The tropical island you’ve never heard of just happens to be in China

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I'm drinking an iced coconut juice straight from the tree, my toes dipped in white sand at the edge of crystal clear seas. Three fit young surfers run past me, and straight into the crashing swell.

Honolulu, Hawaii? No… Hainan, China.

If you've never heard of Hainan, you're not alone. The idyllic tropical island – between Hong Kong and Vietnam – is about half the size of Tasmania and had just 8000 Australian visitors in the first half of this year.

But a concerted push by the Chinese government could soon change all that.

They have identified the island's lush green rainforests, plentiful beaches and year-round warm weather and added ginormous golf courses, day spas and five-star hotels. Now they are embarking on a marketing campaign aimed at luring Aussie tourists away from their typical holiday hotspots of Bali and Fiji.

In January this year, Hainan Airlines launched direct flights to the island from Sydney; in May, they implemented a visa-free policy for 59 countries, including Australia.

So, what to expect?

Natural beauty

Rainforest makes up almost two-thirds of the island, with several protected nature reserves offering hiking opportunities. At Qixianling National Rainforest Park, north of the resort area of Sanya on the island's southern tip, the three-hour Seven Fairy Mountain climb is steep – the final 100 metres with rope. But it's worth the effort, with waterfalls, big old trees, fluttering butterflies and a final breathtaking view of the spectacular mountainous surrounds. Later, back at the bottom, you can rest weary calves in one of the many mineral hot springs, said to soothe muscles and stimulate circulation.

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You can also choose to trek, zipline and electric cart around Yalong Bay Tropical Forest Park in Sanya, and cross the oft-photographed, huge and wobbly, Crossing Dragon chain bridge.

And on Sanya's other side, head to the Phoenix Mountain Love Forever Scenic Area, catch the cable car to the top and stroll the long timber walkway above the trees, a nature walk full of surprises, including messages of love and a gorgeous glass church (yes, church) accessed through a tunnel of flowers and with spectacular views of Sanya's beaches and beyond.

Then, of course, there are those beaches, most of them in Sanya, including Yalong Bay, Sunny Bay, Haitang Bay, Clear Water Bay and Dadonghai. Plenty of hotels provide direct access to the beaches, often with roped-off areas and food and drink service. For China's best surf and a chilled vibe, Sun and Moon Bay is 90 minutes from Sanya and offers surf and paddleboard rentals and beautiful white-sand beaches to explore, with a few accommodation and dining options, including Break Point Café and Bar restaurant with resident bar dog in attendance.

Culture

The Guanyin of Nanshan is an imposing 108-metre Buddhist statue protecting the south coast of the island, and the entire surrounding Nanshan Buddhist Culture Park – built 30 years ago to celebrate 2000 years of Buddhism in China – is a massive Temple district, filled with Buddhas, sacred worship spots, plenty of gold, and people. When we visited, a dozen pilgrims were enduring the hard, hot walk to the statue – about one kilometre of three steps, bow-on-knees, three steps, bow again – that is meant to honour their hardship and devotion. It was inspiring to watch.

Another way to soak up local culture can be found further north at Betel Nut Park, a supersize ethnic theme park honouring the many traditions, mostly of the local Li people who are believed to have settled in Hainan 3000 years ago. Tattoo, wine, music and clothing exhibitions feature heavily, as well as old huts and a high-energy show performed by local members of the tribe.

Eat, drink and sleep

The island is known for its hospitable culture: on some beaches, locals cruise around in boardies and Hawaiian shirts proffering coconuts.

Food is a big drawcard: the island is, after all, the birthplace of Hainan chicken, the simple but succulent dish where coconut-fed chicken is poached in broth then served with chilli, garlic, ginger and soy sauces. There's also a great array of deliciously fresh seafood, often barbecued, and street food ranges from dumplings to chicken legs to Chinese pancakes, and more.

There are 157 five-star branded hotels including all the names you'll recognise, most with first-rate restaurants within. These include the DoubleTree by Hilton built on a mineral hot spring in the mountains, as well as the seriously impressive (in size and features) $US2 billion Atlantis Hotel in Sanya, which has 21 restaurants (including Bread Street Kitchen by Gordon Ramsay), an aquarium you can SCUBA in and a waterpark; and the Mission Hills Resort complex on the north coast near Hainan's capital of Haikou, which has multiple hotels, the world's biggest golf course, a giant 61-room day spa, and a Wet'n'Wild.

With so much more to come – including large-scale beach clubs, fancy accommodation, additional entertainment precincts and the 3620-hectare, $US24 billion Ocean Flower Island, currently being built in the shape of a flower, featuring hotels, castles, beach resorts, water parks, and an opera house – it's fair to assume a lot more people will become aware of China's Hawaii in the next few years.

This article has been produced in association with Hainan Tourism. 

For more information on flights to Hainan, see https://hainanairlines.com

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