Looking from the taxi’s window as we drove along Xiamen’s Lujiang Avenue, I was dazzled by the palm-fringed coast and azure sky. Walking along a boardwalk to the ferry dock, I gulped fresh, salty sea air.
As I rode the ferry across Lujiang River, the picturesque and car-free Gulang Islet emerged from the morning mist.
Xiamen, formerly known as Amoy, is a major city on the Fujian Province coast of the Taiwan Strait and one of China’s seven special economic zones. In the past three decades, the economy has grown steadily and it is now a major logistics hub in southeastern China.
The city of around 3.6 million people is also one of China’s most desirable and leafy places to live, with a romantic ambience and laid-back holiday feel. The city consists of urban Xiamen Island, other islands and coastal areas.
In the first six months of this year, the city attracted 1.14 million visitors from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and foreign countries, according to the tourism bureau. That’s an increase of more than 6 percent over the same period in 2012. Around 70 percent of visitors stay overnight.
Mild subtropical magnet
With a pleasant subtropical climate and monsoon rains, the average temperature is 21 degrees Celsius, making it a favorite resort. On holidays enthusiastic visitors cram the maze of narrow lanes on Gulang Islet. To make better use of its travel resources and create a more comfortable tour environment, the city tourism bureau aims to boost potential scenic attractions to balance the visitor flow, said Su Weijun, the official in charge of resource planning with the tourism bureau.
Xiamen plans to expand cooperation with Taiwan to promote one-day tours to Jinmen Islet, which is 25 minutes from Xiamen by boat. Visitors should file tour applications at least 10 days in advance with travel agencies.
Spending a day out of town to visit the famous “tulou” (earth buildings) in neighboring Fujian cities is popular. Some hotels provide trips to those destinations in their suite packages, as does Le Meridien Xiamen. It is said there are around 3,000 tulou in China, most of them in mountainous areas in Yongding and Nanjing counties in Fujian. These are traditional communal dwellings of the Hakka people, with the majority built between the 14th and 20th centuries. Constructed in times when bandit gangs roamed the countryside, tulou offered their inhabitants protection, and the fact that they still exist is a testimony to their success.
Booming tourism has also pushed open Xiamen’s MICE market. In late July, the city bureau of commerce announced a modest recovery in its MICE market, with 94 exhibitions held in the first seven months of this year.
A complex of high-end hotels is in the works in Xiamen’s subcity of Tong’an, which has already attracted around 10 big brand names. A nearby “wonderland” park is another draw.
This week’s travel section helps visitors make the most of a 72-hour visit to Xiamen.
Day 1 Downtown
Cycle along Xiamen’s Island Ring Road. The major track of the annual International Marathon, the 4-kilometer road follows the island’s spectacular coastline, connecting some of its best palm-fringed beaches with smooth white sand.
Along the road visitors can appreciate Xiamen’s slow-paced life and enjoy a scenic cycling and walking trail with ocean views under azure skies.
Start from the Xiamen International Conference & Exhibition Center and ride all the way down to Baicheng Beach behind Xiamen University. Stop and visit Huli Mountain Ancient Fortress.
It contains the Krupp cannon, the biggest and oldest piece of coastal artillery from the 19th century. In 1937 it fired upon invading Japanese naval vessels.
Bike rental stalls are conveniently located along the road. Rental is usually 15 yuan (US$2.50) per hour, but rates are lower for longer rides.
Take your time strolling along Zhongshan Road, one of the essential walks for sightseeing and snacks. The pedestrian road is lined by “qilou,” traditional overhang buildings with arcades that evoke the city’s past. Visitors can see the earliest church for Chinese believers, the old building of the OCBC Bank, and the former site of Xiamen’s first hotel, the Tianxian Hotel, which is now a bank branch. An archway guards the stone steps leading to a tranquil trail and area where Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) politician and national hero Zheng Chenggong (1624-62) trained his armies. A 70-meter section of deserted city wall is hidden inside a lane near the city police bureau. Covered with ivy and lichen, it’s all that remains of the ancient city walls built in 1394 against Japanese pirates. Food stalls and street eateries snake up the narrow lanes around Zhongshan Road, serving a bewildering variety of specialties. These include fried oysters, milk tea, barbecued seafood, braised rice dumplings, satay noodles, ginger duck, peanut soup, mung bean pie and ciba, which is a sticky rice pastry with peanut and sesame powder.
