Step off the Orient express

At the southernmost tip of the world's most populous country is a haven of peace and luxury. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore visit's Hainan island, China's fast-growing holiday paradise

China is a nation in perpetual fast-forward. The people who populate the People's Republic are battling through immense change; some are thriving, others just trying to cope. No visit to China will fail to fascinate. But don't imagine that a whizz through Beijing, Shanghai and a night with the Terracotta Army is going to be a relaxing holiday. The occasional glimpse of a bicycle pedalling gently along the side of one of Beijing's meanest ring roads may restore your sense of calm, but travelling in China can be damned hard work.

China is a nation in perpetual fast-forward. The people who populate the People's Republic are battling through immense change; some are thriving, others just trying to cope. No visit to China will fail to fascinate. But don't imagine that a whizz through Beijing, Shanghai and a night with the Terracotta Army is going to be a relaxing holiday. The occasional glimpse of a bicycle pedalling gently along the side of one of Beijing's meanest ring roads may restore your sense of calm, but travelling in China can be damned hard work.

So is it possible to visit the world's fastest emerging superpower and feel as though you have had a break? Ask China's new generation of tourists, and with dreamy eyes they will point you to the coral-studded southern coast of Hainan Island. This is both the southernmost point of China and its premier beach destination.

In Imperial China, Hainan was the country's natural offshore detention centre: a medieval version of Guantanamo Bay. Upset the emperor, and you'd be banished to Tianya Haijiao: "The foot of the earth and the corner of the sky", the destination for those deemed guilty of treason. It was the ultimate excommunication: banishment to a stretch of sand sandwiched between the roaring tide and the rugged mountains. Today, that stretch of sand is Sanya. Hainan is now an island for leisurely escape, not exile. It is the People's Republic's exotic paradise - physically and figuratively distant from the mainland's overbearing bureaucracy and 24-hour construction mania.

As a "China away from China", Hainan has recaptured the imagination of those squeezed into the nation's cities. Sure, some tourists dribble in from around the region: South Korea, Russia, Japan. But overwhelmingly the fun-seekers are China's own rising middle class. Even the country's current emperors - the Communist Party leaders - flock there for their holidays.

Sanya's Ya Long Wan (Asian Dragon Bay) and Da Dong Hai (Large Oriental Sea) are two of China's most beautiful beaches. Ya Long Wan is a private, secluded 7km strip of white sand and translucent ocean. Several international resort hotels have been built here and more are set to open in the coming months. Da Dong Hai is less intimate, and its resorts are not so refined. Chinese four- and five-star hotels line the beach and competition is steep so rates are low; my room cost £28 a night with a sea view and breakfast, well below the going rate for a basic room in any of China's major cities. This is luxury on a budget, and the hotels are staffed by members of China's apparently limitless labour force. But for the Western tourist, Sanya is no ordinary package destination.

With impeccable climatic precision my travel companion Sami and I landed on the island on the same day as the annual typhoon swept in from Taiwan to the north-east. In Mandarin, taiphoon means "Taiwanese wind". While the storm raged, we were obliged to explore the interior of our hotel, the Shanhaitian - whose name, appropriately, translates as "Mountain, Sea, Sky". It is at the end of Dadong Hai, the southernmost tip of the island and the world's most populous country.

We began at the spa in the basement. Here, to shake off the effects of the four-hour flight from Beijing, we indulged in overpriced massages carried out by two 50-year-old men from central China who - we soon discovered - couldn't tell a coccyx from a shoulder blade. Keen to repair the damage, we sought out a massage joint in Sanya town. We stumbled upon the Heaven Sea Beauty Parlour and had an hour-long Hainan special: a combination of Thai and traditional Chinese medicine massage that cost around £3 and felt heavenly.

Outside, Sanya town lacks atmosphere during the day. It feels very new - as though it is not yet the city it wants to be. But down at the harbour, hundreds of brightly painted wooden boats lie moored. Compared with the youthfulness of the rest of town they appear abandoned. Yet they are merely resting from their early morning run - bringing in the daily catch that will quickly find its way onto the menu.

You could, if you wished, spend the entire day feasting on the freshest ingredients, from delicately steamed dim sum at breakfast to the seafood strip in Sanya town. You chose your catch from the tanks outside the restaurant. Chinese gastronomy dictates that, for full flavour and health, water creatures must be eaten as close to their moment of death as possible. So close your eyes while your lunch is killed in front of you.

