Exploring Taiwan’s offshore islands
Though Taiwan is a relatively small territory compared to many of its Asian neighbours, it exhibits amazing diversity both in its geography and culture. From volcanic hot springs to soaring emerald peaks, vast agricultural plains to coral reefs, Taiwan has it all – and nowhere is this diversity more apparent than on its offshore islands.
Relatively unencumbered by traffic, technology and the other trappings of modern life, destinations like Kinmen, Matsu, Penghu, Orchid Island, Green Island and Xiao Liuqiu boast a wealth of scenic and historic attractions, offering a rare glimpse into life in Taiwan in days gone by.
Closer to mainland China than Taiwan, Kinmen and Matsu were once heavily militarised in the 1950s with underground bunkers, extensive barracks and hundreds of artillery emplacements. Off-limits to non-military personnel for decades, the islands are now thriving tourist attractions.
Local residents have capitalised on Kinmen’s turbulent past. Many former soldiers offer tours of defunct military infrastructure, while craftsmen fashion high-quality kitchen knives from unexploded artillery shells. Whole Qing-dynasty villages have been preserved, and exploring them is like taking a trip on a time machine.
One of Kinmen’s unique cultural quirks might be its 'wind lions': stone deities that are said to protect the islands from unfavourable weather. Hundreds of them can be found around the island, many of them garbed in colourful capes for special occasions and festivals.
The Matsu island group lies about 250 kilometres northeast of Kinmen and is similarly famed for its military infrastructure. The existence of the Beihai Tunnel, a 640-metre-long cavern filled with seawater, was once classified information, but today the tunnel is open to visitors. Boat operators provide guided tours, but those seeking more freedom can rent a canoe and paddle around the eerily lit subterranean structure.
Matsu’s Qinbi village contains some of the finest examples of Fujian-style architecture. Carefully restored buildings with granite walls and tiled roofs are perched on a hillside overlooking the sea. Many of the historic homes have been converted into B&Bs, giving Qinbi a laidback, almost Mediterranean feel.
Those with an interest in Taiwan’s transition from dictatorship to democracy will find inspiration on Green Island. Taiwan’s very own Alcatraz, Green Island housed political prisoners during the 1950s and 1960s when Taiwan was locked down under martial law. The prison is now part of the Green Island Human Rights Culture Park, with a small visitor’s centre packed with information about the island’s most famous prisoners.
Just a 45-minute ride on a hydrofoil ferry, or a 10-minute flight from Taitung City, the island can be seen from the east coast of Taiwan on a clear day, with craggy rocks that line its shore, white sandy beaches and towering green mountains at its centre.
For most visitors, the real beauty of Green Island is not found on land but beneath the waves. The island sits amid the Japan Current, a warm channel of Pacific seawater that is particularly nutrient-rich. Here, the coral flourishes in a relatively pristine marine environment and offers shelter to over 300 species of fish, as well as sea snakes, turtles and other vertebrates. It’s little wonder that the island has become Taiwan’s most popular diving destination.
In contrast to the velvety emerald hills of Green Island, Orchid Island, situated 62 kilometres off Taiwan’s south-eastern coast, is known for its weather-lashed, mostly barren landscape.
The best time to visit Orchid Island is during the Flying Fish Festival in the late spring. With their ability to leap clear of the water’s surface and glide for a hundred metres or more, flying fish are among the most spectacular members of the piscine world. During the Flying Fish Festival, the island’s men take to the seas in traditional canoes to catch as many of the fish as possible, which are then salted and hung to dry in the sun for consumption later in the year.
Water-sport lovers should head to Penghu, a group of 90 islands off Taiwan’s western coast. Portuguese sailors en route to Japan in the 16th century called the archipelago the Pescadores, or “fishermen’s islands.” Only 19 of the islets are permanently inhabited, mostly by elderly fishermen and their families. During the monsoon season from November to March, the population swells as windsurfers and kite surfers arrive from all over the world to enjoy consistent 45-knot winds and relatively calm, warm waters.
On a geological timescale, Penghu qualifies as a recently formed island group, having emerged from the sea during a series of seabed eruptions around 10 million years ago. Glimpses of this violent birth can be seen everywhere: At Daguoye on Xiyu Island are beguiling hexagonal column cliffs around 20 metres high, while tiny Tongpan Island is almost entirely ringed by the same unusual structures.
Penghu is also home to one of Taiwan’s most iconic landmarks, the Double-Heart Weir on Qimei Island. The weir was originally constructed by local residents to ensnare fish that happened to stray into its narrow opening at high tide. However, it is more popular today as a backdrop for romantic wedding photos and has helped turned Penghu into a domestic honeymoon destination.
The smallest of Taiwan’s offshore islands is tiny Xiao Liuqiu, an uplifted coral islet near the mouth of Kaoping River in rural Pingtung County. What Xiao Liuqiu lacks in size, it more than makes up with charm. With year-round warm weather, the island is a top snorkelling, sunbathing and hiking destination. There is no four-wheeled traffic, so local residents and visitors get around by scooter, bicycle or on foot. It’s about as far from the frenetic atmosphere of Taipei as you could possibly hope to get.
The entire islet can be explored in just one day, and it’s a journey packed with surprises. Among the top draws are Black Ghost Cave, the site of a 17th-century battle between Dutch colonisers and the native islanders, and Beauty Cave, named after a Qing-dynasty mainland Chinese girl who is said to have committed suicide at the spot after being shipwrecked on the coast with her father.
Xiao Liuqiu is also famed for its dazzling white beaches of coral sand. More evidence of the island’s past can be found near Baisha Harbour, where a jaw-dropping nine-metre-high coral 'vase' stands in defiance of the typhoons that regularly barrel in from the South China Sea.
Each of Taiwan’s offshore islands offers a unique travel experience, and all are geared toward the budget traveller with rooms at family-run B&Bs and hostels costing around USD30 per night. These island getaways won’t break the bank and offer the perfect counterpoint to a tour of Taiwan’s teeming cities.