Surfing Paradise . . . In China?
Although it’s certainly accessible these days, the Chinese once thought of the city of Sanya as the far reaches of the Middle Kingdom’s empire, and thus the end of the earth. Located on Hainan Island directly south of the mainland — putting it just a short flight from Hong Kong, Macau, or Guangzhou — Sanya itself occupies the southernmost tip of the lush, tropical island. The giant, three-story-tall pineapple trees that greet you at the airport are a sure tip-off that there is plenty of fresh, cheap tropical fruit to be had during your stay here.
And like a metaphor for the rest of mainland China, Hainan Island is quickly becoming a place for the haves (think enough disposable income for a beachfront villa and butler service) as well as the have-not-so much (think hostels with shared facilities and street food). Thankfully, these two groups seems to coexist in such a harmonious balance in Sanya that the Chinese government might proudly proclaim this fact with a slogan on a roadside billboard accompanied by a few happy, smiling citizens’ faces.
As Sanya heats up as a travel destination for urban Chinese looking for a quick, peaceful escape, just about everyone is taking note. Backpackers might be dismayed to find the less-touched beaches of Yalong Bay, just a half-hour drive outside of the main city, developed into a string of five-star resorts, but the sand itself remains largely open to the general public willing to make the extra effort to escape the crowds of bathers on the main city beaches of Dadonghai.
Transforming from a sleepy fishing island to tourist hub is bound to annoy the purists of the traveler set who like to think themselves modern-day Magellans, reveling at the possibility of discovering untouched beaches. While those days are mostly gone, an influx of visitors has meant new possibilities for those who do come. There was even a large, well-populated section of the main beach dedicated to nude bathing on my visit, something relatively risqué and controversial for such a buttoned-up culture. These folks are clearly dedicated to their tanning regimen, their hides more closely resembling roasted ducks hanging in a Chinatown café than the snowy tundra hues of the hordes of Russian tourists and families bathing just a few hundred meters down the way.
Now in its third year, the Surfing Hainan Open is helping foster a growing community of surfers on the islands. Several companies are now offering affordable excursions and lessons to prime surfing beaches tucked just an hour outside of downtown — the very same beach where about 40 competitors battled it out this year in an attempt to promote their careers and China as another possibility in surfers’ minds as a relatively untouched surfing haven.
Inspired to test out Sanya’s waters I hopped in a bus out to Riyue Bay, arranged through Surfing Hainan. Instructors Julietta and Steven gave a quick friendly intro into the basics of riding the waves in the morning. Looking out into the huge bay, we could barely spot a few other surfers far off in the distance, to which Steven commented that it was “actually kind of crowded today.”
After helping us catch a few waves in the morning, the group indulged in a seafood feast for lunch, cooked up alongside a makeshift beachside surf shop right on the beach. We were free to try and ride the waves the rest of the afternoons ourselves, as the guides went off to ride the bigger waves in the distance, something the more independent travelers are sure to appreciate.
For the slightly more intrepid surfer, there are plenty of options for staying directly in Riyue Bay in order to avoid the hour commute back into the city. The solitary restaurant/surf rental shop can cover just about any surfing purist’s needs — food, beer, and gear.
The independent, have-not-so-much set may also find themselves interested in the bustling, if not outright chaotic Chunyuan (Spring Garden) Seafood market, a true local favorite. Instead of picking any old restaurant and ordering off a menu of fresh seafood delicacies — which abound in Sanya — you can go straight to the back of this expansive bazaar where about 30 vendors sell every type of locally caught sea creature imaginable, still swimming, and ripe for the picking. Prices can be seen on a scrolling ticker board overhead, but everything is listed in Chinese, so it’s probably best to sneak peaks at what others are paying, and try your hand at bargaining.
Round out your meal with some fresh veggies from a neighboring stall, and then simply take your haul (it’s probably still flopping around in your plastic bag) to whichever of the 50 or so cooking stalls strikes your fancy. All the chefs are roughly the same however, and options basically range from wok-fried or hot pot style. We chose wok fried and were happy with all of our choices, which trickled out slowly one-by-one at a leisurely pace.
Although the fish is fresh, the entertainment could hardly be described as such. Large groups of Chinese diners pack the market downing beers and shots all the while paying roving karaoke-style singers with portable speakers. Locals tend to pick love songs that rise more than a few octaves above conversational tones, so you probably won’t want to linger over your meal and chat.
Meanwhile, just a short cab ride over a small set of rolling green hills, Yalong Bay attracts the haves visitors to an array of five-star resorts and beautiful white sandy beaches. As if to make the distinction even clearer between the city beaches and the resort areas, the Ritz Carlton employs waiters riding Segways in order to achieve the fastest food and beverage service on the beach to its guests. We watched servers bring a tray of martinis on one hand, through sandtraps and down slopes on two wheels, and it was rather impressive – both in their ability to keep alcohol in the glass and the indulgence of the concept.
Between the beachside cabanas, swim-up bars and infinity pools, we couldn’t have been happier indulging and staying our last two nights here. Although we didn’t take advantage of the romanceologist services on offer from the resort, rest assured, staff is on hand to assist with any type of proposal, romantic dinner, or ceremony for men who may be lacking in the creativity department.
Even if you’re not staying in any of the more expensive resorts, it’s worth the short trip out to the bay to enjoy the less crowded white sands, and rolling waves that are perfect for an afternoon of peaceful, leisurely style bobbing, beachside dining, and marine recreation rentals — even if you don’t get your margarita from a white-gloved Segway waiter or your engagement ring placed in a clamshell 50 feet below Sanya’s beautiful blue water.
About the Author
Kyle Long is the Chief Running Officer of UnTourShanghai.com, an urban adventure tourism company specializing in jogging sightseeing excursions and custom culinary and food experiences in Shanghai, China.
[Lone Surfer by Grace; Additional photo courtesy of Surfing Hainan]