What to see and what to miss in Sanya, China’s top beach getaway
The main beach and centre can be packed with visitors and nearby Dadonghai offers tacky fun, but head out of town to Yalong and Haitang bays for clear waters and a more relaxing break
For many Chinese holidaymakers, a trip to Sanya, billed as the Hawaii of the East, is high on their bucket lists. It's China’s top beach holiday destination, known for its white sand beaches, clear waters and cloudless blue skies.
What the picture-perfect ads and WeChat microsites neglect to show, however, are the crowds of domestic tourists that descend on the beaches and local points of interest, especially during peak holiday periods around Lunar New Year and “Golden Week” in October.
Between November and February, the beach city is a favourite among northern Chinese, who are keen to swap their harsh winter for Sanya’s year-round tropical climate. The Chinese are not the only ones. A steady stream of tourists from Siberia and the Russian far east visit Sanya – so much so that much of the signage and menus in Sanya are written in Chinese and Cyrillic, with English as the third language.
Similar in latitude to Hawaii, it has a daily average temperature of 26 degrees Celsius. There are beaches and rainforests to explore.
Accommodation is wide-ranging, with options to suit all budgets – though it is worth mentioning that Sanya has the greatest density per square metre of high-end hotels and resorts in mainland China. A bonus is that it is only a 90-minute flight from Hong Kong.
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What is referred to as Sanya comprises almost 50km of coastline dedicated to tourism, extending well beyond its eponymous bay and city centre. Sanya’s centre is worth a miss, unless you enjoy boisterous Chinese tour groups having their first visit to the seaside.
If a lively atmosphere with a side serving of tack is what you are after, Dadonghai is the place to go. One of the first beaches to be developed for tourism, it has a lengthy promenade full of restaurants, bars and vendors selling everything from shell jewellery to hula shirts. It gets pretty animated as night falls: sunburned revellers carrying bottles of Snow beer while singing karaoke at pop-up stalls are a common sight after dinner.
For a more relaxing getaway, skip town entirely and head for one of the more upmarket hotels and resorts in Yalong Bay, 20km east of Sanya city centre. The beach here is markedly less crowded and the vibe more laid back.
A row of luxurious accommodation options, including brands such as St Regis and Ritz-Carlton, back onto Yalong Bay and its beach. Many provide deck chairs and towels for their guests and employ staff to keep the beach litter-free.
While there are fewer options for eating and drinking here than at Dadonghai, a different kind of entertainment can be found at Yalong Bay. Watersports operators along the beach offer a range of activities including parasailing, jet boats and banana boat rides.
As beaches in China are free for the public to access, a visit to Yalong Bay is well worth the cab ride even if you don’t splash out on a five-star stay.
Further east along the coast, Haitang Bay has recently seen big budget developments as Yalong Bay has neared its development capacity. Rosewood Sanya and Sanya Edition are two of the latest luxury branded operations to open, with China’s first One&Only resort operating at the end of the year.
The rainforests around Sanya are worth exploring. Learn more about the island’s native flora at Yanoda, a rainforest park offering hiking trails to scenic lookouts and paths to picturesque waterfalls, as well as options to zip-line and abseil down a short rock face.
Betel Nut Heritage Park is a more family-friendly option for a day trip inland, showcasing the crafts and cultural heritage of Hainan island’s earliest inhabitants – who, incidentally, were not Han Chinese but ethnic minorities who migrated south some two millennia ago.
The two biggest groups still living in Sanya today are the Li and Miao, the former known for boat-shaped dwellings with thatched roofs and vivid woven textiles. The Miao are famous for their highly decorative silver jewellery and ornaments.
The reconstructed hillside villages and energetic live performances at the park, also known as Binglanggu, offer a glimpse into the rich heritage of the region’s first settlers.
To anyone who has cruised around Halong Bay, scuba-dived in Sipadan or surfed at Uluwatu, Sanya’s watersports will not compare positively, except perhaps in the variety of activities offered within walking distance.
Each destination has a similar menu of activities, including snorkelling, scuba-diving, jet skis, parasailing, banana boat rides, speed- or jet boats and glass-bottom sightseeing boats. In reality, there is much fun to be had above water, but little to see below, so spend your money diving elsewhere in Asia.
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For families or mixed groups, Boundary Island has the greatest range of offerings, with a sealife show and primitive aquarium set-up, plus glass-bottom submarines for those less mobile in addition to the standard roster of activities. As one of the first water sports destinations in Sanya, some of the facilities are dated but this does not detract from a fun day out.
A much newer operation, West Island, is recommended for its superior equipment and facilities. Because West Island is new, queues are short even during the winter months.
Avoid Wuzhizhou Island unless you like waiting more than an hour to parasail for less than five minutes.
Other heavily marketed places to skip in Sanya include the statue of Guanyin at Nanshan, unveiled in 2005 and very popular with Chinese Buddhists and tour groups; pay a visit to the Tian Tan Buddha when you’re back in Hong Kong instead.
Save on entrance fees to Tianya Haijiao as well; the “edge of the world” and alleged most southerly point in China is marked only by a few rocks on a beach.
Getting there: fly direct between Hong Kong and Sanya with Cathay Dragon and Hong Kong Airlines, from about HK$1,500 (US$190) return.