Hainan, ‘The Hawaii of China,’ is the Underrated Asian Paradise You Should Visit ASAP
Prior to moving to China, the images I conjured of the country were of the standard postcard variety: the enormous Great Wall in Beijing, or a vibrant, modern city like Shanghai. I didn’t expect a tropical haven just a stone’s throw from the mainland -- Hainan Island, sometimes called “the Hawaii of China.”
China’s neighbors -- Thailand, Malaysia, or the Philippines -- tend to corner the market on warm, tropical Asian getaways. But located only 14 miles off mainland China and roughly the size of Belgium, Hainan can compete on its own, thank you very much, abounding with amazing seafood, fresh coconuts, luxury resorts, and fun watersports.
Arguably slower-paced than the Chinese mainland, this island (pop. 8.6 million) is divided primarily into two cities. The capital city of Haikou (not to be confused with the Japanese poetry) is located in the northernmost region. With an airport and railway station that connects you to the southern counterpart, Sanya, Haikou offers a conservative, family-friendly vibe, beaches, and a mighty impressive waterpark.
Meanwhile, dazzling Sanya attracts party-goers and thrill-seekers alike. You can find everything from a private monkey island to lively bars and karaoke clubs to traditional, regional seafood you can’t find anywhere else. Sanya also happens to have the best air quality in all of the cities in China -- which, after exploring polluted mega-cities like Shanghai, comes as a very literal breath of fresh air.
Best part is, you don’t need a travel visa to get there
Typically, in order to visit China, a travel visa is required and the process (combined with the cost) can be ridiculously tedious. Not for Hainan. Last year, China implemented a new visa-free law to bolster tourism to the island. If you belong to 59 countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, you’re entitled to 30 days of access when you travel to Hainan Island.
Best time to visit
Hainan’s weather is enviably nice year-round. A quiet, non-touristy season falls between November and April. (That said, traveling near the end of January can be hectic, as the bustling Chinese New Year sees a major uptick in travel for Chinese nationals on holiday.) Besides fewer tourists, these months are just a touch more pleasant: It’s not as hot compared to the summer, with temperature highs only around mid- to low-70s Fahrenheit.
Go water crazy
At Holiday Beach, Haikou’s main stretch of urban coastline, it's all about the water sports: parasailing, kitesurfing, and jet skiing. Wanna skip the rush of higher-octane activities? An assortment of natural hot springs dot the area.
When the temps climb higher, head to Haikou’s million-square-foot water park, Wet’N’Wild. This expansive theme park boasts over 20 different water slides, relaxation pools, a park dedicated to little ones, and a giant wave machine for those itching to surf.
Sanya is particularly well-known amongst scuba divers and surfers. On the southeastern coast, Riyue Bay attracts surfers from around the world, with year-round swells that hit between 3 to 16 feet high. Novice and expert divers (and snorkelers) will enjoy Yalong Bay’s pristine, clear waters -- underwater visibility ranges from 26 to 52 feet once descending, transporting you to a tropical world of over 1,000 colorful fish, 700 types of mollusks and red coral.
Monkey-around in Sanya
Sanya manages its own government-protected monkey island, perfect for day-trippers. Nanwan Monkey Island is a tropical nature reserve straight out of Robinson Crusoe, boasting over 2,500 macaque monkeys and hundreds of species of trees. It’s not terribly difficult to access -- the only two options are by cable car or by taking a boat and then a shuttle bus. If you want to get hands-on, be sure to purchase nuts prior to getting to the island so you can feed the monkeys. The entrance fee including round trip cable car or boat is 160CNY ($24USD).
Plan for around two to four hours for your visit -- plenty of time to feed them and makes some new friends, get that perfect Instagram shot, or otherwise just be a spectator. While bopping around Nanwan, you may also catch locals performing, namely in the water (think forming a human pyramid while synchronized water skiing).
Just don't carry plastic bags or wear the color red, as it can cause some of the monkeys to act... out of sorts. Best to avoid it unless you want them going truly ape. Staring at them for an extended time can also be considered threatening, causing them to attack -- which is seldom, but hey, the more you know.
Feast on a never-ending supply of seafood...
