Popular Paradise

Hainan Island is the Hawaii of the Far East

By: Gary Bowerman

It’s Easter Sunday and 50 children from 10 countries are hand-digging a patch of pristine white beach in search of hidden eggs. Excited parents shout encouraging words and snap digital pictures. The sun retreats momentarily behind a wispy cloud, jet-skis buzz across the azure blue bay. Meanwhile, I watch the whole scene unfold from beneath a palm parasol, my beach novel temporarily cast aside. This could be an image from any family-friendly beach resort the world over. Except I am in Yalong Bay, Hainan Island; a tropical Far East haven otherwise known as the “Hawaii of China.”

China can be an intimidating destination for families with children. The flight time is long, the food can be unsettling for young Western stomachs and home-style travel facilities are still developing across large parts of the country. And while China’s abundant history, culture and architecture engage adult minds, it can all be a bit bewildering for young vacationers who prefer activity, adventure and fun.

Yalong Bay, a glorious horse-shoe-shaped curve of white sand, flanked by forested hills, rocks and palm trees, offers an alternative, particularly for clients looking to combine a trip exploring China’s temples and historic sites with some high-quality fun in the sun. Already popular with China-based ex-pats, affluent Chinese families and honeymooners, Yalong Bay’s star is rising fast. Marriott, Sheraton, Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza have recently opened beachfront resort hotels the Sheraton even hosts the annual Miss World contest each December.

The resorts all sit along Yalong Bay’s broad four-mile strip of clean white sand, about a 25-minute drive from Hainan Island’s Sanya airport (served by all of China’s large cities). I arrived at the Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa late on a Friday night after a three-hour flight from Shanghai. Having checked into a spacious, tiled room that reminded me of the Mediterranean, the balmy atmosphere and laughter from the hotel’s half-moon-shaped balcony bar persuaded me to sample a nightcap under the stars.

A Filipino band was playing cover versions of disco classics, occasionally joined by a couple of Chinese karaoke veterans. Then an American tourist took the mic and neatly reworked the lyrics of “New York, New York” to create a new song, “Sanya, Sanya.” With the kids safely tucked up in bed, parents, couples and cigar-chomping Hong Kong businessmen were cutting loose and enjoying the heady mix of warm air, beer and imported Australian wine.

As I sat staring into my tropical fruit breakfast plate the next morning, it occurred to me that my surroundings had a very distinct Hawaiian theme. In fact, Hainan Island shares several characteristics with the U.S. state, and not just because of its fine array of tropical fruits, bounteous ecology, great beaches and fine weather. There is a geographical link too; Hawaii and Hainan share the same latitude. And a penchant for flowery shirts.

It was barely a walk from my breakfast table to my beach lounger, and I didn’t want to move much for the rest of the day. However, I did wander along the beach to check out each hotel, particularly their large, multi-level swimming pools, state-of-the-art spas and range of upscale dining spaces. I visited the beachfront PADI dive center, and spoke to a boat operator who inevitably offered me “a very special price” to ferry me to one of the three islands sprinkled across the bay. Beyond that I kicked back under a palm, relaxed and watched beach life go by.

Not every other guest shared my lazy attitude. Kids ducked in and out of the sea all day long. Paragliders breezed across the horizon and Jet Skiers carved white froth into the gentle waves. The whoops of children being tipped into the sea from banana-boat rides driven by fast-turning speedboats occasionally punctured the tropical calm.

In late afternoon, I moved from beach to swimming pool where speakers carved in rock shapes and hidden in the surrounding shrubbery played Cuban tunes. There was simply no other logical option than to order a Cuba Libre from the pool bar and sip it from the adjoining open-air Jacuzzi. A German tourist nodded knowingly at me, and in an instant we both recognized the unexpected pleasure of the whole Hainan experience.

In the unlikely event that clients should experience beach fatigue, Yalong Bay’s hotels all rent bikes and provide maps for cycling around the bay and into the surrounding hills. The paths are easy to follow and the views are fantastic. Trips can also be arranged to nearby Butterfly Valley, a beautiful reserve filled with rare butterflies and equally colorful foliage. Another local option is the Seashell Exhibition Centre, the first of its kind in China. And golfing enthusiasts might want to bring their clubs, the Robert Trent Jones II-designed, championship-standard Yalong Bay Golf Club is one of China’s best courses. The Sun Valley Golf Resort is also close by.

Like any good resort, the hardest part of a stay at Yalong Bay is checking out. As a rich pink sun was setting over the sea, my cab arrived to whisk me back from paradise to reality. The sweet, fruity smell of mangoes purchased for my trip home is my last memory of Hainan, but not the only one.


Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa
Located on Yalong Bay’s white-sand beach, the beautifully landscaped Marriott resort offers 456 well-appointed rooms and excellent family facilities. All guestrooms have cable TV and generous balconies with beach or mountain views. A range of watersports, tennis and badminton are provided as well as a dedicated kids’ club. Parents can kick back in the fabulous Quan spa. Six dining options include the Sea Breeze Pool Bar & Grill and Indochine Vietnamese restaurant.

Sheraton Sanya Resort
Just along the beach from the Marriott, is the “Home of Miss World.” The Sheraton resort boasts similarly state-of-the-art resort landscaping and immediate access to the beach. Each of the 511 rooms features cable TV, a rainforest shower and private balcony or patio. Five dining options include the Spice Garden pan-Asian restaurant and Chinese Bai Yun eatery. A range of watersports and children’s activities are available along with regular live entertainment in the evenings.


Sanya boasts a year-round tropical climate. May-August are the hottest months. Excellent mainland flight connections make it a popular weekend retreat. Weekdays tend to be a little quieter. Book well in advance if visiting during China’s three week-long national holidays (Chinese New Year, May Holiday and mid-autumn festival in late September/early October).