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Bays of Plenty

Asia is blessed with a surfeit of tropical resort destinations, where sunshine, beaches and water sports provide the perfect holiday getaway. Compared to the likes of Bali or Phuket, China might not be the first place that springs to mind. However, travel south as far as you can go to the tip of Hainan Island, and you’ll find Sanya, a surprising vacation discovery that hosted more than 16 million holidaymakers last year.

Admittedly most of these were domestic tourists, but increasing numbers of foreign visitors are testing Sanya’s waters, drawn by attractively priced international five-star resorts, clean air, an average temperature of 77 degrees and cool sea breezes.

Russian tourists in particular are showing an appetite for the tropical Chinese destination, with direct flights now operating from places such as Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk in addition to the country’s main cities.

The majority of international visitors stay in picturesque Yalong Bay, a five-mile arc of golden sand located just six miles to the east of the ciy, accessible by high-speed rail. Hotel development here began in 1996, as major hotel chains like Marriott, St Regis, Hilton and Ritz-Carlton saw huge potential. With direct access to the beach and a range of water activities from diving to parasailing, these resorts quickly became popular.

More and more resorts opened until the whole waterfront was packed, and hotels were forced to open in the land behind – though with no beachfront space they were at an immediate disadvantage.

And the Beach Goes On

With demand continuing to grow, the search for prime land inevitably shifted north to the next crescent of sand: Haitang Bay. Located 17 miles east of Sanya’s city center and a smooth 45-minute drive from the airport on new, modern roads, Haitang Bay is much larger than Yalong, its beach stretching an impressive 26 miles.

The first hotel, a Conrad, opened in 2010, and others soon followed. It cannot yet compare to the well-developed Yalong Bay – and in one specific aspect it never will, for the government has banned all water activities in Haitang Bay because of the rough seas.

This hasn’t put off the developers and hospitality groups, however. Though constrained by a lack of waterborne offerings, hotels and resorts opening in Haitang Bay have developed their own unique selling points in order to attract guests, focusing on distinctive facilities and attractions.

Understanding that a major portion of the market would be vacationing families, the Grand Hyatt Sanya built something special for kids. Three outdoor pools are each designed for different age groups and cover a total of 22,400 square feet, from the Fun Pool with slides and water sprays for younger guests, to the Family Pool featuring more complex recreational activities and entertainment. Meanwhile, Camp Hyatt houses indoor and outdoor adventure playgrounds, an activity center and a junior chef’s kitchen.

In December 2016 The Sanya Edition became the first of Marriott’s Edition brand in Asia. A luxury lifestyle brand with an oceanfront setting, its signature facility is the spectacular 200,000-square-foot Private Ocean, surrounded by landscaped gardens and holding ten million gallons of seawater, which is pumped in from the sea and completely replaced every 30 hours or so. It’s an impressive marquee attraction, and gives guests the chance to paddleboard, kayak, sail in sunfish dinghies, pedal a water bike, ride on water motorcycles, use sea scooters – or simply swim in a dedicated area overlooking the South China Sea. You don’t have to get your feet wet to enjoy it either, with waterside cabanas and a floating deck available if you fancy dinner in the center of the “ocean.”

Close by is the Haitang Bay International Shopping Complex, a paradise for shopaholics. A 750,000-square-foot retail and commercial complex, this ultra-modern building integrates duty-free shopping, restaurants, entertainment and cultural venues, and hundreds of premium-brand outlets from Gucci, Burberry and Chanel to Prada, Rolex and Armani. Said to be the most high-end duty-free shopping mall in China, its location in Sanya’s Haitang Bay shows how much confidence there is in the regions’ future.

Incredibly, it seems Haitang Bay is almost at its saturation point already. “The coastline will soon be filled up [with resorts],” says Xavi Gonzalez, general manager of The Sanya Edition. “The next developments will be behind the existing resorts, on a second [inland] line. You can already see the construction sites; some are empty, but they have already been assigned to different big brands. In total, 20 to 30 resorts will be opening in Haitang Bay.”

One of the most dramatic and eagerly anticipated is Atlantis Sanya, a 153-acre integrated entertainment resort that’s cost an estimated RMB11 billion ($1.6 billion). A sister project to Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas and Atlantis, the Palm in Dubai, this huge water-themed park will be complemented by Sanya’s largest hotel, which will have 1,314 rooms in its first phase alone.

Atlantis Sanya is accepting bookings beginning this spring, and will boast all the facilities people expect of a mega-resort these days, from world-renowned chefs’ restaurants to exotic bars and lounges. The highlight will be the Aquaventure Waterpark, with its fresh and saltwater pools, lagoons, and extensive rides and slides. There will also be marine exhibits – presenting more than 2,600 marine species – including an open-air marine habitat and a dolphin interaction and education center. Despite its late entrance to the Sanya party, Haitang Bay looks set to shine, bumping up the destination’s appeal for the hordes of sun, sea and sand worshippers to come.  

Away from the Beaches

Many will be happy to remain within the confines of their luxurious resort, but if you want to explore outside the hotels, there are plenty of choices for adventure farther afield. Golf enthusiasts are well looked after at the Sun Valley Sanya Golf Resort, located beside Hongxia Mountain in the Yalong Bay National Resort. Covering nearly 5,000 acres, it boasts 27 holes designed and shaped by world-famous golf design company JMP. This includes the Lake View, Desert View and Mountain View courses, plus a tropical garden-style clubhouse situated at the top of the resort with full views of Yalong Bay.

For another stunning panorama, Luhuitou Peak Garden is perched atop a 900-foot-high hill presenting beautiful panoramas across Sanya. The park’s winding paths lead past ancient banyan trees and painted rock faces to a statue of two lovers from the local Li ethnic group, and a deer. The story is the deer was chased by a young hunter for nine days, until he looked again and saw the deer had turned into a beautiful girl with whom he promptly fell in love. In fact, Sanya’s nickname is “the City of Deer.”

Tianyahaijiao (“Edge of Heaven, Corner of the Sea”) is another scenic hotspot, located on the southern tip of the island. On the beach, huge boulders were inscribed with poems written by Qing dynasty officials, who lamented being banished to the “end of the earth.” Having your photo taken there is a must, before going to explore the gardens, enjoy a boat ride in the bay, or hunt for tourist trinkets in the market nearby.

Another nine miles west is the Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone, a huge complex of gardens, newly built temples and shopping streets offering a jumble of nature, spirituality and theme-park style attractions. On a man-made island just offshore stands a 125-foot-high statue of Guanyin, the goddess of compassion. Here the holiday mood is momentarily set aside as tourists make offerings of money, incense and prayer under the giant, benevolent gaze of the statue.

Other day tours include trips into the island’s mountainous interior to visit ethnic Li and Miao villages (often tacky affairs aimed shamelessly at trapping the tourist dollar) or climb the 6,000-foot Wuzhi Mountain, Hainan’s highest peak (more authentic Li villages can be found around the mountain base).

Ninety minutes up the eastern coast is Xilong Botanical Garden where you can sample the tea and coffee culture of the area, while farther inland there are hot springs and mountain retreats where monks built temples and monastic cave dwellings.