ALTHOUGH Shanghai translates as “city by the sea,” it is not a city for traditional beach lovers. While there are a few manmade beaches in the city proper, you really need to plan a weekend away if an authentic seaside excursion is what you seek.
Gouqi and Shengshan islands just southeast of Shanghai in Zhejiang Province are just the ticket.
The East China Sea islands are part of the 404-isle Shengsi Archipelago. Shengshan and Gouqi are neighbors, connected by a bridge and sometimes called the “Little Greece of China.”
Four of us journeyed to the islands in mid-September, when tourists were few and the crisp days of autumn highlighted the untainted natural beauty of the islands. This is not only a beach paradise, but also a seafood lover’s nirvana.
The green ghost town
The fishing village of Houtouwan, on the northern side of Shengshan, is perhaps the most famous scenic site on the two islands. Some 2,000 fishermen once lived here, but now only a few people remain.
The crumbling houses and village pathways are overgrown with vegetation. The villagers left because life in such a remote spot was hard where education and daily provisions were concerned.
It was simply easier and more economical to fish and deliver catches on the mainland.
Nicole Timm, from South Africa, visited Houtouwan last week during the Mid-Autumn Festival. She said she was overwhelmed by the ghost town, and the eeriness was even better up close.
Viewing sunrise and sunset
Dongya Juebi, or Dongya Cliff, is a viewpoint famous for catching the first rays of sunlight every day. You have to be an early bird to enjoy it, rising at 4am.
“It was so spectacular to be able to see such a magnificent sunrise,” said professional photographer Zhong Bo after capturing the beautiful sunrise.
The path to the viewpoint runs parallel to a cliff, offering panoramic views of the sea and bobbing fishing boats. The entrance fee is 50 yuan (US$7.50), but the excursion is well worth the money.
To watch the sunset, a beautiful old lighthouse at Dayuwan beach on Shengshan is an ideal — and free — spot. Ask for directions, since it’s not usually listed on tourist maps.
“I learned in school that a lighthouse guides sailors home, and the Dayuwan lighthouse fully conveys that message,” said Ailsa Zhang, an English teacher from Shanghai.
A sandy beach
Although there are many little beaches scattered across Gouqi and Shengshan, only a few are unclaimed by fishermen and their boats. Dawang beach on Gouqi is one of the beaches exclusively reserved for swimming.
The sandy beach strip is ideal for a lazy day. You can rent everything from beach umbrellas to swim paraphernalia.
Entrance to the beach costs 25 yuan. Alongside the beach there are several cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy Gouqi’s renowned seafood.
Gouqi is famous for its mussels, which are considered the best in China. The Shengsi islands chain produces about 315,000 tons of seafood a year.
There are a few Buddhist temples on Gouqi and Shengshan. Perhaps the one most worth seeing is the Fushan Temple. It’s just a quick detour on the route to Houtouwan Village on Shengshan.
A few monks still live at the site, and we were lucky to encounter one while climbing the mountain.
In many Buddhist temples across China, it is a tradition for visitors to leave a small offering such as flowers or food. Here, you can see Shengshan locals making their way up the hill to the temple to show their respect.
If you go
How to get there:
Getting to Gouqi and Shengshan from Shanghai is a three-part trip that includes Metro, a bus and a ferry, and takes about seven hours. Take Metro Line 4 to Nangpu Bridge and follow the signs for Exit 1 to access the bus station and ticket office.
Although you can purchase bus and ferry tickets at the office, we booked them online to ensure that all four of us got seats on both the bus and ferry. From Nangpu Bridge, it’s about a two-hour bus ride to the Shenjiawan wharf, where the ferry to Gouqi embarks.
The ferry ride can take anywhere between five and six hours, depending on the weather, and is actually a lovely scenic cruise. A combined one-way ticket for the bus and ferry varies between 100 yuan (US$15) and 200 yuan.
Places to stay:
We decided to stay one night on either of the islands. The ferry landed on Gouqi, so we took a bus to Shengshan, where we spent first night at a hotel called Sizhoutang Yujia Minsu, or Sizhoutang Fishing Hostel.
The seaside hotel has a lovely rooftop terrace with stunning views of the ocean. It is also within walking distance from a buzzing town center and Houtouwan.
We spent the second night on Gouqi at a cozy guesthouse called Wild Books. It is known for its collection of paintings, books and poetry. It’s actually the only library on the island, with both English and Chinese books.
Among the dozens of Mandarin poems on the walls, I was pleasantly surprised to see a few Western classics such as Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain.”