Aloha to the Asian tropics

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My husband and I were trying to enjoy the breezy, 75-degree evening with a walk along the beach, but fireworks kept tripping us up.

The first time we stopped was to watch the huge frenzy of color overhead. But the second time it was because we realized that if we weren't careful we would soon be treading on lighted packets of gunpowder. It was the last night of the New Year celebration in China's southernmost province of Hainan Island, and locals and tourists alike were serious about their pyrotechnics.

Children, parents, aunts and uncles swarmed the dusky beach, lighting hand-held sparklers or setting off Roman candles and the heavy-duty floral explosions that you'd need a license to light in most parts of the U.S. Fireworks seemed to be everywhere — in front of us, behind us, streaming out of posh hotel windows, glittering and popping before they dropped into the warm South China Sea.

This 13,600-square-mile chunk of Earth was once a destitute land, dubbed "the gate to hell" by a prime minister sent here in exile during the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907. But in recent decades, the island's mild winter climate, lush vegetation and colorful ethnic minorities have begun to lure tourists from mainland China and overseas. In the 1980s, the government designated the island a "special economic zone" and stimulated the economy with favorable regulations. Fancy hotels such as the Sheraton Sanya Resort in Yalong Bay, where the 2003 Miss World competition was held in the fall, and Sanya Shanhaitian Hotel in Dadonghai have opened.

Because it is at the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands, Hainan is called China's Hawaii. The comparison is exaggerated. Tropical island it may be, but even Sanya, Hainan's pricey and heavily touristed beach town, is still a part of a developing country, as the occasional crumbling sidewalk, uncovered manhole and overly assertive trinket hawker will attest. The island has a reputation as the "Wild West," where many of mainland China's strict policies are simply winked at. This is also where, in 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and its crew were held for 11 days after the plane's much-publicized collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

Despite the luxury hotels and resort feel, Hainan's unpolished nature makes the island interesting. Many of its cultural oddities haven't yet had the intriguing grit smoothed out.

Michael and I, who had arrived from colder Chinese climes, hoped that five days on Hainan would help banish the chill we'd been fighting all winter. When we reached Hainan, I peeled off my heavy coat.

Downtown Sanya is unexceptional and didn't look promising. But the five-minute taxi ride out to Dadonghai beach revealed a surprise: It was like an instant resort town had been dropped from outer space, complete with neon lights, mammoth hotels and beckoning surf.

The nearly 80-degree weather I awoke to the next morning tempted me into a bathing suit and sarong. So I took a walk to Dadonghai beach, risking a slight chill to bathe in the South China Sea.

Most of the sleepy community was just beginning to wake, and I had the fairly clean and warm, bath-like ocean nearly to myself. Bobbing alone in the water, I watched senior citizens doing tai chi and young people jogging barefoot along the sand. A group of local women, identifiable by their straw hats topped with bun-shaped knobs, washed baskets of huge shells in the ocean, preparing for a day of hawking the treasures to sunbathers.

After a late evening watching and lighting fireworks, Michael and I wanted to relax a little, so we resolved to check out popular Yalong Bay, a 4 1/2-mile stretch of beach 30 minutes away.

Yalong Bay sported a small boardwalk, where visitors hovered in clumps, buying snacks, playing games or renting small four-wheelers to buzz around a demarcated area. But for me, the attraction was walking along the long, lonely strip of powdery sand speckled with interesting shells and bordered by cactus-covered dunes and the green jungle of hills beyond.

We paused for a drink at a pile of giant coconuts beside some crude tables. We both got a coconut, at about 35 cents each. Two young women wielding axes whacked a hole in each fruit and handed them to us with brittle straws so we could extract the mildly astringent milk.

When our stomachs started rumbling with hunger, we headed up the dunes to a thatched hut, where we chose from tanks fresh crabs, clams and a mysterious fish in a pretty shell about the size of my fist. When cooked, the crab and clams were tasty — but I won't try the odd shellfish again, which was bitter and slimy.

