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.