China’s southern island province of Hainan offers a laid-back experience not found elsewhere in the country
REASONS TO GO
Laid-Back: One thing you’ll notice about Hainan is that the people are very laid-back and friendly, and will do their best to help you, even if they don’t speak English (which they mostly don’t).
Tropical City: Unlike most Chinese cities, Hainan’s capital of Haikou has an abundance of greenery in the form of coconut trees that line most streets. Coconuts are readily available for sale on most street corners to slake your thirst on hot days.
Breathe Easy: You won’t need a pollution mask here as Haikou’s air is fresh and clean. The city boasts the cleanest air of any in China.
Winter Sun: While northern China freezes during the winter, the temperatures in Haikou are pleasantly warm, though it should be noted that the summers are uncomfortably hot and humid, and there is a rainy season from May to October.
WHAT TO DO
The Tail Of The Dragon: As China’s southernmost province, Hainan has historically been seen as the end of the empire, and out-of-favour officials were often banished here, as commemorated by the Wugong Temple (The Temple of Five Lords) dedicated to five officials who criticised the injustices of the imperial government. The temple, originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty, is an attraction worth visiting.
Fusion Architecture: Haikou’s most popular tourist attraction must be the pedestrianised area of Qilou Old Street, a charming quarter where Chinese merchants returning from overseas built arcades fusing European, Asian and Arabic styles. This now showcases teahouses, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Parklife: There are many pleasant parks along the waterfront, as well as the People’s Park next to East Lake in the centre, where locals come early in the morning to practice tai chi and traditional dancing.
A Bit Of History: The grand, modern architecture of Hainan’s Provincial Museum hides a few modest but informative exhibitions on the island’s history and its minority ethnic groups, such as the Li, Miao and Zuang.
Fore!: Haikou is a fairly spacious city for China and boasts over half a dozen golf courses, some of which overlook the sea.
Ships Ahoy: Oddly not on the mainstream tourist radar, the 72-metre-high Baishamen Lighthouse is the sixth tallest in the world, and although you can’t go up, you can get great views of the sea and city from the Ferris wheel at the nearby Baishamen Park.
On The Religious Silk Route: Arabic traders brought Islam to the island, and it’s possible to worship at the solitary and modest Haikou Mosque, with halal food available at Xi'an Lao Ma Muslim Food Family Restaurant. There are also a handful of Christian churches, including the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Lights, Camera, Action: If you fancy getting some fun photos for social media, Haikou Movie Town has three ‘movie sets’ of early 20th-century historical streets as well as a free shuttle bus from downtown.
WHAT TO EAT
Famous Food: Wenchang chicken, from the nearby town of the same name, is the most famous of Hainan’s dishes, and was taken by migrants to Singapore, where it became the more well-known (and many say, more flavoursome) Hainan chicken rice.
Fruits Of The Sea: Seafood is a must in Haikou, and there’s no shortage of restaurants specialising in locally caught produce such as the highly-rated lobster.
Street Life: Because of the heat, Haikou really comes to life after dark when locals indulge in their passion for street food. On Banqiao Road, you can choose live seafood from the tanks and eat in the gutter at great prices.
TAKE TO THE WAVES
Golden Sands: The most popular stretch of sand is the six-kilometre-long Holiday Beach where you can windsurf, kayak and jet ski. It can get quite busy during weekends, but the crowds thin out as you walk away from the town.
Paradise Beach: The beach at Shimei Bay on the east coast near Wanning must rate as one of the cleanest and prettiest on the island, with the stretch near Le Meridien Resort being close to anyone’s idea of tropical paradise.
Surf’s Up!: Riyue Bay near Wanning is China’s premier surf spot, easily accessible via high-speed train and taxi from Haikou, and the site of the Riyue Bay Surf Club (and basic hostel) as well as the Surfing Hainan Open competition.
Picture Postcard: If you want to get a taste for rural Hainan, Gusong is an eye-wateringly pretty fishing village less than two hours from Haikou, with old wooden houses nestled under swaying coconut trees and a tiny lighthouse perched on the headland.
Easy Access: Sanya on the south of the island is China’s top beach resort, and it’s quite possible to visit on a day trip from the island’s capital with the high-speed train.
The Heart Of The Island: For the more adventurous, the town of Wuzhishan lies three hours by bus south of Haikou, and you’ll be more likely to see Miao women dressed in traditional dark smocks than another foreigner.