Hong Kong QuickTrip: Hainan Island

Hainan is a fairly large island off of the southern coast of China, between Hong Kong and the Vietnam border. Known as something of a remote hinterland through much of Chinese history (the kind of place to which one gets exiled), Hainan has been aggressively developed for tourism, including especially resorts near the city of Sanya on the southern coast, as China’s Hawaii. I’m told that Hainan even advertises on U.S. CNN!

When my employer announced that we would have our office retreat at a resort on Hainan, I must admit that I wasn’t too thrilled. I thought that somewhere like Chengde would be far more exciting (somebody had even suggested Pingyao, an old walled city, by train). I thought the greatest benefit of the trip would be having another Traveler’s Century Club country under my belt. (Why Hainan is considered a separate country, I’m not too sure.) But, I must admit, even if Hainan isn’t quite Hawaii, Sanya’s resorts are well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable, and the natural environment clean and beautiful.

Sanya is a bit over an hour’s flight from Hong Kong, and flights are fairly plentiful. Flights are also available from Shenzhen Airport. We stayed at the Marriott Sanya Resort & Spa, which is not the newest upscale resort (the Hilton is newer and other hotels are opening soon, including a Ritz-Carlton), but tastefully designed along a wide stretch of pristine beach. The rooms and beds were quite comfortable, and the pool fun. The beach is sufficiently large, the sand soft and the water clear. The weather was glorious and warm (though we are told that there were some cloudier, cooler days before we arrived). All above expectations, though the resort experience was predictably totally isolated from any sense of being in China.

We also went on a couple tours. Of course, staying in resort hotels and going on group tours are not our usual travel M.O. at all, but at least the resort was comfortable and enjoyable. The tours were depressing. Monkey Island, as it turns out, is a thoroughly landscaped amusement park. The gondola ride to the park is beautiful, and there are indeed plenty of monkeys, but not at all in a natural setting. We did see one totally surreal “animal circus” performance, however.

The other tour was to a Li and Miao minority village. The Li and Miao are two of the “native” ethnic groups of Hainan, to be distinguished from the Han majority that now dominates the island (and the rest of China). While I believe that some original Li and Miao villages exist on Hainan, and I by no means expected to see anything really authentic on a group tour, the place to which we were taken was a full-fledged amusement park, complete with fire-breathing little people. While some displays (of traditional homes, weavings, etc.) were not bad, the overall experience was dispiriting.

But the hotel, the beach and the weather were great! A solid choice for a quick beach getaway if you don’t mind staying at your hotel.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Kaiping Diaolou

I first ran into the Kaiping diaolou while surfing the UNESCO site for World Heritage Sites. Little did I know that a World Heritage Site had been recently designated so close to Hong Kong! Some google searches led to some promising pictures, along with an interesting back story.

The diaolou, which means watchtower, historically were communal castles in small Chinese southern villages. They were built and owned communally, and the residents of a village would seek refuge in times of conflict or flood. In the early twentieth century, wealthy individuals, principally individuals who had left China to earn money abroad (in the United States, Southeast Asia or even Hong Kong) returned to Kaiping to build a different kind of diaolou—an elaborate multistory mansion. What makes them so interesting is that these individuals built these towers not only to show off their new wealth but incorporated foreign architectural styles, ranging from European to South Asian. There are over a thousand of these towers near the city of Kaiping in Guangdong Province (to the southwest of Guangzhou).

We had read that there were direct ferries to Sanbu Port in Kaiping from Hong Kong, so we headed to the HK-China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui early Saturday morning. (Chu Kong Ferries website) The direct boats weren’t running, but the ferry company had arranged a direct shuttle from Zhongshan Port to Kaiping. The whole ride (ferry to Zhongshan, the bus shuttle) took about four hours. An alternate route, which we had also considered, was to take the train to Guangzhou, and then a bus to Kaiping. This of course would have taken longer, although we would have had the option of staying overnight in Guangzhou.

At Sanbu port in Kaiping were several minibus taxis. After some tough negotiations, we arranged one of the drivers to take us around to three different sets of diaolou for RMB 280 (about USD 35). We went to San Men Li, which has the oldest diaolou (built in the Ming dynasty), Li Yuan, which has an unremarkable collection of diaolou all built by one individual, and Zili Cun, which is probably the best set of diaolou (including the watchtower of Deng Lou just outside the town). Many of the diaolou are furnished in period furniture and can be climbed to the top for views. Almost all of the sites were well labeled with historical details in English. Despite leisurely visits to these sites, we had a few hours before sundown, and so we asked our driver to take us to Jin Jiang Li, which contained two beautiful diaolou in another rustic setting.

Admission to the diaolou is predictably expensive, it being China. A ticket permitting entrance to most of the major sites costs RMB 120 per person.

We returned home by bus from Kaiping to Zhuhai’s Gongbei bus station on the border with Macau. We could have taken the ferry from Zhuhai but chose to overnight in Zhuhai so that we could spend part of the day in Macau before heading home.