Hainan: Discovering the Hawaii of China

By Rod Pascoe

Rod Pascoe basks in tropical temperatures on a fabulous - and surprising - resort island off China's southern coastline.
Part of the cultural performance at Binglanggu village. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Part of the cultural performance at Binglanggu village. Photo / Rod Pascoe

My Chinese drycleaner laughed when I picked up my lightweight pullover. "Hainan Island? You won't need this on Hainan Island," he said.

"It's to wear at night ... " I explained.

"Night, day, summer, winter, you won't need a sweater on Hainan Island," came his confident reply.

It seems that every Chinese Kiwi I met in Auckland knew all about Hainan, China's southernmost province and its only tropical region. I sensed an element of envy when I mentioned I was going there. And it didn't take more than a day or two after my arrival to appreciate why.

Hainan is blessed with the most appealing climate, which is especially attractive when you have just left behind an Auckland where the overnight temperature had plunged to single figures, even though it was still only autumn.

The 33,000sq km island is on the same latitude as Hawaii and enjoys similar weather - always warm, and moderately humid. The average temperature at the height of summer is just under 30C, and in the depths of winter - if you can call it "depths" - it's 22C.

The climate has given rise to a feature of the landscape I have not noticed anywhere else. While travelling on the high-speed train from the main airport at Haikou, the capital, to Sanya City, where many holidaymakers head, I saw hundreds and hundreds of towering apartment blocks with not a single light switched on.

Jackie Li, the local guide accompanying our group of Kiwi journalists, told me these were owned by Chinese people living in the north, who venture south in winter to escape the cold but leave their flats unoccupied for the rest of the year. Such wealth! It occurred to me that an enterprising local could grow rich leasing out these properties during the Hainan summer to Kiwis escaping our southern hemisphere winter.

Sheraton Yalong Bay.
Sheraton Yalong Bay.


I was amused on this journey of about 90 minutes to notice that the train attendant repeatedly came up and down the aisle selling lottery tickets, even before the eats and drinks were offered - the Chinese sure love a punt.

Hainan's other great natural assets are its beaches, bush and geothermal hot springs. Expansive sweeps of sand and surf are everywhere, giving opportunities galore for swimming, boating and snorkelling. I was especially taken by Yalong Bay, 25km southeast of Sanya City, which is home to numerous resorts with manicured grounds that seem to blend in with the beachfront rather than dominate it.

It's impressive to think that less than 20 years ago, Yalong didn't have a single five-star hotel or resort. Now it has several dozen. My visit there began with dinner on the beach at the Sheraton, which hosted the Miss World finals from 2003 to 2005. Even late into the evening, it was still very warm. Definitely no need for my sweater.

The next day we managed to find a cool spot. It was in a viewing pagoda in the Tropical Paradise Rainforest Park on a mountain that towers above Yalong Bay. We were 450m above sea level, and the pleasant breeze provided welcome relief from the noon temperatures down on the beach. The mountain area is dominated by the sculpture of a fearsome dragon, placed there to bring prosperity and good luck to the region - the Chinese love their symbolism.

The view from the pagoda wasn't the only thing in the park that took my breath away. The Paradise Bird's Nest Resort there has a lodge that costs 260,000 yuan ($56,000) to hire - for one night! No worries, said one wit. It has 16 rooms, so you could share the bill with your mates. Yeah, right.

Hainan being in a tropical monsoon zone, more than half of the island is still covered in thick rainforest, although many Kiwis may want to admire it from a distance or keep to established tracks: there are snakes.

The authorities are at great pains to preserve what bush is left. Development is strictly controlled by the provincial government under instruction from the authorities in Beijing and no trees older than 100 years are allowed to be touched. The central government has also ordained that some regions - Sanya is a prime example - are to be principally tourist centres, so the few factories that exist are closely monitored to ensure they don't have any impact on the environment.

Hainan has much more to offer tourists than just the gifts of nature, of course. Several times in the week I was there I was overawed by the entertainment the locals put on.

Beaches are one of Hainan's many natural assets. Photo / Getty Images
Beaches are one of Hainan's many natural assets. Photo / Getty Images


One such occasion was at the Romance Park (I kid you not; that's its name), a tourism theme park in Sanya. The indoor theatre there seats 4700 - the Chinese don't do things by half - and the show, about Hainan's original inhabitants, was spectacular. Some parts were so mind-bogglingly complex and happened so fast, I couldn't take it all in. Fight scenes, love scenes, frenzied dancing, booming music, dazzling on-screen images, aerial acrobatics so daring I sometimes couldn't watch ... wow!

Never before have I seen a show where engineers should take as big a bow as the lead actors. The staging was awesome. Several times during the performance, whole banks of seating were moved aside electronically and, as fierce action took place in the space vacated, it poured with rain .

For me, the highlight was the sight of mermaids swimming above the heads of the audience on a massive expanse of clear thick plastic the width of the theatre. Truly astonishing.

Everything was in Chinese, but English-language introductions appeared on screen before each act, so it didn't matter that Westerners couldn't understand the dialogue.

The other show that left me feeling good about the world was at the Binglanggu village, 28km from Sanya. It's been home to members of the Li ethnic minority for more than 400 years and some of them still live in dwellings made of mud caked over bamboo frames topped by thatched roofs.

Just as at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua, where the Tuhourangi people still live in their old village near the geysers, you can't just bowl on up to the front door and ask to be shown inside, but the Li do welcome you to learn about their tribe's past, in their museum and through demonstrations of their crafts.

