Dubbed "the Gate of Hell" by a Tang Dynasty prime minister exiled to the island, now marketed as "China's Hawaii" by exaggeration-prone tourism-industry types, Hainan is neither, though it's certainly a lot closer to Hawaii than it is to Hell. (Though it does get devilishly hot and sticky in the summer, we have to admit). In the end, Hainan is Hainan is Hainan, to paraphrase writer Gertrude Stein... and Hainan ain't a bad place to be, to nick a phrase from the late AC/DC frontman Bon Scott.
So what's Hainan got? Beaches galore, both those developed to within an inch of their natural lives (resort-saturated Yalong Bay, for example) and those hardly visited by anyone but the odd fisherman. Rugged tropical mountains, rustic Yi and Miao villages, palm plantations, rice terraces and rutted back roads. Smooth new highways, great cycling routes and China's best surfing. Excellent seafood, one helluva chicken dish (Wenchang Ji) and amazing year-round fruits and fresh produce. Clean air, plenty of mosquitos and a quirky history that's littered parts of the island with everything from World War II-era beach pillboxes to Monkey Island.
Known as Hainan Dao (dao is "island" in Mandarin), the main island is large enough to absorb ever-increasing numbers of sun-seekers from mainland China and Russia (expect to see a lot of Cyrillic signage in and around Sanya) while maintaining charming rough edges more reminiscent of back-country Vietnam than of Maui once you get clear of the major resort-and-golf-course development zones.
Most tourists fly straight into Sanya, located on the southern tip of the island; the other (and generally much cheaper) option is the provincial capital of Haikou on the northern coast, which is well served by an airport and ferry service across the Qiongzhou Strait to the Guangdong port of Hai'an.
While Sanya is surrounded by massive resort developments and golf courses, Haikou maintains a colonial quaintness with its neighborhoods of run-down palm-tree lined Sino-Portuguese architecture. As such, Sanya is the go-to choice for a quick five-star beach holiday, and Haikou makes for a more suitable port of entry for backpackers willing to take a week or two working their way south toward Sanya's hostels.
Travelling south along Hainan's east coast from Haikou to Sanya, a number of intriguing small cities and towns are waiting to be explored: Bo'ao, Wenchang, Qionghai, Wanning, and Lingshui among them. Off the main highways, small rural Han, Li and Miao villages and settlements abound, excellent territory for cyclists.
Hainan's east coast boasts hot springs, beautiful beaches, coconut plantations and nature parks. Beaches down the coast often face fairly rough surf rolling in off the South China Sea, good for body-surfing (watch out for undertows). The inland route descends down a spine of mountains, Limuling Shan, featuring some of the best of what's left of Hainan's indigenous forest (not much is left) and culminating in the impressive Jianfengling National Forest Park and Datian Nature Reserve in the islands southwestern quadrent.
Hikers may wish to hit the island's highest mountain, Wuzhi Shan, and explore the tropical waterfall at Baihua Shan.
Whatever you choose for your Hainan itinerary, be sure to try some of the island's famous dishes: Wenchang chicken, roasted duck, mountain goat, juicy crab, all washed down by coconut milk or a local Hainan or Anchor beer.
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