XIAMEN, traditionally known in the West as Amoy, is a surprisingly pretty city, its streets and buildings, attractive shopping arcades and bustling seafront boasting a nineteenth-century European flavour. One of China's most tourist-friendly cities, Xiamen is the cleanest and, perhaps, most tastefully renovated city you'll see anywhere in the country, giving it the feel of a holiday resort. Compounding the resort atmosphere is the little island of Gulangyu, a ten-minute ferry ride to the southwest, the old colonial home of Europeans and Japanese, whose mansions still line the island's traffic-free streets – staying here is highly recommended.
Joined to the mainland by a five-kilometre-long causeway, the island on which Xiamen stands is located inside a large inlet on the southeastern coast of Fujian province. The built-up area occupies the western part of the island, which faces the mainland, while the eastern part faces onto Taiwanese Jinmen Island. The area of most interest is the old town in the far southwest, and GulangyuIslet just offshore. The remainder of the city is the Special Economic Zone.
Xiamen was a thriving port by the seventeenth century, influenced by a steady succession of Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch fortune-hunters; 200 years later, the British arrived, establishing their nerve centre on Gulangyu, and Xiamen became relatively prosperous. The arrival of the Communists in 1949, and the final escape to Taiwan by Chiang Kaishek with the remains of his Nationalist armies, saw total chaos around Xiamen, with thousands of people streaming across the straits in boats to escape the Communist advance. In the following years, the threat of war with Taiwan constant, most immediately on the smaller islands of Jinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), which lie within sight of Xiamen. In the early 1980s, Xiamen was declared one of China's first Special Economic Zones and is still reaping the benefits. Indeed, Xiamen's pleasant climate, healthy economy and relatively sympathetic urban development mean that it is regularly voted the city in China with the best all-round standard of living.
Deemed China's "cleanest city," this island community off the northeast coast in the Fujian province continues to rocket to the top of vacation destination lists. It possesses all of the manifestations of a major city while still maintaining the alluring charisma of a vacation resort. Towering four-star hotels with highbrow international restaurants and trendy nightclubs share the streets with ancient temples and classic colonial style buildings, exhibiting a rare display of synchronic vision for the past and present. An aura of white beaches and green mountains complement its urban offerings, lending it the kind of vacation options normally only associated with small South Pacific islands.
Like most of China's other coastal cities, Xiamen has a past of endless control struggles. During the 1600s, the Dutch attempted to incorporate it into their fattening colonial empire, but were rebuffed by the legendary Zheng Chenggong, a local warrior whose military heroics are immortalized with statues and museums throughout the Xiamen area. Later, following China's defeat in the Great Opium Wars, the British took up residency and opened Xiamen's harbor to other nations such as France, Germany and Portugal. The resulting architecture of that time initially symbolized humiliation with the locals, but is now fully embraced as one of the foundations of Xiamen's character and burgeoning tourism industry.
Xiamen, itself, comprises seven different districts, including neighboring Gulangyu Island.
Gulangyu This island that is tiny in size, but huge in attraction reigns as the superstar of Xiamen's tourism industry. Accessible only by ferry, its winding cobblestone streets wander past endless rows of old colonial buildings canopied by lush green trees, creating the kind of idealistic setting that even the folks at Disney cannot recreate. A ban on cars heightens its impossible charm, making the pedestrian king of the streets. Sunlight Rock , Zheng Chenggong Memorial Hall , the intoxicatingly scenic Shuzhuang Garden and the Xiamen Museum are just a few of its many attractions. The island also enjoys national recognition for its devotion to music, and proof of this can be heard at the pragmatically named Music Hall of Gulang Island. Lodging options are limited, but the Gulangyu Guesthouse rates as a tourist favorite.
Kaiyuan District Better known as downtown, its streets pulse with humanity. Yet, somehow, the Xiamen magic shines through and instead of feeling annoyingly busy, it instead comes across as excitingly vibrant. The lodging options are many and include the Best Western and the wildly plush Marco Polo , which rests along the lapping shores of Yuandang Lake. Its Lotus Court Restaurant is locally revered for both its cuisine and its calming views of the lake. Nightlife also abounds, and the oddly named KK Recreation Ground offers prime time dancing.
