Everyone knows China’s mainland has a lot to offer the traveller irrespective of your travelling needs – a Great Wall hike and Yangtze river trips for thrill-seekers, shopping havens in Shanghai and Beijing for fashionistas and off the beaten track tours to local, traditional villages for those looking to go native. However, off the Chinese mainland is a stunning collection of islands and archipelagos that offer something more unique, for travellers looking for that once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Be aware that many of these islands are under disputed sovereignty – claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Peoples Republic of China, Vietnam and others. We mean no offence by using the term ‘China’ here!
The Xisha Islands (or Paracel Islands) are a recently discovered tourist trap, though there are still no permanent residents on the islands, cruises are offered from the Chinese mainland and significant advances have been made to improve facilities and develop tourism. The first road was just completed in late 2012, making these islands an unspoiled, utopian reprieve from the hectic mainland lifestyle. The islands offer long stretches of coral reefs with excellent visibility, so perfect conditions for divers searching for reefs teeming with unique, indigenous sea life and turtles. The average temperature is about 26 degrees and the sea temperature rarely changes.
Traveller Tip: There is no accommodation on the island so it is only for day trips. Also as with most of the offshore islands, foreign bank cards are not accepted so cash is king!
This is China’s largest and youngest volcanic island with stunning beaches, an average temperature of 22 degrees and an excellent range of seafood restaurants. Outside of national holidays the island is rarely visited but offers some interesting sites including a gothic-style Catholic Church built by the French in the 19th century. Prior to French occupation the island was controlled by the Vietnamese government, which explains the large number of elaborate pagodas and temples. The island does provide a motor tricycle rental service thus enabling easy transport to other sites of interest including the rock-magma Dishui Screen which, after years of efflorescing resembles a massive human head facing the sea. Also accessible is the The Guishi Scenic Area – regarded as a national aquarium – offering the chance to get up close and personal with manatees, sea horses and seals.
Traveller Tip: Ferries depart daily but book in advance and paying extra for first class is recommended. Again, bring enough cash for your trip as foreign bank cards are not accepted. Be warned: English is not widespread on the island, except for the younger people, but Mandarin is common among most of the locals.
Chinese lore tells of a fairy coming to Earth and scattering a string of pearls in the ocean which gave the islands their Chinese name but they are more commonly known in the West as the Spratly Islands and are a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China sea, lying off the coasts of both the Philippines and Malaysia and South Vietnam. A hotly disputed subject among the Asian countries due to their rich fishing grounds and suspected oil and natural gas reserves, 45 of the islands have military presence from Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. However, all this does not take away from the beauty this archipelago has to offer, including excellent diving opportunities and a unique chance to see some of the most interesting sea creatures in their natural habitat as the islands are now for the most part uninhabited.
Traveller Tip: If you’re thinking of visiting, try booking through a specialist tour operator as this would include a guide to help show you around the islands.
The Penghu Islands (or Pescadores) lie in the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan, consisting of 64 islands and a population of almost 93,000 people across 20 of the isles. Makung City is the largest of the islands and includes some of the most important sight-seeing opportunities, great biking trails, water sporting and incredible coastline. As a group, the islands are steeped in lore and culture ranging from folktales, seaweed medicine, historical sites and fascinating art work, but its one claim to fame is the humble cactus, which was brought by the colonising Dutch but the locals use it for everything from making ice cream to using in traditional medicine. Head to Banyan Tree market in Penghu for all cactus related products – both edible and otherwise!
Traveller Tip: English is not widely spoken, so slower speech and a dictionary will help. Stay indoors or shaded between 2-5pm as the temperature rises and there are no Western standard medical facilities on the islands.
Nanji Chain Islands
The Nanji Chain islands were the first in China to join the world biosphere protection networks of UNESCO and here’s why: they have elegant oceanic scenery, well preserved ecology and stunning rock formations. With an average daily temperature of approximately 16 degrees it is not the most sun kissed of our collection but what it lacks in soaring temperatures it makes up for in clear, blue seawater and incredible scenic sites like Dash’ao, Guoshengao, Sanpanwei, Dalei Mountain and Bamboo islet- most of which, were formed from long-term erosion and the constant wash of the waves.
