This November, and in preparation for the launch in January of our new website GreatThingsToDo.co.uk, Chrystall and I were invited on a "full expenses paid for" trip to discover Hainan Island in China, which many consider to be the Hawai of China.
I have been to Hawai and this comparison is very fit.
A little disclaimer first: Although indeed invited, we were under no contract to deliver any set number of Tweets, Instagram posts or blog articles. We made sure the organisers understood we'd only do so if we felt the trip was worth sharing.
Well... it turns out it really was.
We flew Southern China Airlines from Heathrow via Guangzhou and then to our final destination: Sanya, Hainan, China.
The 12-14h flight which took us on the other side of the planet was of course long but made a lot easier by being in Business Class. This allowed us to enjoy the VIP lounge pre-flight, eat and hydrate plenty during the flight and of course sleep better as the seats reclined to a horizontal position in which I could lie flat on my stomach, and yet I’m nearly 6ft tall.
A real relief as economy can be generally tough especially on tall people, their legs and back.
The extra benefit is also not having to queue anywhere (Check-in, Passport Control, Boarding) which in my opinion is what makes flying normally such an uncomfortable and tiring experience.
Hainan is a tropical island 6000 miles (or some 10,000 km) from London at the southernmost point in China close to the equator, pretty much at the same level as Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
This is reflected in many cultural aspects including the food which benefits from different influences than mainland China but also in the weather and how hot / humid it is there like its neighbouring countries of South East Asia.
During our stay we were treated to the very best luxury hotels on the island and let me tell you Hainan has some of the best hotels in the World, think Dubai but wayyy better and with a lot of culture and jungle surrounding them.
We stayed at the five star St Regis Hotel Sanya and the flagship palatial five star Raffles Hotel, which is the only Raffles Hotel in China and also the largest of all Raffles Hotels.
The rooms in Hainan were bigger than my old London flat which isn’t very difficult but they were just massive with balconies (also bigger than my old flat) overlooking the beach and/or the lush jungle.
We took part in many activities which the organisers consulted us about pre-departure, in order for us to enjoy a tailor-made VIP experience which we’d truly enjoy and want to share.
Of all great things to do in Hainan the highlights were:
The meals (every single one of them), the fish market where we ate on our first night to our heart's content, the Guanyin of Nanshan (a giant statue of 108m), the Li minority tribe village and cookery course we were given and our day at the Raffles lazing around the pool like wannabe rockstars and of course the flight which I never thought I’d hear myself say.. but there you go.
The night fish market in Sanya on our first evening there was an opportunity for us to socialise "Chinese style" and get to know the other people who travelled with us as well as the locals. A large courtyard with plenty of large tables for groups of friends to gather around, eat, drink and laugh. At the other end, a selection of traders selling their fish, shellfish and generally many delicacies from the sea I'd never even heard of or seen before.
That's China though, I expected to experience all the weird and wonderful foodie treats on offer and was not disappointed.
So there we were haggling the many intricate layers of our upcoming feast with traders which would then be skillfully prepared for us by a chef stationed right near our table.
We especially enjoyed the sea urchins and lotus stems. Of course I had to try the 1000 year old eggs, which in fact were not bad at all... though I did not go for a second helping. We also had crab, clams, king prawns in garlic and chilli, abalone and other bits and pieces I cannot name or describe.
On our second day we headed an hour away by minibus from our hotels in Sanya, to the Guanyin of Nanshan, a gigantic 108m tall statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin.
This has to be one of the most awe inspiring, jaw dropping statue I've ever seen, on par with the Wat Pho golden reclining Buddha in Bangkok but only twice larger (108m vs 46m).
The statue, which is also a temple inside, was erected at the end of a pier on the sea which makes it appear even larger being surrounded by nothing but water. It took 6 years to build and it was opened in 2005.
It doesn't take long for temples and the incense smoke floating around to bring a sense of calm and spirituality in most people, me included.
Throughout our stay on Hainan a thing that really struck me was how open people were with me taking their photo / portrait. I did not need like in Europe to be furtive about it or creepy by hiding the fact I was shooting them.
