Sanya is a bit far — I was looking to get as far out into the sea as a bus could take me — so I went looking for alternatives.
The answer: Zhoushan.
Zhoushan Island, about 150km south east of Shanghai, is the largest island in the archipelago that bears its name. It's also the fourth largest island in China, after Taiwan, Hainan and Chongming. In the last two decades, it has seen an explosion of government funding, turning Zhoushan and its surrounding islands into tourist hotspots.
There is a four-hour bus from Shanghai that goes directly to Zhujiajian (朱家尖), the final destination for beach-goers, but I got off at the Dinghai Bus Station so I could bike along Zhoushan's main island and see it for myself. There are Hellobikes everywhere, a little reminder that you're not that far from Shanghai.
The outskirts of Dinghai (定海), the westernmost district, is rife with construction sites and brand new high-rises that stand completely empty. The downtown, with its bustling ferry port and older couples wandering the apartment neighborhoods, feels more… I don't know, lived in. It also holds most of Zhoushan's remaining historical settlement.
Zhoushan was major center for fishing and sea-trade going back as far as the 700s BCE. Most of the historical attention (and monuments) is around Zhoushan's role in the First Opium War. Zhoushan (previously spelled "Chusan") was captured by the British in 1840, and then exchanged with the Qing Dynasty in return for Hong Kong.
The guy who organized the trade, Charles Elliot, actually got in trouble with the British government for what was seen as a real bad trade. They'd had their eyes on Zhoushan as the perfect spot for a trade port since the 1700s. Hong Kong, meanwhile, was some miserable rock prone to typhoons.
There are plenty of monuments to the Opium War scattered around the island, including the memorial to the three Qing generals who died fighting the British. The old streets of Dinghai, around Zhong Da Jie (中大街) and Xi Da Jie (西大街) are worth a visit if you have time. They've been renovated and restored, and are now full of family-run restaurants and little bars.
Traveling east, you reach Zhoushan District (舟山区), the centrally-planned, 21st century city center. Wide streets, big green lawns with huge flower arrangements, and big, stand-alone complexes like stadiums, hotels and municipal buildings. I abandoned my Hellobike on some road there and called a DiDi: I didn't want to spend an hour biking through the same New District you could find in any third-tier city on the coast.
It's a short drive to Putuo District (普陀区) (same Putuo as the one in Shanghai). The district actually encompasses a bunch of islands — including the famous temple island of Putuoshan — but it also refers to the buit-up area on the eastern-most rim of the main island, sometimes called Donggang (东港). It's modern, but lacks street life, though it does have some decent coffeeshops. It also holds the ferry terminal for islands like Putuoshan (普陀山), Taohua (桃花) and Dongji (东极).
If you can, take a detour to the south, past the the Shenjiamen Fishing Port (沈家门渔港). It's apparently the largest fishing port in China, where dozens and dozens of fishing boats anchor every day in the harbor. The seafront promenade is packed with fresh seafood restaurants. Worth a stroll if there's time to spare.
However, we're mostly on this side of the island because this is where we find the bridge that takes us to our final destination; the island of Zhujiajian.
The entire island of Zhujiajian is a nature park, with peaks, forests, wetlands, its own airport (!) and, crucially, a pair of broad, sandy beaches on the eastern coast known as the Ten Mile Golden Beach.
If you're here to camp, like I am, you've finally arrived. A little under five hours after leaving Shanghai, you're standing at the gates to the sea.
Dongshatan is the longest of the Ten Mile Golden Sands. It stretches 1.3 kilometers, a flat, gentle arc that curves to the Valentine's Island outcropping to the south and looks directly out into the East China Sea.
The approach to the beach is lined with a handful of stalls selling inflatables, ice-cream and water. Behind you are literally dozens of identical minsu, little guesthouses, and larger hotel complexes further back catering to domestic tourists. Tickets to get into the beach are 30rmb.
The buoy-marked bathing area is restricted to the central portion, where there are watersports available, as well as bathrooms and big shower facilities. Megaphones announce, very loudly and at very short intervals, that anyone planning to swim must proceed to designated points to pick up your (free) life jacket.
Very few people stray from this central three hundred meter stretch of the beach. At either ends, where the megaphones can't be heard, you're met with wide stretches of powdery white sand interrupted only by the sound of waves. You might even manage to take an unsupervised dip in the ocean here, provided you're quick, and the life-guards in the central portion don't notice you.
I spent an hour or two here, scoping out good spots to camp and enjoying the feeling of sand between my toes and the warm, surprisingly blue waters lapping against my ankles before moving on.
Valentine's Island (情人岛)
Nestled between the two beaches is a little promontory called Valentine's Island.
It's a one-hour hike along well-cleared paths through the dense vegetation, to the point where you can't even tell you're on the shoreline anymore, if it wasn't for the sound of waves crashing against craggy rocks. You turn a corner every once in a while and you're greeted by a clear view to the horizon across the sea.
At the top, just past the rope bridges across the gorge and behind the new conference center, is a bunker left over from World War 2. One of the paths returning from the peak follows an old trench.
