'China's No 1 beach', and a volcanic island that rocks

Tourists admire cliffs near Zhongmu village, Weizhou Island, China. The volcanic island offers a variety of historical, natural and geological sights. Nearby Beihai, a former treaty port, also has its charms.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams

Our tuk-tuk stops by a modern, low-rise hotel, and the driver motions for us - my wife, son and I - to walk to the patio. "There's a good view," he says. It's an easy stroll to a vantage point atop a steep slope that drops to a coastal village and the southern bay of Weizhou Island, perhaps 60 metres below.

Though I've heard that Weizhou Island is volcanic, it's only as I see that the inlet is almost circular, with a distinct rim, that I realise this is no ordinary bay, but rather the sea-filled main crater of the Weizhou volcano, the calm waters belying its fiery origins.

Beside the village below, a beach is backed by a wooded slope, beyond which lies the headland.

While the entire island is designated as a geopark, a visit to this southwestern tip is a must, as here the crater rim still looks raw and recently formed where it drops to clear waters, with the expanse of the South China Sea beyond. It's called Crocodile Hill, and falls within the boundaries of a park. There is an entrance at the top of the ridge, from where a flight of steps leads down to the shore.

The path traverses a sparse woodland of spindly trees before reaching a landscape akin to that of active volcanoes I've climbed in Indonesia. A cliff of dark grey rock comprising layers of ash looks freshly formed rather than weather-worn like the volcanic areas of Hong Kong.

There are tour groups following the route, and a guide tells them the last eruption was 7,100 years ago. That is a blink of an eye in geological time - compare it to the 140 million years since Hong Kong's volcanoes became extinct.

Tourists on the volcanic shoreline below Crocodile Hill on Weizhou Island off the coast of southwest China.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams

Weizhou's days of major eruptions are long past, and the recent seismic activity it has seen has been confined to localised blasts of ash and lava bombs. Still, I'm glad the volcano remains dormant as we walk the coastal pathway, admiring the shoreline of rock hewn into features such as a natural bridge and a rocky protrusion in a small cave that somewhat resembles a turtle.

Beyond the southern rim of the bay is a hilly landscape with a network of narrow roads and a smattering of hamlets. Cattle graze verdant pastures, near a wetland park that has scant wildlife apart from six Chinese pond herons.

While the hamlets are unremarkable, with low houses, some built of bricks fashioned from volcanic rock, Weizhou does have two fine churches, built by French missionaries around the middle of the 19th century. The larger, and better known, of these is the Gothic-style Catholic cathedral. It's tiny for a cathedral, but has a quiet grandeur.

The Catholic cathedral on Weizhou Island.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams
Notre Dame Church on Weizhou.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams
Black-naped tern and jet ski at Shiluokou, Weizhou Island. The latter are a hazard for beachgoers there, as well as the big waves that roll in from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams

The other church is more secluded. Arriving on a steamy sunny day, we opt to take an electric vehicle shuttle service, rather than walk a few minutes from the car park. This church is dedicated to Notre Dame, the Virgin Mary, and to me recalls rural churches in England.

There are beaches around the coast of Weizhou, although the waves rolling in across the turbulent Gulf of Tonkin can make swimming challenging and potentially dangerous, especially with tourists zooming about on jet skis.

When the sea is calm, you can take boat rides in search of coral, and even to look for Bryde's whales - baleen whales that grow to 15 metres long - which have recently been found to live around the island.

In late afternoons, a grassy headland in the northwest becomes a natural grandstand, attracting crowds who snap a multitude of photos as the sun sets over the sea.

Visit the village on the shore of the southern bay, which has a thriving seafood market. Here you can choose from an array of fish, squid, shellfish, crabs and more, then carry your purchases across to nearby restaurants that cook them for dinner. There are bars here, too; three or four of them host singers or live bands to attract punters, plus passers-by who pause on the narrow coastal road to briefly enjoy a free concert.

Weizhou Island lies 40km (25 miles) south of the city of Beihai, which occupies a chunky peninsula on the coast of Guangxi province. A port, a resort and a Chinese enigma wrapped into one, Beihai is a good place to explore before or after heading to Weizhou.

To me, the enigma is how it's possible to keep on building blocks of flats few, if any, people live in - remnants of a burst housing bubble in the 1990s. Despite a ghostly cluster of deserted, grand villas, a building spree continues, and the "hotel" where my wife, son and I stay turns out to be Airbnb-style flats in a complex built for thousands, most of whom may never arrive.

We have an impressive apartment for a low price, but it's eerie walking through immaculate yet near deserted grounds to get there.

There is history here, too, especially along Beihai Old Street. This is lined with three-storey buildings that date from the late 19th century, and now house souvenir shops. A museum tells of Western nations including Britain and France establishing presences here after Beihai became a treaty port in 1867. Statues along the street portray characters from the treaty port era, including two European doctors who established a hospital in Beihai.

A statue in Beihai Old Street, Beihai, recalls the treaty port era.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams
Modern attractions in Beihai include a theme park where members of Guangxi’s ethnic minorities perform stunts including placing their tongues on hotplates (above).
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams

Today, international visitors to Beihai are scarce, though it is popular with domestic tourists from inland and northern provinces. A recently completed theme park targets them, particularly by focusing on Guangxi's ethnic minority people, who here are dressed like savages roaming the wilder regions in Game of Thrones and give simple performances in various settings. Bare-chested, tattooed men jump on broken glass, breathe fire and, bizarrely, toss burning sticks in the air then catch them in their trousers.

Displays include an array of buffalo skulls, a jungle house, and a "prison" that is a small watery pit with bars above.

At the southwestern tip of the peninsula, there's an outsize turtle statue on the tide line, perhaps based on Ao, a giant sea turtle of southern Chinese mythology. On a nearby patch of sand, visitors cluster around fortune-tellers, who use birds such as tiny parrots to pull from a pack cards they use for their divinations. This may be an ancient technique, but they also accept payment via smartphones.

Beihai fortune telling with birds. Payment by smartphone accepted.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams
Sunset on Silver Beach, Beihai.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams

Also on the south coast is Silver Beach, a stretch of sand over 20 kilometres long described on tourist websites as the best beach in China. It has lost some of its lustre, partly thanks to pollution by plastic.

When we visit around sunset, hundreds of people line the beach at an easily accessed spot by Beihai's main harbour. With a motley array of restaurants and stores close by, it's no tropical paradise, but is still worth a stop, especially if you make the effort to find its prettier areas.

A headland near Zhongmu village on Weizhou is the ideal spot for a selfie at sunset.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams
Evening in Nam Wan, Weizhou Island, and the nightlife gets under way.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Martin Williams

GETTING THERE

You can reach Beihai by high-speed train from Hong Kong, changing at Guangzhou South station. The journey takes around five and a half hours. The trip.com website is convenient for booking rail tickets you can collect at rail stations, as well as accommodation in Beihai and on Weizhou Island.

Weizhou Island is around two hours by ferry from Beihai, and you can buy tickets from travel agents in Beihai as well as at the piers in Beihai and on the island; it's an idea to book, as ferries can fill up quickly. The ferries may roll uncomfortably, so consider taking a seasickness tablet before the ride.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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