Ordinarily, it’s no contest that I’d choose culture and cuisine over a nice beach and agreeable climate. Yet, with direct flights to Sanya from Lukou at around ¥500 each way promising pastures greener in just over 3 hours, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell to someone who has spent the last 6 years living a stone’s throw from the perpetual downpour that is Wales. And to my surprise, the island of Hainan was so much more than just a pretty face with a nice tan.
With vibrant colours on display from almost every plant Perhaps the most striking of the many sights to see and excursions species, immediately as you leave the airport and head towards the centre, you develop a sense of just how well kept Sanya is and how much effort has been put in to maintain its beauty. Though small by Chinese standards, Sanya in its high season (around October to April) is a busy mishmash of full- time locals, northern pensioners seeking sunnier climes and holidaymakers, principally those from all over China but also a good handful from Russia. It can seem a tad touristic at first glance, but keep an open mind and you’ll be combing tranquil beaches and eating only the freshest seafood at local hideouts in no time.
Although the city is better known these days for its lush resorts, I kept costs down with a week at Sanya Backpackers, a well- located, leafy hostel with friendly management and a superb clientele forever passing through its doors. Dorms come in at around ¥50 and private doubles ¥150 a night; the rooms are clean and cosy, but you’d be spending most of your time outside anyway. If you’re looking for something a bit more upmarket or family-friendly you can easily find double rooms in 3-star hotels from ¥200 a night.
With the ISA World Longboarding Championships having taken place in Riyue Bay in the east last year, Hainan’s beach scene has found itself in an interesting transition from little hidden gems to full-scale surf resorts, making it an emerging player in the surfing world. A 45-minute bus ride will take you to Houhaijiao, a gorgeous peninsula with great views from either side, mostly populated by a handful of locals who don’t take life all too seriously. Certainly a great spot for beginners, but more seasoned surfers may wish to move further afield to Wanning, where the waves offer more of a challenge. If instead you’d rather just swim and relax, you can avoid the crowds and loud music at Dadonghai and head towards the Coconut Dream Corridor (Yemengchanglang), a long stretch of beach that reaches the airport were you to go far enough. Jump off the bus anywhere along the way to find a palm tree-lined shore and just a handful of people with whom to rub elbows. It also offers unspoilt views of the picturesque Sanya sunset.
Perhaps the most striking of the many sights to see and excursions to be made is Nanshan Temple, complete with Tang Dynasty revival architecture and the Guanyin Sea Statue, standing at a dizzying 108 metres. Its three faces, two of which face the sea with the other overlooking the park, are said to be symbols of blessing and protection for the people of Sanya.
Once the heat of the day has simmered away, there’s nothing better than taking a walk around the lush greenery in one of Sanya’s many idyllic scenic areas. A trip to Luhuitou park will take you up a gently winding path to a colossal monument of a deer looking over its shoulder (the rough translation of Luhuitou) set in a tastefully-decorated area. There’s a shuttle service included in the ticket price, but definitely do the half-hour walk if you feel up to it. Keep your eyes peeled and you might see families of wild macaques expertly manoeuvring the trees; maintain a safe distance though as they can just as professionally pinch your belongings! Luhuitou is perhaps most popular at sunset and into the evening, where it gives stunning views out onto the sprawl below. It’s really a special sight, with the towers on the manmade Phoenix Island giving an unforgettable display as their lights dance off the water.
Sanya’s life-giver, however, is its fruit. At every turn of the head you’ll find the freshest pineapples, the juiciest mangoes and grapes almost the size of table tennis balls. Had a few shandies at the Dolphin bar the night before? A fresh coconut should set you right for the day and shouldn’t cost more than ¥8. Prices can vary a lot in Sanya, so it’s a good idea to use an app, such as Dianping, to find the best restaurants and avoid the tourist traps; a good rule of thumb would be to steer clear of any neon Cyrillic signage.
Hainan can be accessed visa-free for 30 days for citizens of 59 countries, which makes Sanya an ideal spot to reconnect with friends or family who wish to avoid China’s painstaking visa application process. It is also recommended to plan a Sanya trip well in advance because of how much there is on offer. Not that organised? Your accommodation should provide a full list of tours.