Family Travel: Sanya, China

By 2018-12-20 23:26:08

The Pumarejo family experience a unique, tropical adventure.

One of our more memorable family vacations while in China was to Sanya, believe it or not. Close by, family-friendly, and considered the Hawaii of China by some (and the Florida of China by others), this tropical destination is a good choice for families wishing to get away from the big city and have a bit of an adventure close to home.

Non-stop flights run regularly from Shanghai to Sanya Phoenix International Airport throughout the year. And with less than four hours spent in the air, even the smallest of children can manage the trip. The biggest draw is the year-round temperate climate (25°C average), which translates to warm ocean breezes and crystalline water. Of course, some months are better than others, but when our family visited, we were pleasantly surprised by how much of the beach we had to ourselves each day, and how few tourists we even encountered.

Before making the reservations, I scoured resorts that had something on offer for everyone. We traveled with another family visiting from Europe, and they had never been to China, much less a tropical location in Asia. We were ten people total: four adults and six children ranging in age from 7 to 15 years.

The Sanya Marriott Yalong Bay Resort & Spa is located on the 7km crescent of beach in Yalong Bay. The rainforest and mountains behind the resort create a dramatic backdrop to enjoy the tropical gardens, which span 10 hectares and look out onto the blue waters of the bay. 

Nestled between the Ritz and the Sheraton, the resort’s 450m direct access white sand beach was a big draw. Water and beach sports included jet skis, sailing, kayaking, diving instruction, volleyball and Segways. An ocean view room for two parents and two kids is approximately ¥1,200 (depending on the season) with breakfast included. This resort also has a Kid’s Club, offering activities for kids and parents, and even has its own kid’s pool.

While we decided to visit at undoubtedly one of the hottest times of the year – early July – it was probably in our favor. The temperature went up to a balmy 32°C, with plenty of sunshine. Because of this, during the afternoons we were often the only people on the beach, so we had no trouble finding lounge chairs nor did we experience any waits for the various water and seaside activities.

One day the boys wanted to zoom up and down the beach on Segways - after a few quick instructions and fastening of their helmets, they were off. Our youngest was given one with a speed block so he couldn’t go too fast, much to his chagrin. The ocean itself was not at all choppy, and the currents were mild. If the kids got tired of the salt water and sand, there were numerous pools on the resort grounds to occupy them. Our friends’ younger sons enjoyed the large grass area, perfect for impromptu football games, and we all enjoyed a spirited game of volleyball on more than one occasion.

It was easy and convenient to order food and drinks at the hotel cafe and seaside bar, but for each of our families of five, the expense was a consideration. We chose a package with a full buffet breakfast included and that was a wonderful way to start the day. Generally we tried to eat a light lunch at one of the onsite places, and opted to hire a van for the ten of us to go offsite and explore either the close-by shopping center, or go 30 minutes into Sanya City. Shopping areas were generally crowded with tourists and locals alike, and we all got a kick out of seeing the matching outfits donned by many of the mainland visitors. The Hawaiian-style shirts and short ensembles were quite eye catching, and I now regret we didn’t bite the bullet and buy matching sets for all five of us. Imagine the annual Christmas family photo!

We also found that prices were more reasonable in Ya Long Wan Central Square, not far from the resort. This little touristy destination had a shell museum, a variety of restaurants with Chinese, fast food, fusion Asian, fresh seafood, convenience stores, and some funky little mechanical animal cars for the smaller kids to ride around on. It was a good place to spend some family time. We also took a morning to visit the Yanoda Rainforest Park. While less rustic feeling, and more Disneyland (think false animal sounds coming from speakers hidden in the trees and guided stairs), it still had beautiful flora and views. Yanoda means “one, two, three” in the local dialect but the locals take it a step further in the park and call out “yanoda”, or “hello” to everyone. Quirky and kind of fun in the beginning, this greeting shouted out continuously becomes a bit annoying by the end.

After taking the resort’s dive certification course, the dads and five of the kids wanted to try their skills at Wuzhizhou Island, in Haitang Bay. We all packed into our hired van for another day’s adventure. The island is located about 40km northeast of Sanya, and has 5.7km of coastline. You will need to buy admission (¥160/adult, ¥110/child) to the island, but that also includes the round trip boat ride from the Wuzhizhou Island Wharf. The divers in our group then received more instruction and safety training once there. Also known as Lovers Island, it offers a variety of water sports, diving and snorkeling being the most popular, but families with smaller kids can also rent chairs on the sandy beach, swim in the clear water, and just relax alongside a bunch of other people.

If you want to have a Russian experience, head to Dadonghai. According to, Russians provide the largest volume of Sanya’s foreign tourist dollars. This could be because their vacations last between two weeks and a month at a time, and the location of Hainan makes for a relatively close tropical destination. Many signs on the streets, and menus in restaurants, have Russian translations, making the lack of English outside the resort hotels even more obvious.

Recently, my husband returned to Sanya for a work event and stayed at the Intercontinental Sanya Haitang Bay Resort. With beautiful grounds, incredible sea views and access to an expansive sandy beach, this might be another option for families. One of the highlights was their aquarium restaurant AQUA, where you actually eat surrounded by the sea-life! Expect five-star luxury facilities. An ocean view suite is ¥1,803 per night for two adults and one child; this doesn’t include breakfast.

While there are many resorts and experiences throughout the island, I do think Sanya has something for everyone. You might forget that you are traveling within China, but that’s also what makes coming here such an adventure. There are China-style activities across the island, and in preparation of that, things work in a generally efficient and organized way. You’ll get luxury brand (but with exorbitant prices) duty-free shopping, kitschy activities, and wonderful sun, sand, and sea – alongside lots of selfie-takers and plenty of people watching! Hainan offers a unique blend of cultures and a wonderful tropical beach experience worth having while you’re living in Shanghai.

Good to know

• Didi works in Sanya, with taxi rides to and from the airport averaging ¥150 per trip, or private limousine costing up to ¥700 one way (reservations required).

Useful websites: