Dubbed "the Gate of Hell" by a Tang Dynasty prime minister exiled to the island, now marketed as "China's Hawaii" by exaggeration-prone tourism-industry types, Hainan is neither, though it's certainly a lot closer to Hawaii than it is to Hell. (Though it does get devilishly hot and sticky in the summer, we have to admit). In the end, Hainan is Hainan is Hainan, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein... and Hainan ain't a bad place to be, to nick a phrase from Bon Scott.
So what's Hainan got? Beaches galore, both those developed to within an inch of their natural lives (resort-saturated Yalong Bay, for example) and those hardly visited by anyone but the odd fisherman. Rugged tropical mountains, rustic Yi and Miao villages, palm plantations, rice terraces and rutted back roads. Smooth new highways, great cycling routes and China's best surfing. Excellent seafood, one helluva chicken dish (Wenchang Ji) and amazing year-round fruits and fresh produce. Clean air, plenty of mosquitos and a quirky history that's littered parts of the island with everything from World War II-era beach pillboxes to Monkey Island.
Known as Hainan Dao (dao is "island" in Mandarin), the main island is large enough to absorb ever-increasing numbers of sun-seekers from mainland China and Russia (expect to see a lot of Cyrillic signage in and around Sanya) while maintaining charming rough edges more reminiscent of back-country Vietnam than of Maui once you get clear of the major resort-and-golf-course development zones.
Most tourists fly straight into Sanya, located on the southern tip of the island; the other (and generally much cheaper) option is the provincial capital of Haikou on the northern coast, which is well served by an airport and ferry service across the Qiongzhou Strait to the Guangdong port of Hai'an.
While Sanya is surrounded by massive resort developments and golf courses, Haikou maintains a colonial quaintness with its neighborhoods of run-down palm-tree lined Sino-Portuguese architecture. As such, Sanya is the go-to choice for a quick five-star beach holiday, and Haikou makes for a more suitable port of entry for backpackers willing to take a week or two working their way south toward Sanya's hostels.
Travelling south along Hainan's east coast from Haikou to Sanya, a number of intriguing small cities and towns are waiting to be explored: Bo'ao, Wenchang, Qionghai, Wanning, and Lingshui among them. Off the main highways, small rural Han, Li and Miao villages and settlements abound, excellent territory for cyclists.
Hainan's east coast boasts hot springs, beautiful beaches, coconut plantations and nature parks. Beaches down the coast often face fairly rough surf rolling in off the South China Sea, good for body-surfing (watch out for undertows). The inland route descends down a spine of mountains, Limuling Shan, featuring some of the best of what's left of Hainan's indigenous forest (not much is left) and culminating in the impressive Jianfengling National Forest Park and Datian Nature Reserve in the islands southwestern quadrent.
Hikers may wish to hit the island's highest mountain, Wuzhi Shan, and explore the tropical waterfall at Baihua Shan.
Whatever you choose for your Hainan itinerary, be sure to try some of the island's famous dishes: Wenchang chicken, roasted duck, mountain goat, juicy crab, all washed down by coconut milk or a local Hainan or Anchor beer.
Separated from Guangdong's Leizhou Peninsula by a narrow strait, Hainan's present-day economy is dependant on tourism, but the island's history has seen the island as a place misery and exile from mainland China.
During the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, supposedly only 18 tourists visited the island on their own volition. After the bloody crackdown in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, Hainan became a hotbed of Communist activity, especially for Communists in hiding.
A bloody guerilla campaign against Japanese occupation saw a third of the male population of Hainan killed as a result of Japanese retaliation. By 1950, the Chinese communists regained control of Hainan from the Nationalist Party who had taken over after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
It was not until the end of the 1970s that Hainan became the focus of any real attention. Up until 1988 when the island was sanctioned as a Special Economic Zone, Hainan was part of Guangdong province. After 1988, Hainan became known for being free-market hot spot operating outside the law. The provincial capital is Haikou.
The resource-rich tropical island is also home to a new strategic naval harbor dug through the mountainside. Hainan suffered exploitation and ecological decline since the 1950s where it's forests were cleared for cash crops, economic mismanagement and stripping of the island's natural resources. While crop experimentation has seen mangos, rubber, coconuts and coffee grown on the island, tourism is the only industry that provides a reliable source of income, although to some extent, tourism overdevelopment has been too optimistic, leaving many empty hotels and complexes unfinished.
Culturally, eastern Hainan has less Li and Miao populations and is definitely more Han Chinese. In addition to mainland Han Chinese, overseas Chinese from neighboring Asian countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia have reestablish homes in eastern Hainan, especially in the Xinglong area in Wanning, an area famous for its coffee and hot springs. These returning Chinese have also brought back some of their expatriate lives with them, making the area a cultural mix of Southeast Asian cultures.
The best time to visit Hainan is between November and March, as summers are typically hot and muggy with the threat of late-summer typhoons. Humid year-round, Hainan's monsoon climate ensures heavy annual precipitation, though approximately 70% of the island's rains fall in the summer months.
In January and February, the temperatures drop to average highs of a rather balmy 21° C; July and August reach steamy average highs of 29° C. Except for inland mountainous regions, the daily average temperature in Hainan remains above 10° C. The summer in the north is especially hot, frequently reaching 35° C with high humidity.