Hainan Island: Aloha from the end of the Earth
Hainan Island used to be a place of exile. Today, it's great for family holidays, says Adrian Mourby. It's on the same latitude as Hawaii
Sunday 18 February 2007
Yalong may be part of the glorious People's Republic of China but ever since we got here I've been humming South Pacific. We've got sunlight on the sand. We've got moonlight on the sea. We've got mangos and bananas we can pick right off the tree.
We've also got amazing levels of humidity, which is why we don't hit the beach as often as we ought. Maybe August wasn't such a great idea. Hainan Island is very proud of the fact that it's on the same latitude as Hawaii but it's also next door to Hong Kong, the perspiration centre of the universe.
Still, the air conditioning is world class. Whenever the beach gets too hot and sticky we retreat to the lobby of the Marriott, or the Oriental. The Family Mourby has become real connoisseurs of hotel lobbies over the past few days. Liv likes the cool clear western lines of the Marriott but my wife's favourite is the Crowne Plaza, which has been built to resemble the Forbidden Palace.
Fortunately, there are more interesting diversions for children around Sanya City and Yalong Bay. The beach is long, white and sandy. You can hire pedaloes or try your hand at subaqua, or do jet skis and banana-boating at a fraction of what it'll cost you in Hawaii. The Chinese government has done amazing things transforming an island that was once a place of exile into a tropical beach paradise.
Under the Qing dynasty, Hainan was known as the End of the Earth because it was so far from the capital. Indeed, only yesterday we went to a park, the other side of Sanya, called Tianya Haijiao where there's a famous rock formation that you can see on the back of the two-yuan note. The letters on the rocks spell out the words "Edge of the Sky". My wife and I think that's romantic but Liv is at the questioning age. "How do you know it says that?" she asks. "It might just say Made in China."
Our girl is equally underwhelmed by Luhuitou, a well-kept city park overlooking the port of Sanya. Here there's a statue commemorating a deer that was chased to this very hill from Five Finger Mountain by a hunter who needed to feed his people. As the sun rose the hunter saw the deer turn into a woman of surpassing beauty and so he put down his bow and arrow they lived happily ever after. "Whatever. He still didn't have anything to eat, did he?" says Liv.
But she does like the souvenir shops in the park and the guys in Beijing Olympics T-shirts who sell pearls on the beach. "Wow, are they real?" she asks with all the naivety of a 12-year-old who believes you can pick up a genuine string for 100 yuan (£7). "Rub one against your front teeth," says my wife. "Does it feel gritty or slick?" Our smiley guy beats a quick retreat.
The heat keeps us indoors in the afternoon. Our hotel is full of Russians and Koreans and China's nouveau riche, here for the golf or the spa treatments. We feel conspicuously large and Western. But evenings are delightful. The night market in Sanya stretches about half a mile along Hongqi Street. It's teenage-girl paradise with its eclectic mix of clothes, shoes, the latest gaming consoles, local handicrafts and yet more pearls. There are also tea houses lining the shore, though I must admit I find the clash of cultures disconcerting when I'm sipping my green tea and beach bums wander by with Fat Face on their surf shorts.
Not surprisingly, after a few days of heat, rampant commercialism and Korean kids skateboarding outside our room I'm looking for something more spiritual. We try a day trip to Nanshan Dongguan Guanyin, a sort of Buddhist theme park further along the coast. Here we bong the enormous bronze bell of peace, photograph a field full of peace doves and take the peace train around a series of temples that face the South China Sea.
But the focal point of our visit is an enormous statue of Guanyin, the goddess of compassion, that stands offshore. Our guide proudly tells us that at 355 feet tall Guanyin is six and a half feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, which means she's not just the most compassionate statue in the world but also the biggest. "Weird," says Livvie, and for once I am in complete agreement.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Airtours (0870 900 8639; airtours.co.uk) offers 12 nights half-board in Hainan, plus two nights in Beijing, from £1,289 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights.
China National Tourist Office (see page 5).
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