The south side of the island has a promenade raised above the rocks, which winds its way back up into the forested island and past this snake-head statue, hidden in the foliage. Behind it are two old mansions (perhaps summer homes?) that now serve mostly as staff quarters.
This is a popular spot for drone flyers, as it's just outside the No Fly Zone around the Zhujiajian airport. I spotted two on my walk around.
To the south, past Valentine's Island, is the other big beach.
Compared to the sedate, family-friendly Dongshatan, Nanshatan is party central. It's surrounded on all sides by boisterous seafood restaurants and hotels, and past the entrance itself you'll find stall after stall selling sea-shell souvenirs and hawking street-food. There's a lamb skewer joint directly behind the beach blasting music, and a man with a megaphone invites everyone who passes by to have a fresh coconut. If the sound of Dongshatan is "please wear a lifevest!" then the chorus of Nanshatan is "有冰的, 有不冰的." "We have cold ones, we have not cold ones!"
Giant sand sculptures dominate a portion of the beach to the north, included in the 70rmb entry ticket.
To the south, there's a hut and some tables that come alive at night with KTV and BBQ. Nanshatan hosts a big concert every year, which is currently still scheduled for this September.
The central bit, where you're allowed to swim (with your complimentary life jacket), gets packed and stays that way for most of the day. Even at night, when they turn on massive floodlights, the surf is filled with tourists and locals packed in cheek to jowl in the waves.
Can I Camp Overnight?
When I first planned this trip, I envisioned camping on the beach and waking in time to see the sun crest the horizon from my tent. I cupped my hands around that image and held it to my breast for warmth in the days leading up to my trip.
After trekking the island and scoping out the best campsite, I settled on Nanshatan: despite the crowds, the southern edge had more natural cover from the wind but still gave me a clear view to the horizon, and I was sure that the crush of humanity in the center of the beach would drift home when the beach closed at 10pm.
Phonecalls to the beach authority before I left assured me it was okay to camp overnight on the beach. You just need to enter before 9pm, after which you're not allowed back in if you leave. Before I pitched my tent, though, I double — no, triple-checked — with the information desk.
"Can I camp here?"
"Yes, of course."
"I mean, overnight?"
"Can't stay overnight."
I checked with Dongshatan. Same answer: "can't stay overnight."
I don't know where the wires got crossed. After, back in Shanghai, I tried calling again: the main tourist information line was down, but a call to a private number that claimed to be the beach management office said it was perfectly fine to camp overnight.
Maybe it was because I'm a foreigner and there were concerns about police registrations or maybe it was something else, but I was too tired, sweaty and sunburned (sunscreen is not optional) at that point to pursue it any further. Dejected, I got myself a hotel back on Zhoushan island.
I didn't get to see the sunrise from a beach on Zhujiajian.
But the next morning, I got a DiDi out to Dongshatan, pitched my tent on the far northern edge, put on some music and watched the waves wash against sandy white beaches through the flap in my tent, barely five hours from Shanghai.
And that ain't bad.
Getting There & Getting Around
Unlike, say, Shengsi, getting to Zhoushan Island is not particularly difficult; there are nearly half a dozen means, including an 11-hour ferry ride from near Chongming and a daily flight from Pudong to Zhujiajian at 1.30pm.
You could take a two-hour high-speed train to Ningbo; buses go to either Dinghai, Putuo or Zhujiajian every ten minutes from the bus station next to Ningbo Railway Station, taking a little over two hours and costing 55rmb. Then it's another forty-five minutes by DiDi to the beach depending where you get off.
The cheapest, easiest, and most relaxing option is to just take the long-distance bus from Shanghai South Railway Station. It's a four+ hour trip, but the buses are well-furnished, comfortable, and the route takes you across the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, which is worth a look itself. Tickets cost 150rmb.
Once you're on Zhoushan, there are shared bikes (though none on Zhujiajian). There's also public transportation, but it's fairly slow: a bus trip from Dinghai to the beach could be as much as two hours. The simplest option is to just get DiDis. Going from the Dinghai bus station to the far end of Zhujiajian by car will take around an hour and cost you about 130rmb or so.
Going to the beach could be a day trip if you start off from Shanghai early enough and catch the 6pm bus back. However, there's plenty here for a whole weekend, if not more. Apart from the monuments and parks on Zhoushan island, you could easily spend a day trekking through Zhujiajian's nature reserves like Daqingshan (大青山) and the Lisha Ecological Park (里沙生恋园), or take a ferry out for a day trip to check out nearby Putuoshan or Taohua.
What About COVID?
To be on the safe side, I got nucleic tests done before I travelled, but was never asked for them: upon arrival, I was asked to scan a QR code and register for my Zhoushan-specific health code. It's a real-name registration that requires the address of your hotel (since I planned to camp, I put my Shanghai address and didn't have any trouble) and a self-declaration you are symptom free. It takes a couple of minutes, and will be needed to get in pretty much anywhere on the island.
If you have any further questions about the beaches, you can try contacting the Zhujiajian beach authority yourself by calling 0580 6038 237 (assuming the number is back up by the time you read this).