At the southern tip of China's Hainan Island, amid the white sand beaches and blush sunsets, a gourmand's paradise of local cusine and carefully crafted cocktails awaits.
The Chinese are known for many things: ancient tea ceremonies, elegant silk garments, exotic foods, excellent shopping and state-of-the-art technology. China is fast becoming a favorite for new wine production, but look beyond the burgeoning economy and mass produced products and you’ll discover a little piece of paradise where gourmet cuisine and carefully crafted cocktails are just as much of a draw as the white beaches and pink sunsets.
Located just an hour by plane from Hong Kong and three hours from Beijing, Sanya is an exclusive getaway where the mountains, sea and city converge. The southernmost city in China, with a population of around 600,000 people, Sanya is the second largest city on the island. It has hosted the Miss World contest and the World's Strongest Man contest, but more recently Sanya has emerged as a popular tourist destination and an easy beach getaway, thanks to its tropical climate and warm year-round weather.
But to those in the know, Sanya is more than just the "Hawaii of the East." Sanya is a feast of culinary delights originally derived from the history and beliefs of ancient Chinese culture, and brought back to life by some of the world's top chefs. Tasting the local delicacies is a must when you're here, but part of the fun is cooking with the culinary masters.
Endless varieties of seafood and fresh fruits grace the gardens and kitchens at The Ritz-Carlton, which Executive Chef Chris Southwick and a hotel groundskeeper—known simply as "Uncle Marty"—work to create daily dishes. After a walk through the resort's fresh herb and fruit garden, where Uncle Marty has tended since the hotel's opening in 2008, Southwick and his team of chefs head to the local food market in town.
Located about 30 minutes via cab from the hotel, the market yields just about everything one could want for a feast. De-feathered black chickens (which the Chinese believe are good for fertility) lay next to their white chicken counterparts (which are said to be good for virility), fish swim in tanks, crabs have been divided up by body or claw, fruits and vegetables are lined up neatly in rows, and unidentifiable seafood (much of which is still alive) sits on table tops ready to be purchased for the day's dinner. In the back of the market, visitors can purchase prepared noodles, sauces and spices, each adding unique flavors to a freshly created dish.
Southwick created a menu for this day's jaunt that included crab, sea bass, duck, chicken, rice noodles, vegetables and fruit cooked whole, dim sum in soup and Peking style. When it comes to cooking, nothing is off limits. Southwick, who spent time at the company's Moscow and Florida properties, brings a bit of American flair to Asian cuisine. Fried rice flirts with guacamole; Thai beef salad entertains a lime dressing; and sea bass finds its way into a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce that leaves you wondering what your local Chinese restaurant is doing wrong.
When you need a break from food, Hainan Yalong Bay is where most of the activity takes place. The beach town located in the northeast region of Sanya is home to four and five-star hotels and resorts, duty free shops and luxury retailers, making Yalong Bay a haven for shoppers looking for luxury items, signature spa treatments and a little seclusion from the chaos of China's bustling cities.
In Yalong Bay Square, don't miss the famous totem on which the gods of sun, wind, rain and thunder are engraved, embodying ancient Chinese civilizations.
A trip to "The End of The Earth" (Tian Ya Hai Jiao) is a must-see for travelers. The most famous beach spot on Hainan Island is surrounded by blue water, a lush coconut tree forest and white sand beaches. The landscape is said to symbolize Chinese hallmarks of friendship, love and life.
Spare one day for a tour to a tropical rainforest on Mount Wuzhi, Mount Diaoluo or Mount Qianxianling, or hike to Wuzhi Mountain. The waterfalls are awe-inspiring, and the most adventurous travelers will have the opportunity to float down the mountain streams.
Like any good island, nightlife abounds when the sun goes down. Taste your way through the 24-hour night markets or indulge in some of the beach pubs in Sanya Bay, Dadong Hai Bay and Yalong Bay. Each hotel in Yalong Bay has restaurants or bars offering evening entertainment, or head to Time Coast Bar Street in downtown Sanya for late-night revelry at Mingjian Pub or Noah's Ark, just to name a few.
Don't forget to bring a little bit of Sanya home with you. There's plenty of souvenirs—from jade dragons to pearl earrings—to be purchased, or try recreating a little taste of Sanya in your kitchen. Southwick shared a few of his secret Sanya recipes with us, and paired them up with some local wines for a first-class dining experience.
Recipe: Thai Beef Salad with Lime and Coriander
1 16 ounce package glass noodles, soaked
6 pounds skirt steak
1 spring roll wrapper
10 ounces papaya with seeds
1 cucumber, diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 red pepper, julienne
1 red onion, julienne
1 basil leaf
1 mint leaf
1 coriander leaf
1 large head iceberg lettuce
1 lime, sliced into thin rounds for garnish
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1 red chili
1 garlic glove
1½ ounces palm sugar
3½ ounces warm water
2 ounces fish sauce
2 ounces lime juice
Skirt Steak Marinade
10 ounces light soy sauce
6½ ounces water
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground thyme
3 ounces fresh lime juice
2 red chilies, chopped
For the marinade: Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix. Place skirt steak in a container and cover, allowing meat to marinate in refrigerator for two days for ultimate flavor.
For the dressing: Split the chili lengthwise and deseed. Purée the chili and garlic into a fine paste. In a small bowl, dissolve the palm sugar in warm water. Add the chili-garlic purée, lime juice and fish sauce and stir until well incorporated.
For the salad: On a preheated 400°F grill, cook steak until medium-rare—approximately 2 minutes per side. While the steak is grilling, deep fry the spring roll wrapper and set aside on a paper towel. When wrapper is cool, crumble into 1-inch pieces. Remove steak from grill and thinly slice. In a large bowl, combine cucumber, cherry tomatoes, papaya, red pepper, basil, mint, coriander and sliced steak. Toss with the lime-chili dressing and season with sea salt and cracked black pepper.
Assemble the dish: In a large salad bowl, fan out individual iceberg lettuce leaves. Top lettuce leaves with the skirt steak salad mixture and garnish with the crumbled fried spring roll wrapper and sliced lime rounds. Serves 6.
Symphony 2009 Grace Vineyard Muscat (Shanxi, China)
This white wine is harvested close to Beijing in incredibly cool climates using Muscat grapes. It’s light with an acidic finish and hints of pineapple, which acts as a great compliment to a light salad.