Huli Located north of downtown, this district houses the Mandarin , Xiamen's only five-star hotel. Since the addition of the Gaoqi International Airport in 1996, developers have migrated in, making it into one of the area's largest business centers. This is not to say, however, that fun cannot be found.
Siming Situated to the east of downtown, it serves as Xiamen's organic side. The Xiamen beach area makes endless summers a possibility, while the bordering mountains lend for plenty of hiking options. Xiamen University is here, its beautiful setting making it one of the most scenic campuses in the world.
Jimei Yet another tourist jewel, it represents the first mainland stop after exiting Xiamen via the causeway. The scenic village of Jinmen , highlighted by the world famous Jimei School Village , is a must visit with all tour companies. And nearby Yuewain Mountain rates as an easily accessible city escape full of hiking trails, ancient relics and lush green forests.
Tong'an This mainland district of almost 550,000 people challenges Xiamen's "Garden of the Sea" label. Known mainly for its industry, with a heavy lean on technology, it is vastly important within the business sector.
Xinglin Located northwest of downtown on the mainland, this district takes great pride in being the birthplace of Xiamen industry. Electronics, machinery, chemicals and textiles are the pillars of this district's economic scene.
Prior to Xiamen's designation as one of China's first "Special Economic Zones" in 1980, its restaurant scene was bogged in humdrum mediocrity. Dining options were limited to Cantonese, Cantonese, Cantonese, Sichuan and Cantonese. Diners had become so bored that rumors persist even today that some even began to gnaw on their chopsticks just for the sake of variety. But as Xiamen's tourism scene began to boom so did its culinary diversity. Soon some of the major hotel restaurants were flying in master chefs from Hong Kong, Japan, and even Europe, elevating Xiamen into a wining-and-dining regional force. Today Japanese, Korean, Italian, American and Muslim restaurants coexist with Xiamen's abundant Chinese offerings, placing the entire city into a state of constant salivating splendor.
The best, and safest, restaurants can usually be found in the hotels. Though more expensive they rarely disappoint, combining superb food with world-class service and gorgeous decor. One of the best is Lujiang Hotel's Rooftop Restaurant. Located along downtown's waterfront, it furnishes marvellous views of the harbor area, while serving some of Xiamen's best Fujian and Cantonese seafood dishes. As an added bonus, it is one of the few restaurants to offer the option of English menus.
The Mandarin , Xiamen's lone five-star hotel, provides dining options for all palates: The Jade Lake Specialty Shop enjoys legendary status for its offering of Sichuan tastes including Fried Yellow Eel and a bounty of noodle dishes. Goza Restaurant serves authentic Japanese dishes including a large selection of sushi and sashimi options. Or if the belly beckons for Baked Snail, Fried Scallops with Cheese, or other hints of Paris the intimate Madame Rouge Restaurant answers the call for Western fare.
Mild Hut in the Best Western Hotel , the largest four-star in the Fujian province, grades as another strong choice for Cantonese cuisine and serves a ravenously popular version of shark's fin.
The Marco Polo Hotel along Yuandang Lake also delivers culinary marvels. The Shogun Restaurant features old school Japanese by favoring Robatayaki style grilling, while the Lotus Court reaps high praise for its bounty of Cantonese dishes featuring fresh crabs and scallops.
Xiamen's only completely authentic Italian restaurant, Portofino's can be found in the Harborview Hotel . An Italian trained chef serves marinara laden dishes including ravioli and lasagna. Immensely popular with locals, reservations are imperative, especially on weekends. Or if Japanese is the dinner choice the Sakura Restaurant can handle any udon noodle fix.
Not all of Xiamen's best restaurants are located under hotel roofs. There are many independent marvels and proof of this can be found at the Shuyou Seafood Restaurant . Critics rave about this dining gem and rate it as one Xiamen's best overall restaurants. Cantonese and Fujian style seafood dishes line its menu and include lobster, prawn, and sea crabs. Equally impressive is its attentive service that never seems to falter regardless of how busy the restaurant becomes. This is the closest restaurant Xiamen has to being rated in the "Do Not Miss" category.
