Compared with the other outlying islands of Taiwan, (maybe with the exception of Lanyu) Matsu is little visited by locals and foreigners alike, yet getting there and around are both pretty easy, and the great beauty and cultural distinctness of the islands make it in many ways a more fascinating destination than the far more popular Penghu archipelago or Kinmen, to the south.
Two abilities, however, are essential or at least very useful for any potential explorer of Matsu’s islands:
– A basic ability in spoken Chinese in at least one member of the group will make traveling around the islands far easier. From my experience few people on the islands seem to have even basic English ability. On the other hand, just like elsewhere in Taiwan, most road signs have English translations (and there are several good English maps available free-of-charge in Tourist Info Centers on each island), so Chinese reading ability isn’t nearly as important.
– Being able to ride a scooter will make for a much more flexible trip. The islands of Matsu are great for exploring, and some of the most beautiful places don’t appear in any tourist brochures or guidebooks, and while walking is possible, it’s slow and very hot work in summer, and having your own wheels will make for a far more fun experience than relying on buses.
GETTING TO MATSU:
According to the tourist info, Matsu can be visited year-round, but I was told by far the best time to come is between June and September, which is the warmest (hottest) and driest season. The winter drizzle begins in October.
There are plenty of flights daily from Taipei’s Sungshan Airport to Nangan and Beigan airports Matsu with Uniair www.uniair.com.tw and I had no trouble booking a flight on a Sunday morning in July just the day before. However it’s a good idea to book Friday evening/Saturday morning flights well in advance.
A more interesting way to get to the islands (or back to Taiwan after a visit) is by Taima ferry (台馬輪), run by Shinhwa ferry company (新華航業公司, Chinese only website http://www.shinhwa.com.tw/) For basic info on the ferry in English (which may not be completely up to date) try http://www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw/User/Article.aspx?a=128&lang=2. The boat leaves daily (weather permitting) from Keelung harbor, a 40-minute train ride from Taipei. Boats run daily to Dongyin Island (7-8 hours) and continue on to Nangan Island (another three hours further, including an endless hour loading/unloading in Dongyin harbor). The ferries are large and fairly comfortable with four classes: seat, and first, business and economy class beds. The economy class beds (in 2-level bunks) are perfectly comfortable, and each bunk has a curtain for privacy. There’s a small restaurant on board, serving instant noodles, packets of cookies, hot dogs and bottled drinks.
Both air and sea transport to Matsu is dependant on the weather. March to May it’s often foggy around the islands, while typhoon season and poor winter weather can likewise cause cancellations.
It’s now possible for foreigners to enter and possibly leave mainland China via ferry through Matsu (ferries connect Nangan island with the port of Mawei (馬尾), near Fuzhou). For more info on this option, see http://www.seat61.com/Taiwan.htm
GETTING BETWEEN THE ISLANDS:
Six of Matsu’s twenty-something islands are accessible to tourists by regular, scheduled boat services, and a seventh (Daqiu 大坵) can be reached by joining one of the regular charter trips laid on for tourist groups, running from Baisha Harbor on nearby Beigan during the summer.
The easily accessible islands of Matsu can all be reached by ferries leaving from Fuao Harbor (福澳港) on Nangan Island (which is also the terminus for ships from Keelung and boarding place for boats on to China). Boats between Beigan and Nangan run every hour from about 7 am to 7 pm, and the trip only takes about 15 minutes. Ferries to Dongju and Xiju leave three times a day, calling at both islands before looping back to Nangan. The trip takes fifty minutes. Further small ferries link Dongju and Xiju (15 minutes) several times a day. In Nangan, tickets for all these ferries are bought and departure times can be confirmed at the office next to the 7-Eleven store on the harbor front at Fuao. Unfortunately the ferry company still has no website, although the National Scenic Area website lists daily sailings and gives a pretty accurate guide to what is available.
For Dongyin Island, take the boat (also leaving from Fuao Harbor) run by Shinhwa ferry company (for website see above). Boats leave once a day, usually in the morning. For tickets (if you’re boarding in Dongyin, you’ll have to reserve the ticket the day before sailing), walk through the gap in the buildings next to the 7-Eleven store on the harbor front at Fuao, and go into the large building behind with large gold Chinese characters above the door. In Dongyin, tickets for the ferry to either Keelung or Nangan should be bought the night before travel at Laoye Hotel in Nanao, the island’s main settlement.
A new service between Nangan and Dongyin, leaving every other day in the afternoon began operation in summer 2010.