Unwind with a leisurely stroll along the beach washed by lazy waves in a cool summer breeze. Inhale the clean sea air. The beaches of Baicheng, Pearl Harbor and Zengcuo village are among the popular evening haunts. Amusement programs and barbecue stalls that open late at night attract visitors to the beach of Yefeng Village.
Day 2 Gulang Islet
Head up to Lujiang Avenue for a spectacular view of the city’s skyline, along with an al fresco breakfast in the harbor-view restaurant on the 7th floor of Lujiang Harborview Hotel (www.lujiang-hotel.com). Enjoy the amazing vista of red-roofed buildings nestled in the lush greenery on Gulang Islet opposite. Savor tidbits of Cantonese dim sum and local snacks, such as seaweed and shrimp cake, taro pastry, sea worm jelly and chicken’s feet.
Catch a ferry from the pier on Lujiang Avenue to the historic gem of Gulang Islet, a must-visit destination for a trip to Xiamen. It is the nearest place on the Chinese mainland to Taiwan’s Jinmen Islet. The best way to enjoy the island is to get lost in the labyrinth of churches, mosques and buildings of varied European architectural styles. After the First Opium War in 1842, more than a dozen European countries, along with Japan and the United States, set up consulates on the island.
Adventurers, traders, missionaries and overseas Chinese merchants all left a strong stamp on the history and culture of this nearly 2-square-mile islet commonly called an architecture museum. Around 70 percent of the buildings were constructed between 1900 and the 1930s. Except for historic landmarks, most buildings have been turned into boutique hotels and upmarket restaurants, bars and cafes where visitors can imagine the grandeur of the past. Since there’s no public transport and no taxis on the island, excursions must be on foot, which is relaxing and leisurely.
It can easily take several hours to explore and many visitors choose to stay overnight to appreciate the laid-back local life.
Mark target spots on your map before you set out so you don’t miss them amid all the delightful sights. The Piano Museum is highly recommended for its astonishing collection of more than 700 pianos. The islet has incubated a star-studded list of Chinese pianists and musicians, leaving the “Piano Island” an impressive musical legacy. It is said that every two to three families on the islet own a piano. Other spots worth a visit include Chiang Kai-shek’s villas and the former residences of writer Lin Yutang (“My Country and My People,” “The Importance of Living”), famous obstetrician and gynecologist Lin Qiaozhi, and poet Shu Ting (“To the Oak”).
Experience the island’s hustle and bustle on its business center, Longtou Road, which lined with numerous food stalls, chic restaurants and diners that serve local delicacies. Grab a skewer or two of barbecued fish balls, take a bite of the highly praised dried pork slices, and wash them down with a cup of refreshing mesona (a kind of mint) jelly with milk tea or creamy peanut soup. Remember to save room for fried oyster and seafood thread noodles. Food aficionados can bargain with street vendors for fresh seafood and veggies carried by handcart from the port every day.
Enjoy the cool while walking through the two tunnels on the islet — Bishan and Longshan Tunnel, and head down to the Sunlight Rock for the glorious sunset and a great bird’s-eye view of the whole islet, signature red roofs dotted in sinuous asymmetry against the terrain. The admission to the rock is 30 yuan after 6pm, half the price before sunset, which is 60 yuan.
Hop onto the ferry back to Xiamen and head to the laid-back “coffee street” on the southern bank of Yundang Lake, about 10 minutes by cab from the ferry pier. Lined with refined European-style restaurants, cafes and bars, it’s a favorite with local young people and expats looking for good coffee, steaks, spaghetti, and freshly brewed ales and dark beer. Pick a spot on the balcony overlooking the lake, and when night falls, enjoy a parade of cars pulling in for dinner, which include Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes.