The Puzhaolou Vegetarian Restaurant has no peers when it comes to meat free dishes. Located next to the Nanpuoto Temple it reflects the Buddhist mindset with vegetarian offerings ranging from Black Fungus Soup with Tofu to Yams with Seaweed. All the meals can be washed down with a nice selection of local beers and conversation with a monk.
The Haoxianglai Chinese Western Restaurant rates big with families as well as with those shackled by restricted budgets. This local chain serves surprisingly tasty steaks that are both tender and juicy, making some diners swear the kitchen has Texas roots.
And for those who crave for the tried and true, a cresting wave of fast food restaurants has surged into Xiamen. Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and many others are now as much a part of Xiamen's downtown dining scene as are noodle and rice dishes.
Xiamen's delicious mix of gardens, beaches and islands muddies the old what-to-see-and-do dilemma, especially for travelers hampered with time restrictions. Fortunately, unlike other cities whose tourist hotspots are interspersed miles apart, Xiamen's are conveniently concentrated, making it possible to easily experience the area's magic. Plotting and prioritizing is all that is needed.
The main priority of any Xiamen visitor should be to visit Gulangyu Island , or as the locals either call it the Garden of the Sea or Piano Isle. Ferries to this freckle of land can be found just a few blocks north of Zhongshan Road directly across the street from the Lujiang Hotel. The ferries depart every 15 minutes and are free going out, but cost CNY2 on the return. Upon docking, do not try searching down a taxi, for cars (and even bicycles) are banned from the island, making comfortable walking shoes imperative.
If shopping and dining is your main objective, wander straight ahead into town. The twisting cobbled streets are all lined with stores and seafood restaurants housed in hopelessly quaint colonial buildings. Many of the shops here feature Xiamen's best variety of handmade stone and woodcarvings, reed screens, rattan baskets, linens and more.
For those eager to see some sights, begin heading southeast along the island's shore. The buildings along this road are vast colonial structures and include the former German and British embassies. Eventually you will come upon Bright Moon Park , home to a massive, 1,400-ton granite statue of local military hero Zheng Chenggong. After snapping several photos, continue to follow the shoreline west where you will pass the Gulangyu Guesthouse , made famous by President Dick Nixon's visit in 1972, before coming across the visually staggering Shuzuang Garden . The brainchild of a former local businessman, the garden juts out into the ocean through a series of walk bridges, creating the kind of visual beauty normally only found on Hallmark greeting cards.
Just beyond the garden towers is Sunlight Rock , a yawning bluff that stretches 300 feet high and affords expansive views of Xiamen and even of Taiwanese-controlled Jinmen Island. Guests can either walk or ride a cable car to the summit. Adjacent to the Rock is the Zheng Chenggong Memorial Hall , which, in case your curiosity was piqued after gazing at his statue earlier in the walk, details Chenggong's military exploits.
From here begin heading inland, back towards the ferry terminal, where you can soothe your ears with a concert at the Music Hall of Gulang Island, or wander through the Xiamen Museum's four floors featuring porcelains from the Tang dynasty and Iron Age weapons. And if time allows visit Xiamen Underwater Sea World , which is just a block from the ferry terminal.
To grasp the essence of Xiamen begin wandering south towards the harbor on Zhongshan Road . As Xiamen's main drag, it pulses with humanity and features a gauntlet of restaurants, nightclubs and shops. Upon reaching the harbor head southeast, along the shore, to Xiamen University . Its beach location combined with classic Chinese architecture makes it one of the most scenic college campuses in the world. Two blocks northeast, directly behind the university, sits the Nanpuoto Temple . Dating back more than 1,000 years, it represents Xiamen's most well preserved ancient house of worship and still serves as a functioning Buddhist temple. The Wanshi Botanical Park lies directly north of the temple and serves as Xiamen's centerpiece for natural beauty. To merely describe it as a garden paradise would be a shallow understatement. More than 4,000 species of plants including eucalyptus trees from Australia and a redwood delivered by Dick Nixon coat its rolling hills. An impossibly scenic lake, ancient pavilions, and numerous caves and oddly shaped rocks also contribute to its appeal. If time allows, hike to the park's White Deer Cave and Tiger Stream Rock , especially at night during a full moon, when the shadows on the rocks create the illusion of movement.