TRANSPORT ON THE ISLANDS:
Formal scooter rental places can be found in Nangan, Dongyin and Beigan (there’s a convenient rental place at the main harbor on Beigan island, which is probably the best place to rent a vehicle here because the port is at the opposite end of the island from the main village, over a long and very steep hill). Otherwise simply ask in your homestay or hotel, as most are happy to rent out their own bikes, usually for NT$400-500 per day. A local or international driving license is never asked for. Some places will ask to see a form of identification when you rent the bike, and a few will want to keep some form of ID until the bike is returned. A National Health Insurance Card is a good bet. Crash helmets are often not provided, and the ones I was given are unlikely to be of any real benefit in event of a crash. Like myself, most islanders I saw rode around without one.
When hiring a bike it is essential to check that it’s in good working order. Many machines available for guest use are quite old and worn. It’s especially important to check that the brakes are good. The roads on Matsu’s islands, although generally quite well maintained, have some of the steepest inclines you’ll find anywhere on a road in Taiwan. Beigan is the worst in this respect, with some particularly steep, long and scary descents. You’ll also need one machine per person unless your passenger is happy to do a lot of walking up and down some very steep hills. The scooters you’ll find to rent out here are nowhere near powerful enough to get two passengers up the steeper hills on the islands.
Buses run fairly regularly around Nangan and Beigan, and taxis can be hired on several of the islands. Xiju, Dongju and possibly Dongyin are of a small enough size to explore on foot, but in summer (which is by far the nicest time to visit) it can get extremely hot. All the islands (except Dongyin and Xiyin, which are largely bare of anything taller than silver grass) are well covered with trees, but long stretches of coastal road on each island are still exposed to the full strength of the sun, so you’ll need to take plenty of water and sunblock.
Contact details for a good selection of accommodation on Nangan, Beigan and Dongyin are available online at the Matsu National Scenic Area Website (address below). There are quite a few selections nowadays on all the islands except Xiju, where you might need to look around a bit to find one of the homestays hidden in the maze of narrow alleyways of the main settlement. During my stay the only place where accommodation seemed to book up quickly was in Nangan, due to the large number of Taiwanese spending the night there on the way to or from China.
Good luck! Fresh seafood is plentiful if you can find someone to cook it, but there are a shortage of formal restaurants or eateries on all islands except Nangan and Beigan, and even there there’s not a great choice unless you get lucky and get invited (as I did) to join the locals in a meal. A couple of 7-Eleven stores can be found on Nangan, Beigan and Dongyin. Among several local culinary specialties, it’s well worth trying the fish noodles (魚麵), which are surprisingly tasty.
A couple of ATMs can be found on all of the islands.
You’ll need a week to see all of Matsu’s main islands properly, although it’s probably since much of the scenery and cultural attractions are quite similar between the islands, you’ll not miss much if you limit yourself to just Nangan, Dongju and Dongyin islands (for which you’ll need 3-4 days).
If you only have a weekend for a visit, Nangan island (南竿) has the widest range of natural, cultural and military sights of the six main islands, although you can also see all the main sights and explore many of its lovely, less often visited corners in a long day. Beihai Tunnel (北海坑道) is a compulsory stop for all visitors to Matsu, but note the opening times: it’s generally closed for an hour or two during high tide, when the ocean covers the walkway inside. Just a few minutes’ walk from the tunnel entrance is the way into Dahan Stronghold, whose long, dark tunnels (which, unlike Beihai Tunnel, are small and dry) emerge to machine gun turrets commanding some wonderful views over the ocean and coastline.
Nearby, the Iron Fort (鐵堡, left) is another fascinating relic of former, less peaceful times, with long passages carved through the rock to explore, although its greatest asset is perhaps its marvelous location, on a small islet just off the rocky coast.
Elsewhere, the Matsu Temple (馬港天后宮) at Magong village on Nangan’s northwest coast and the huge, 25-meter-high statue of the Goddess atop the hill above are both well worth a look. While in this area, head south along Shengtien Road (勝天路), the narrow road along the island’s beautiful western coast, for some of Nangan island’s loveliest coastal scenery. On the way, it’s worth stopping at attractive Shengtien Park (勝天公園), built around a reservoir, which is home to a rich ecology of insects and birds, including loads of dragonflies.
Mt. Yuntai (雲台山), the island’s highest point at 248 meters, is crowned with an ugly military lookout post, but commands some great views (especially at sunset), and can be reached all the way by road (it’s very steep though).
Nangan has two lovely, well-preserved Fujian villages of stone-walled houses. On the southwest tip of the island, Jinsha (津沙) looks beautiful when seen from the road above, curving round a small bay. At ground level some newer houses spoil the atmosphere a bit, but a couple of streets remain in fairly complete condition. At the other end of the island, Niujiao (牛角, also known as Fuxing 復興) village is larger and quite photogenic, tumbling down a steep hillside to a deep inlet on the northeast coast of Nangan.
