Off the coast of Xiamen, in southeast China, Kulangsu (also known as Gulangyu) is not exactly your average Chinese village.
First of all, the tiny island, with just 4,000 households, is completely free of cars and bikes, aside from the occasional tourist trolley.
Then there’s the 19th-century European mansions, leafy seaside promenades, white-sandy beaches and a legacy of classical music.
And as of July, China’s “Piano Island” — so named for its piano music and musical prodigies — is also a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, chosen in the committee’s 41st session.
From the world’s largest piano museum to peaceful colonial mansions, knobby banyan trees and cobbled alleyways, Kulangsu offers a unique journey through China’s past.
An international affair
Why the colonial architecture? Xiamen was, and still is, an important port for Sino-European trade.
“During the Qing Dynasty, Amoy (now known as Xiamen) was one of the first great trading harbors of China. Along with Shanghai, it was one of the first points of contact between East and West,” Robin Goldstein, tourism spokesperson for Kulangsu Island, tells CNN Travel.
“Because of its natural beauty and positioning right in Amoy’s protected main harbor, Kulangsu became the ideal destination in Amoy to live and set up trading business and became the location for customs.”
Throughout the early 19th century, this romantic settlement drew merchants, missionaries and diplomatic representatives from many European countries, including the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese.
By the mid-1800s the 0.75-square-mile island was dotted with consulate buildings, schools, community centers and music studios.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the elite neighborhood, it was “the richest square mile on earth” by the 1920s.
While Kulangsu lacks the glamor of its heyday, the island still holds vestiges of its international past, visible in the island’s 13 foreign consulates and more than 600 heritage buildings.
The island might be small, but it’s home to many a big-name musician — not to mention the highest per capita ownership of pianos in China.
“Western classical instruments, including pianos, barely existed in China before the end of the mid-1800s when this contact between East and West began,” explains Goldstein.
“Kulangsu, as the home of many diplomats and former officials, became a place where Westerners lived and worked and thus they brought many elements of their culture from Europe.”
“As a result, Kulangsu became the first places in all of China where Western classical music could be played and heard.”
A haven for the arts and sciences, the little island practically bred prodigies, among them pianist Xu Feiping and violinist Jing Yang.
Ambling around the winding tree-lined alleyways, travelers will discover the remnants of centuries-old music schools and a well-known piano museum.
The largest in the world — and the only one in China — the Gulangyu Piano Museum (45 Huang Yan Road, Kulangsu) is hard to miss, thanks to an eye-catching facade that resembles piano keys.
Inside, more than 100 gleaming pianos — including a gold-plated number and an antique hand piano — provide insight into the island’s musical heritage.
Xiamen stays relatively warm all year round, with a mild winter and 80-degree summers.
The beaches of Kulangsu might not quite rival the Philippines, but they’re relatively clean — with white sand and swaying palm trees.
Thanks to a walking trail that circles the island, you can easily reach the less frequented stretches on the northern coast, facing the Xiamen west port and a series of islets.
“I love the secluded beach by Zhao He Shan Park in Nei Cuo Ao Village, on the northern edge of Kulangsu,” says Goldstein. “Guanhai beach is another pretty spot on the southwest corner of the island next to a beautiful former ferry port, Guanhai Harbor.”
“Kulangsu is one of the most popular places in China for couples to take wedding pictures, and every day you’ll see the island — especially Guanhai beach — full of brides and grooms in full romantic regalia for their photo shoots.”
The best views
The hilly island seems to be all cobbled alleys and pretty gardens — that is, until you climb up the 302-foot-tall Sunlight Rock.
The golden mound is the highest point on the island, offering views of the island’s red rooftops and of Xiamen across the strait.
“Climbing to its summit, past Sunlight Rock temple, is great in the evening because the crowds are thinner, and you can watch the sunset and skyline of Xiamen begin to twinkle,” says Goldstein.
“Sunsets are also beautiful from beaches all over the island, but my favorite spot of all for sunsets is a quiet spot perched atop the northeast corner of Kulangsu, the site of the old Yanwei Hill Time Cannon — now a newly landscaped public park that’s well off the beaten tourist track.”
When it comes to local cuisine, the tropical seaside surrounds may give you a hint as to what’s for dinner.
“The island’s signature foods all revolve around fresh seafood, fresh local produce, and fresh fruit,” says Goldstein.
“Preparations are simple, healthy, and usually have a bit of a spicy kick. The island is famous for its oyster omelets, which are made with eggs, scallions, sweet potato flour and fresh local oysters, cooked on a flat cast-iron griddle into a perfect ring and served with bright red Xiamen hot sauce.”
Goldstein points to a personal favorite, Blessed Paradise (95 Quanzhou Rd, Kulangsu).
“It’s run by a Kulangsu native who’s also a wine expert and one of the island’s most cosmopolitan restaurateurs,” says Goldstein.
“His kitchen turns out a terrific Kulangsu-style spicy mixed seafood grill of fresh whole fish, clams, squid, abalone, mushrooms, and local vegetables — all of which come swimming in a deeply flavored chili sauce.”
Elsewhere on the island, you can usually recognize the most authentic spots, thanks to a line out the door.
At Fu Lin Chun Canting (109 Longtou Rd, Kulangsu), for example, travelers will find a no-frills dining room and menus depicting an ocean of fresh seafood.
Have it deep-fried, steamed with garlic and shallots, or grilled with a sprinkle of salt — but if you don’t speak Chinese we recommend coming prepared with some key phrases or pictures to which you can point.
The towering statue of Zheng Chenggong — a 17th-century Ming general and cultural hero — is impossible to miss.
This figure, part of a larger sculpture park, rests, like a beacon in a storm, atop of the island’s southeastern point.
Elsewhere in the park, you’ll find an ancient well, the grounds of the former emperor’s palace, and a series of bronze, steel and stone statues.
A walk in the garden
The piano museum is one of several sights inside the larger Shuzhuang Garden.
Dating back to 1913, the green oasis was once a private estate. Now it’s a seaside park, featuring dramatic Chinese-style pavilions, over-water walkways and colorful painted columns.
A long walkway meanders toward the ocean, while on the hillside, Twelve Grotto Heaven provides an eccentric little maze of sandstone formations — not to mention a few carved monkey sculptures.
The most peaceful time on Kulangsu is early morning and late evening, after the crowds have been ferried back to the mainland.
You can take advantage of the empty streets by staying overnight in a boutique hotel, such the Lee Inn & Coffee House (38-40 Zhangzhou Rd, Kulangsu).
Built in a 100-year-old colonial building, the quaint guesthouse offers 17 rooms and a pretty garden.
For a slightly larger address, Goldstein recommends the 26-room Yang Tao Hotel (13 Fuxing Rd, Kulangsu).
Tucked inside Fuxing Castle, the hotel showcases arched doorways and quiet terraces, as well as a popular restaurant and two garden bars.
Regular ferries ply the seven-minute route between Kulangsu and Xiamen 24 hours a day.
In an effort to curb crowds and protect the island’s heritage, Kulangsu has recently capped the number of tourist ferries per day.
Booking your ferry online is recommended (kulangsu.org) and avoid Chinese national holidays, when domestic travel is at its peak.