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Chinese Whispers - Adventures in an unusual tropical idyll


Words: Mark Jones    Photography: Tim Gerard Barker


Little known to westerners, Hainan is China’s tropical idyll, a haven for outdoor pursuits with a unique approach to rural tourism

Hainan is easy to locate on a map, a pebble of an island chipped off the enormous boulder that is China, nestled in the curve of coast that runs around Vietnam. That’s where you’ll find it, but where does it appear on the traveller’s map of the world? The straight answer is: somewhere between Not Sure and Nowhere. For westerners who know a bit of Chinese geography, it is all too easily confused with the other ’nans – Yunan, Hunan, Henan. And, even in its own backyard, people talk less about Hainan Island than about its main tourist city; in Hong Kong, they talk about going to “Sanya” for the weekend. In fact, if you say “Hainan” to many Asians, they will probably think you’re talking about a popular chicken dish – and as everyone knows, if you want the best Hainan chicken, you go to Singapore.

For the Chinese, Hainan was, until recently, associated with heat, humidity and indigenous tribes. It was a kind of subtropical Siberia, a strange and dangerous place to which you might be exiled if you fell foul of the Emperor or the Communist Party. So let’s put Hainan on the modern map, where it is already for a new generation of affluent Chinese travellers.

surf instructor Yan Zhu at Riyue Bay
the view from a Presidential Suite at Raffles Hainan overlooking Clearwater Bay
golf caddy Yang Cai Yi at the Clearwater Bay Golf Club

Left to right:Surf instructor Yan Zhu at Riyue Bay; the view from a Presidential Suite at Raffles Hainan overlooking Clearwater Bay; golf caddy Yang Cai Yi at the Clearwater Bay Golf Club

The island of exile has become an island of escape – a luscious, warm destination to flee to when you want to escape the freezing winters and smoggy skies up north. Hainan is Florida, Okinawa, the Costa del Sol. Its luxury resorts tower over a beautiful blue sea and fine sandy beaches with acre upon acre of palm trees. However, it’s an interesting challenge. Let’s be clear: the activity holiday is far less evolved in China than in western resorts, where there are legions of eager people in polo-shirts ready to whisk you off in a minibus to scuba dive, explore ruins, hang-glide, hike, cycle, forage, play polo on a pony or in a pool, or try whatever experience takes your fancy.

Hainan is Florida, Okinawa, the Costa del Sol: a place to swim, relax, eat and forget about work

a water feature at the hotel
the Binglanggu Li and Miao Cultural Heritage Park

Left to right:Ugur Talayhan, General Manager at Raffles Hainan; a water feature at the hotel; the Binglanggu Li and Miao Cultural Heritage Park

You have to work a bit harder for your thrills here – and that’s partly what makes Hainan interesting: you feel like you’re in at the beginning of something, because in China they learn fast and evolve faster. I had been in the Raffles Hainan resort at Clearwater Bay for an hour, barely time to drop the bags, get out the swimwear and gawp at the view of palms, beach and distant islands, before we were packed into a car and whisked along to Riyue Bay – also known as Sun and Moon Bay – to check out the surfing.

A canyon in the Wuzhishan mountain region
Surfers catch a wave at Riyue Bay
A colourful dragon quilt at the Heritage Park

Left to right:A canyon in the Wuzhishan mountain region; surfers catch a wave at Riyue Bay; a colourful dragon quilt at the Heritage Park

China has no real surfing culture to speak of, but what there is you’ll find on this beach. It’s already hosted international competitions, somewhat to the bemusement of the locals, but this will change. I waded out in to the water to watch (and duck) as pre-teens whizzed among the breakers like supercharged seals. I met Ivy, a 25-year-old mainlander with a marketing degree, who fetched up a year ago and is now one of the instructors. Before she arrived here, she had hardly been to a beach, let alone picked up a surfboard. As I said, they learn fast. It was the same story on the golf course the next morning. My caddy, Yang Cai Yi, was a diminutive 21-year-old from a nearby town wearing a kind of crash helmet/visor headgear (people have to wear helmets on the golf course, but not on motorbikes).

It’s taken her a year to pick up the game. Now she’s suggesting to pig-headed, middle-aged golfers like me that I should take a three wood rather than the five iron I was searching for. (And she was right.) Golf in China is in an uncertain place: the initial explosion of enthusiasm and the too-hasty building of new courses were followed by an outbreak of official disapproval for this most capitalist of games. It’s not a problem in Hainan: golf is core to the tourism industry offering. But the courses are quieter than they should – or deserve – to be. At the Clearwater Bay Golf Club, Yang Cai Yi and I had the long, immaculately kept course of epic bunkers and picturesque, if tricky, greens to ourselves.

This is a great place to pursue surfing, mountain biking, golf and yachting in peace

I wanted to get a better idea of the culture and landscape of the island so I headed into the mountains north of Sanya. At this point I may need to offer some gentle advice to readers who are not familiar with the way China does heritage and rural tourism. I went on a rainforest walk. When I say that, you may have images of an intrepid trek ending at some clearing in the jungle where I encountered a way of life unchanged for centuries.

Chinese chequers at Raffles Hanian
A waterfall near Riyue Bay
The futuristic cityscape in the port city of Sanya

Left to right:Chinese chequers at Raffles Hanian; a waterfall near Riyue Bay; the futuristic cityscape in the port city of Sanya

It wasn’t really like that. You enter the Yanoda Rainforest Park past a line of welcoming young people waving flags. For the first part of the journey, the only green you see is on the painted branches and plastic leaves of the cavernous entrance hall. Chinese pop plays loudly, they fly mobiles above your head and there is an unmistakably Chinese din. You walk along boardwalks that have been swept clean of any stray bits of nature. You are never more than a short walk away from a brightly painted stall selling fans, hats and selfie sticks. My suggestion is: don’t fight it. Just potter around in the happy crowd of girls in sparkly sandals, boys in sports vests, grannies, babies and helpful workers in rainforest shirts and matching baseball caps. Beneath all the gaudiness, the Hainanese care deeply about their environment. People from the north come to places like Yanoda to drink in the fresh air, swim in the clear waters and ingest some much-needed oxygen.

Alan Chan, General Manager at Clearwater Bay marina
Tour guides at the Heritage Park
Frank Yi of mountain-biking company Velo China

Left to right:Alan Chan, General Manager at Clearwater Bay marina; tour guides at the Heritage Park; Frank Yi of mountain-biking company Velo China

The last morning was a lot gentler. I hopped into a vintage golf cart limousine and trundled down to the Clearwater Bay marina, looked after by General Manager Alan Chan. It’s a new multi-million-dollar development of residential apartments and luxury villas with an observation tower, clubhouse and moorings.Alan took me out on a luxury yacht. We pointed the prow towards Wuzhizhou Island with the Raffles Hainan beach to starboard; on the portside, nothing much except several thousand kilometres of sparkling South China Sea between us and Borneo. Alan let me take the wheel, a slightly unnerving experience as a million euros’ worth of boat quivered underneath me.

As we turned into the gentle waves, Alan, a Singaporean by birth, told me about his mission to get China out on to the water. Like surfing, mountain biking and golf, yachting has yet to attract the resort-going classes in any great numbers. As with everything in China, that will change. So if you are into any of those pursuits, Hainan is a great place to get active in peace.

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