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The Secret Sands of Sanya

The Secret Sands of Sanya


Kate Preece explores the Chinese island on which sun, sand, surf and steamboats are the orders of the day.
Photos: Kate Preece

A three-course meal, a few mov3aies, a glass or two of red, and a small travel group touched down in Guangzhou, China, 12 hours after leaving Christchurch. The flight was care of China Southern Airlines, the service was enjoyable, and the seat lay flat – if you were lucky enough to find yourself in business class.

We weren’t staying in China’s third largest city, however, bound instead for the white-sand beaches of Sanya, on Hainan Island, a quick 90-minute flight away.
For the in-flight snack, leave your European preferences at home. Expect a Chinese hamburger (sticky rice of white and purple wrapped around some form of meat) and a juice box of sweet herbal tea. If you can’t deal with this deviation in cuisine, best turn back now.


Flying into Hainan Island, the references to the ‘Hawaii of China’ are believable. Mountainous green-covered hills give way to deep valleys, with ribbon-like river that glisten from above. The popular city of Sanya unfurls before us. It is a destination for a luxurious retreat, and we were to stay at what was China’s first resort.
We arrived at the MGM Grand – previously Gloria Resort – and were greeted with lei-like flowers and a glass of the best coconut milk I have ever tasted. We were quick to immerse ourselves in resort life: swimming, sunbathing and ordering from the bar in bikinis. (Note: the Chinese are not as accustomed to the Kiwi holidaymakers’ penchant for a 5pm drink, and might need guidance to make cocktails and G&Ts.)

After tourism, agriculture is the second biggest industry on Hainan Island and produce year-round fruit for the mainland. Crops include pineapple, bananas and mango (in two varieties, one of which is from seed imported from Australia), which flourish in the average temperature of 25°C. The bird’s eye view from the plane highlighted this clearly with lines of cultivated fields creating patterns on the hills.

2Today’s food in Sanya is worthy of a long lunch. Juice can come straight from a gigantic green coconut, extracted from corn (served hot) or squeezed fresh from a cactus (bright purple). Meat is served whole – fish in particular, but it is not uncommon for a chicken’s head to sit on a plate either. The dumplings couldn’t be better, and neither could the fried rice, and this is a country in which you will line up to eat your oh-so–flavoursome greens. Spice fiends will also be satisfied, with the hot stuff part of the everyday menu (watch out for the yellow chilli sauce!).

To experience something off the beaten track, seek out a fishing village. We arrived at one not long before sunset and joined a raft of boats making their way inland after a day’s fishing – and more so heading back out, fully equipped with rows of squid lights hanging high above the cabins. Workers who don’t own their own restaurant take their hauls directly to the fish markets, but the rest are waiting for patrons to choose their fish du jour. For us, it was swallow fish, a beautifully soft white fish that melted in the mouth after being boiled in stock on a burner atop our table. This form of ‘steamboat’ or ‘hot pot’ is classic Chinese fare, and the go-to option if you are to experience any Chinese barbecue.
With four days in Sanya, we experienced little more than a taste for this tropical oasis. A short trip through one of the shopping areas brought us head-to-head with the locals, yet for those wishing for a resort-style retreat, choose from 43 international brands and there’s no doubt you will find solace.


1. Drink like a Chinese pilot and opt for a half-and-half mix of orange and tomato juice, with a splash of hot sauce. Not only is it supposed to be good for the skin, but it adds an extra boost of vitamin C, ahead of any regular old juice.
2. To prevent jetlag, resist the urge to put your sunglasses on until 48 hours after a long-haul flight. Don’t stop natural light reaching your retinas – it will mess with your head.
3. Watch for surcharges. VAT might be 10%, but then there’s the 6% extra for the pool boy to deliver your drink.
4. Tea is king in China. Therefore, there will be some areas (such as Sanya) in which you will struggle to find a decent coffee – your best bet will be McDonald’s. If in doubt, hold off on the milk, too. It’s often UHT.
5. Don’t take your power banks in your carry-on. You are likely to lose these ‘unsuitable items’ at the security check in Guangzhou.
6. Dreamliner is more than just a catchy name. The
China Southern Airlines flight, direct from Christchurch to
Guangzhou, uses this type of plane (also known as a Boeing 787) and its fancy air-filtration system makes the in-flight conditions friendlier on your skin.