Stroll along the lake and head west to the seafront bars and clubs in Harbor Park. Try Me & You 2 for its Belgian-brewed Stella Artois and thin-crust pizza in more than 100 flavors, or Havana Beach for its rich cocktail list, the vibrantly-colored decor and the exotic music. The rodeo bull machine at JJ Bar & Grill attracts flocks of bull riders to prove themselves after a drink or two.
For hardcore movers and shakers, walk along Hubin Road S. to the east of Yundang Lake to check out the city’s hottest nightclubs, with pulsing beats, cool dance floors and unleashed souls. Nearby Mingfa Plaza offers performers well known to party animals, such as Muse and Hong Kong’s signature Lan Kwai Fong.
Day 3 Downtown
Start another day of adventure in Xiamen with a bowl of hot, tasty satay noodles at Wutang Satay Noodle. One of the city’s renowned diners, the shop only opens in the morning and closes around 1pm every day.
The 70-square-meter shop is easy to spot on Minzu Road because of its long queue and many cars scattered around the No Parking signs. Wutang uses a secret recipe for its rich, flavorful and aromatic soup. There are 20 kinds of toppings to choose from, including squid, shrimp, fish balls, dried tofu and pork liver. The homemade satay sauce makes a nice gift.
Spend an hour or two strolling inside the South Putuo Temple. First built in the late Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it was destroyed many times during conflicts, and rebuilt. South to sacred Putuo Mountain in Zhejiang Province, it was renamed Putuo in 1684 by General Shi Lang who retrieved Taiwan for the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government. Admission is free and it’s popular for Buddhists and tourists, but the architecture is impressive. The sprawling temple complex contains three palaces and a number of halls and pavilions, all ornately decorated with stone and wood carvings. Pillars, beams and ceilings are decorated. And the upturned “flying” eaves are decorated with glazed tiles and mythical creatures.
Head up to the Xiamen’s commanding height, Wulao Peak, at the rear of the temple for a bird’s-eye view of the city. The wooded route isn’t crowded with tourists. It’s a hike, but there are viewing platforms halfway; it’s worth the trek to the summit for the view.
The temple offers award-winning vegetarian set meals for lunch. You can grab vegetarian pastries for a snack and then have a proper meal at Xiamen University. Lunch at the student canteen next to Furong (Hibiscus) Lake brings back memories of college. Visitors are only allowed onto the third-floor canteen, which offers a variety of snacks and popular Fujian and Sichuan province dishes. Prices are much cheaper than outside. Expect big crowds and long lines to get the food and pay the tab. Those looking for pleasant dining ambience can visit chic cafes and Japanese restaurants opposite the university’s west gate.
Explore one of the most enchanting university campuses in China, Xiamen University. Founded by Chinese Singaporean Tan Kah Kee, it is China’s first modern university funded by overseas Chinese. The majestic “playground” used to be grounds where General Zheng Chenggong drilled his troops, which went on to retake Taiwan. The viewing tower was burned down when Zheng was defeated by the Manchu troops and retreated to Taiwan in 1680. Tan is said to have built the school in this location in hopes of carrying forward the ancestral spirit and reviving the country.
Students unleash their creativity through graffiti in the school’s Furong Tunnel. The walls of the 1.01-kilometer tunnel are covered with scenes of young people confessing their love, friends at graduation, ambitious dreams, and prayers for victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
June is the best season to visit when clouds of phoenix flowers are in full bloom. The landscape and teaching buildings reflect an East-West style that incorporates large roofs with verandas typical of southern Fujian.
A trip to Xiamen wouldn’t be complete without dinner at a seafood street restaurant. Foodies flood to Xiao Yan Jing (Little Glasses) Street Restaurant on Hubin Road M. for its superb range of ultra-fresh seafood including squid, clams, razor shells, small abalone, crab, prawns and freshwater clams nicknamed sea watermelon seeds. Without much seasoning or spices, ingredients are simply scalded or fried with soy sauce. Another option are the seafood restaurants, street diners and barbecue stalls in the small fishing village of Zhengcuo’an. Some of them, such as Yajian Street Restaurant, are on a par with Xiao Yan Jing both in variety and flavor. Try fried seaweed dumpling and steamed animal-shaped buns filled with red bean, or cream custard and egg yolk. Day 4 Zengcuo’an
Spend some time wandering around Zengcuo’an fishing village, an up-and-coming tourism magnet, sometimes called the next Gulang Islet. Here Buddhists live with Taoists, Christians and Muslims, and the area is filled with temples and churches. There are old Western-style buildings as well as residences, temples and halls built by overseas Chinese from southern Fujian Province. They combine architecture from the region, including flying dragons and delicate ironwork from Luzon Island and ceramic tiles from Taiwan under Japanese rule.
