Jan 06, 2005|
Candace Bushnell, author of “Sex and the City,” is in the lobby of the Sheraton Sanya Resort, wearing her best Manolo Blahniks and waiting for her limo. She is here, along with Jackie Chan, Bryan Ferry and a host of other tuxedoed celebrities, to choose the 53rd Miss World beauty queen. But right now I have her judging something else.
“Candace, darling,” I say to the journalist turned style queen, “What’s your take on Hainan Island?”
“I had no idea,” she confides, lowering her voice and rubber-necking the space-squandering reception area. “I Googled Hainan before I left New York and from what I read on the Internet I was expecting it to be a bit, you know, grungy. But look at this...” She waves a manicured hand at the lobby. It is quite a scene: Gangs of celebrities and gaggles of Miss This and Miss That cluster on sofas and around tables. Stick-insect waitresses move among them bearing cocktail trays and, at most, three per cent body fat. “No, sweetheart,” Bushnell interrupts my reverie, “not the women—great hotels always have pretty women—I am talking about that...” Bushnell stabs a jeweled finger towards the back of the hotel. And there, framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, is Hainan’s big secret: a perfect white beach and an ocean as blue as Paul Newman’s eyes.
Hainan is on the same latitude as Hawaii and on this winter day the weather has been predictably perfect. But now, as the sun starts to dip into the ocean and trails of red and gold spread across the evening sky, through the window we can see families and couples returning from the beach, with their designer swimwear, US$200 sunglasses and blissed-out sun-soaked smiles.
“That’s what I didn’t expect,” Bushnell says. “It’s straight out of a travel brochure. This is not at all how I expected China to be. I thought it would be one billion tourists fighting for beach space.”
Two days later Miss Ireland carried off the tiara. But by then, Hainan Island—China’s sleeping beauty—had unofficially won hearts for best global debut.
As makeovers go, it was a long time coming. Hainan might have all the trappings of a tropical paradise, but for more than 1,000 years it was among China’s least-visited, least-popular and most-despised destination. As the Middle Kingdom’s southernmost point, it was the ultimate place of exile. Out-of-favor courtiers could be reliably banished to the remote sub-tropical island and never heard from again. One such exile, Tang dynasty mayor Li Deyu, described the island as the “Gates of Hell.” You can almost picture him there: seething among the coconut palms, stamping up and down the empty white beaches, whinging about being “out of the loop.” If only he had brought a beach towel, a trashy novel and his SPF 25.
These days a little bit of exile is what everybody wants. As the rest of southeast China obsesses over production rates, Hainan is learning to market itself as capitalism’s flipside: namely a well-earned week of sun, sex, sea, sand and slothfulness. This year the island—which at 13,100 square miles is just a little smaller than Taiwan—expects to welcome almost 12 million guests of hugely varying incomes and expectations. But thanks to the island’s size and its increasingly mature tourist industry, these differing groups will rarely cross paths.
Yalong Bay, where Bushnell and co. stayed, is the island’s most upscale resort area and the focus of a building boom. There are nine resort hotels and an international golf club currently operating, and another six international brand resorts, including resort spas by the Hyatt, Shangri-la and Marriott chains, nearing completion. (This, of course, means 2005 will be a bumper year for upmarket bargains in Hainan, because all the new hotels will be opening at about the same time.) Yalong Bay, which has a seven-kilometer-long white beach, is privately owned and operated. This means it is safe and very clean, but also eerily sterile. If you get cabin fever, hop in a cab for the 20-minute journey to Sanya, the swarming hub for Bushnell’s sunbathing billions.
Dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts and shorts and beetling enthusiastically behind their tour reps’ flags, Hainan’s package tourists are a worthy sight in themselves. Special zones have been developed to feed, bed and entertain them: football pitch-sized restaurants, 2,000-room hotels and massive theme parks whose key function seems to be the ability to offer novel forms of travel and something to photograph every two feet. A good example is “Tianya Haijiao,” the cluster of rocks that appear on the back of the two-yuan note, which, as the Middle Kingdom’s near-southernmost point, represents the “the edge of the sky and rim of the sea.” On a busy day, 4,000 people have their photographs taken by the rocks. The rowdy queue can be 500 meters long. To keep people amused and justify the US$9 entrance fee, management has finessed an unnecessarily long journey from bus park to sight. Along the way visitors are offered the chance to pay extra for the following means of transport: bus, rickshaw, golf buggy, horse, llama, elephant, ostrich, tandem bicycle, camel, roller-skates, go-kart, or unicycle.
Hainan’s third major tourist area is Boao Scenic Zone, China’s newest upscale conference complex, which is already giving Beihai a run for its money. The site, on an island east of Hainan, was chosen by Jiang Zemin himself in the wake of 9/11 and is the most secure upmarket conference center in Asia. Since 2002, it has been the permanent site of the Boao Forum for Asia, an annual gathering of the region’s political leaders. And it has earned the accolade of being the only place outside his home country in which Pakistan’s President Musharif feels comfortable without a 30-man security contingent. The resort’s flagship hotel, The Sofitel Boao, managed by the legendary Gerhard Zimmer, is one of China’s best.
(Miss World 2004 was held once more in Sanya on December 4. And the winner was Miss Peru.)
Where to Stay
Sheraton Sanya Resort — The official “home of Miss World,” this is Sanya’s best five-star resort. It has beautiful landscaping, an open-air teak lobby with floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, and three pristine pools set along the shoreline. Offers daytime sports activities for kids and adults, as well as four restaurants, two bars, gym, two tennis courts, spa services and business services. The rate starts from US$160 for a standard room with breakfast. (Yalong Bay National Resort District, Sanya, 86-898-8855-8866, www.sheraton.com/sanya).
Where to Dine
Donghai Beach barbecue stalls As the sun sets, the barbecue vendors arrive at Donghai Beach. Settle at one of the hundreds of plastic tables and choose from 20 or so vendors specializing in seafood including lobster, crab, oysters and fresh fish. Beers are available at the corner shop.