Nanwan, the monkey islandWe planned to spend the next day at Nanwan, or Monkey Island, a nature reserve on a small bit of land off the coast of Hainan where more than 1,000 macaque monkeys live. A fitting way, I thought, to help usher in the Year of the Monkey.

For fun and to save money, we thought we'd forgo the prearranged tours that most tourists take to the park and give it a go on our own. The journey proved entertaining, and we discovered just how primitive transportation can be.

First, we fought through a crowded bus station to get tickets to Xincun, where we could catch a boat or cable car across the short stretch of water. Frequent stops to pick up villagers and allow herds of cows to cross the road lengthened the journey. To our surprise, after about an hour our bus driver paused in a small town, shouted back and forth with the driver of another bus, then shooed us off.

"Get on that vehicle," he instructed. "Only 1 yuan."

Bewildered, we stumbled onto the beat-up bus, also stuffed with villagers. The roof was too low for my 6-foot-4 husband to stand, and one of the locals kindly got up to offer his tiny seat. In a quarter of an hour, we were again ushered off the bus, this time onto the streets of Xincun, where we hopped into a motorbike's sidecar and bounced over the road to the harbor.

There we gave the expensive but attractive-looking cable car a pass, intrigued instead by a stooped woman who spat betel-nut juice as she beckoned to us in the slow, gritty island dialect. We followed her onto her flat metal craft, which she navigated past houseboats with laundry hanging out to dry and through a village of fishing shacks built on rafts to a Nanwan dock. We thought the journey was over, but upon disembarking, we were directed to yet another odd vehicle, a sort of covered wagon hitched to a motorcycle, which dropped us at the entrance to the park.

Nanwan, which opened only a few years ago, is a reserve, a wildlife research facility and a tourist attraction. The monkeys are largely allowed to run wild throughout the island's nearly 250 acres, its forested mountains and the grassy official tourist area below. There, many lolled around staring at us, seemingly as fascinated by us as we were by them. Unfortunately, a few were conscripted to perform for the public.

We skipped those shows and climbed dilapidated stone steps that led out of the park and into the mountains, hoping to encounter some of the tiny primates in a more natural environment. For perhaps 20 minutes we hiked in silence, listening for sounds of life in the trees.

Just as we passed some old pipes and construction materials, I heard a scurrying sound and turned around.

I stared at the monkey. It stared back at me. It looked like a challenge. As other monkeys swung up behind the first one, Michael called for me to back off.

I was enthralled with their quick gymnastics and puckered faces and wasn't about to run away. But unable to keep up the staring contest, I lowered my eyes. Mistake.

Thud. The little creature landed on my back, clung for a moment, then leaped across the trail to another tree.

"Hey!" I shouted, nervous but secretly delighted as I watched a large male amble down the stairs with the attitude of King Kong, though with less than 2 feet to his credit. Too macho for visitors, I guess, he ignored us.

Thud. The monkey hopscotched my back again, then hung from a tree nearly grinning at me. I lingered as long as I dared before finally heeding Michael's warnings.

Coffee in the land of tea I was eager to experience the Far East's take on the Western world's favorite caffeinated beverage at Xinglong, a couple of hours up the northeast coast, where coffee plantations have been established. So after spending the next day — a gorgeously warm one — swimming and lazing about on the beach, we were ready to head for Xinglong.

Xinglong also has a reputation for hot springs and a few other tourist attractions, but its Botanical Garden was our main objective.

"Chinese don't usually know what this is," said our young waiter at Xinglong's Botanical Garden, who called himself "Gun," gesturing to the sweet, black coffee as he poured it. "When we give it to them, they say, 'Is this some kind of sauce?' It is so dark and black, you know." Then he pulled up a chair, grabbed a cup for himself and joined us.

