For centuries, Hainan has been a magnet for political exiles. Today, the island is drawing exiles of another kind: refugees from the pollution and urban hustle found on the mainland.
The red-tinged, shoulder-deep water I was soaking in carried the faint aroma of wine. The hot spring next to me was lemon-scented; I’d also passed a spring of citronella and another of coconut milk, steaming sweet and opaque. I seemed to be at the hot springs equivalent of the Willy Wonka factory: a flavour for every preference.
Or more aptly, for every ailment. Each of the steaming tubs at the Sanya Pearl River Nantian Hotspring came with a sign, carefully describing – in Mandarin, Russian and English – how it was supposed to cure you. The wine tub, I read, had “positive effects on nerve transmission”, boosted metabolism and softened skin with its amino acids, protein and vitamins. Why not, I thought. By this point in my trip to the South China Sea island of Hainan, I was used to experiencing a volcanic landscape so lush – and seemingly good for my health – that I could suspend disbelief. And not just in the idea that wine would boost my metabolism, but also, perhaps, in the idea of water turning into wine. (This fantasy was shattered, of course, when a worker told me that she poured five bottles of red wine into the tub each day).
For centuries, Hainan has been a magnet for exiles. As the southernmost point of China, the island proved a particularly expedient place to send those who had irritated the emperor, its isolation ensuring that political ripples back to the mainland would be few. In the 1920s and 1930s, the island became a haven for Communists fleeing the crackdown in Shanghai. Today, though, that same remoteness has drawn exiles of another kind: refugees from the pollution and urban hustle found on the mainland.
The beach at the Ritz-Carlton, Sanya. (Amanda Ruggeri)
Many of the 25 million tourists who visit Hainan each year come for the health benefits, abandoning the snows of northern China and Russia for the year-round warmth of Hainan’s tropics. Others come for the clean air. The woman bathing in the wine spring next to me said she was from a cold and polluted town in the north of China. This was her second visit to Hainan. She wanted to buy an apartment here.
In a country where air pollution in 69 of its cities was above the national standard in 2013, according to data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, talking about the ease (or difficulty) of breathing is as quotidian as, in other nations, chatting about the weather. Here in Hainan, though, the conversation was always the same: how healthy and clean the air is. (The same data showed that even in the heart of Haikou – Hainan’s largest city, with 2 million people – there were 25.6 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter, called PM2.5, annually, cleaner than the national standard (although not than Los Angeles or Chicago).
The Five Officials Memorial Temple in Haikou, Hainan’s largest city. (Amanda Ruggeri)
It helps that 61.5% of the island is covered in China’s best-preserved tropical rainforest, and that gas, electric and solar all are used as power sources for the 32,900sqkm island. Still, industry is growing – it was the leading contributor to Hainan’s economy in 2012 at 50% of the GDP – and several coal-powered plants have been built. The construction of one sparked protests that turned violent in 2012, which could be taken either as a dim sign for the future of Hainan’s air, or, more optimistically, proof of how seriously Hainan’s residents take environmental threats.
Tian Chi's extraordinarily still surface creates a perfect reflection of the sky – as well as the rainforest-covered mountains – above. (Amanda Ruggeri)
In a stroke of Sod’s law (only before a big trip will you get sick!), I arrived in Hainan with sniffles and a sore throat. My packed itinerary for the island meant I’d have little time to sleep. But it also meant testing almost all of Hainan’s health benefits. Like the hot springs: more than 34 different hot spring sites range across the volcanic isle, their water fortified with natural minerals like calcium, zinc, and magnesium. And the oxygen-exuding forests. And the food: fresh fish, of course, but also home-grown produce, with tropical fruits including pineapple and papaya, lychee and coconut, carambola and mangosteen.
And, in a more recent twist, the resorts. Luxury hoteliers have been quick to seize on Hainan’s growing reputation for holistic health. At the Banyan Tree hotel in Sanya, the beachside city where many of Hainan’s hotels are clustered, guests can devote whole days to improving their health. Each of the 49 villas come with a private swimming pool and Jacuzzi; the resort offers yoga classes, tandem bicycle hires and poolside shoulder-rubs; and at the hotel spa, I learned from experience, therapists serve up some of the world’s most mind-meltingly relaxing massages.
Each of the 49 villas at Sanya's Banyan Tree hotel come with a private swimming pool. (Amanda Ruggeri)
By the time I left Hainan, I should have been suffering from jet lag and exhaustion, not to mention the flu I’d feared I was coming down with when I’d left New York. I’d hiked a mountain; I’d woken chipper at dawn. And my sniffles had disappeared.
One of Hainan’s most famous residents, Su Shi, was exiled there in the 11th Century, living on the island for three years. And yet his banishment was not so bad. “He said even if he died here, he wouldn’t be disappointed, because the scenery is so beautiful,” my guide Jacky said.
By the end of my stay in Hainan, I thought I understood. And I bet that Su Shi felt pretty healthy there, too.