The Hawaii of the East has become a magnet for a growing middle-class, writes Ardyn Bernoth.
The jade surf curls on to the new-moon strip of beach. A breeze that can only be described as tropical cools a persistent sun. Occasionally, a local lady brandishing strings of faux pearls ambles by. A submarine dips from view. A submarine? Well, we are in China.
This is Hainan Island. Just off the southernmost tip of China's southernmost province (Guangdong), this island spawned one of Chinese cuisine's most globally recognised dishes, Hainan chicken. While the dish - a whole chicken poached in a broth then served with a sauce of chilli, garlic, soy and ginger - is found on menus around the world, the island has barely flickered on the international tourism radar.
Until recently. In the past two years, the Ritz-Carlton, Le Meridien, the Banyan Tree and the Mandarin Oriental have opened luxurious resorts here, joining the Sheraton, the Hilton and the Marriott, who unleashed the onslaught over the past six years. Anantara will open in early 2011.
China has evolved from communism to capitalism; now mass beach resort tourism has arrived. The surging tides of the Chinese middle classes are well aware of it and are flocking to this island, just 3½ hours from Beijing and an hour from Hong Kong, and the rest of the world is starting to register it.
Even more interestingly, the island's breathy slogan "forever tropical paradise" is actually true. This place has beaches that compare to some of the best in Asia - the sand is white and fine, the water glints with turquoise tones and clarity, inland mountains are woven with verdant rainforests and astonishingly, for a country largely draped in haze, the air is fresh.
Locals love that their island is dubbed the "Oriental Hawaii". Unlike most travel comparative descriptions (Shanghai, the "Paris of the East" etc) that are often unhelpful and inaccurate, this has some basis - it is on the same latitude as Hawaii (180 North) so the weather is balmily similar. Temperatures are tropical most of the year with an average high of 25C. The dress code is similar, too - Hawaiian shirts are everywhere. Teamed with matching shorts. All this adds to the deliciously incongruous appeal of Hainan.
You are, frankly, blown away to find this in China. There is that submarine naval base, though, at one end of Yalong Bay, which is one of the most popular and populated beaches, lest you momentarily forget where you are.
Food is an important part of Hainan's intrigue. Antony McNeil is the executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Sanya (Sanya is the second-largest city on Hainan and the main entry point for tourist travel) and this expat Melburnian has thrown himself into the local food scene.
Having worked for several years in the food paradise province of Sichuan, McNeil says the food of Hainan does not have the depth or the complexity of the cuisine from some other regions of China. But what it lacks in ingenuity, it overdelivers in freshness and flavour. The seafood is "exceptional", he says. There is fresh local tuna, lobster and scallops and countless varieties of fish.
And the fruit and vegetables are locally grown, organic (the farmers can't afford fertilisers and pesticides - it is just another cost for them) and fantastic, he says. They are all simply prepared, either boiled or steamed, and served with an array of condiments such as ginger, lemongrass, chilli (often a wonderful local fiery yellow chilli). Hainan chicken, the island's most famous - actually only famous - export perfectly exemplifies this. On the island the dish is often called Wenchang chicken, which is the name of the indigenous breed of chicken originally from Wenchang, a town in the north-east of the island. Almost every farmer in rural Hainan rears a few Wenchang chickens, which are fed on coconut, peanuts and rice bran, giving them a distinct flavour and texture.
The birds are poached and steeped in water spiked with aromatics, whacked into small pieces and served with a minced ginger and garlic sauce. (In Singapore, where the dish is ubiquitous thanks to the migration of a large proportion of Wenchang Hainanese, it is served with tasty rice.)
There are three other local specialties - Jiaji duck, Hele crab and Dongshan mutton (which is actually goat).
Jiaji duck is a specific breed of duck with thin skin and tender flesh. It is poached and eaten with a vinegar, ginger and sesame oil sauce in a manner similar to Hainan chicken.
Hele crab, which is named after a local town, is steamed and, again, is lauded for its flavoursome and tender flesh. The so-called mutton is from a mountain district in Hainan. It is black goat fed on native flowers and spring water, which is then boiled and served with simple condiments.
