While China isn't widely known for its beautiful beaches, a growing number of travelers are making tracks in the sand for the shores of Hainan. The tropical island province has been dubbed "The Hawaii of China" and is today the No 1 domestic vacation destination among Chinese.
It hosted 18 million travelers in 2007, up 15 percent from the previous year, of which nearly 6 million were foreigners, a staggering 63 percent increase from 2006, according to the provincial tourism bureau.
Most holidaymakers arrive at the southern port city of Sanya. Waves of tourists wash over the city's 209 km of coast-line all year long, but the bays offer dramatically different takes on fun in the sun.
Sanya Bay is the least crowded seaside experience near downtown and has the most local feel. Here, tourists are outnumbered by fishermen hauling in the catch of the day, chuanr (kebob) vendors grilling every species of sea creature they can poke a stick through and motor drivers eager to take visitors for a spin along the strand.
Sanya Bay's beach is anything but manicured, and strands of palm trees push their way right up to the foreshore. Taking a sunset stroll here means navigating constellations of fallen coconuts and huddles of traditional wooden fishing boats - often occupied by snoozing trawlers.
The strand here is studded with a wider array of colorful seashells than anywhere else on the island.
Those looking for more of a party place should head for Dadonghai (Big East Bay), which teems with bikini-clad tourists. Strands of buoys separate the swimmers from the fleets of jet skis and speedboats towing parasailers and water-skiers that zip across the combers.
Onshore, rows of sunbathers are punctuated by games of football and volleyball and even the odd swimsuit photo shoot. Pearl vendors from ethnic minorities, freelance masseurs and travel agents also prowl these sands hunting for clients from out of town.
Dadonghai's shore is lined with a strip of bars-cum-restaurants offering local seafood and Russian dishes, as seaside tourists overwhelmingly hail from China's chilly northern neighbor. They also blat Russian techno toward the surf at ear-splitting decibel levels.
Beach bums with big bucks usually head for Yalong Bay, an 8 km crescent shoreline cordoned off by upscale resorts that use fencing to enforce exclusive-access policies. In the language of the local Li ethnic minority, the name means "as clean and white as jade" and its waters are said to maintain a year-round temperature of 26 C.
According to local folklore, the beach is the incarnation of seven Li girls who hurled themselves into the sea to demonstrate the power of their love.
Yalong played host to last year's Miss World and Mr World pageants. Contestants enjoyed the amenities of the luxurious Crowne Plaza Hotel, Yalong's largest internationally branded establishment and often acclaimed as the top hotel on the bay.
The sprawling complex, constructed in dynastic Shaanxi-styled architecture, has the only supermarket in the entire Yalong area - otherwise, it's about an hour's drive to the nearest convenience store. Crowne Plaza also has a shopping center with 18 shops, 20 restaurants, a beachside bar and a plaza hosting live musical performances nightly.
Visitors hoping to dip their toes in Chinese culture on the country's shoreline can visit the beaches of the Nanshan Culture Tourist Zone, about a half-hour drive from Sanya.
The best strand here is located in the shadow of the towering three-faced Guanyin Buddha statue, which stands several dozen meters offshore, seemingly keeping guard over the zone's Buddhism Culture Park. At 108 m tall, the bronze figure claims 15 m on the Statue of Liberty.
Tucked in the thicket near the statue, and just a stone's throw from the beach, is a cluster of tree houses that resembles an Ewok settlement. But rather than being home to the pint-sized, bear-like buddies of the Star Wars heroes, these rustic structures cater to tourists with a penchant for Robinson Crusoe-type holidays.
This beach features particularly young, coarse sands and rather steep sandbars. It is generally devoid of tourists and it's especially easy to spend several days here without encountering an obviously foreign face.
Those seeking the island's remotest beach should head to Shimei Bay, in the southeastern coastal city of Wanning, 160 km from Haikou, the provincial capital. The World Tourism Organization has called this spot "the most beautiful unexploited beach in Hainan".
A 4,000-year-old evergreen forest traces the foreshore of the two crescent bays. Li fishing hovels are scattered like throws of dice around the area, and the ungroomed foreshore is ideal for beachcombing.
Hainan's beachscapes certainly offer something for everyone; it's little wonder that a swelling tide of travelers is flocking to its shores.