Despite its tiny size, magical Dongju (東莒) is perhaps the best island of the big six for exploration, since it’s both exceptionally scenic and has been largely demilitarized, so it’s possible to explore many of the old military strongholds (but don’t pick anything up!) and wander along the many side roads, many of which end at jaw-dropping views over the island’s magnificent coast. Take great care if you climb around the coastal cliffs, however. It’s relatively easy to get down to the coast in several places, following fishermen’s trails, but in many places the broken glass cemented into the rock around the island’s coastal cliffs to deter possible attack by night from the sea hasn’t been removed, and a slip could cause severe injury.
Walkers should head for the east coast (left), which has perhaps the best scenery in all Matsu, and lots of informal trails to explore. It’s all magnificent exploring terrain; the main access areas are at the lighthouse, about a kilometer south of the lighthouse (where the wonderful Huanshan Trail, which has been described as one of Matsu’s two finest trails, starts) and around Dapu village.
Dongju has just one old Fujianese village, the nearly deserted Dapu (大埔, halfway down the east coast. It’s a tiny place, but has perhaps the best setting of all the old villages on the Matsu islands, overlooking deep, cliff-lined inlet. The nicest way to reach there (the road into the village is short but rather steep) is along the short and easy but scenic Fish Road Old Trail (魚路古道), which starts just outside Dongju’s main village, Daping (大坪). It’s a easy, flat 15 minute walk.
One of Matsu’s most important old buildings, Dongju Lighthouse, stands at the northern tip of the island. Built to a British design 140 years ago, it’s Matsu’s only Grade Two Historic Monument. You can’t go inside, but the view from its base over the sea and surrounding islands is magnificent.
You could easily see all the main places on Dongju and follow a few trails in a half-day visit from Nangan, but I’d strongly recommend staying the night. Dongju is a remarkably friendly and relaxing place, and the pace of life is a lot slower than the bigger islands; a sunset walk along the east coast proved the most magical experience of my six days in Matsu.
Neighboring Xiju (西莒) island is even smaller, with similar coastal scenery to Dongju, although not quite as wild. The most beautiful part of the island is perhaps the north coast (an easily missed but worthwhile stepped path leads from the narrow coast road down the cliffs at one point). The first part of the short Kunqiu Trail (坤坵步道) halfway down the west coast also gives very fine views, over the off-shore Snake Islands (蛇山, left), a reserve for several very rare species of migratory birds. The trail offers what is apparently one of Matsu’s three best sunset views. The trail leads for about twenty minutes to the edge of a military compound (where you’ll need to turn back), but it’s quite a hot climb in summer, and the later part is overgrown.
The main village on the island, Qingfan (青帆) is (by Taiwanese standards) a somnambulant, end-of-the-world kind of place; there’s hardly a car to be seen, most of the maze of alleyways through the village (which clings to a hillside above the harbor) are pedestrian-only, and plenty of moldering old houses give the place a very out-of-the-way atmosphere.
Beigan (北竿) is Matsu’s second largest island and has the archipelago’s highest point, 298 meter-high Mount Bi (壁山), but despite some lovely views and some of the archipelago’s finest beaches, there aren’t many must sees. The island’s two premier tourist attractions are another Beihai Tunnel (北海坑道) and the village of Qinbi (芹壁). The tunnel is impressive but not as big or quite as amazing as the one Nangan. Qinbi is the best preserved and most complete stone house village in Matsu, and is very photogenic from certain angles, but for the best first impression, approach it from above (from the coast road below some ugly new development really spoils the appearance of the village). A pair of trails wind down the hillside to the village from the road across Beigan’s hilly interior. The better views are from the An-ning Trail (安寧步道), which takes about twenty minutes. The other path, the Yungkang Trail (永康步道), climbs out of the other end of the village, stiffly back up the mountainside to the trailhead at the top .
Elsewhere, the best of Beigan island lies at its two extremities. Sadly the ‘sunrise viewing’ place near the island’s northernmost point is a horror these days; the view over the Twin Lions islets is amazing, but the headland is cruelly disfigured by a large rubbish infill site, which smells almost as bad as it looks. Instead take the tunnel under the airport landing strip (which cuts in half the lovely Tangao Beach (塘澳海灘), Beigan’s most popular swimming beach, although it certainly ain’t Kenting) and head up onto the adjoining island of Houao and the War and Peace Memorial Park (軍事和平紀念公園). Various designs of tank and machine gun are on display, dotted over the grassy heights of the island’s lofty headland, Stronghold no 6 offers some remarkable views from the gun emplacements at the ends of its various tunnels, and the Luoshan Trail (above) commands some wonderful views over some of Beigan’s loveliest scenery as it contours the steep hillside of the headland southwards towards the small rock stack known as Confucius on the Sea.