As dusk falls in town the street market comes to life. A noodle bar brushes against boxes of fuschia dragon fruit at a dazzling tropical produce stand. Sitting on small stalls, biting king prawns and smoked tofu off barbecue skewers and washing it all down with beer or rice wine, wanderers from the mainland flirt with each other. Unlike most beaches, Dadong Hai becomes more crowded after dark; each evening old ladies from the town set up barbecues on the sand. Our hotel emulated the idea with an impressive Brazilian grill every night on a veranda overlooking the ocean.

The Shanhaitian advertised itself as an "eco-hotel", so I sought out the duty manager to find out why. It is customary in China's up-market hospitality industry for staff to adopt an English name. The manager's was Gordon Jin - someone was having a laugh when they dished out the titles here. Anyway, he assured me that the hotel was working to protect the coral in the bay; that a colony of rhesus monkeys in the grounds was looked after; and that as much water as possible was recycled. But in return for my interest, Mr Jin led me on a tour of the hotel. Our first stop was the Presidential Suite. Unlike such quarters in most hotels, this had actually been occupied by ex-president Jiang Zemin, as well as the current premier Wen Jiabao.

Gordon Jin spoke excellent English, which placed him in a minority at the hotel. Most of the staff are migrant workers who have travelled from across China to try to get a slice of Hainan's tourism boom. Many have left behind spouses, children and parents. And many feel they have made healthy decisions choosing Hainan over the obvious (and more choking) industrial cities.

Hainan has long attracted a diverse bunch of people, as I found when I left the beach to explore more of the countryside around Sanya. After the eunuch greys and hierarchical reds of Beijing, Hainan is a feast of wilderness. The island shares the same latitude as Antigua and Hawaii, and its vegetation is not what you expect in China. Forget short, sprawling peach blossoms - Hainan's trees are 25m tall. Slim, dark coconut palms lean in clusters like supermodels taking a cigarette break.

Hainan's hills reach horizontally, not vertically. Bright green fields stretch back as if they were the mountains' shadows on the land, dotted with the occasional water buffalo. For the semi-adventurous, Sanya is well placed for a trip into the countryside; just rent a cab for a day from your resort. You will soon discover that, despite the tourist boom, Hainan remains one of China's poorer provinces. The countryside is populated with all sorts of people: ethnic minorities from far-flung corners of the People's Republic plus some Buddhist mountain-dwellers. Many work at tea and coffee plantations set up by returning expats. Unusually for China, Sanya evokes a sense of space. This is most evident in the countryside where houses stand alone rather than in villages, but you are aware of it even on the beaches. Fair skin is fashionable in China and tanning is unpopular.

On our last day we headed to a beautifully manicured hot spring for a final day of relaxation. I dipped in and out of pools ranging from 26-42C, each shaded by palm leaves. A huge swimming-pool has been built into the edge of a cliff, from where you can view the incandescent landscape and the spa hotel building site opposite. A Russian lady passed me in the pool, elated - she said something that sounded like "paradiso". The infrastructure may not match some of the world's more celebrated resorts, but the island's natural beauty and fresh produce make any holiday here wonderful.

Sanya is the place to learn the art of relaxation the Chinese way: over deliciously cooked wholesome meals, sipping fermented local teas and being massaged, bathed and cleansed. You'll discover the native spirit of playfulness, whether it's for water-sports, drinking games or karaoke. And you'll witness at close hand a microcosm of China's development in an end-of-the-earth setting.

A Chinese saying goes: "You cannot be a hero if you have not visited the Great Wall". Today, travellers are finding that being an anti-hero at Hainan is a lot more fun.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.fly.virgin.com) fly non-stop from Heathrow to Hong Kong . From here, Dragonair and China Southern fly to Sanya. Alternatively, fly via Beijing or Shanghai.

RED TAPE

To enter China you need a visa. You must apply in person or, much more easily, through an agent such as CTS Horizons, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9DL (020-7836 3688). It charges £50, plus £5 for postage; issuing the visa takes four or five working days.

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed at Sanya's Shanhaitian Hotel (00 86 898 882 1688; www.shthotel.com).

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