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Outside In

Riding (Tiny) Giants

Houhai, on Hainan island’s south coast is a tiny resort with a golden beach where everyone is coconutty for surfing, just on the cusp of being the next big thing

By Kathleen Naday Updated Dec.1

The beautiful seashore of Houhai, Sanya, Hainan Province, December 2, 2017

People enjoy surfing in Houhai, Sanya, Hainan Province, December 8, 2016

After the BBC did a video report about the new popularity of surfing in China, driven by the surge in domestic tourism due to the pandemic, I had a sort of mild Twitter spat with the correspondent, who seemed to mistake my lighthearted remarks about the standard I’d seen while down there as a criticism of the report.  

I had to go to the tropical island of Hainan, dangling just below the Chinese mainland coast in the South China Sea, part of my quest to visit all the provinces and regions. I’m from a coastal town, and I do like the sea and the beach, but I’m not a beach holiday person, tiring very quickly of sunbathing. A friend, who is a sun worshipper, recommended the resort of Houhai, a surfing mecca she said, and very chilled out.  

This appealed to me, although I’m not a surfer, as I didn’t fancy the sort of built-up resort strip that I imagined the popular places in Hainan to be, like Sanya or Yalong Bay. My images of that came from evil prehistoric shark movie, The Meg, where I was disappointed the huge shark failed to snack on the hordes of swimmers bobbing around in rubber rings in the water like a floating Las Vegas buffet.  

I landed in Haikou, capital of the island, which I liked a lot, even though the heat in early June was such that I have never been so grateful to see that the overpasses had escalators. If Haikou ever gets cooler, I’d like to go back, especially as there are some exciting initiatives going on, like the just-opened Cloudscape Library along Haikou Bay, the first of 16 pavilions by prominent architects to regenerate the area.  

But a quick journey to the high-speed railway station, and a fast train will whisk you to the southern resorts in about 90 minutes. The high-speed rail line encircles the island, so if you want, you can circumnavigate the whole place.  

The hotel had arranged a pick-up at the station, so another 30 minutes and we arrived at Houhai, a small peninsula shaped like a dog bone, just a few 100 meters across at the narrowest point. I was warned it was largely pedestrianized, so an electric buggy with a driver, mouth stained red with betel juice, showed up to take me to the hotel, a relatively new place on the quieter side of the peninsula.  

First impressions were not promising. I’d arrived around dinner time, and the main street, lined with restaurants on both sides, was packed, a bit like the sea in The Meg. I’ve been hoodwinked, I thought. It was the opposite of chilled, more like a busy shopping street on a national holiday. However, the hotel, Santing Flowers, which had kindly given me a free upgrade to the top floor, was right on the beach. Not long after arriving was one of the best sunsets I’d seen for a long time, the sky crimson red and pink and behind, the lights of the tall hotels and attractions of Haitang Bay to the north.  

Surf’s Up? 
You can explore the resort in 10 or 15 minutes – it only takes five minutes from one side to the other. Parts of it seem very much like a work in progress, with hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and surf shops crunched up against each other. Many were in the process of being built or remodelled, even so, they were still accepting guests.  

The hotel I stayed in, Santing Flowers, was new with friendly staff and room prices were almost as much as a resort hotel in Yalong or Sanya. “Houhai,” I was told, “is really hot right now.”  

But I was glad I was on the side of the peninsula that was quiet at night. The beach was not suitable for swimming as there are fishing boats anchored, and it is obviously a working beach. A long concrete jetty juts out into the sea, and locals, mostly from the Li ethnic group, go there to party at night with DIY seafood grills and beer. During the day, along the small street out of the hotel, women crouched outside homes and shops, wrapping small betel cigarettes to sell. The atmosphere on this side was indeed quite chilled.  

The beach on the opposite side is where the main action is. A strip of fairly low-rise hotels with beachside bars and cafes gives way directly onto a curve of soft golden sand, built up on one-third, but lined with palms on the rest. The water was balmy, with waves barely more than a ripple. A stiffly worded sign warned of strong waves and currents, and said that swimming, surfing and all kinds of water activities are strictly forbidden.  

Undeterred by a sign, eager newbie surfers lined up to be taught by very buff instructors, their every move capture by equally buff videographers. They had all the gear – wetsuits and extreme sun block, although the warmth of the water did not warrant it. It looked somewhat like Keanu Reeves being taught in Point Break – first on the beach, and then, due to the lack of actual waves, being pushed by the ever-patient instructors toward the shore. Rounds of applause rang out when they stood up. It was less Point Break, more pointless break.  

A surfing poodle, obviously a veteran of the surf scene, was much more adept than most. Other beach activities included riding very annoying surf buggies up and down, and posing for photos on horses in the gentle surf, costumes provided. One man posed Putin-like – bare chested while his girlfriend had a flowing red dress. But the water was lovely, and I spent every evening just drifting in the water – better than a massage.  

Endless Summer 
At sunset, the real action started, with families coming to the beach to paddle and build sandcastles. Then as dusk fell, people set up blankets on the sand with lights and karaoke machines, renting out the patches and selling drinks and food. The beach bars turned from chilled smoothie-and-taco-selling spots to pulsating discos, the techno competing with the beach rockers. Several electric cars full of local security and police patrolled up and down. It was a cacophony. I was even more glad my hotel was on the other side.  

Speaking to a Brazilian man, down from Shanghai and about to open yet another coffee shop and naturally, a BBQ, I was told that the licensed bars could only play music till 11pm, which was strictly enforced. But unlicensed vendors on the sand could do what they wanted. And this time of year, the good surfers were all up the coast at Wanning following the waves, but they’d return in the winter, he said.  

Away from the beach, the nighttime atmosphere is lively but not overbearing. Fruit vendors sell delicious mangoes and other tropical fruits, you can buy anything made of coconut, and there is a wide variety of foods – from Hainan chicken rice to Japanese – popular with the surf dudes – Thai, even a  

grumpy looking Russian man selling sausages. Turns out, pre-Covid, tourists from Russia’s Fareast used to flock here, even the street signs are in Russian, Chinese and English.  

I later found out when my friend had visited, there were naval drills in the South China Sea. No one was allowed in the water – although people tried. That’s why it was so quiet. Still, I’m glad I stayed after the shock of the arrival. The people were nice, food was good, the water was great, and it was nice not to be in an enormous resort. I doubt it will stay this way for long.