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Sanya - an inexpensive tropical holiday
Fly from Hong Kong, or Mainland China, and head to a point as far south as you can go in China and you will arrive in the small city of Sanya (pop. 536, 000), in the island province of Hainan. It is literally the most southern city in China. One more jump and you are swimming in the South China Sea. Only in recent years has this tropical area started to develop into a resort destination that is trying to cater to international tourists. It is a well-known holiday getaway for Chinese and Russian vacationers, but far from a common household word for the rest of the world. The first major international hotel resort was only opened in 1999 in Yalong Bay, a 7.5 km major tourist beach located east of Sanya City.
My wife and I have visited the city several times since we moved to China. It has become our favorite destination as a getaway from our crowded, noisy home city of ten million. We try to touch bases with Sanya at the beginning of any extended holiday. The beaches are usually empty, the prices are reasonable and the food is great. For the most part, we do not tend to frequent international resort type places but tend to stay in areas that attract the local population.
The shoreline around Sanya is divided into three main regions; Yalong Bay, Sanya Bay and Dadonghai. All offer sandy beaches, warm water, blue skies and fresh clean air. Your own preferences for "getting away from it all" will probably determine where you end up staying. Each of the three beach areas have their own personality and are easily accessible. Although taxis can be difficult to find (there seems to be a shortage), there are regularly scheduled buses that travel along the road bordering the beach. The number 8 bus will take you from the airport along most of the oceanside road all the way to Yalong Bay.
Yalong Bay is considered the most beautiful stretch of shoreline on Hainan but it is a very expensive area with very little access to the 7.5 km beach. Most of the international high-end resorts are located in this area. Although there is still a language barrier, it is more likely to find someone that speaks English in this area than the other two that are mentioned. There is at least one company in the public area of Yalong Bay that offers snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing, boating, etc. It is worth a visit for the spectacular scenery and beach but it can become very crowded during peak holidays. Unless you like high-end multinational resorts, lots of other foreigners around, and packed beaches, this is probably not the area you want to stay in. If you decide to stay elsewhere, it is definitely worth a bus trip to at least take a few pictures of the incredible view. And, keep an eye out for bargains which sometimes appear during the off-season.
Dadong Hai is said to have the best balance of development and natural beauty. There is a large public beach with many reasonably priced hotels and restaurants nearby. Accomodation can be a little more expensive than Sanya City. It is close to the city center and easily accessible by taxi or bus but caters to mostly Chinese and Russian visitors.
The largest stretch of beach to the west of Sanya City is Sanya Bay. You will find very few western tourists in this area but there is a good variety of less expensive places to stay. This is the area that we have always gone back to. The beaches are fairly empty during the day, and anywhere you lodge will probably be across the road from the beach. Sanya City is very accessible by taxi or bus and anywhere in the main city you want to go is no further than a fifteen or twenty minute drive. We spent one day walking around and covered most of the main area of the city. It is very difficult to get a taxi in Sanya but the bus service is great. Local buses cover the length of the beachfront road on a regular basis.
The Chinese population, in general, do not like sunshine. They will go out of their way to avoid it. Newspapers over their heads on sunny days is a common sight! Parasols are a big item here and are used everywhere. To make a long story short, you will not see a lot of Chinese on a sandy beach sunning themselves in the middle of the day. This gives all of us Westerners empty beaches from about 9 or 10 in the morning until 3 or 4 in the afternoon! However, as soon as that big, bad sun goes away,. it is common to see lots of people strolling along the beach, sitting around campfires, fishing, and doing just about everything the rest of us would normally be doing during the day on a beach.
Along the beach of Sanya Bay, it is common to see impromptu outdoor dances or karaoke taking place. Anyone can join in. We were lucky enough one evening to come across a group of women hauling in a huge fishing net that extended as far as we could see out into the ocean. We jumped in and helped out for an hour or so along with several other beach wanderers. Everybody got a kick out of the two “Lauwai” taking part! As the night progressed the currents pulled the net and everyone hauling it in further and further along the beach. We never did see what was at the other end of the net, but we saw the huge thing piled up on the beach the next day. You may run into a jam session of local musicians set up on the sand entertaining the passersby. This is what I call a holiday but some may beg to differ.
Here are a few of our favorite spots:
Sanya Nantian Hot Spring Resort
Located thirty minutes from the city center, this modern resort is a great place to relax for an afternoon. Unlike, many other artificial hot springs in China where you sit in a concrete box of hot water, this place is the real deal. Once you pay the entrance fee of 150RMB, you pass through the change rooms where you change into your bathing suit and are provided with a towel and sandals. There is a huge variety of pools nestled throughout the forested resort, supplied by natural hot springs, which vary in size from very small to quite large and vary in temperature from warm to scorching. Each pool is separated from the others by trees and vegetation so they are all quite private. It is usually very easy to find an empty pool where you and your partner can relax together for awhile.
