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20/05/2013

The Hawaii of Asia

Sunrise and the sun sits low on the horizon. The hotel is a neoclassical affair, with marble columns and a troop of elephants lining the path to the foyer. From the entrance a great driveway descends the small hill, sweeping past a marble fountain and a palatial gatehouse. There it joins the road into Hainan's main tourist town, Sanya, home to 500,000 inhabitants. And it is the popular tourist place for China tour deals. At the base of the hill, on the road to town, a woman sits making brooms from palm fronds. Farther toward town, a little yellow food stand bears the slogan "the Hawaii of Asia."

In the resort of Yalong Bay, the Marriot, Sheraton and Hilton sit at the far end of the seven-kilometer stretch of beach. Several attendants in starched white attire are combing the beach with rakes, the golden sands leading down to clean blue water. Walking along the beach, it seems no expense has been spared in creating an oasis of opulence. In one hotel a vaulted wooden ceiling reaches up into the sky. In another a white grand piano sits on a raised stage, while in the foyer of yet another, a roped-off Ferrari receives its morning wax.

In the last decade Hainan has grown to become the country's number two holiday travel destination (in between Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan, and Lijiang in Yunnan, two destination for top 10 China tours), but a large number of people outside of the country have still not heard of this tropical island in the South China Sea. Foreigners made up just 270,000 of Hainan's 15 million tourists last year, led by South Koreans, Russians and Japanese.

The province's history is one of relative isolation, but the culture has long been buffeted by waves from afar – explorers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, colonists, and, lately, the bikini-clad contestants of the Miss World beauty pageant have all left their mark. Han dynasty dissidents were once banished here, to "the ends of the earth," as fatal punishment, and from 1939 it was occupied by the Japanese, leading to the death of many of the island's young men. But, as that memory fades, the place of exile has become a paradise, with sun-seeking tourists flocking here to escape the cold winters of the northern hemisphere.

From March to November the mercury creeps past the 40 degrees Celsius mark, as humidity bastes locals and tourists alike. The rains offer little respite, as in the summer months tropical storms and typhoons buffet the coast. By mid-January though the temperatures are relatively mild – the wet, humid summer giving way to a cooler and drier season. At the butterfly center in Yalong Bay National Resort Yvonne Li sprays sugar water onto a cluster of delicate flowers. Like falling leaves from the canopy above, butterflies descend onto the yellow blooms. "The summer is quiet out here," she says. "It's far too hot. But now things will get a little busier, and during the New Year it will become very crowded."

Close to town, at the resort of Dadonghai (a must-see in Sanya for popular China tours), street stalls dish out fresh seafood while massage parlors blare out cheesy Western pop tunes. Tacky souvenir shops cater largely to Chinese and Russian tourists, reinforcing the image of Sanya as the Hawaii of China by selling a range of fluorescent Hawaiian print shirts, worn dutifully by scores of tourists. The Dadonghai beach area is slightly more jaded than the neighboring resort in Yalong Bay, but it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit of holidaymakers unselfconsciously having fun.

It's easy to lose yourself in both resorts, putting aside thoughts of work and paying the bills. Swimming between the man-made mini islands and water features of the hotel lagoons is an easy way to wile away the hours. The fully-stocked gyms and games rooms offer a diversion if the sight of sparkling blue waters becomes too much, and the softly whirring ceiling fans in the reading room will quieten the most restless soul. A sultry week or two of contemplation, staring up at the hard green leaves of a mango or frangipani tree, makes a welcome break from the city.

Hainan has a great deal to offer away from the beaches, with the Li and Miao minority groups inhabiting the interior of the island in the lush Limuling mountain range. Hainan is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots and one of the few places on the planet that still possesses primeval forest among the extensive monsoon forest that covers 50 percent of the island. Jianfengling Nature Reserve, about 115km west of Sanya, is home to hundreds of species of plants and insects, and gives an idea of what the island probably once looked like, blanketed by tropical jungle.

Northwest of the city sits the statue of A Ma (Tin Hau), a gigantic statue of the Buddha of compassion. Built on a platform in the South China Sea, at 108 meters (and 16 meters taller than the Statue of Liberty), it is said to be the tallest statue in the world. Nearby, tourists make the most of the photo opportunities, posing in front of a large bronze bell and striking a suitable stance on the steps of the Nanshan Temple which can be considered to included in China tour packages. Further west, the Nantian hot spring resort makes for a relaxing side-trip.

Come evening, the sky changes from a dull orange to cobalt blue. Nighttime on the seafront and lights illuminate signs beckoning customers into all-you-can-eat buffets, where fragrantly smoky barbeques entice groups to sample the fresh seafood: crabs, tiger prawns, clams, lobster, squid and various species of fish caught in the waters just off the ragged coast. Moths swirl in the lamplight, and the warm night air is full of whirring and chirpings from the tall grass, the distant beat of a Russian polka audible further down the beach.

The island offers a winter escape and, outside the Spring Festival Golden Week, it is a pleasant experience. The result of this tourist boom is a curious blend of high-end resorts and kitsch, as developers look to capture as large a portion of the global market as possible. To cater to all tastes is a difficult task, but one man's hell will always be another's paradise. You can consider to inlude Sanya in your China travel packages.

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