XIAMEN, China -- This port on the southeast coast, across the Taiwan Straits from Taiwan, is one of China's busiest and most historic. The city sits mostly on an island, sprawls onto the mainland and fills an immense bay area connected by bridges and ringed by tall buildings on hillsides.
Xiamen's deep-water harbor created a natural port, and from the earliest outside contact with Portuguese traders in the 1500s, its geography made it an important stop for commerce. The Opium War treaties of 1842 further opened trade and, with the Jiulong River connecting the bay to the interior, it became a busy entry point for Christian missionaries.
As we circled above on an Air China flight in the wee hours of a summer night, the glowing sprawl below that is modern Xiamen reminded me of San Francisco. This was my first trip to China since 1981, and I was coming to teach at Xiamen University.
I arrived with little knowledge of Xiamen. Never mind that the city's current population of 2.5 million would make it fourth-largest in the U.S., behind Chicago. If it isn't Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or the Great Wall, what do Americans know about China? For most of us, very little.
In fact, I discovered the city to be everything many Americans do not expect to find in China: long, golden sandy beaches, palm trees, subtropical climate with mild winters, leisurely attractions, public parks with meticulously manicured gardens -- and clean air.
Xiamen residents are proud of their home. The city ranks as the country's second-most habitable city, behind Dalian, another coastal community in the northeast, according to a survey published in China Daily. More than 5,000 experienced travelers were polled with questions involving index factors such as traffic, pollution and security.
The city was designated one of China's favored Special Economic Zones in 1980, owing to its history as an international port. This gave it liberalized economic laws, allowing it to evolve into an extremely popular contemporary destination for the country's growing domestic tourism industry as well as travelers and cruise ships from Asian neighbors.
A recent political thaw with nearby Taiwan opened yet another vital artery for commerce and sightseers. This was celebrated last summer with the first Quemoy-Xiamen crossing, in which 50 swimmers from each nation started the event on Yefengzhai Beach in Xiamen and swam to the former Taiwanese fortress island of Quemoy, a distance of about 4 miles.
You could count on one hand the Americans I encountered during my stay, but the area is extremely visitor-friendly, with a full range of cosmopolitan hotels, restaurants and shopping. There is an efficient, inexpensive public bus system, and taxis are plentiful and cheap. The main streets and highways are comparable to those in major U.S. cities.
Xiamen University, a top 15 national university with about 30,000 students, and half a dozen other colleges and institutes in Xiamen and Fujian province help contribute to a decidedly liberal atmosphere by Chinese standards.
Two years ago, the central Chinese government's intention to locate a chemical plant here created enough concern over its potential environmental effects that the decision was changed. Students took to the streets in peaceful protest and generated more than 1 million text messages of objection. "Faced with the choice of becoming a chemical-industry base or a coastal, scenic city, we think we should stick to the latter," Xiamen's mayor told the press.
In 2009, the city hosted World Ocean Week, an important conference to explore protection of natural resources in this part of the world. The city also hosts numerous regional trade shows and an annual international music festival. The university where I taught is a globally recognized center for research in cancer, stem cells and pharmaceuticals.
While the atmosphere makes it compatible for Westerners to live and work here, there is no shortage of sights for tourists to explore either on their own or as part of a tourist package. These include multiday bicycle treks into the countryside. But in going solo, I never felt intimidated wandering the streets.
Among attractions are the German-built Huli Shan Fort, overlooking the bay and evidence of the once more-intense European interest here; Underwater Sea World, an aquarium offering more than 10,000 examples of indigenous river and ocean life; Xiamen Water Park, a good place to cool off in the sweltering summer months; White Deer Cave, constructed in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); and many miles of sandy beaches.
Luckily for me, Nanputuo, a Buddhist temple and destination for many Chinese, was outside a gate to Xiamen University. I made multiple visits. This sprawling, enclosed complex covers the side of a small mountain and is more than 1,000 years old, dating to the Tang Dynasty's small cave dwelling of a single monk.
Fronted by a beautiful, lily-covered pond, today it has more than 20 buildings with more than 50,000 Buddhist artifacts, making it a spiritual shopping mall for thousands of daily visitors. People can make their way up the slope through a maze of shops, shrines, prayer stalls, gardens and the smell of incense.
To say things changed since my last visit to China nearly 30 years ago would be an understatement. On that trip, the country had seen few Americans since President Richard Nixon made his historic, door-opening visit in 1972. The Cultural Revolution had peaked in 1976, only five years before my trip, with the death of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Tourism was strictly regulated by the central government, which made only a few cities available.
Visitors were assigned to groups accompanied by Communist Party operatives. A special currency was used to control transactions.
In those days, women with blond hair were so rare that it was not unusual for them to draw crowds of curious Chinese gawkers.
As Americans increasingly venture from lockstep tours to China, they would be in for a pleasant surprise with a visit to this city.
If you go ...
Getting there: With a layover and flight change, my United Airline/Air China trip to Xiamen was about 24 hours door to door. This included four hours in Beijing's huge but efficient Capital International Airport, an interesting and entertaining place to kill time.
The flight to Xiamen is not cheap, from $1,400 to $2,500, and from the U.S. there are no direct, nonstop flights with traditional commercial airlines such as American, Delta or United, which service the jumping-off cities. The most popular approaches are through Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai or Tokyo.
Staying there: Though flights are not cheap, Xiamen is an inexpensive city for visitors, made cheaper by low cab fares (I never paid more than $6 in Chinese currency for lengthy rides) and by drivers who do not expect tips and were actually offended by my offer.
Rooms in five-star hotels such as the Sheraton or Powerlong hotels can range from $90 to 125 per night.
Dining there: The restaurant choices befit the city's international flavor, with some of the best found in the hotels above. At the Xiamen International Seaside Hotel, a 5-star facility where rooms are as low as $89 per night, there is excellent French, Japanese and Chinese food to be found in its five restaurants, which also include the Byland Oyster Bar. We're talking $15 for dinner.
When to go: If there is one serious word of caution, it is this: Pick your season with care. This is a subtropical city, and the summer months, typhoon season, can be dreadfully hot and humid.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun