It may be just one square kilometre in size, but Xiamen’s Gulang Island knows how to drum up interest beyond its sleek measurements making a visit to the island one of the top things to do in Xiamen.
The local guide will tell you the local population is somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000, which is overwhelming for such an islet.
But when you consider the annual number of tourists almost meets Australia’s population, expect some congestion along the narrow streets and lanes that weave through this former colonial outpost.
Where is Xiamen?
Xiamen is an attractive modern city that’s not only on the radar of cruise ships but can be easily reached on direct Xiamen Airlines flights from a number of destinations.
Although Xiamen isn’t home to China’s famous landmarks, what makes Xiamen one of the more interesting places to visit in China is its mix of splendid colonial buildings and new ritzy high-rise apartments, department stores, offices and hotels.
And to keep the centre free of traffic and pollution, motorcycles are banned from the CBD.
It is among China’s most popular coastal holiday hot spots and, with a population of four million, small in comparison with other major cities on the mainland.
On the outskirts, the beaches are renowned for drawing a crowd, to swim, sunbathe and tuck into a meal at one of a host of restaurants to take up waterfront residency.
Thankfully, motorised vehicles and rickshaws are banned; otherwise, it would be sheer madness trying to get around during the peak tourist season.
Gulangyu is among a number of popular holiday spots to visit in the giant commercial seaport of Xiamen in Fujian province, in south-eastern China – a hop, skip and jump from the outlying islands of neighbouring Taiwan to the east.
The former Portuguese enclave of Macao is only 528km from Xiamen.
7 Things to do in Xiamen
Xiamen Attractions – Gulangyu Island
However, of the many Xiamen attractions, it is Gulangyu, a five-minute ferry journey across the narrow strait that grabs our interest.
Its meaning – drum waves – relates to the deafening sounds created by breaks cutting through holes in the reef.
1- Gulangyu’s Gallery of International Architecture
The 1000 or more historic buildings that makeup Gulangyu’s Gallery of International Architecture present a blend of Chinese and Western elements that include temples with upturned eaves and corners, Fujian-style single storey homes, exquisite Japanese houses and former consulates of European countries with continental features of the late 1800s.
In the early 20th Century, the island was a foreign enclave with consulates, churches and luxurious homes and mansions.
The fascinating architecture, in parts now decaying with peeling paint, is a major drawcard.
2- Shuzhuang Garden
There is also a private villa that was initially constructed in 1913 by a Taiwanese businessman, Lim Erjia, which today prides itself on its Shuzhuang Garden.
This garden – it has 44 pedestrian bridges and a vast array of flora – is divided into two sections, Garden Hiding the Sea and Garden Making-Up Hills and, if not for the crowds, it would be an ideal spot to enjoy a picnic, albeit a Chinese-style one.
3- Sunlight (Huang) Rock
While the walk is likened to an outdoor history lesson, the sight of the ever-expanding Xiamen skyline from the island’s western shore reminds us that we are actually in the 21st Century.
The best viewpoint is from the top of the island’s Sunlight (Huang) Rock, considered by many as the most scenic spot in Xiamen.
Our guide stressed that it would be a trip to Xiamen “in vain” without climbing it.
So with that mind, we climbed to the top of the 100-metre peak for a view worth every bit the effort.
Surrounding the peaks was lushly covered gardens and tiny pavilions the islet’s highest point – it is actually made up of two giant boulders leaning against each other – was once a military post.
Today, visitors look like armies of ants meandering along the undulating path and imposing stairs that lead to the peak.
4- Xiamen Beach
In summer, Gulangyu is also a haven for swimmers as it has a number of sandy beaches with protected calm waters, although the rubbish (primarily plastic bags) washed up on the shore from the mainland was a constant nuisance, keeping cleaning staff busy.
Along the shaded narrow streets and lanes, we were greeted by the scent of dried seafood that included the delicacy abalone.
Dried fruit was abundant, along with tables covered in shells, some hanging in front of the tiny hawker’s stalls and souvenir outlets.
5- Hero Hill Piano Garden
While the name Gulangyu translates to “drum waves”, it is the piano or organ that generates interest from music lovers, as the island is said to be home to more than 600 of different shapes, sizes and origins – the largest numbers of pianos per capita in the world.
For this reason, the Gulangyu is also known as the Island of Pianos and the Land of Music, and it wasn’t surprising to hear one being played during the visit.
The history behind the piano’s introduction is sketchy, but one theory points to missionaries arriving “with bibles in one hand and pianos in the other”.
As early as 1913, local students in schools run by foreigners were taught how to play the piano.
On the island’s Hero Hill is the Piano Garden, a scenic area renowned for its Musical Sound Tower and Music Pavilion.
In Shuzhuang Garden is a museum dedicated to the musical instrument where all kinds of piano, from different eras and corners of the world, are displayed, collected and donated by Hu Youyi, who hailed from Gulangyu but later moved to Australia to live.
As we found during the walk there was natural music as well as a number of birds provided plenty of gentle sounds.
And as Gulangyu is a magnet for many millions of tourists each year, the tinkling of cash registers can also music to the ears of locals.
6- South Putuo Temple (Nanputuo Temple)
Sandwiched between the ocean and the Wulao Peaks, visiting South Putuo Temple is one of the things to do n Xiamen for its beauty and history.
The Tang Dynasty temple was a sacred Buddhist temple named after a famous sacred mountain in Zhejiang Province.
Besides being architecturally beautiful, the temple is home to the Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Hall of Great Compassion, Buddha statues and Buddhist scriptures.
7- Hulishan Fortress
Hulishan Fortress has defended Xiamen Island’s southern coastline for more than 100 years.
The Qing Dynasty fortress was built in 1894 and was used to defend China against the Japanese invasion in 1900.
Let your imagination go wild as you explore the sprawling fortress, tower, ammunition depot, barracks and sentry post.
Getting to Xiamen
Xiamen Airlines flies to Macao with a stopover in Xiamen. Passengers do not require a China visa if spending less than 72 hours in Xiamen. Macao is visa-free for 74 nationalities, including Australian passport holders staying less than 30 days.
Macao is a culinary hub of Asia that is attracting top European chefs as well as a growing destination for Asian haute cuisine. Macanese cuisine is on the rise and if you’ll find delicious Macanese Egg Tarts there.