BEFORE Arctic winds blow in from Siberia, tens of thousands of people in northeast China begin their annual migration to the south. Many go to Hainan Island, China’s only tropical province, where they own retirement condos and vacation houses and spend a few months basking in the sun, walking under palms or cycling in the countryside.
Hainan is a winter paradise for folks from Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces, both of which border Russia. Most of them are well-off retirees who helped drive the island’s real estate boom. Those who don’t have a house in Hainan either rent a condo or stay in a hotel. Guests in the Guantang Hot Spring Resort, where I stayed two weeks ago, were mostly from Heilongjiang — their accents a dead giveaway.
Guantang is a small town about an hour’s drive south from the provincial capital of Haikou. It is famous for its health boosting hot springs. A resort manager said winter is their high season when room rates more than double. Even part of the staff dormitory building is rented out. Dorm rooms cost 70 yuan (US$11.3) a day for long-stay guests attracted by the idea of soaking in mineral-rich waters.
The hot spring well in the resort has a daily outflow of 10,700 cubic meters of water at a scalding temperature of 80 to 90 degrees Celsius. The water goes to all the rooms and suits in the resort and is fed into two outdoor pools. The National Commission of Mineral Reserves permits the resort to sell geothermal water to other spa hotels in the town. Since it opened in 1994, the resort has hosted its share of dignitaries, including former state leaders Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Zhu Rongji. Their pictures are proudly shown in the lobby.
The palm-fringed pools vary in temperature. The main one, almost the size of a soccer field, has water at body temperature, comfortable for swimming even if it’s windy and chilly. A smaller one has cold water for kids to play in and the third one is steaming hot at 43 to 45 degrees and is great for loosening tense muscles. A large outdoor TV screen shows entertainment at night to people in the pool.
Thermal-spa bathing is the reason to come here, but there are other activities to make stays more enjoyable. Trails through lush tropical plants are ideal for walking and jogging. The resort is right by the serene Wanquan River that flows from Wuzhishan Mountain. Both names evoke images of an all-women detachment of the communist Red Army that fought a guerrilla war in Hainan in the 1930s. Their stories were made into a film and a ballet in the 1960s and a 22-episode TV series in 2006. I encountered an old couple from Heilongjiang who were fishing on the river bank.
If you like climbing, there is also Baishiling Mountain, which is 328 meters and about 4 kilometers away. This mountain looks a bit like Yellow Mountain in Anhui with craggy peaks veiled in thick mist. I went up the easy way by riding a cable car, which costs 35 yuan. There are also steps, but the steep climb is rather challenging.
After all this hiking, stop at the resort’s restaurant. It serves a great seafood hotpot, local dishes and other cuisines in a spacious roofed patio. You can also take a trip into town for a culinary adventure. I went a bit far to Tanmen, a fishing town about half an hour’s drive east, and had a hearty meal of crabs, shrimps, mussels and fish with friends under a big tree, overlooking a harbor filled with ships.
The townsfolk still recount with gusto the surprise visit made by President Xi Jinping in April 2013. Xi was attending the Bo’ao Forum for Asia in a beach resort nearby and took a break to see the life of local fishermen. He shook their hands, entered their boat cabins and told them to replace small boats with bigger ones so that they can go farther from shore. A year later, large modern fishing ships are seen in the harbor, built with financial aid from the local government.
As the venue for the Bo’ao Forum is quite close, we went to check out the place where government leaders, business executives and economists from Asia and other continents have met every April since 2001 to discuss issues of common concern. The palace-like main building is open to ordinary tourists who can dine there and stay in the guest rooms or suites that face the South China Sea.
Some arts and crafts stores in Tanmen sell ornaments carved out of giant seashells. In the workshop of one store, enormous chalk-white clam shells filled up the place. The shop owner said these shells were fetched from the floor of the South China Sea. Craftsmen carved them into images of cabbages, flowers, fish, dragons and horses. They cost anywhere from a few hundred yuan to more than 20,000 yuan.