There are also two fish therapy pools, one with small fish and one with fish that are of a size large enough to scare some away! Throughout Asia, you will run across little aquariums of these critters where you pay an arm and a leg to put your feet in for a few minutes. However, here the fish are put in large organic shaped shallow pools. You sit in them, and before long, any part of your body that is below the waterline will be nibbled on by dozens of these small fish. They will devour any dead or dry skin that you have lurking on your surface.
Sanya is the land of coconuts and the resort is no exception. There is an open snack bar where you can purchase fresh coconuts. After purchasing a coconut, a couple of holes are drilled and two straws are shoved into the center. Voila, a fresh drink for two!
Yanoda Rainforest National Park
Located 35km out of town, Yanoda Tropical Rainforest, is a brand new park in its first stage of a 2 billion Yuan investment. If what they have done with the first 200 million is any indication of what is to come, it will be pretty incredible by the time it is finished.
It is about a one hour bus ride from the center of Sanya to get to the gates of the park, where you are transferred to another vehicle to get to the main part of the forest. Again, you will see very few Westerners here. We saw one other foreign couple the time we visited.
It takes about three hours to complete the walk through the forest over rope bridges and along wooden plankways. It is an easy enough walk for people of any age but be warned…there are a lot of steps and a lot of uphill walking.. All the major plants and trees are labeled in Chinese and their biological names but no English. However, English headsets are provided that guide you along with commentary on everything along with a map with blinking red dots that show where you are located at any given time. The guide that accompanied us spoke a little English and chatted with us when she had a chance.
Nanshan Dongtian Park
Located at the base of Mt. Nanshan, this park encompasses the southern most holy of land of Chinese Taoism culture. We ended up here after a long motorcycle taxi ride while looking for a cave we had heard about. Well, there is a cave but it is really just a grotto and only a few meters deep. However, there are beautiful walking paths, boulder-lined waterfront views, and several cultural points of interest. The Nanshan Evergreen Pine trees found in this park date back to the 6,000 year old Cretaceous Period of dinosaurs.
Russian Shopping District
In this area of the city, you will find many Russian storefront signs and clerks that are more likely to be bilingual in Chinese and Russian than Chinese and English. The shops cater to Russian tourists and high-end fur coat shops are abundant along with silk goods and other clothing in sizes big enough to fit most Russians and the rest of us.
Fushan Coffee Shop
The only place in Sanya City we have found great coffee. That’s not to say it really is the only place. Outdoor and indoor seating along with wonderful ocean views and an inexpensive Western breakfast menu make this a nice place to start the day. And the creamy textured palm sugar that is used in place of cream and sugar is to die for. Located on Sanya Wan Road west of Sanya City.
Fat Daddy’s Restaurant
Homemade western dishes including nachos, southwestern chili, great American burgers, Indonesian satay, beer clams, and awesome Mojitos. Often live music at night, pool tables, indoor and outdoor seating overlooking Sanya Bay. Fat Daddy's is located on Sanya Bay Lu at Jing Ji Lin Lu next door to Coffee Time restaurant.
Casa Mia Italian Restaurant
Authentic Italian dishes for reasonable prices. Some of the best Italian food I have had anywhere. Has received rave reviews from various food editors from around the world. Located on Sanya Bay down the road from Fat Daddy’s
Sanya Fourseasons Home
This place calls itself a hostel and rooms can be booked on Hostelworld . It is not a hostel. It is a large complex of luxury condos, some of which are rented to tourists for an incredibly reasonable price. One, two and three bedroom suites are available. All rooms have balconies with ocean views. Very few foreigners stay here but the local Sanya manager is perfectly bilingual and will help arrange any tours, etc, while you are staying here. Don’t expect a front desk with English speaking staff but you will basically have your own apartment overlooking the ocean. It is our home away from home. It is becoming more necessary to book far in advance especially during the Chinese New Year’s Holiday. However, I wouldn’t recommend traveling anywhere in China during that part of the year! Don’t stay here if you want to be in the center of the action but if you are looking for a romantic getaway with seventeen kilometers of empty beach across the road and at least ten great restaurants within walking distance, this is the place to stay. The city center is an easy taxi or bus ride away.
There is a lot more to see and do; these are just some of my own experiences and favorite places. Although it is being marketed as the Hawaii of China, it is a long ways from that type of tourist mecca. It is still China in every sense of the word. But if you want a different experience in a totally different culture while savoring all the wonderful parts of a tropical holiday, this is a great spot to spend some time.