What do we have we here? Let’s start with Hainan Island. China’s “Hawaii”, known for its lush tropical vegetation, clean air and boulder-strewn coastline, is only a 90-minute direct flight from Hong Kong. And now that Hilton has opened a resort near Wenchang, in the island’s less developed northeast corner, there is yet another reason to visit. Like the local flora, the hotel is flourishing nicely, and celebrated its first birthday last month.
So it’s nowhere near Sanya? No. Infamous for traffic jams, drunk Russian tourists and rip-off seafood restaurants, Sanya has given Hainan a dubious reputation, perhaps unfairly, because the island covers more than 330,000 sq km and Wenchang is more than 200km away, offering a very different proposition, with little tourist infrastructure.
The hotel is the first to be built in the Tongguling International Eco-Tourism Area, in an 86 sq km development around scenic Qishui Bay, undertaken by the Luneng Group. The real-estate developer has appointed none other than David Beckham as its strategic partner and ambassador, and the handsome features of the retired England footballer and professional famous person are everywhere.
It’s too early to say whether the eco-tourism concept might extend beyond a few recycling bins and a green roof or two, as this is a work in progress, but early indications are encouraging. For now, at least, it is green, quiet and the coastline is beautiful and unspoilt, with waves crashing against large, weathered granite boulders on empty beaches.
What’s the hotel like? The 439-room Hilton Wenchang is designed in a pseudo-Indonesian style (see Design file, page 48) and all the guest rooms face the sea, so no one will be checking in to this beachfront hotel only to enjoy panoramas of the car park or air-conditioning plants. About 70 per cent of rooms have direct sea views from their balconies and extensive gardens with carp ponds and pagodas separate the hotel from the coastline.
The finest accommodation comes in the shape of seven opulently appointed private pool villas, each with two large suites, a communal living area with two interconnecting pools, a secluded garden and a barbecue deck. The obligatory trappings of a modern luxury resort hotel include five swimming pools; four outdoors (including a ripple pool) and one indoors. And then there are the rocket launches ...
What do you mean? Nearby is a new launch facility, from which the Long March 7 rocket was sent skywards on June 25. The rocket is part of a new generation of vehicles that will transport cargo for China’s planned space station. When a 53-metre, 595-metric-tonne, two-stage rocket takes off, it’s quite a spectacle and the June launch attracted a crowd of tens of thousands. Some rooms on the south side of the resort offer uninterrupted views of the coastline and launch pad, which is about 3km away, and the next blast-off is scheduled in October. The launch complex has a visitors’ centre but it is open to Chinese nationals only.
Is there anything of note in downtown Wenchang? Spiritual home to an estimated overseas diaspora of about 3 million, now residing in Malaysia, Singapore and beyond, the city is a 40-minute drive from the resort along tarmac roads as smooth as freshly laid linoleum. The hotel runs shuttle buses to the town and the railway station, which provides a direct connection to Haikou Meilan International Airport (about 40 minutes).
Wenchang is an unremarkable town of about 150,000 souls but, as in most Chinese cities, great efforts are being made to preserve anything vaguely resembling cultural heritage, and that includes the colonnaded shophouses of Wennan Old Street. Just outside the city is the ancestral home of the Soong sisters, which is now part of a cultural park that is worth a visit, not least because of the Hong Kong connections of the once-influential women.
What’s the bottom line? Room rates start at 800 yuan (HK$930) a night for a king-size room with a balcony and sea view, rising to about 6,000 yuan for a private pool villa.