Traveller Tip: Take a shuttle bus at Wenzhou Transportation Centre to Aojiang, take a yacht to the island group themselves. Don’t forget your camera!
Hainan Island is the most southern in China, comprising of hundreds of islands scattered among three archipelagos – Hainan Island itself is the largest landmass and is currently undergoing a makeover as foreign and local investment is pouring in and setting the scene of it to become the Monaco of China. Aside from the numerous new hotels, casinos and resorts that are popping up along the coast, Hainan has so much more to offer from surfing to excellent eateries, you will not be bored – especially around the Wanning and Riyubay area. It truly is a beautiful island resort and perhaps not as peaceful and unspoiled as some of its neighbours but according to Chinese legend this place was ‘Tianya Haijiao’ which means the furthermost part of the sky and sea, in other words, the edge of the world. This may not be true, but with summer temperatures ranging up to 35 degrees, crystal clear warm waters and beautiful sandy beaches, it is definitely out of this world.
Traveller Tip: Winter time tends to be the peak season as many Northern Chinese own second homes here and tend to escape the harsh northern winter in Hainan. Surf competitions are held here so you may want to check out when these are to ensure a more quiet, relaxing beach experience.
Miao Dao Islands
The Miao Dao Islands (roughly translated as Temple Islands) are littered with scores of Taoist and Buddhist temples, each more beautiful than the next. Located between the Shandan and Liaodang Peninsula in Northern China, it is full of charm with bamboo forests, a bird sanctuary and over 146 kilometres of coastline as well as boasting over 25 reefs and an exceptional topography. It is home to relatively few natives except of course, the 10,000 plus poisonous vipers that have been documented here. Historically, it has only been a Chinese national destination and foreigners were swiftly escorted to the ferry port once they were discovered on the islands, however, thankfully this has changed and it has been open to foreigners since 2008.
Traveller Tip: Bear in mind that it has only been a tourist destination for five years, be mindful of local customs and traditions, stay on the beaten track and be aware that little to no English is spoken here.
The name came from the sacred Buddhist mountain at the heart of the island, and it is one of the most tourist friendly of our picks with an accommodation post at the port, English speaking guides and an efficient public transport system. A trip to the national park is a must, as well as a visit to the monasteries, but a cable car ride to the top of the mountain to explore the temples and pagodas at the summit is really the icing on the cake.
Traveller Tip: As this is a Buddhist island the restaurants mostly offer a vegetarian menu and there are no Western eateries. Also, none of the menus are in English and few of the staff speak it so bring a dictionary!
Dayushan is ranked as one of China’s most beautiful sites by National Geographic and does not disappoint. With crystal clear lakes, lush grassland and blue sea, it is a perfect option for a camping or beach break. Due to the stunning, picturesque views and scenery it is a popular camping resort but basic accommodation is available at some of the local temples. Taking a trek around the mountain is highly recommended, and for those seeking something a little different, there are stables on the island where you can rent a horse, and let his legs do the hard work!
Traveller Tip: Despite being so popular for camping, it is not developed, so come prepared with all camping equipment.
Linjin and Nanding Islands
Located in China’s only coastal volcanic geographical and geomorphic area, on the western bank of the Taiwanese strait, Linjin and Nanding offer stunning basalt columns, ancient craters and beaded fumaroles – it is considered a volcanic geographical museum. Aside from the spectacular volcanic topography there are remains of ancient forests that have been buried for 8,000 years and fabulous sandy beaches. The islands are home to a Tea Museum (a must in China!), the Sea Volcano Park, Mangrove Nature Reserve, and delicious local snacks ranging from such delights as puppet head and pearl cream. With average temperatures of about 22 degrees it is the perfect temperature for trekking and exploring these magical island gems.
Traveller Tip: The best travel times are September to March to avoid rainy season and typhoon weather. Do not go swimming as the tides and currents are unpredictable, complex and dangerous – there are no lifeguards stationed here! As always bring a dictionary, camera and sunscreen!
All in all, China offers a stunning collection of offshore havens from a Buddhist realm to a cultural and natural symbiosis, to a precious legacy of volcanic sculptures and a unspoiled marine park. The only problem is deciding where to go first!