At the island’s opposite (southern) end, head south along a narrow road (unsurfaced at the southern end) to Mount Nigu (尼姑山), crowned with an abandoned military lookout which understandably offers one of the island’s finest panoramas, then descends to an outlook over the rocky, circular Geli (clam) Island (蛤蜊島), a beautiful spot visited by few except a few fishermen.
Dongyin (東引) is well worth a stopover if reaching or leaving Matsu by boat, although ferry connections are inconvenient, and for all the beauty of its most famous sights, you won’t need a whole day to explore it. A couple of places lie near the island’s main village of Nanao (南澳). The Dragon Sea Cave (海現龍闕) is one of several natural sea-carved arches on Dongyin, but it can only be seen side-on from the road beside the island’s only gas station, as it lies in a military-controlled area. To the south of the village, Dongyin’s Beihai Tunnel (北海坑道) is now closed (as the roof is falling in), but just across the bay, Yanxiao Echoing with Tidal Cave (燕秀朝音) is an impressive cavern whose roof has fallen in, exposing a small crater, linked to the ocean by a wide crack, through which the ocean pounds with an impressive roar. The cliffs of the crater side are densely covered in foliage so it’s hard to see into the void, but it’s an impressive place, although several similar examples in Cornwall (England) are far larger and more spectacular.
The remainder of Dongyin’s big sights are in the east of the island. On no account miss Andong Tunnel (安東坑道, left). The way in is down a long, gently descending but seemingly endless tunnel. This place is an interesting optical illusion, as it’s far longer than it appears as you walk down. At the bottom, tunnels branch of in several directions, the best ending suddenly at dramatic viewpoints in vertical sea cliffs. This is a favorite bird watching spot, and the sight of large flocks of seagulls circling in the deep sea-worn chasm at the end of one of the tunnels is one of Matsu’s most memorable experiences.
On the far eastern peninsula of the island are a small group of famous sights. A Thread of Sky (一線天) isn’t especially big, but very narrow, and the short walk down there (you’ll have to sign your name in the army log before entering) is very scenic. Nearby, the Suicide Cliff (Chaste Woman’s Cliff, 烈女義坑) is rightly Dongyin’s most famous sight. It’s just a few yards from the road to the end of the diving board-like tongue of land that extends into this fearsome ocean-eroded chasm, and the view down the sheer cliffs to the rocks far below is pretty Vertiginous.
Dongyin’s easternmost point is marked by a lighthouse (left, a Grade Three Historic Monument). It’s stumpier than the one on Dongju island, but it’s position, halfway up a rocky cliff, is much wilder, and the views over the cliffs and the ocean are incomparable.
Across the short causeway to Xiyin (西引) a few recently opened spots are well worth visiting. Stop the bike at the barrier at the first major junction on the island, sign your details in the book held by the guarding soldier stationed there, and he’ll open the barrier and let you pass through to Dongao (東澳) a bay with some nice cliff scenery and an interesting wave-cut arch.
Continue towards the north coast of the island and up a short side road a path leads down to a viewpoint above Houao (后澳) bay, which features a whole list of ocean-eroded forms including an arch and a lofty sea stack. Also here, a footpath runs north for about ten minutes to an inscribed stone and viewpoint taking in Taiwan’s Northernmost Frontier, the tiny Beigu rocks, Taiwan’s northernmost patch of land. The rock is underwhelming, but the view, including the pinnacles of the Eighteen Luohan is exhilarating.
Finally, opened only in early 2010, the Sansan Stronghold (三三據點) at Xiyin’s westernmost tip, is interesting as it’s the only active military post in Matsu that’s open to the public. You’ll have to be careful what you take photos of here (army personnel will accompany you throughout your trip) and you can’t go inside any buildings, but there are some good views over a fine stretch of rocky cliffs and deep inlets.
USEFUL LINKS and BOOKS
The website of the Matsu National Scenic Area ( http://www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw/ ) is a wonderfully informative resource, with detailed coverage in English regarding transport to and around the islands, accommodation options on the three largest islands, and places to see.
Chinese readers should pick up a copy of the guide to Matsu (Kinmen and Penghu are covered in the same book) published by Outdoor Life Books Company. The book has lots of options for accommodation on all the islands, and features very detailed (and accurate) maps of each island. The book is part of a series covering the whole of Taiwan (generally with one book dedicated to each county or large city) the books are available in most bookstores such as Kingstone and are easily identified by their bright yellow covers.
After arrival, try to pick up a free copy of the English edition of Let’s Go Backpacking in Matsu, a leaflet with good maps of each island and details about just about every site of interest in each island.