Visiting Nanwan Monkey Island also affords you the opportunity to check out a collection of fishing rafts known as “the street on the sea.” Imagine a collection modest boats run by local fisherman serving up their recent catch -- options range from gorgeous blush-toned shrimp known as “pipa” to an assortment of mollusks like clams, oysters, and scallops, which are stir-fried. Hele crab hails from the island’s southeastern shore, and is known for rich yellow meat, traditionally partnered with vinegar and ginger.
...Or try other traditional dishes
Hainan’s food is marked as being seafood-driven and not as heavily influenced by spice like you’ll find on the mainland. Even the spice that is considered “spicy” has much less kick that is experienced in other areas of China.
Hainanese chicken rice may bare Hainan’s name, but it has been popularized in other countries like Singapore and Malaysia thanks to a diaspora of Chinese from Hainan. Trace the dish’s origins back and you’ll find that the international darling derives from a more traditional preparation called Wenchang chicken, which uses Hainan’s native free-range chickens of the same name. Both dishes centrally feature hacked apart poached chickens and are accompanied by a selection of sauces and broth-cooked rice slick with savory chicken fat, but the Wenchang chickens -- which subsist on a diet of young coconuts, and thus boast a uniquely island flavor profile -- stand apart.
More adventurous palates may turn to the turtle and snake soup. Sold to tourists as a local delicacy, it is said to boast healing properties -- chief among them, you’ll extend your life.
Visit spiritual sites in Sanya
Sanya is a Muslim-friendly hub, with board-certified halal food restaurants throughout, due to a moderate-sized Muslim population of just under 11,000, known as the Hui.
Tourists can check out Huihui and Huixin villages in Sanya, where they’ll find mosques like the biggest (and arguably most beautiful), Sanya Ancient Mosque, built over 700 years ago. Its structure is very reminiscent of classic Arab minarets, but with an ancient Chinese aesthetic. On the exterior you’ll find Arabic calligraphy hand in hand with Chinese characters.
While touring Sanya, be sure to visit the bronze Guan Yin Buddha, which stands at over 350 feet tall. The surrounding area is known as Nanshan and celebrates over 2,000 years worth of Buddhist history in China. It’s always important to remember that modest attire is best, as this is a holy temple.
Lights, Cameras… Action!
For a bit of quirk, don’t miss “Movie Town” in Haikou, a movie and television set of 90-some buildings meant to stand in for various non-descript cities and eras in Chinese history. It includes an Avenue of Stars, much like the American “Walk of Fame.” The Avenue of Stars has over 80 autographs of both Chinese and international movies stars.
Can’t be “Hawaii” without a volcano
The “Hawaii of China,” even has its own volcano park, located in the southwest of Haikou. The Haikou Volcanic Cluster Geopark houses 40 extinct volcanoes amid stunning, lush greenery. The verdant forests cover over 1,200 square feet -- set aside about 2 hours if you want to explore and capture that perfect social media moment among the canopy.
Live the luxurious life
Just like Hawaii, Hainan Island is no stranger to high-end resorts and hotel properties. In Haikou, options like The Renaissance, The Ritz Carlton, and Shangri-La provide you with 5-star quality service -- including the expected trappings of fine-dining restaurants, spa services, and spectacular ocean views.
If you’re coming to ball out, The Atlantis Sanya is a brand-new property which gives guests full access to an entire waterpark, movie theater, and the Lost Chambers Aquarium, an on-site aquarium that’s home to over 86,000 sea creatures -- into which guests can scuba dive.
Thinking about a room with an ocean view? Sebastian said it best, “Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter." The Atlantis Sanya offers Neptune and Poseidon suites, rooms that are actually underwater and featuring floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into the lagoon.
Or ball out on a budget
Airbnb’s are a great option in either Haikou or Sanya -- they’ll allow you more flexibility including later/earlier check-ins. Chinese nationals often buy vacation properties but rent them out during the times they are not on a holiday break. Translation: Most of the condos are very high-end without breaking the bank as a vacationer.
Having talked to a few locals during my stay at an Airbnb, they take the time to ensure the property is up-to-par by hiring people to clean and be of assistance if needed. Rentals are also typically located on official rental properties that require a key card to enter any building, so they may be a safer option for travelers wishing to avoid hostels.