"It is all very simple food, light food, reflecting the hot climate and the quality of the produce," McNeil says.
This produce is on bounteous display every morning from sunrise at the No. 1 Agricultural Market in downtown Sanya. I have been to many markets all over China but this is the freshest produce I have seen. The food is just hours out of the ground, McNeil explains, conveyed on motorbikes with sidecars from farms nearby (we see four pigs crammed into a sidecar being sped to their untimely end). Gnarled, local kalamansi limes ("These make kick-ass mojitos," McNeil says) are piled next to shoelace strands of fresh egg noodles draped over chopsticks, gleaming sheets of rice noodles being cleavered into fettuccine strips by gnarled, expert hands and black chickens (black-skinned chickens are found all over China, prized for certain health benefits) lying on their backs, clawed feet pointing helplessly to the ceiling.
There is local honey (this is seasonal) from bees feasting on lychee blossoms and coffee grown high in the local mountains.
And then there is the seafood. Plastic clothes-washing baskets are loaded with flapping fish tugged through the hubbub by ropes and then emptied into tanks where they are bought live and stored live by restaurants such as Dragon Restaurant on the beach at nearby Dadong Hai. There they are selected by customers and killed immediately before being cooked. "This is close to the best seafood in China," McNeil says.
Indeed, I rate a seafood barbecue at the Ritz-Carlton's beachfront restaurant in my top three restaurant meals in my nearly five years of living in Hong Kong and eating throughout Asia. A red snapper is plucked from a tank, killed and grilled. Some people get squeamish at this (not that you see any of this process) but for me, this fish is the freshest and most delicious I have had since I caught my own in Tweed Heads when I was 10.
The Ritz opened in April 2008 and became the "tipping point" for the first glimmer of international recognition of Hainan. Built in the scale of the finest communist edifices, the place is large - 450 rooms with 21 luxury suites and 33 fabulous villas with private lap pools and butler service. Many of the rooms have views straight over hot-pink frangipanis and palm trees to the sea (and some of the villas are separated from the sandy expanse of the beach by only a footpath).
There are four main swimming pools (a gorgeous beachfront lap pool and lagoon pool among them), an ESPA spa and four large restaurants, including Pearl, a Cantonese restaurant, and Sand, my favourite, with its beige beanbags on the beach. Hardly set in the middle of nowhere - it sits cheek-by-jowl with the Marriott and the Hilton along Yalong Bay beach - it is only 30 minutes from Sanya International Airport.
Less conveniently located but appealingly more isolated is Le Meridien Shimei Bay Beach Resort and Spa, which opened in November 2008. A 90-minute drive across the island to the south-east coast, past fields of watermelons, pak choi, corn and ubiquitous rice paddies, this place is slightly smaller with 275 extremely well-designed guest rooms, most with excellent views, and 25 gorgeous villas. The villas are enormous (about 230 square metres) complete with a huge swing for basking and Dedon's "yin yang" lounge for sipping wine while surveying the outlying Jiajing Island from across the private infinity pool.
Shimei Bay also boasts something utterly remarkable for China - surf. That's right, you can learn to surf in the South China Sea.
Robin Maivusaroko, Le Meridien's executive assistant manager, insists there is a "decent left break" and surfing lessons have been reasonably popular with the Chinese mainlanders who make up 85 per cent of the visitors to Hainan. Many of them, says Maivusaroko, have never seen the sea before, let alone hung 10 on a surfboard.
It is unlikely that Australians are going to jet to Hainan to learn to surf. But as the finale to a tour of the rambunctious cities of China or elsewhere in Asia, this Hawaii of the East is a compelling place to soak some tropical rays and savour an iconic dish in its hometown.
-Qantas flies from Sydney to Sanya on Hainan Island, priced from $1702. See flightcentre.com.au.
WHERE TO STAY
-Contact the major hotels directly or see www.chinahotelsreservation.com/hainan.html.