We chose this prosperous island city on the southeast coast of mainland China in Fujian province because of dumb luck: We had friends teaching at the university in Zhangzhou, a suburb about 30 miles west. But visiting Xiamen, 1,300 miles south of Beijing and directly west of Taiwan, makes sense; it has won international awards as the "cleanest," "prettiest" and "most livable" city in China.
Our friends met our plane so they could ease us into China and help us cross the language barrier. They started by warning us that there weren't too many Westerners in Xiamen (pronounced shah-men) and even fewer in Zhangzhou. They then ushered us into a fast-moving taxi line the length of a football field. When we got our taxi, we had to hold suitcases on our laps because trunk space in this, and many Xiamen cabs, is reserved for natural-gas fuel tanks.
Being conscientious about protecting the environment doesn't stop cabbies from modeling their driving style after Grand Prix racers. When we didn't have our eyes squeezed shut during the 20-minute ride into Xiamen proper, we took in the quickly passing scenery and gaped at walls of luxury high-rises in various stages of construction. The skyline of traditional Chinese structures juxtaposed with high-design glass and steel skyscrapers was softened by palm trees, flowers and lots of green spaces, a Xiamen hallmark.
The tallest building in Xiamen (and in prosperous Fujian province) turned out to be our hotel, the striking year-old Xiamen Kempinski. Our 11th-floor room was a ringside seat to a daytime living landscape and a nighttime neon light show starring just about every building in the city.
The top item on our Xiamen to-do list was an outing to Gulangyu (goo-lahn-you), the area's biggest tourist draw. Gulangyu Island was established as a settlement for foreigners in the mid-19th century. The islet is tiny (1 square mile) and a 10-minute, packed ferry ride from the city wharf. Once home to foreign consulates and Christian missions, it's now a de facto shrine to tourism with its colonial architecture, meandering, narrow streets, food stalls and restaurants, beaches, churches, museums, gardens and giant monuments. Cars are forbidden on the island, which is so popular that city government limits the number of people (20,000) who can visit at any one time. Gulangyu and Xiamen both are islands, but they and Zhangzhou all are considered part of metropolitan Xiamen governed under one umbrella.
When the ferry docked on Gulangyu, we headed for Underwater World, an aquarium with sharks, dolphins, penguins and tropical fish in attractive displays. The rest of our time on the island was spent poking around pearl shops, sampling local fare (squid on a stick is great), strolling the Shuzhuang Garden and marveling at the more than 100 historic instruments on display at the Piano Museum.
Once back in Xiamen proper, we spent an afternoon at the 1,000-year-old Nanputuo Buddhist Temple and Xiamen University. The temple always is crowded with pilgrims bringing offerings and with visitors wandering the temple gardens and gift shops and chowing down at a fixed-price vegetarian restaurant run by the temple monks.
Xiamen University is across the street from the temple, and its 400-acre campus is one of mainland China's highest rated and most beautiful centers of learning. It is home to 38,000 full-time students, 2,500 of whom are from foreign lands. It is so popular with visitors that entrance to the campus is limited to authorized personnel except for a couple of hours after 1 p.m.
For me, no trip is complete without a little retail therapy, and Xiamen's premier shopping street, Zhongshan Road, elevates bargain hunting to Olympic sport status. Retail options range from department stores with whole floors selling nothing but designer fragrances to kiosks offering hundreds of varieties of dried chili peppers to entrepreneurs hawking units in high-rise developments from a street stage. Sales pitches, crowd noise and delicious aromas emanating from cooking stations creating stir fries, grilled meats and fish embellished with local herbs and produce create an intoxicating haze that lures shoppers and keeps them moving from store to store.
"Essence of place" is tough to pinpoint in nation of contrasts like China, but two simple, unplanned experiences did just that for us. One was a simple tasting in one of Xiamen's ubiquitous tea shops. Not only did we experience the nuanced flavors of the national beverage, we also were treated to a glimpse of Chinese culture through the eyes of the graceful young woman who explained the importance of tea in the daily life of China. The other occurred while taking a shortcut through a city park on a Saturday afternoon. The park was jammed with families: Children walking around a lagoon with grandparents; multigeneration families taking in the park sculptures and playing lawn games; groups of men discussing events and playing cards; students taking part in an open-air tai chi class; and teenagers interacting with their parents. It made us smile and feel a little less laowai.
If you go
Getting there: Many flights from the United States go nonstop to Shanghai. It's another 90 minutes to Xiamen on China Eastern Airlines.
Staying there: Choose the best Western-style hotel you can afford. It will provide a needed haven after spending the noisy day in a city where you can't read the street signs. The Kempinski (kempinski.com/en/ xiamen, starting at $160 a night) has fabulous views, a superb spa and excellent restaurants.
Getting around: One of the big keys is to get several of your hotel's cards with its address written in Chinese script on one side and your destination written on the other. Taxi drivers and bus drivers don't speak English, so you will need to show them the card to get wherever you are going. Buses are the cheapest way to get around, and your hotel concierge can tell you the correct route.