While China is famous for its Great Wall and big exciting cities, its islands are less well known. But they are also well worth exploring, as you will see when you arrive on Gulangyu. Located right off the coast of Xiamen, this car-free island is dotted with colonial mansions and sandy beaches. A ferry crossing of just ten minutes whisks you to a world apart from the mainland.
Portuguese, British, French and Dutch seafarers all came to Xiamen and Gulangyu Island centuries ago. While their attempts to establish ports there failed time and time again, they built mansions, consulates, schools and churches which still adorn the streets. This history is especially evident on Gulangyu. And since there are no cars on the island, pedestrians can make the most of the less than two square kilometres of beaches and architectural heritage.
The fine sand, palm trees and an average temperature of 21 degrees Celsius combined together make up the charm of the beaches of Gulangyu. A winding pathway along the coast connects all the beaches. Those on the south side are more popular, while the northern ones are deserted. The trail around the island passes the 93-metre high Sunlight Rock, which offers a beautiful view of Gulangyu and Xiamen.
As there are not many hotels on Gulangyu, most visitors take the evening boat back to Xiamen. The hotels that do exist there are often housed in colonial mansions. This is the case with the boutique hotel Lee Inn & Coffee House, a 100-year old building with colonnades which stands in a walled garden and exudes history. Draped curtains adorn the windows of the 17 rooms, some of which even feature a bathtub on curled legs.
Criss-crossing the island are alleys where you may still encounter old pushcarts. Laundry and lanterns hang between the houses. Gulangyu is blessed with a silence known by few villages in China. Piano music, however, does occasionally sound through the streets. At the beginning of the last century, Europeans opened their first music schools here and hundreds of islanders have since learned to play piano – Gulangyu is even nicknamed ‘Piano Island’, and features the only piano museum in China.