Island hopping

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 12:00am

Whether you are planning a rustic escape, a weekend of beer and karaoke or a corporate conference, Upper and Lower Chuan islands can accommodate you

Located in Taishan, Lower Chuan Island has made a great leap forward in its bid to become an offshore tropical getaway. With the opening of two four-star resorts last summer, the oceanfront Wangfuzhou district can now play host to pleasure-seekers as well as business travelers looking for a place to stage corporate getaways, meetings, and conferences.

But laid-back Lower Chuan Island offers more than great facilities. It is also the perfect getaway if you?re into unspoiled rusticity. The 20-minute drive from the pier to Wangfuzhou takes you past isolated villages and farming communities where water buffalo till the fields. Then it?s up through pine-studded mountains and down through verdant valleys, all in a wonderfully pollution-free environment.

The 1.6km beach at Wangfuzhou is two beaches, really. One is the weekday version, suprisingly free of sun worshippers even during peak season, coming alive only after 5pm when the locals arrive to take a dip after a long day at work. The other is packed with holidaymakers from throughout Guangdong who descend on the island in droves at the weekend.

One needn?t be a beach bum to enjoy the island?s attractions, though. Thrill-seekers will have plenty of options as well. In addition to swimming in azure waters there is paragliding, snorkeling, and motor boating. You can also rent sand rovers, jet skis, and banana boats. Verdant offshore islands complete the idyllic setting.

Sightseeing is mostly by motorbike ? charges range from 5 yuan to 20 yuan for most journeys, but be sure to negotiate your fare in advance. They can also be rented by the hour for independent sightseeing to outlying beaches and the watchtowers for which the region is famous. Hiking, fishing and excursions to the tiny islands that dot the surrounding waters are other recreational options.

Lower Chuan Island has come a long way. Fifty years ago the sleepy island was isolated and mired in poverty. Wangfuzhou, which was launched in 1986, now boasts a total of 41 mostly non-descript hotels and guesthouses offering nearly 3,000 beds. Rooms are mostly in the 100 yuan to 380 yuan per night range ? the four-star resorts somewhat higher. There are 12 restaurants serving seafood caught by local fishermen, 12 bars and two discos. Along palm-studded Lover?s Lane you will also find outdoor beer gardens, karaoke lounges, a teahouse, and souvenir vendors selling everything from local handicrafts and seashells to caps, T-shirts, and inexpensive beach wear. After dark, fireworks occasionally light the sky.

With stunning ocean views, stone floors and hypnotising ceiling fans, the Azure Bay Resort ? located on a hillside overlooking Wangfuzhou ? is the place to stay for discerning travelers (see Where to Stay, page 20). Set amid tropically landscaped grounds, all of its 100-plus guest rooms feature digital TVs, IDD phones, and broadband internet access. There are western and Chinese-style restaurants, a lobby bar, a nightclub, karaoke rooms, indoor and outdoor tearooms, sauna rooms, and chess and card rooms. Tennis courts, an infinity swimming pool, a health club, business centre, market, and shops round out the facilities ? a few of which have yet to open. For reservations and more information call (0750) 575 8818.

Nearby Upper Chuan Island, which is larger and was opened to tourism earlier than its southern counterpart, is more of a backpacker?s paradise ? and even further off the beaten track. Known to the Portuguese as Sao Joao, it was their first base on the South China coast. They eventually abandoned it following their occupation of Macau in 1557.

Upper Chuan Island has 20 unspoiled beaches perfect for swimming, beachcombing, and sunbathing as well as extensive forests of cypress, bamboo, and pine. There is also sailing, fishing, and hiking. Several nondescript hotels and guesthouses, with tariffs ranging from 180 yuan to 380 yuan, line Feisha Beach, which offers the same types of activities as Wangfuzhou. Dining al fresco along the waterfront is one of the district?s top attractions. Outdoor karaoke is another option.

For the ultimate in kitsch, check out the Lechuan Buddha. Other attractions include the Guangdong Provincial Macaque Reserve.

History buffs will not want to miss St Francis Xavier?s Church and Graveyard. Saint Francis Xavier (1506?1552) was a Jesuit missionary credited with converting more people to Christianity than anyone since St Paul. He carried out important work in India before departing for Japan and China. Sadly, he fainted after celebrating mass on November 21 on Upper Chuan Island, dying several days later aged 46. He was initially buried on the beach before being transferred, first to Malacca, then to Goa, where his body is interred at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. He was on his way to Guangzhou when he died, but never reached the Chinese mainland.

Built in 1869, the tiny church, which overlooks the South China Sea at the end of an unpaved red dirt road, is generally not open to the public without prior arrangement. Tour groups wishing to visit the church and graveyard should call local tourism officials in advance at (0750) 539 9328.

How to get there

Upper and Lower Chuan islands are off the coast of Taishan. Ferries depart from the Shanzui Pier throughout the day. There is a schedule, but additional runs are sometimes added when demand warrants. It is a fun trip, but lines can be chaotic and space is limited so keep your sense of humour and don?t bring bulky luggage. The ferries don?t connect the two islands so if you want to visit both, you?ve got to return to the mainland.

Shanzui Pier

Tel: (0750) 538 1839