Expat Magazine

The Hawaii of the East! Is Sanya a Hidden Gem in China’s Crown?

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

Yalong Bay Sanya

We’d only been in the air 2.5 hours and we were touching down in what felt like ‘a world away’ from Xi’an. 

The sky was clear, the air was warm and thick with humidity …. a blanket of lush palm trees stretched out as far as the eye could see. My heart lifted…possibly the only problem I’d face on this holiday was an unsuspected falling coconut.

China and the tropics aren’t two words you would usually put together, right?

China’s all about being a contrast of strapping concrete jungles and ramshackle villages, often side by side….the old and the new….the Ferraris and the Tuk Tuks, all cobbled together to make up the world’s biggest and busiest population.

Nestled in China’s south west, in Hainan Province, Sanya it seems, is an exception to China’s manic rule.

Sanya Tropical Oasis

Looking more like Australia’s Gold Coast 40 years ago, our 30 minute drive to the hotel cut a path through the dense palm fronds; I was almost relieved to see a few three-wheelers chugging by, a couple of motorbikes saddled with entire families and some scruffy street food stalls on the corner. 

It was still China. 

Albeit – China’s Hawaii.

Perched as far north from the equator as Hawaii, Sanya is on the southern tip of Hainan Island, flanked with a 20 kilometre stretch of sandy beaches.

Beaches in China

Due to its remoteness from the political centres during Imperial China, Sanya was often called ‘Tian Ya Hai Jiao’ (天涯海角) “the end of the sky and ocean” or “the end of the earth.” Consequently, it served as a place of exile for officials who found themselves ‘out of favour’ with the country’s rulers.

Just quietly, it didn’t look like a bad corner of the world to be placed in captivity! Warm all year round — the coolest in January with an average of around 21 degrees, and the hottest, a balmy June with an average of 29.

These days, Sanya’s singing to a different tune… 

It played host to the first leg of the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch relay, not to mention the 2015 Miss World pageant! And it’s the training centre of choice for the Chinese Beach Volley Ball team.

Long before this though, the Nanshan Temple constructed in 1988 on the site of ancient Tang Dynasty remains to commemorate 2000 years of Buddhism in China was capable of drawing its own visitors — Monks contemplating  the universe from the Seawatch Terrace, at the edge of Chinese civilisation.

Oh and this…one of the tallest statues in the world! Called the Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya, it’s a 108 metre tall Buddhist statue studded in gold, silver and diamonds! Impressive huh?

Sanya Nanshan

It seems, China has unearthed it’s pearl in the ocean for everyone to see. 

Today it’s jam-packed with hundreds of hotels, from the cheapest hostel to the six-star variety….it’s the holiday spot for around ten million tourists each year. Currently, most of them are locals…..especially in winter! Many from the north of China (including desperate foreigners like us) and Russians who like to come in their droves to escape the freezing arctic winters. 

Those numbers are expected to increase to 20 million by 2018, with overseas visitors reaching one million, making Sanya the largest international tourism hub in South China.

Thomas Cook has even grabbed a slice of the action, signing a deal to create new travel packages direct from the UK.

This influx of tourists has, as you might expect, seen Sanya face a few expected challenges. Lack of infrastructure being one of them, difficulty in reaching the location due to limited flights and airport capacity, traffic and road safety, pollution of the beaches and most importantly a shortage of quality hospitality talent to service 250+ hotels.

Sheraton Sanya

But that isn’t slowing down the rapid expansion! Giant, sleek high-rises are under construction from every angle, reaching up into sunny skies. 

We stayed at the Sheraton and whilst we didn’t see too many other foreigners, when it comes to pool hopping, it seems the locals like to keep to themselves, for the most part, anyway.

Luxury Collection Sanya

You could be forgiven for thinking we actually had the resort to ourselves! 

Sheraton in Sanya

Yep, just us! 

No doubt looking highly dubious in our ‘boardies’ and bikinis, schlepping from one pool to the next for much of the day or lolling about on the beach, under the softly swaying palm trees, watching the jet skis lay idle, as the sea softly rolls in…. 

Hainan China

For the record, most Chinese don’t like to be in the sun for too long (sensible if you ask me). The very fact that we ordered lunch by the pool had the pool-boys in a slight frenzy… clearly this is not a regular occurrence. You can take China to the tropics but cocktails by the pool is still a bit of an enigma around these parts. Hence we went BYO.

BYO poolside Sanya

Of course, I’m always on the job, researching for the book — so it was with keen eyes, I witnessed the locals in true ‘holiday mode’. For many Chinese, going away for a holiday is a relatively new concept, especially a ‘resort-style’ vacation.

Generally, locals like to come down to the pool early in the day and then come back again later — when the sun is starting to subside. Their stints at the pool are usually conducted at lightening speed!


Everyone comes at once and it’s chaos. There’s grandma, granddad, mum and dad, babies, kids, friends…everyone having a quick dip…often wearing a giant ‘floatie’ device (many Chinese can’t swim). Unicorns, swans, crocodiles take your pick…there are a myriad of giant floaties up for to hire.

After a brief splash and a few happy snaps…no sooner had they arrived, they’d gone again. Just like that. 

And we were back to floating solo.

Hotels in Sanya

But don’t be fooled into thinking the resort is empty. Make it to the buffet for breakfast in the morning and the place is heaving. Lunchtime and the Chinese restaurant is bustling.

For many locals, the chance to relax in a decadent hotel room on a hot and humid day is no doubt far more appealing, than scorching themselves by the pool like those er, silly foreigners!

If you’re feeling more energetic than some….my insider tips tell me – there’s plenty of opportunity for water sports like scuba diving (just make sure the operators are certified) jet skiing, surfing and snorkelling. WuZhiZhao Island is a popular haven for water sports with its crystal clear seas, pristine beaches and coral reefs. DaDongHai is where it all started in Sanya and is home to shopping malls and restaurants, including the recommended American style sports bar ‘Dolphin.’


There’s even an opportunity to shop, when lazing around the pool all gets a bit too much!  😉 

The Government knows its market well and has backed a tourism conglomerate in setting up the world’s largest duty free shopping centre. Brandishing 72,000 square metres of luxury goods bearing the the latest brand names, all you need to get in on the actions is proof of a plane ticket leaving Hainan. Pick up your goods at the airport when you say Zai Jian! There is an 8,000 yuan (US$1200) per customer spending limit though, I’m told!

Tip: During Chinese New Year, it’s more than likely, the city will be flooded with tourists and you can expect everything to be extremely expensive, so perhaps not the best time to go!

To date, flights operate from most major cities in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. There are also seasonal chartered flights to Singapore

So if you want to do very little in the way of…well… anything — you had better jump on the wagon and check out these super flight and holiday deals the guys at Paylesser sent me.  They assist travellers like you, by offering a wide range of the latest coupons and offers including hotel discount coupons! (You’re welcome!)  😉 

Staying in Sanya China

Oh and don’t forget to try the seafood.

Happy Holidays!

This is China’s Hawaii! 

Beach travel in China

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