Winter anywhere in China north of the Yangtze can be quite the experience. Here in Beijing, sometime around mid-December the lakes and rivers in the city freeze over as temperatures drop below freezing and stay that way for several months. On top of that, winter is windy, which can make 0 degrees feel like 20 below. Winter is especially hard on us parents – winter in Beijing, which usually means being cooped up indoors, without even the joy of snow that our neighbors further north in say, Harbin, get to enjoy, can bring out the worst cabin fever in even the most well behaved children. So is it any wonder that many Beijing families make like the birds and head south for the winter? Last winter we did too, and packed up our little family and headed to sunny Hainan, a perfect family destination to ride out the worst of the cold.
Escape the winter in Hainan
People often ask me which places in China are most feasible to travel to with a child, and my top answer has always been Sanya in Hainan (See also Escape the winter in Hainan). The beach is a no-brainer when it comes to kids, and Hainan was no exception. We went by train, which was probably not the smartest choice, but if you choose to go to Hainan during Spring Festival you should be prepared to pay premium prices for hotel and airfare. Being travelers with a budget, we decided to take the train, and our then one-year-old held up surprisingly well. When visiting Sanya you have to choose between three different beaches – Sanya Bay, Dadonghai and Yalong Bay. Each beach has its pros and cons. Sanya Bay is adjacent to the city of Sanya itself, which makes access to supermarkets, fast food like KFC and McDonalds, as well as a slew of affordable local eateries easier. Sanya is where the locals live and it is a fairly typical small Chinese town, albeit with a tropical location and abundance of hotels and tourist shops. Dadonghai and Yalong Bay are the beach resort areas of Sanya, Dadonghai being a favorite among Russian travelers who, like Northern Chinese, like to take their winters in Hainan. Dadonghai is more of a mid-range location than upscale Yalong bay, and is a good choice for families on a budget. Yalong Bay is the home of most of the posh all-inclusive Hainan resorts, and prices are stiff, although the beach is beautiful and there are fewer crowds than in Dadonghai and Sanya Bay. Yalong is good way away from the city and while it is easy enough to get around via local bus, the options for fun in Yalong off of the beach are somewhat limited.
Our family chose mid-range Dadonghai for our beach trip, and stayed in the extremely family friendly Sunny Sanya Inn. Sunny Sanya is one of the few hotels in the area which offers family rooms, a suite consisting of a master bedroom as well as an adjacent bedroom containing a set of bunk beds for kids. Rooms have bathrooms with 24 hour hot water, are clean and cozy, with a definite “beach house” feel. Beach bags and towels are provided, which guests can take to the beach with them, and some of the rooms have an ocean view. One of the nicest perks of Sunny Sanya, aside from the affordable price (we paid 290RMB a night for a family room during peak season), is the free breakfast included. Every morning all the guests would gather in the cafeteria to enjoy eggs made any way you wish (including omelets!), bacon, potatoes, fried noodles or fried rice, toast, and free fresh brewed coffee (no Nescafe!), tea, or juice. We would often meander downstairs for a late breakfast around 10am and not even bother with lunch. A similar Western breakfast at any local cafe in most Chinese cities would cost at least 20-50RMB a person, so this was a great perk of Sunny Sanya. Sunny Sanya also had free internet access in the lobby and a great box of sand and surf toys that your kids – little or big – could take down to the beach and play with for the day. The English speaking staff was helpful and would arrange local tours if so desired. We felt like Sunny Sanya was the perfect pick for a family on a budget looking for a cozy hotel with a home-like atmosphere.
While most Chinese travelers will join package tours and see all the sites, we didn’t find that there was much in Hainan that was worth seeing besides the beach! The one notable exception was Lu Hui Tou Park, surprising because it isn’t considered a must see by most accounts. However, families with kids will really get a kick out of the “sled ride” that takes you up and down the big hill to the Park at the top. The sled is powered entirely by gravity, with a park employee at the lead of what looks like a bunch of roller coasters controlling the speed by using the brakes. The way down can get a little bit fast, but it wasn’t too fast for our son, who quite enjoyed the ride. Also great for kids are the animals. There’s a pigeon feeding area and a small petting zoo where kids can buy leaves for 1RMB a bunch to feed to a bunch of tame deer who will eat the leaves right out of your hand. At the top of Lu Hui Tou Park you can get a bird’s eye view of the entire Sanya Island. Other “must see” attractions around Sanya mostly consisted of strangely shaped rocks and were rather dull and not at all worth the price of the tickets, especially when getting to said attractions involves lugging cranky children on a tour bus for a 45+ minute ride.
One highlight of our trip, however, was the boat ride we took out to Wuzhizhou Island, a coral reef Island with true turquoise waters and white sand coral beaches. While most people choose a day trip to Wuzhizhou Island for a price of about 100RMB a person, accommodations on the island are also available, although the price is steep. If we could afford to stay on Wuzhizhou we definitely would, because the beaches are superb. There is also a swimming pool open to the public for those squeamish about swimming in the ocean, Western and Chinese restaurants, jet-ski rentals, and diving. The only drawback to Wuzhizhou Island is that the boats heading in that direction are limited and during peak season you must wait in a very long line for your turn on a ferry out to the Island. Since the Island has only recently become a tourist attraction, I imagine the number of ferries will certainly increase.
For families looking for a beach getaway, Sanya has a bit of something for everyone. Snorkeling, even for kids, and glass bottomed boats for the lovers of sea-life among us, great swimming and nice weather (during the winter the temperature was steady around 28-30 degrees), good food (we did the obligatory seafood feast one night, even though our son wasn’t a huge fan. What did he like? Chao hefen, the local version of fried flat noodles), live music overlooking the beach, fireworks like sparklers and paper lanterns that the children delighted in sending out over the sea every night. While Hainan might not compare to Thailand or other world class beaches in sheer beauty or party atmosphere, the advantage of not having to leave China, the relatively cheap price, and the family friendly atmosphere more than made up for what Hainan may have lacked. For us, there was truly no better way to spend 10 days forgetting about the cold windy city that awaited our return than to bask in the sun and swim in the ocean of China’s tropical treasure, Sanya.
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