Situated in the South China Sea, Hainan Island has lately been getting a lot of attention as the only tropical beach destination in China. The booming resort town of Sanya, on the island's southern shore, is popular with expats and the newly wealthy — many come seeking a respite from fast-paced cities such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. More and more foreigners, curious to see Chinese surf and sand for themselves, are also including Sanya in their China travels. As a result, luxury resorts are popping up in noteworthy numbers: In the last two years, Banyan Tree, Ritz-Carlton, Le Méridien and Mandarin Oriental have all staked their claims on the island's sandy shores, and Fairmont and Raffles properties are also in the works.
Though I don't recommend Hainan as the sole destination on any trip to China, the island does make a fascinating warm-weather add-on to an itinerary that includes the big cities and remote mountain locations. Many of the island beaches — particularly those stretches fronting The Ritz-Carlton on Yalong Bay and Le Méridien on Shimei Bay — are lovely, fine-sand affairs, perfect for lounging or strolling (it helps to have a well-trained army of employees to groom the beach at dawn, as The Ritz-Carlton does).
This new class of luxury resorts specializes in providing relaxing, all-inclusive enclaves. Located in the residential Luhuitou area, the Banyan Tree has an intimate feel, with 61 private pool villas and its own beachfront; the spacious spa pavilions are lovely and staffed with experienced therapists specially brought in from other Banyan Tree locations. In contrast, The Ritz-Carlton is many times larger, with 450 rooms, a 30,000-square-foot ESPA spa, eight restaurants and lounges, and four swimming pools. With its splashy acreage and signature Chinese architectural design elements, The Ritz-Carlton resembles nothing so much as a beachfront Forbidden City.
These serenely uncrowded hotels are indeed hideaways in a certain sense. Once guests arrive, they tend not to leave, since the best food, beaches and water activities are right on-site. But if one were to leave the premises, all of the touring sites of interest around the island are unfortunately jam-packed with people (imagine the crowds at Tiananmen Square on a small desert island). The sheer numbers of Chinese traveling these days makes it tough to experience any kind of nature-oriented tranquility outside the confines of a resort.
One hotel I visited that did approach a true hideaway experience was Le Méridien Shimei Bay. Quite isolated from the rest of the resorts down in Sanya — it is an hour and a half northeast of the airport — it comes closest to what I imagine a Chinese Hawaiian resort should be. There is, of course, the upscale element (infinity pools, Jacuzzis, marble floors and baths, private villas, etc.) but also a local tropical Chinese flavor (carved wood accents and designs that subtly represent Hainan motifs). The area around the resort is as yet untouched and very lush, and I think the nascent water sport and beach culture scene is more appealing than that currently found around Sanya.
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