Hainan island, China’s southernmost point has an interesting reputation. Over the course of many centuries it was a place where the enemies of the Emperor were exiled, thousands of miles from their families in Beijing. But it’s no bleak Alcatraz-style rock, more a lush tropical island with its own distinct culture and beaches, rainforests and volcanoes to explore.
It’s a popular winter escape for families looking for an escape from the harsh winters of Northern China and Western Russia, but there are now also direct flights from London Heathrow. It was my first taste of China on our trip back in November and I didn’t know what to expect; arriving at the airport the buildings didn’t look like those I’d seen online and in movies – one even had a pineapple carved on top!
Sanya – Luhuitou (Deer Looking Back) Park
Our first stop was Sanya, the island’s tourist capital in the south of Hainan. With our hotel right on the water below Luhuitou (Deer Looking Back) Park, we headed out first thing one morning to explore Sanya’s most well-known romantic spot. Legend says that a young hunter was sent out by a local emperor to catch the deer with the most impressive horns. He spotted the deer and chased it for nine days and nights until he reached the Coral Cliff in Sanya. With nowhere else to go the deer turned back to face the hunter. As he raised his arrow to shoot, the deer turned into a beautiful young women. The two fell in love and lived together on the hill, where a huge deer statue towers over the pretty views of Sanya Bay. It’s been popular with young couples for many years who visit the park for good luck – there’s even a Post Office where couples can buy special red ribbons to tie around the branches of nearby trees before seeking a blessing at a small shrine.
Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone
The next day we visited the Nanshan temple, part of a large Buddhist cultural tourism area about 40km from Sanya, where you’ll find dozens of different temples set in lush grounds by the sea. There are temples to represent different strands of Buddhism, including Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. It does have a slight ‘theme park’ feel with big crowds but the aim is to promote cultural understanding of Buddhism. The Guanyin is a highlight of any visit – a 350ft tall, three-sided statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy which looks out over the South China Sea and back inland. You can travel easily around the massive site with transport available to different points around the park and there is a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant on site if you need to stop for lunch. As I’ve not travelled much in Asia I haven’t yet been ‘templed out’ and I found it a really interesting place, if a little touristy.
Delicious local food in the Yanoda Rainforest Zone
On our way back from a hike in the rainforest north of Sanya, our guide pulled off the main road down a tiny lane where what looked like a farm sat surrounded by trees and water. As it turns out it was home to a tiny restaurant with just a few tables where we sat under a shelter in the pouring tropical rain, enjoying delicious local fish marinated in soy, garlic and local herbs, served with vegetables and side dishes of rice and noodles. It was our first experience of eating family style – ordering several dishes for the table and sharing – in China but it still took me a couple of goes to remember that the dishes I ordered in some places were supposed to be shared by three or four people (especially the hotpots in Sichuan!)
Walk inside a volcanic crater near Haikou
Head to the north of Hainan island to discover the Haikou Volcanic Crater Geopark. Haikou sits at the end of a chain of volcanoes which stretches into mainland China and offers a rare chance to walk down into an extinct volcano crater. Surrounded by greenery and tropical vegetation, you can walk the rim before descending into the entrance of what feels like a large cave (it reminded me of this place in Brazil). 10,000 years ago this volcano was part of a chain of active volcanoes and a number of nearby villages are built from lava, as this post explains (https://www.christravelblog.com/china-a-day-trip-to-haikou-volcano-park-lava-villages-with-caves/)