The Daily Telegraph - Beyond Beijing...
February 3, 2007

First-timers focus on cities and sights, but there’s much more to this fascinating land. Michelle Jana Chan takes in beaches and hill tribes on the island of Hainan.

It has become the playground for China's wealthy elite and for Communist Party politicians on summer breaks, as well as for Russian tourists escaping the bitter winter of eastern Siberia. Hainan Island - south-west of Hong Kong, close to the Vietnamese coast - is now a favourite Asian holiday destination, with its white-sand beaches, coral reefs, hill villages, hot springs and fresh seafood cuisine.

Hainan is being marketed as China's Hawaii: roughly the same latitude and with a similar landmass, both with an abundance of endemic flora and fauna.

The island feels less like China and more like South-East Asia, with its relatively small population of eight million, clean air and laid-back attitude. Hainan's cities, with their colonial-style buildings, leafy avenues and open-air markets, reminded me of Penang a decade ago or Singapore 20 years ago.

Mainlanders consider Hainan their most remote province. Centuries back, the island was China's Alcatraz, to which anyone who dared offend the emperor was exiled.

Now, Hainan's top tourist attraction is a boulder-strewn beach called Tianya Haijiao, which translates as "the edge of the sky and the rim of the sea".

Former exiles chiselled the rocks with poems of yearning and inscriptions of their love for the distant motherland.

But Hainan Island is not so far away: just 14 miles from the mainland, separated by the Qiongzhou Strait, and an hour's flight from Hong Kong. I was surprised to see how large Hainan was on a map - although my guide soon put me straight on thinking it was China's biggest island.

"This is China's second island," he said.

I raised my eyebrows. "So what's the first?" I asked naively.

"Taiwan, of course," he replied with a smile.

Hainan's sovereignty is far less controversial, and islanders seem keen to share China's economic boom. There is talk of a bridge connecting Hainan to the mainland, and already there are superhighways coursing through the mountainous terrain, past the lush rainforest and plantations of rubber trees, betel nut and banana.

Thatched villages spot the landscape, with crops of delicate dragon fruit, mango, papaya and guava, as well as pepper bushes growing in neat rows. Jackfruit hang heavily off tree trunks, and wild red hibiscus border the road.

Hainan's hills are home to 20 ethnic minority tribes, the largest of which are the Li and Miao, many of whom still live the traditional way.

Up in the villages, I saw Li women with their entire bodies tattooed in beautiful mythical designs, and the Miao wearing their detailed hand-embroidered textiles and silver-coin jewellery. Locals didn't seem to mind me wandering down the dusty lanes, watching them weaving textiles, preparing supper or tending the rice fields with their stocky buffalo.

The domestic Chinese and Russian tourists mostly stay on the coast, so anyone venturing inland is quite a novelty.

Up in the Wuzhishan mountains, I bought bags of green tea from the factories and ate lunch in the local villages. The restaurants up here are quite different from those on the sea, serving up spicy platters of wild boar, mountain goat and venison.

Hainan has a wonderful array of ingredients, and a delicious cuisine. The capital Haikou is known as Coconut City - but it was the mangoes that really wowed me. There were dozens of different types in the No1 Agricultural Market, some the size of watermelons, others so small they cannot be peeled. I copied children as they pierced the end of the mango and sucked out the sweet juice.

In the street markets, I ate the island's signature Hainan chicken rice, a consommé with fragrant chicken and red chillies, loved by the Chinese diaspora throughout South-East Asia, many of whose ancestors are from the island.

Stalls serve the renowned steamed hele crab, fragrant jiaji duck and coconut pot, a stew of sea snake. My favourite dish was zhu chang feng, a Hainan-style crêpe - cooked inside a filing cabinet atop a gas burner. The lady who cooked my lunch laughed at my amazement as she pulled open a drawer, telling me this was her streetside "office".

I was charmed most of all by the Hainanese themselves. They are quite different from the harried and hardworking Chinese of the mainland. They are less obsessed about making the next buck - admittedly easier in a land where there are three harvests a year and coconut trees fringe the capital's streets. Save the odd typhoon, Hainan basks in year-round sunshine.

Almost all Hainan's tourists head to the former fishing village of Sanya in the south of the island, which has boomed in the past 10 years. Now it's a busy commercial port with skyscrapers, shopping malls and flyovers swooping across the docks, still bustling with traditional wooden fishing boats. Despite the changes, there is still a seaside feel to Sanya.

Just to the east is Yalong Bay with a five-mile beach, championship golf courses and international chain hotels - such as the Sheraton, Hilton and Marriott - strung along the sand. Given the number of developments, Yalong Bay has managed remarkably well to preserve the area's natural beauty.

Most hotels are set back from the sand with expansive gardens and freeform pools preventing the concrete pushing up against the beach. The South China Sea is remarkably clean here, and snorkelling is much better than I expected.

The hotel resorts all offer a similar standard of accommodation, with indulgent spas and an army of eager-to-please staff. Only their English language skills let them down. To date, there has been little chance to practise on foreign tourists.

But that looks likely to change. Hainan offers a perfect add-on to a cultural tour of China's mainland. Most packages to China are urban-based with lashings of sightseeing and little respite from the crowds. A few days in Hainan at the end may be the ideal way to help restore the chi and make sure the yin and yang are back in balance.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Kuoni Travel (