism, horrible tourists rubbing elbows with other horrible tourists and a "be rich or be gone" ethos that makes the place intolerable for just-above-broke writers like me. After this weekend, I gotta say, I think I'm blinded by the light. The resorts stacked up along the southern coast of Hainan are spectacular. Five-star service really is everything it's cracked up to be. You can't help but love it when the staff smile and fawn over you, when the view from the lobby includes a tropical garden, beautifully kept pools and a soft, easy beach with waves not much higher than your knee. And I was just passing through the resorts. I stayed far away from all the bling, out on the western edge of Sanya Bay, where there's also a lot to make life enjoyable: street food, a constant lovely sea breeze and the same easy beaches that make Sanya excellent for that family getaway your lady's been hinting at all year long...

All-round family fun in Sanya's sun

Sanya isn't really for backpackers. You will not find buskers, dreadlocks, Israelis or other such off-the-path standards on the streets and strands of China's southernmost city. It's all couples with mom-in-law tagging along, nuclear families from the Mainland and Russia, and young lovers making vows at the End of the Known World (Tianya Haijiao). Around 90% of the tourists here are Mainland Chinese escaping from the grime and grit of their daily grind. The rest are Russians, with a smattering of international expats from China and other Pacific Asian countries. For Mainlanders looking for sun and beach, this is without question the (only) best option available. Not only are visas unnecessary, but the beaches, sun and seafood come with China's very own Duty Free Shop—a huge draw for the modern Chinese tourist. The Duty Free Shop opened in April of this year in downtown Sanya and has all of the goods you would find at any international airport shop: cosmetics, liquor, bags and other luxury items that most of us ignore on the way to the gate. But the current incarnation of the Chinese tourist is all about buying luxury goods. Be it a present for the boss or another notch on the proverbial belt of higher class, tourists in Sanya love their Duty Free. They love it so much, in fact, that the shop has been plagued with long lines and shortages. This problem will soon be resolved, the hope is, by the planned creation of a "Duty Free City" a few miles away along Haitang Bay, the new, new development area east of Yalong Bay. Yalong Bay... every Chinese who isn't tilling earth or hauling garbage has heard of Yalong Bay. If you can say that you stayed there for a few days (or longer) then you have reached a certain stage in life; you've "made it" so to speak. You have enough cash to treat your family members to the comforts of a five-star resort like the Marriott, Sheraton or Hilton and baby, that's really what it's all about isn't it?

Feelin' good, feelin' great

There are three major areas for the newly well-off to kick back in Sanya and I encourage all of you—broke or not, Chinese or not, Marxist or Capitalist—to throw away your preconceived notions and just imagine... comfort. Those three areas are Yalong Bay, Serenity Bay on the Luhuitou Peninsula (半山半岛), and Haitang Bay (under construction). Expect to pay a minimum of RMB 700 a night in any of these spots. True luxury lodgings hover around RMB 2000 a night, a price tag you should get a room with an ocean view, a large bathtub and a balcony, access to clean pools and a nice beach, gourmet food and drink and the privacy and quiet so lacking in so much of China. Is it wrong to enjoy the fruits of your labor? Is it really that wrong to take daddy's money and dip out to the beach for a few days? Wouldn't any of us do it if we could? As I sat in the first floor restaurant of the venerable Sheraton Sanya, I felt the breeze come off of the ocean and sweep along the tables and play with what's left of my hair and I thought to myself, "damn, this is nice." They brought me a Hainan baby lobster with black pepper sauce and steamed veggies. My whole persona went from irreverent prankster to "I do this all the time" mysterious rich guy. As far as the Cantonese boss across the way knew, I was a wealthy young foreigner with connections to every mover and shaker in the area. Isn't that what the relatively-powerless-but-kinda wealthy really want? The image, the mantle of success and luxury that just says: Exceptional? Sanya can give you this mantle. They want to give it to you. The whole purpose of Sanya is to bestow this mantle upon all who grace her shores, so long as they can pay. You could moralize about the justice of a rich man sipping coffee and picking at yogurt poolside while a browned muscular native removes bugs and sticks with a long net. Or you could indulge. While I was on the western edge of Sanya Bay—where the service and quality drops a notch (or three)—I didn't really think about it. I just enjoyed the view I did have and made my nightly run to the street food market for crab porridge and BBQ fishies. But for one magnificent day, I was that dude sipping coffee poolside while a native Lizu boy expertly dipped his net into the private club pool to remove random flotsam. It made it hard for me to stay within the dream of fabulous wealth that I was living in for a very brief moment, and I think maybe he felt it too. But I gotta say, the dream lingers on even after the thrill of dreaming is gone...   Stay tuned for more features on Hainan, including a look at the Li minority, a breakdown of the different hotels and bays of Sanya and what's hot on Hainan.

Sanya on the China Travel Blog

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