Rising out of the South China Sea between Guangdong and Vietnam, Hainan Island marks the southernmost undisputed limit of Chinese authority, a 300-kilometre-broad spread of beaches, mountain scenery, history, myth and – most of all – the effects of exploitation. Today a province in its own right, Hainan was historically the "Tail of the Dragon", an enigmatic full stop to the Han empire and – in the Han Chinese mind – an area inhabited by unspeakably backward races, only surfacing into popular consciousness when it could be of use. Han settlements were established around the coast in 200 AD, but for millennia the island was only seen 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 more than two thousand years ago, still lived a hunter-gatherer existence in the interior highlands.

For foreign and domestic tourists alike, the most obvious reason to come to Hainan is to flop down on the warm, sandy beaches near the southern city of Sanya – as a rest cure after months on the mainland, it's a very good one. Initially, there doesn't seem much more to get excited about. Haikou, Hainan's capital, bears evidence of brief colonial occupation, but its primary importance is as a transit point, while Han towns along the east coast have only slightly more character and scenic appeal. Spend a little time and effort elsewhere, however, and things start to get more interesting: the highlands around the town of Tongshi are the place to start looking for Li culture, and the mountainous southwest hides some forgotten nature reserves, where what's left of Hainan's indigenous flora and fauna hangs by a thread. There are even a handful of underwater sites off the southern coast, the only place in provincial China where those with the necessary qualifications can go scuba diving.

When to go

Hainan's extremely hot and humid wet season lasts from June to October. It's better to visit between December and April, when the climate is generally dry and tropically moderate, sunny days peaking around 25°C on the southern coast.

Transport

Getting to Hainan is straightforward, with flights from all over the country to Haikou and Sanya, and regular ferries from Guangzhou and Hai'an in Guangdong province, and Beihai in Guangxi.Once there, getting around is easy: Hainan's highways and roads are covered by a prolific quantity of local transport; high-speed buses link Haikou and Sanya in just three hours, while you can easily hop around the rest of the island by bus and minibus. As you move around you'll find that many of Hainan's towns have different local and Mandarin names; as the latter occur more frequently on maps and bus timetables, Chinese names are used below in the main text and character boxes, with local names indicated in brackets. Also note that, as a recognized tourist destination, Hainan is more expensive than the adjacent mainland – even Chinese tourists grumble about being constantly overcharged.

Places of interest

Haikou

The City

The old quarter, boxed in by Bo'ai Bei Lu, Datong Lu and pedestrianized Deshengsha Lu, is the best area to stroll through, with its grid of restored colonial architecture housing stores and businesses. Jiefang Lu and Xinhua Lu are the main streets here, especially lively in the evening when they're brightly lit and bursting with people out shopping, eating and socializing; there's also a busy market west off Xinhua. Otherwise, Haikou Park and the adjacent lake are small but quite pleasant, the former a venue for extensive early-morning martial-art sessions, and with shrubberies concealing cracked stone statues, reputedly from a vanished Ming-dynasty temple.

Haikou has just three formal sights, any of which will fill you in on Hainan's position in Han Chinese history. Southeast of the centre along Haifu Lu, Wugong Ci (Five Officials' Memorial Temple; daily 8am–6pm; ¥20; bus #1 or minibus #217 down Haifu Lu) is a brightly decorated complex built in 1889 to honour Li Deyu, Li Gang, Li Guang, Hu Chuan and Zhao Ding, Tang men of letters who were banished here after criticizing their government. Another hall in the grounds commemorates Hainan's most famous exile, the poet Su Dongpo, who lived in the island's northwest between 1097 and 1100 and died on his way back to the imperial court the following year. A museum in a new building opposite has photos and Chinese-only captions of historical sites around the island, though a group of weathered Song-style stone statues of horses and scholars, almost lost in vegetation outside, is more interesting.

About 5km west of the centre, Xiuying Battery (daily 8am–7pm; ¥10) offers a different take on the island – to get there, catch minibus #32 from the south gate of Haikou Park. Built after the Chinese had apparently beaten off an attempted invasion by the French in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Xiuying was part of a string of coastal defences designed to deter foreign incursions along south China's coastline. A huge fortification, now maintained as a park, it's surrounded by basalt block walls concealing six twenty-centimetre naval cannons set in concrete bunkers, all connected by subterranean passageways. The bunkers are now camouflaged by fig trees and lit by bare bulbs, with the squat-barrelled, bezel-mounted guns pointing at high-rises to the north. It must be said that Xiuying's design and weaponry look suspiciously European – perhaps they were modernized in 1937 when the fort was dusted off to resist the Japanese.

A kilometre or so southwest of Xiuying on Qiuhai Avenue, a park and stone sculptures of lions surround Hai Rui Mu, tomb of the virtuous Ming-dynasty official Hai Rui (daily 8am–6pm; ¥10) – buses #28 and #40 from Haixiu Dong Lu stop near the junction of West Haixiu Lu and Qiuhai Avenue. Hai Rui's honesty, which earned him exile during his lifetime, caused a furore in the 1960s when historian Wu Han wrote a play called The Dismissal of Hai Rui, a parody of events surrounding the treatment of Marshal Peng Dehui, who had criticized Mao's Great Leap Forward. The play's suppression and the subsequent arrest of Wu Han, who happened to be a friend of Deng Xiaoping, are generally considered to be the opening events of the Cultural Revolution.

Sanya and the southern coast

Across the island from Haikou on Hainan's central southern coast (320km direct down the expressway), SANYA is, sooner or later, the destination of every visitor to the island. Though relics at the westerly town of Yazhou prove that the area has been settled for close on a thousand years, Sanya City itself is entirely modern, a scruffy fishing port and naval base maintained for monitoring events (and staking China's claims) in the South China Sea. These unexpectedly came to international attention in 2001, when a US spyplane made a forced landing here after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. Sanya has also hosted two Miss World contests, which put the city in a different international spotlight and has certainly promoted outside investment. Generally, though, what pulls in the crowds – an increasing number of whom are Russian and Korean – are Sanya's surrounding sights, especially Dadonghaibeach, one of the few places in China where you can unwind in public. The Chinese also flock to legendary landmarks atop the Luhuitou Peninsula, a huge granite headland rising immediately south of the city, and west at the scenic spot of Tianya Haijiao, while foreigners generally find beach life suffices.

Eating

Perhaps because Haikou is essentially a mainland Chinese colony, food here is not as exotic as you'd hope. The ingredients on display at market stalls are promising: green, unhusked coconuts (sold as a drink, but seldom used in cooking); thick fish steaks, mussels, eels, crab and prawns; exotic fruits; and, everywhere, piles of seasonal green vegetables. But Hainan's most famous dishes – Wenchang "white-cut" chicken, steamed duck and glutinous rice, and Dongshan mutton – are nothing extraordinary, though tasty. Compounding this is a current craze for Cantonese and Western-style food, with hotel restaurants trying to out-compete each other in these lines.

  • Haikou Binguan Daying Houlu. With both Western and Chinese restaurants, this hotel is a good bet for local favourites, including steamed chicken in coconut milk and seafood rolls in coconut sauce. Not too expensive either – a whole chicken or duck costs around ¥60, with other dishes starting at ¥20.
  • Hunan Ren Nanbao Lu. Smart, ethnic-looking place serving up traditional Hunan dishes at reasonable prices. One of the better options in the town centre.
  • Tong Shan Tang Vegetarian 33 Haidian Sandong Lu. Near the junction with Haihong Lu, this Buddhist gem has fake-meat versions of almost any Chinese dish you care to think of, and can even rustle up a "hamburger" if asked. A little hard to find, but worth the effort.