Referred to by locals as the “Hawaii of China”, Hainan has a much more compelling claim to its nickname than other islands in the region that attempt to use this metaphor, such as Jeju Island, which claims to be the “Hawaii of Korea”. Unlike the latter mismatched comparison, Hainan is an island that lies at a latitude that is actually in the tropics, making a welcome relief from bone-chilling weather much further north if you’re visiting China outside of the warmer months of the year.
As such, the key attractions here are the beaches, which are getting increasingly crowded as the expanding wealth of the Chinese middle class makes it easier for them to escape cold temperatures in much the same fashion that Westerners have been doing for many decades. It wasn’t always perceived as a desirable place by mainlanders though, as the place was known by many for centuries to be where miserable failures in government were banished to live out the rest of their days in exile.
In a tropical paradise.
Amazing logic, I know!
All jokes aside though, aside from a few cultural attractions, this generally isn’t the place to bone up on culture. When you’re surrounded by swaying palms, lukewarm seas and juicy tropical fruit, I’m sure you can let those plans slip for a week or so while you forget about the crushing masses of people back on the mainland … not everything about travel has to be so serious, after all!
If you feel the need to get in touch with the soul of this place before you indulge your need for hedonism on the silky sands of China’s southernmost island, then first head to Wugong Temple, which can be found in the provincial capital of Haikou. This temple was erected in honour of five officials that were banned from the mainland for having the nerve to criticize the rule of the Tang dynasty. Statues immortalizing these five brave souls can be found in the lush courtyard, along with tributes to the Chinese poet Su Dongpo.
Before departing Haikou, get a quick overview of the history of habitation on this island at the Hainan Provincial Museum. Recently opened, the exhibits cover antiquities gathered from around the island that date back many centuries (the porcelain pieces are spectacular), and the modern development on the island over the past two decades.
Before the imperial government began using this island to send critics and failed officials to forced exile here on Hainan, its original inhabitants had been living here in peace for many generations prior. Gusong Village is a traditional Hainanese village, which unlike other tourist trap ethnic villages that are found closer to the beach resorts, is decidedly non-commercial in its bent.
Brightly coloured houses will delight the avid photographer, culture hunters will shriek in delight as they will be able to observe traditional ways of life without being hounded by touts, and more active travelers will appreciate the option to hike up Tonggu Mountain with local guides.
Visitors looking to explore the rich forests of the interior will have the opportunity to do so at Yanoda Rainforest Cultural Tourism Zone. Paths have been cleared, limited Chinese gardens have been constructed, and information panels have been put in place to educate guests, but apart from that, the environment has largely been left intact, much to the relief of those concerned about the level of disruption of developments like these.
If you are looking to take a more hands-on approach to help save the environment, contact Sea Turtles 911 upon your arrival in Hainan. Sea Turtles 911 is a non-profit organization that aims to aid the sea turtles that lay their eggs upon the beaches of this island, so that their populations might increase from the dismally low levels that they are stuck in this modern day and age.
Finally, it’s time to hit the beach! Many ESL teachers and long-term backpackers in China eagerly await their time on the sands of Sanya Beach, Hainan’s best known resort area, or at less crowded shores near Wenchang. The winds during the Northern Hemisphere summer push the South China Sea towards the southern coast at this time, also making this place a great location to pick up surfing. Tourism operators in Sanya offer lessons, making it a great way to end off your time in China.