hainan sanya china

When you think about China, you don’t necessarily think about palm trees and beaches. But when the noise and chaos of the mainland get overwhelming, I say do as the Chinese do: book a ticket to Hainan Province, an island off the southern coast.

A few years ago, I found myself traveling with my two brothers, my sister-in-law, and my parents through southern China. Under the guidance of two Chinese professors my parents had met when they taught English as a second language (ESL) courses in Changshu some 20 years ago, we started in a small city (of about 100,000 people) in the heart of Hunan Province. From there, we drove south toward Guangzhou, got on a plane, and headed for Hainan.

A Not-So-Tiny Island

Hainan Island

Though small in comparison to the mainland, Hainan is not actually that small — a China-sized island, if you will. At 330,000 km, it’s about one-third the size of Ireland and fills nearly as much space as Taiwan.

Haikou, the largest city, has a population of about two million; Sanya, the second largest city, which sits at the opposite end of the island on the southern-most point, has about 500,000 residents. But even with the existence of some larger cities, Hainan is still much more sparsely populated than the mainland, making it an ideal destination for those looking to take a break from city life.

Breathe Freely

With a warm year-round climate, Hainan is nicknamed the “Eastern Hawaii.” When Beijing dips down to snowy, 25-degree temperatures around mid-winter, Chinese residents can still visit Hainan to warm up — and the same goes for international travelers from cold places around the world. According to Lonely Planet, Sanya receives enough visitors from Russia to merit a second nickname — “Moscow in the South China Sea.”

Notably, the air quality is much better in Hainan than on the mainland — Haikou ranks 74th on a Greenpeace list of cities with high pollution, while Sanya doesn’t even make it on there.

Where to Go

Hainan Island

The two main cities in Hainan are Haikou and Sanya, which serve as points of reference for any other destinations around the island. When I was in Hainan with my family, we didn’t have the time to travel down to Sanya, so we spent most of our short stay in Haikou and a less populous beach section nearby called Wenchang.

Extending from Haikou, Wenchang still had a decent amount of space in 2013, but was definitely in the midst of being developed even further. In one day, we visited a subdivision full of posh vacation homes still under construction, just waiting to be completed and sold to lucky families. Later, we had dinner at an outdoor restaurant that was comprised of only a few picnic tables surrounding a simple, hut-like building. A certain casual, humble island culture is still strong here, even as tourism grows.

From what I hear, the same could be true for Sanya, but it’s much more of a resort destination. Since it’s more south, it’s warmer — and since it’s further away from a large city, it has an even better balance of nature and attractions. From Sanya, you can escape further from the crowds by heading to Houhai Beach, Dadong Sea, Monkey Island, and a long list of other mini-destinations.

What to Do and What to Eat

Hainan Island

How should you spend your time in Hainan? Well, you’re in the tropics, so you’ll be doing a lot of chilling — hanging out by the beach, drinking fresh coconut water, taking photos, and playing in the water.

As far as activities go, according to Lonely Planet’s Dora Whitaker, there’s lots to explore in one of China’s more recently developed getaways. You can rent a surfboard and try out your skills on waves that are a little more tame than Hawaii’s, or even rent a bike to take a tour away from the coast and into the hills. You can also arrange your trip around one of the annual festivals on the island — the Coconut Festival or Sanyuesan, a love festival.

Hainan is known for its Wenchang Chicken, a sort of a boiled, sweet-tasting chicken — as well as coconuts and fresh seafood. In general, if you’re going to China, go for the food. You’ll never be disappointed if plan with your stomach.