Time for last-minute shopping in SM Lifestyle Center in the maze of shops selling high-street and luxury brands, handicrafts including lacquer sculpture and bead embroidery. Or go back to Zhongshan Road for dried seafood, pastries and dried pork slices.
How to get there:
China Eastern Airlines, Xiamen Airlines and Juneyao Airlines fly from Shanghai to Xiamen every day. The trip takes about an hour and a half. For a budget option, try the high-speed trains, which take about eight and a half hours.
Xiamen has a quite mature and efficient public transportation system, with buses providing easy access to major travel destinations. It’s more economical to jump on a bus (1 yuan/US$0.16) than to hail a cab during peak hours. Three lines of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) commute daily between the main island of Xiamen and its sub-cities of Jimei, Haicang and Tong’an.
Xiamen University is open to visitors every Monday to Friday from 12pm-2pm and after 5pm. It also is opens on weekends and national holidays, when there are no time limits.
Visitors are allowed in through the Danan Gate (near South Putuo Temple) and the Qunxian Gate (near Yanwu Road). IDs are required for scanning at the gates.
Ferries to Gulang Islet from Xiamen Island take 8 yuan for a round trip. Tickets of 100 yuan are available at the ferry dock for five major attractions on the islets, including Shuzhuang Garden (Piano Museum), Sunlight Rock and the Organ Museum. Where to stay:
Le Meridien Xiamen:
Le Meridien Xiamen Hotel is the only international hotel located on the mountain park of Xiamen — one of China’s cleanest and most beautiful seaport cities — on the southeastern coast of Fujian Province.
The hotel’s special “Weekend Getaway Package” lets clients sample the hotel’s and Xiamen’s delights at a fantastic price. For only 946 yuan per stay at a Deluxe Room (subject to 15 percent service charge), you can enjoy complimentary access to Le Meridien Unlock Art partners — Gulang Islet Piano Museum and Shuzhuang Garden on Gulang Islet. The package also includes free use of mountain bikes for one hour and other discounts for spa and dinner buffets.
If you want to travel off the beaten track and explore local culture and customs, a tour to UNESCO World Heritage site Hakka Tulou included in the package will definitely meet your expectations. These earthen round houses were built by the Hakka minority for defensive purposes between the 12th and 20th centuries, and have won worldwide acclaim.
Address: 7 Guanjun Rd, South Mountain Tel: 0592-7709-999
One of the landmark buildings on Lujiang Avenue facing Gulang Islet, the boutique hotel boasts a 20-minute drive to the airport, and the ferry dock to the islet is in walking distance. About half of its 120 nicely designed rooms and eight suites enjoy a great view of the Lujiang River and Gulang Islet. Its Quay restaurant on the fourth floor offers a creative menu combining local delicacies and international cuisine and a good view.
Enjoy a voguish hotel with idyllic location at the fringe of a park and Yundang Lake, yet walking minutes to the business district and popular Yundang Lake cafes, restaurants and bars. The 297 well-appointed rooms and suites have Wi-Fi. Extensive meeting facilities are complemented with trendy chill-out space, restaurants, bars and lounge, an 18-meter indoor pool, gym and spa.
Located in the heart of Xiamen’s financial and entertainment district, the Pan Pacific Xiamen hotel provides modern luxury. This charming hotel in Xiamen puts you 20 minutes away from the international airport and close to major attractions.
Hotel Nikko Xiamen is near Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center, and only 15 minutes’ drive to Xiamen International Airport and ferry. The Island Ring Road, Ruijing Shopping Mall and tourist attractions are near.