1:15pm. Check into the Raffles hotel at Clearwater Bay.
1:47pm. Go to the beach. The South China Sea laps sleepily at my feet. A couple of bathers float in the shallows. The sun is high, the breeze is gentle, there’s nothing between me and Borneo but several thousand kilometres of sparkling sea. It’s blissful, timeless. I could stay here forever.
1:59pm. I’m bored.
2:06pm. That’s enough of the beach.
They say children have a short attention span. That can’t be right. As a kid I could play on a beach all day. Even as a young man I was happy to lie for hours on a sun lounger. Now I need to be out doing stuff.
The travel industry realised there’s money to be made out of fidgety people like me. That’s why they talk about the rise of ‘active + experiential’ holidays as opposed to what they call ‘fly + flop’.
There is big money in experiential. If you’re a Hollywood mogul or London hedge fund tsar there’s no status in beach holidays. You can only hold your head up when you return to the office if you’ve spent your vacation wrestling big fish, abseiling into volcanoes or discovering lost cities in the Amazon.
My sights were set a bit lower: but I still needed to do stuff. Could Hainan provide?
It’s an interesting question. Hainan has built its tourist economy on the three Fs – flying, flopping and families – and the three Rs – rest, relaxation and resorts. How could it cater for a single RNFP (restless non-family person) desperate to flee this lovely compound and explore?
First, they sent me to surf school.
We drove to Riyue Bay, also known as Sun and Moon Bay. Here was the surf club: concrete floor, exposed brick walls, beer bottles, old car seats, old wetsuits steaming in the sun and a resident population of tanned, bleached-hair, sunburnt, hardcore surfies. This was Hainan; and this was highly hipster. These are not words you see in the same sentence very often.
China has no surfing culture to speak of. What there is you’ll find on this beach. It has already hosted international competitions. The guys who run this place, evangelical about their sport, have been offering free lessons to the village kids. I’m a hopeless surfer, but just watching (and ducking) as pre-teens whizzed among the breakers like supercharged seals was energising enough. I met Ivy, a 25-year-old from Hunan with a marketing degree who fetched up here a year ago and is now one of the instructors. Before she arrived here she’d hardly been to a beach, let alone picked up a surfboard. Give surfing time.
The next day I was out on the water in a rather different style. Instead of the gritty, sandy floor of the surf club I found myself sliding on the polished marble floors of the Clearwater Bay marina. Pretty much everything here is marble apart from some directional mosaics and important art works.
But the mission of Alan Chan, the Singaporean founder of the marina, is not very different from the surfing guys’: get the (predominantly Chinese) visitors to Hainan off the beaches and into/onto the water.
Chan took us out on his luxury yacht. We pointed the prow towards Wuzhizhou Island with the Raffles beach on starboard and on the portside, nothing much. Chan let me take the wheel, and a slightly unnerving experience that was, as a million dollars worth of boat quivered underneath me.
Chan thinks yachting, the idea of being on the water for pleasure not because you’re a fisherman, just hasn’t taken root in Asia yet. And as we coasted back to harbour past the empty moorings and silent, immaculate apartment blocks I could see what he meant: in Auckland, the Riviera, Florida, even Hong Kong, this water would be thick with white hulls and tanned pleasure-seekers.
Give yachting time.
Golf in China has had time; and lately times have been harder. The initial explosion of enthusiasm and the too-hasty building of new courses were followed by an outbreak of official disapproval for this most capitalist of games. But golf is core to the tourism industry offering in Hainan. The courses are quieter than they should be – or deserve to be, in the case of the Clearwater Bay golf club, a magnificent, long, immaculately kept course of epic bunkers and picturesque, if tricky, greens. I wasn’t complaining. My caddy, Yang Caiyi, and I had the place to ourselves.
Yang, a diminutive 21-year-old from a nearby town, wore a kind of crash helmet visor. Like Ivy, she’s a quick learner. It’s taken her a year to pick up the game. Now she is telling pig-headed middle-aged golfers like me to take a three wood as I went searching for a five iron. (She was right.)
Next, we wanted to get some idea of the culture and landscape of the island. So we headed north of Sanya into the mountains.
I went on a rainforest walk followed by a visit to the villages of the indigenous Li people. When I say that, you may have images of an intrepid trek ending at some clearing in the jungle where I encountered a way of life unchanged in centuries.
It wasn’t really like that.
You enter Yanoda national park past a line of welcoming young people waving flags. For the first part of the journey the only green you see are the painted branches and plastic leaves of the cavernous entrance hall. Even when you go through the turnstile, get into the coach and go up the mountain, you can forget any thoughts of being alone with the majesty of the forest. You are never more than a short walk away from a brightly painted stall selling fans, hats and selfie sticks. There are large plastic cartoon characters, a zip line and a theme park atmosphere, which are a bit surprising when you’ve come to look at trees.
Keen to see what a real modern day Li village looks like, the next day we did so as we drove carefully through the paddy fields and rutted tracks of the highlands off the main highway two hours’ north of Yanoda.
This is Five Finger Mountain, just outside the town of Wuzhishan, where we met Frank Yi. Yi runs Velo China, a mountain biking company.
As the tarmac disappeared we found ourselves in proper sludgy, rocky, off-track territory. I’ve got the leeches to prove it.
For now, Yi caters for stressed executives who want to bomb around these high roads and dirt tracks working off their frustrations on the landscape. Frank wants his countrymen to discover the joys of two-wheeled, self-propelled adventure. Give mountain biking time.
And here were the real Li villages, looking a lot less spick and span than those in the cultural heritage park. Here were old ladies with plastic buckets, concrete walls, corrugated iron roofs, boys sitting on old pool tables and lots of chickens.
We drove back via Sanya, climbed up to Deer Turning Head Park and surveyed the light show on the futuristic buildings that line the harbour. Then there was some necessary swigging of Australian beer in a Dadong Hai music bar and even more necessary sleep. I’d asked for active and I’d got it.