It's the high-energy 50-minute cultural show by several hundred performers that I'll always remember, though. It wasn't just stunning, it was fun. Who could forget the laugh-out-loud parade of geese, ducks and black goats coming down the steep steps from the back of the set. (I later learned that having three goats is a symbol of good luck - there's that Chinese symbolism again.)

Sadly, I also won't forget my very first experience of being discriminated against because of my age. Binglanggu has a high-speed zipline, a kind of flying fox, and I was raring to give it a go. But at 63, I was looked on as a heart attack waiting to happen, and forbidden to ride. Unfair.

Our group had fun at Binglanggu trying to work out what some of the on-screen English translations of the Hainanese announcements meant. Even though we were journalists, there were words and expressions we had never encountered before.

Language could be an issue for monolingual Kiwis visiting Hainan. English is not widely spoken - I found that even many hotel reception staff struggled - so the best bet would be to take an escorted tour such as the ones my co-hosts, the China Travel Service, organise, or stay in one place, like Yalong Bay, and take excursions with English-speaking guides.

Tourist guide Jackie Li and Rod Pascoe don Red Army helmets in Movie Town. Photo / Barbara Boyce
Tourist guide Jackie Li and Rod Pascoe don Red Army helmets in Movie Town. Photo / Barbara Boyce


I don't know how our group would have got on if our guide, Jackie Li, hadn't been with us when they took a helicopter ride over Sanya. (My insurance policy expressly excludes flights on non-scheduled air services, so I sat this one out.) The operators, Hainan Sanya Yalong General Aviation, wanted everyone to sign forms guaranteeing they had no health issues and were not under the influence of drink or drugs, but these were entirely in Chinese.

The flight enabled the Kiwis to see many young couples along the waterfront having their wedding photos taken. The helicopter company didn't mind the visitors taking shots of the newlyweds, but it banned cameras pointing towards the city itself on takeoff, because of the presence of a military base. When I asked a local official where this was, he said he didn't know.

"This is China. We're not allowed to know these things." Interestingly, as I was leaving the helicopter base, I spotted a long line of aircraft hangars over the road, and a short time later saw a gate with a big sign in English, "Military Restricted Area", so I guess I quickly found out what the local said he wasn't allowed to know.

I was going to suggest that a quick visit to the Google Earth website would turn up satellite images of the base, but remembered that Beijing has banned Google - and Facebook.

As a visitor destination, it seems Hainan Island has been a Russian secret for years. Russians make up 90 per cent of foreign visitors and every week commercial flights and charter jets packed with tourists fly in from major cities in Putin's empire. Their interest in the island is such that tourist signs everywhere are written in Russian as well as Chinese and English, and the sons and daughters of Moscow have even made the Da Dong Hai district near Sanya their own seaside enclave.

But foreign interest in Hainan as a tourist spot is widening. The Koreans have discovered the island in recent years - evidence of their financial investments is widespread - and it's a fair bet that more and more Kiwis will be encouraged to visit there once Hainan Airlines, which has huge hotel interests locally, begins direct flights between Auckland and Shenzen late this year and its subsidiary Hong Kong Airlines begins flying direct from Auckland to Hong Kong.

The China Travel Service in Auckland is already leading the charge, and while we were in Hainan, the company reps accompanying our group negotiated a deal with the Sheraton Yalong Bay to offer six nights' accommodation with breakfasts, return airfares via Guanzhou and airport transfers for $1888 - notice all the eights; it's a lucky number for Chinese - until July 15, for travel before mid-September. If you had seen how flash the Sheraton is and how beautiful its beachside gardens are, you'd know what a sweet deal that is.

One of the CTS staff, a Kiwi-born in America, told me Hainan is an island of five-star hotels at three-star prices. Long may it remain so.

Aucklander Lisa Li at the Red Women Army Memorial at Qionghai. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Aucklander Lisa Li at the Red Women Army Memorial at Qionghai. Photo / Rod Pascoe


Hotfoot to the furnace

I may have been regarded as a dinosaur on death's door by the staff at the Binglanggu historic village, but I had fun days later showing our Kiwi group that The Old Fellow isn't just hanging around for the Grim Reaper to pounce.

My opportunity came at the Leiqiong Global Geopark just outside Haikou, the capital of Hainan and home to two million people. Like Auckland, Haikou is in a volcanic zone - there are 40 dormant or extinct volcanoes.

A centrepiece of the geopark is Fengluling ("Furnace Mountain"), a 222m peak that last exploded 8000 years ago. I was in seventh heaven when I saw the large number of steps our group would have to climb to get to the rim of its crater. Here was my chance. I bounded up them effortlessly ahead of everyone else - I'm a bit of a gym junkie.

The youngest of our group twigged to what I was doing and raced to catch up with me, but at the top, he was puffing and I hadn't even got up a sweat. I felt good! Point made. The zipline holds no fear for me.

From the crater, you get the most wonderful views over Haikou City and all the way over the Qiongzhou Strait to mainland China 18km away. It was worth the climb.

Checklist

The China Travel Service Auckland has extended the $1888 Sheraton Yalong Bay deal until July 31, for travel before September 15.
ctstours.co.nz/latest-specials/winter-getaway-hainan-island/

Rod Pascoe travelled to Hainan Island as a guest of the China National Tourist Office and China Travel Service Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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