Any street photographer in London will tell you, people are usually uncertain about your motives and generally wary of others. Why would you want to photograph me... are you some kind of weirdo? (They sadly miss the fact we document our times for future generations)
Here in Hainan, possibly because people aren't obsessed with the news and convinced everyone is inherently evil, I would walk up to them with a smile, point at my camera and through gestures, ask if I could have a photo.
Trying to read people's emotions and feelings goes a long way.
I did not find one person unwilling to take part, aside from a few shy people, which I respect and walked away from while still smiling.
Actually so much so that once I'd shot their portrait, they then usually proceeded asking me for selfies. People in Hainan really were strangely fascinated by me.
My beard seemed to have a lot to do with it. You would not believe how weird it was at times, people really can stare in Hainan... and that's great as it serves me as an opportunity to take their photo.
It was lovely. It goes to show that we're all the same, all humans and an honest smile can open so many doors if we all let our barriers down a little.
It yielded some of the best portraits I've ever shot.
What a beautiful people in many ways.
Third day, we decided to have a little break and enjoy another key aspect of Hainan. Well indeed culture is important to us but one cannot go to a tropical island without at least enjoying a day at the beach or by the pool sipping on cocktails.
We made great friends during the trip and Dorset-based landscape photographer Matt Pinner felt like he too should enjoy the pool, the beach and a bit of relaxation.
We had such a fun day! I think the photos below say it all... (I had to tell them to hug me to get in the freaking frame)
On our fourth day we headed to a village up in the hills to visit a minority tribe called the Li Tribe.
There we learnt a little about their ancient culture and enjoyed a cookery course which was really different from what I was taught in traditional cookery school back in France (did you know I am a classically trained chef?).
My beautiful wife Chrystall took the lead and I documented it like the good husband I am.
A lady from the Li minority taught her, as her own mother did, to cook rice the authentic way, in bamboo and over the fire as well as corn and purple sweet potato
Chrystall had a great time, and even though they didn't speak the same language, she felt the understood each other. It was a very special moment... rudely interrupted by my cough due to the smoke in the hut.
We also had a chance to drink plenty of rice wine which was terribly potent and together with the jungle humidity and heat made us all the merrier.
Below is one type of rice wine we didn't try which was infused with local tarantualas. Yes, you read this correctly: Spider Wine.
And maybe because I'd had a drink, I kinda came up with a song:
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size,
Catches thieves just like flies
Here comes the Spider-Wine
I know... 100% Pure (intoxicated) genius.
But seriously though, Hainan is a real gem, and although yes it is developing at a fast pace and it's always a challenge for places to retain some aspects of their culture in doing do, it feels people there do want to preserve their culture, their history and crucially... nature.
In Hainan you have it all. The sea, the city, the rain forest, great food, lovely people, excellent value for money and even in luxury hotels.
Oh and cats. Lots of cute cats. Enough of a reason for me to head anywhere.
We were told Hainan is a honeymoon / proposal location very popular with the Chinese from mainland. The reason, aside from it's outstanding beauty, is that in the Chinese folklore Hainan was considered to be the end of the Earth (at the time people thought Earth was flat).
And people who get married would say "I will follow you to the end of the Earth".
Hence why Hainan is a perfect romance filled location place for a proposal or honeymoon.
We enjoyed a few more days visiting the island and our trip eventually came to an end like all good things, we could have easily stayed there another week.
Of course no trip to China would be complete without a Karaoke night... at first reluctant, I let guard down and went right in.
This fascinating trip and the wonderful organisation allowed us to discover a mysterious place, a place I'd never heard of before and many still haven't.
We enjoyed the most amazing selection of delicious and unusual food, colourful and sweet fruits, the locals who made us feel welcome and hotels I'd never imagined staying in.
This is what we aim for: Discover new places, not the ones you hear about over and over again on major news outlets.
We only live once.
We will be back in Hainan for sure, hopefully soon, this felt like our second honeymoon, but hey.. bring on honeymoon number three! Chrystall's definitely up for it.
By the way, did I mention we were interviewed inside our hotel suite by Phoenix TV? (pretty much the ITV of China I'm told) We're waiting for the footage and will share that soon hopefully. We also appeared in China's second largest news publication online. Pretty sweet!