Cultural revolution or what? This resort is a long march from stale notions of the people's paradise. But however odd, says Oliver Bennett, it makes a luxurious change
Hainan is not part of the golden Chinese triangle: the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors and the Great Wall. Rather, this island off the coast of south China is the People’s Republic’s Bali or Hawaii: a luxury island destination that offers a sybaritic blast after footslogging and squinting at culture.
So, after spending time in Beijing, I welcomed the opportunity to fly to Hainan. Four hours later, I landed on an island that was a hit of iridescent green in a humid 35 degree fug.
The island is close to Vietnam, and it showed in the paddy fields, rubber plantations and bicycling workers in conical cane hats. On one side of the coastal road was turquoise sea; on the other, mountains covered in broccoli-like rainforest. The minibus turned into Yalong Bay, Hainan’s major tourist development, and deposited me at the Sheraton Sanya Resort.
I strolled past a jet-black stretch limo into the lobby, looked at a wall covered in photographs of bikini-clad girls, and walked through a garden of palms to a powder-puff beach. A smiling waiter gave me a towel and a cocktail.
Clearly, the austere communism of China’s recent past (and present, in some respects) has faded, to the point that the Sheraton hosted the Miss World contest for a few years in the Noughties – hence the girls.
‘An expanding country’
In the cathedral-sized lobby stood a roped-off red Ferrari. A symbol of depraved capitalism? “You’re way behind,” scolded the manager and Hainan tourism ambassador, Claudio Nardini. “There’s no problem. It’s an expanding country, the people are very friendly, it’s safe and we have everything we want.”
Such has been the zealousness of China’s boom that the 511-room hotel, opened in 2003, took 18 months to build and has been joined by many others since, turning Yalong Bay into a top-end tourism strip, beloved of Far-Eastern oligarchs, mandarins and panjandrums.
I went for a swim in the sea, and looked back at the bay, a classic palm-fringed crescent, with a touch of old China in a distant naval base on the eastern flank. “They don’t like it when our jet-skiers go too close,” a hotel worker told me. Ah yes: until a few decades ago Hainan – which of course is the size of Wales – was off-limits, a naval base and exile zone for criminals and other enemies of the state.
My seafront room had a baths with louvres that opened, again enabling that dazzling palms-and-sea view. I padded downstairs and paused at those Miss World snaps, bringing back blissful 1970s TV evenings: the swimwear, the evening dress, the ‘travelling and meeting people…’ As it happened, Nardini had helped judge the contest. “Miss World was looking for new destinations,” he said, puffing on a Havana as he told me that the Chinese Government introduced Miss World to him in 2002. But there’s no hanky-panky here. “It is a family resort,” said Claudio.
Extraordinary hot springs
I dabbled in the hotel’s various pools then repaired to the Mandara Spa for a delightful Chinese massage from a menu as long as any at the local Mr Chow’s, then suffered an exquisite lobster lunch at the hotel’s Baiyun restaurant.
But there was a world outside awaiting, so I went to see Hainan’s facilities, which are being augmented all the time: there were new golf courses where humming birds fluttered; shopping malls where music tinkled and designer goods shifted. In the town of Sanya, I nosed into department stores full of hi-tech, cheap clothing, and of course, dodgy DVDs by the sackload. I rehearsed my Customs arguments (“On my life, officer, I never knew”) as I sped up a road of luminous greenness to the Nanshan Hot Springs, billed on the roadsign as ‘China’s Number 1 Hot Spring’.
This was the oddest hot spring I’d been to: not saying much, I grant. The first pool was blood-red, the result of an infusion with Chinese herbs apparently good for the blood pressure and the hair. Then came a baking hot pool made from coffee; a coconut water pool; a pool with a carrier bag-sized teabag full of herbs… each of the ten pools was more extraordinary and hotter than the last. The final flourish was a children’s water-park with a Heath Robinson-type water castle, and all I could do was gawp in admiration.
The biggest statue in the world
Hainan’s other tourism offerings run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. There was the Li Ethnic Hamlet, in which a disappearing tribe had thrown their thatched village open as a tourist attraction – the first attraction being a pleasant man with a display tray full of snakes’ penises. “Good for man strength,” he said, grinning.
Behind him, little old ladies with tattooed legs wove colourful garments. A turtle the size of a TV sat as a photo opportunity. A pool full of catfish gave visitors the chance to spear them with bamboo sticks. Finally, a stage show featured a man playing music with a leaf. The term ‘lost in translation’ barely begins to cover it.
Also bizarre, if more soothing, was Hainan’s incredible Nanshan Buddhism Cultural Park. A little train took me past the Park’s sights, including 18 golden Buddhas, a bell that visitors ring to become “as pure and enlightened as Buddha”; a lavish temple; and a statue of the Buddhist bodhisattva Guan Yin, at 108 metres high the biggest statue in the world, pipping the Statue of Liberty by several metres.
In the humid heat, the park was a hallucinatory experience: like being in a Chinese remake of The Prisoner.
The next morning, I awoke for a session of Tai Chi, the Chinese martial art. It was a struggle to get out of bed at 6.30 but, as it happened, well worth it. I felt genuinely energised, helped by the graceful charm of the veteran master Giu Fu Rong. “It will help you to be patient and change your personality characteristics,” explained the Master. How did he know?
And indeed, how did this crazy tropical island go from gulag to de-luxe resort in 30 years? Just another story in the soaraway Chinese miracle.
• Oliver Bennett travelled with Kuoni Travel, which offers seven nights in China including Hainan.