Rising out of the South China Sea between Guangdong and Vietnam, Hainan Island (海南岛, hăinán dăo) marks the southernmost undisputed limit of Chinese authority, a 300km-broad spread of beaches, mountain scenery and the effects of exploitation. Haikou, Hainan’s capital, is of importance only as a transit point; the most obvious reason to visit the island is to flop down on the warm, sandy beaches near the southern city of Sanya – and, as a rest cure after months on the mainland, it’s a very good one. To be honest, there’s not a whole lot more to the place, though anyone hooked on marine adventure sports can explore, surprisingly perhaps, Hainan’s emerging scuba diving and surfing potential.
Today a province in its own right, Hainan was historically the “Tail of the Dragon”, an enigmatic full stop to the Han empire. Chinese settlements were established around the coast in 200 AD, but for millennia the island was seen as being inhabited by unspeakably backward races, only fit to be a place of exile. So complete was Hainan’s isolation that, as recently as the 1930s, ethnic Li, who first settled here over two thousand years ago, still lived a hunter-gatherer existence in the interior highlands.
Modern Hainan is no primitive paradise, however. The Japanese occupied the island in 1939, and by the end of the war had executed a full third of Hainan’s male population in retaliation for raids on their forces by Chinese guerrillas. Ecological decline began in the 1950s during the Great Leap Forward, and escalated through the 1960s with the clearing of Hainan’s forests to plant cash crops. Tourism seems to be the sole reliable source of income these days, with the island promoted as China’s tropical holiday destination.
Hainan’s extremely hot and humid wet season lasts from June to October. It’s better to visit between February and April, when the climate is generally dry and tropically moderate, and prices reduce considerably.