Gun's Chinese parents had lived in Vietnam before fleeing back to China in 1979 to escape the political unrest. Like many Han returning from overseas, they settled in Hainan, where the climate is similar to most Southeast Asian countries. Many returning expatriates congregated in Xinglong and now cultivate rain-forest products they learned to grow in their adopted countries.

The Botanical Garden, in particular, is known for its cacao beans — football-shaped pods that hang from trees like elongated warts. Besides cacao, for chocolate, its employees also grow coffee, pepper, vanilla, coconuts and medicinal herbs, which are converted into such products as coconut powder, tea and cocoa, and sold at the garden or shipped around the island.

For all its focus on produce, the place looked more like a garden than a farm, with winding paths and artfully placed ponds and streams. We followed a Chinese tour group around, gazing at the huge leaves, strange brightly colored flowers, coconuts sprouting shoots that were stacked like stones around the bases of trees and walkways. Even the production areas and "eco-living" quarters, where the staff resides, are tastefully tucked under leafy branches.

When our tour was finished, we retired to a tent for free tastings — sweet black coffee; strange, bitter medicinal teas; and rich hot chocolate made with coconut milk.

Now we knew what to order on the few meals we had left on the island: kafei nai, the local brew served in tall, narrow glasses, with the top three-quarters a strong black coffee, the bottom quarter a gooey, delicious wad of condensed cream.

By the time we left for home the next day, Hainan's nightly fireworks had, for the most part, subsided. The Year of the Monkey had arrived.


Bethany Beaupain teaches English in China.*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sun, sand, sleep

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Sanya is available on China Eastern, China Southern, Air China and Cathay Pacific. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $2,022.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 86 (country code for China), 899 (the area code in Sanya) or 898 (the area code in Xinglong and Haikou) and the local number.

GETTING AROUND:

Traveling around Hainan on your own is not easy or cheap. If you plan to see the island, join a tour group, which will shuttle you efficiently between sites.

WHERE TO STAY:

We stayed at a guesthouse that we can't recommend to Western travelers. Sanya and Dadonghai, five minutes outside Sanya, are packed with moderate to expensive hotels. If you visit during the summer, haggle because you may get great discounts, even at posh places.

Universal Resort, Yalong Bay National Resort District, Sanya; 8856-6666, http://www.asiatravel.com/china/sanya/universal/ . With African-Asian décor, this hotel sports a little more personality than many of China's tourist resorts. Set close to the gorgeous Yalong Bay beach, it's a great place for those who don't mind being a half-hour bus or taxi ride from town. Doubles in the summertime start at about $48 for a standard room plus breakfast for two. Ask for Mary, the front desk manager, who speaks English.

South China Hotel, Dadonghai, Sanya; 8821-9888. Doubles from $33. This place, right next to Dadonghai beach and five minutes from Sanya proper, is popular with both foreign and Chinese tourists.

Kangle Garden Resort, Xinglong, Wanning, Hainan, 6256-8888, http://www.sinohotel.com/ (click on Wanning, then Kangle Garden Resort). The front desk quoted a price of about $72 over the phone, but you may be able to get doubles as low as $34 online.

WHERE TO EAT:

Some of the most interesting eateries are makeshift seafood restaurants along Yalong Bay, where you can choose fresh catch out of tanks. Cost can vary, so be sure to have your dinner weighed and priced before you give the go-ahead to the cook.

Ke Ke Liang Leng Ba, on Jiefang Lu, Sanya, offers cheap, tasty, Western-style breakfasts. About 75 cents will get you two eggs and two pieces of toast with jam. A cup of fresh Xinglong coffee runs about 65 cents.

Small Wood House, on Dadonghai's central square. Has picnic tables and swinging chairs that afford a great beach view. It serves delicious wonton soup for little more than a dollar, as well as coffee, alcoholic beverages and assorted barbecue items.

TO LEARN MORE:

China National Tourist Office, (818) 545-7507, http://www.cnto.org .

— Bethany Beaupain

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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