Aug 02, 2012|
What I hate most about public holidays is that everybody wants to travel during them, driving up airfare to popular weekend getaways like Bangkok, Singapore and Hanoi. Having been blessed with a multi-entry China visa (when it was granted, I nearly jumped up and down like I’d won the Mark Six but attempted to stay cool for the sake of the stern visa officer), I decided to take a chance on a long-weekend destination not-too-frequently visited by non-Mandarin speakers: Sanya.
Located along the southern coast of Hainan Island, Sanya is a palm tree-filled city-slash-resort town on the South China Sea that’s been magnanimously dubbed the “Hawaii of China.” Its claim to fame is that, as the southernmost part of the mainland, it’s the only part where coconuts can grow. So I started to think: quality beach time; water sports that are affordable and plentiful; Hainan chicken rice… plus flight and accommodation costs that don’t break the bank? Sanya’s just over an hour away, and you can nab a round-trip for well under $2,000. Sign me up.
I lucked out, because the six-month-old St. Regis resort in Yalong Bay—one main stretch of beach with hotel after hotel—offered me two nights’ stay so that I could check out their facilities and restaurants. Upon arrival, I flung myself onto the plush bed, grateful that I’d been given a lagoon room, which is located on the ground level and has a small pool that you can step into right outside the balcony door. A butler is assigned to every room, and mine was eager to please, helping me deal with a soaked cushion and bringing me a complimentary floppy hat to avoid sunburn. Two pools and a beachfront area with water sports, as well as a movie screening room, tennis courts, gym, yoga studio and the beautiful Iridium Spa all mean that it’s hard to get bored. With a decadent daily breakfast at Social that runs till 11am, and afternoon tea followed by free cocktails every day at 6pm at The Drawing Room in the lobby, it’s also exceedingly difficult to go hungry (or thirsty). Reasonably priced parasailing and jet-skiing is plentiful along Yalong Bay and other beaches in the area. A friend did ask me if I would parasail there given China’s bad reputation for safety standards—but my sense is to trust it if you arrange the activities through a luxe hotel and not an independent operator. My main complaint was that communication with staff proved surprisingly inefficient for non-Mandarin speakers, causing some humorous misunderstandings and slower service than one would expect from a resort of this caliber.
Apparently, not many people venture beyond their resorts. When we asked where in town we should head for Hainan chicken rice, the concierge shot us an incredulous look but dutifully directed us to a restaurant called Hainanren (+86 15508959766) in the center of town. With no English menu, ordering was a challenge, but we managed to get what we thought was Hainan chicken rice, tofu, veggies and a beef stir-fry. We also learned that coconut rice is another local specialty—though we envisioned something more Thai-style, what arrived on the table was good, too: glutinous rice cooked and served inside slices of coconut shell. Next, foot massages at a multistory spa a block away were, um, basic, to put it politely. (TMI: there were hairs on the towels covering the armchairs where we sat.) They were also hilarious, like when the therapists started painfully and ticklishly using heated glass cups to suction the skin on our soles and banging on our calves with mallets. We were too tired after that beating to take on the nearby bar street (Jiu Ba Jie), which houses the one foreigner-friendly club called MJ.
The next day, we asked a hotel staff member where he hung out on his day off and were pointed in the direction of Dolphin Bar (www.sanyadolphinbar.com), near another beachfront area called Dadonghai. One the way there my taxi passed a sort of rundown and basically empty amusement park—not a good omen. The bar was laid-back and friendly, with a mostly expatriate crowd of Canadian English teachers, an Irish pilot for a Hainan Airlines subsidiary and a semi-retired New Zealander in the yacht business. A Filipino cover band takes the stage most nights. When I asked my fellow bargoers what they did for fun, their responses were brief. They surf, ride motorbikes around and occasionally visit hot springs a few hours away. In short, a pretty charmed life. A Hong Kong couple I know who also gave Sanya a shot recently stayed at the Mandarin and “bellied up” (her amazingly apt words, not mine!) with some cheap drinks and good food at Wo’s Bar, also in Dadonghai. Instead of overcoming the language barrier to try some local Chinese food, they enjoyed highly recommended Italian fare at Casa Mia at the Renaissance Sanya Resort & Spa—which was a smart move, I think.
In Sanya, the high-pressure work-hard-play-hard atmosphere of Hong Kong, and even the trafficky, smoggy, crowded intensity of bigger Chinese cities, is nowhere to be found. Sure, there’s a ton of Russian tourists in Speedos. But there are also adorable Chinese babies dipping their toes in the sea for the first time. Roads are largely empty, the air is clean and surroundings are green except for the towers of flats that stand empty, their construction fueled by a real estate boom. Since Sanya’s also home to a major naval base, ominous-looking ships docked far offshore clash with the swimsuit-clad set reclining on the beach. Yup, this is China—a part of it that is great for relaxing by the pool at a beautifully manicured resort that costs a fraction of what the same brand-name might in Phuket or Bali—as long as you don’t mind its oddities. Just be aware that navigating the city outside can be trying and frustrating for non-Mandarin speakers. Unless you’re a resort junkie content to stay within its borders for days on end, two or three days is an ideal length of stay. Despite the downsides, I have to admit I’m looking forward to my next trip—though I’ll try to pick up a few key words in Putonghua first.