My new book, The Islands of Taiwan is currently in layout and should be out in December; while choosing the (twenty) color photo pages of the book this week I thought it would be fun (and also a bit of useful pre-advertising perhaps!) to make a short comparison of the main island groups. Writing the book has been an amazing and educational project (although there’s still lots to learn and experience – for instance I STILL haven’t seen one of those elusive Tao boat launching ceremonies on Lanyu!), and I’ve learnt to appreciate and even love a few places (Kinmen especially) that I once wasn’t too keen on. However although I’ve tried to be as objective as possible I can’t help but love some places more than others (I’ve already got in trouble with certain people for my critical views on the present state of Penghu…). The best way to see if you agree with me or not is simply to get out there and see some of the islands for yourself. All of them have their own cultural, natural, historical or military interest (and usually a combination of several) and each makes for a richly rewarding visit. Please feel free to let me know what you feel, or share any useful tips you may have after a trip, on the book’s website, which is up-and-running (although still being constructed) at http://taiwanislands.wordpress.com/
Happy island hopping!
Everyone assumes that Taiwan’s an island, but sorry: this is well wide of the mark: it’s over a hundred islands! Even if we insist on getting pedantic and leave out Matsu and Kinmen (which, by one of world’s more bizarre examples of politics are part of the ROC but NOT part of Taiwan!) there’s still nearly ten-score islands and islets surrounding that big and very beautiful one in the middle which most of us residents live on.
The majority of Taiwan/ROC islands are actually open to visits by the public, although a number, for various reasons (usually because they’re nature or geological reserves), can only be seen from a passing boat. A few, such as Wuqiu, the far-flung Dongsha, and the very, very distant tropical islands of Woody and Taiping are strictly the preserve of ROC soldiers and the odd politician seeking to make a political statement. And then there’s the case of the Diaoyutai (which look so beautiful in photos!), although I don’t even dare to say more about those here….
In practice only about thirty of Taiwan’s outlying islands are currently easy to reach by the casual traveller, although that represents a whole lot of fascinating and memorable exploration! If you get a group together and hire a private boat (not so expensive if you can get ten people or so) and you can easily visit a further twenty or more; Taiwan’s outlying islands offer a LOT of scope and choice for the curious traveller!
Let’s stick here with those islands that the average solo traveler can easily reach on public boats and ferries (there’s info on many of the others in the book). There aren’t any details here – for those I’m afraid you’ll need to buy the book when it comes out – but here’s a taste of the pleasures of island hopping around the wonderful islands of Taiwan.
Penghu (depending on whom you ask) comprises between 64 and almost a hundred islands and islets, of which five are connected by bridges and a further ten are accessible by cheap(ish) public boats. The ferries to the smaller islands are often nothing more than dilapidated fishing boats, although of course this adds to the fun of the trip. Private fishing boats can be hired (although they’re surprisingly expensive – budget about NT$10,000 for a day trip to the southern Dongji Island from Wangan, for instance) to visit perhaps twenty other (mostly uninhabited) islands and islets, and if you can get a group together it’s not an unreasonable price to get to some of Taiwan’s most remote accessible outposts. Alternatively, if you don’t mind going with fifty or more often rowdy locals, tours of islands in the North and East Seas visit (or more often simply pass by) a number of otherwise inaccessible islands, affording views of some magnificent cliff scenery.
Penghu is unlucky, in my view, in that the cultural legacy of the islands has suffered horribly from neglect and what strikes me as a prevalent ‘making-lots-of-money-is-more important-than saving-the-environment’ attitude. On the other hand in a referendum the Penghu islanders were wise enough to turn down the opportunity of hosting Taiwan’s first casino (which may be built – tragically – on Nangan in the Matsu islands instead, after the islanders there recently accepted the plan in a similar referendum.)
In Penghu, more than anywhere else on Taiwan’s outlying islands, it’s essential to get off the main roads, to get away from the main tourist attractions, and get into less visited areas to see the islands at their best. There are still loads of beautiful corners (old stone houses, lovely, unexpectedly lush green countryside, lonely beaches) in the east of the main island of Penghu, well away from Magong and the tourist beach resorts, and some spectacular basalt cliffs, Penghu’s best-preserved old village (Erkan) and kilometers of beautiful, unspoilt countryside on Xiyu island. Take some time to get off the wide, fast highway that connects the main chain of islands, and explore. And don’t forget to get out to a few outlying islands as well! The main islands in the South Sea are the most immediately accessible, but if you can afford the time, you really should try to visit beautiful Yuanbei, Zhangzhunao, Wangan and Tongpan islands. Even popular Jibei and Qimei islands are scenically gorgeous.
The first time I went to Kinmen, just over a decade ago, I was pretty disappointed. Unlike Green Island, Matsu or Lanyu, it’s not a quiet, scenic backwater that will necessarily win you over immediately. It’s pretty flat (although Mount Taiwu in the center of the island has extraordinary views and features several great short hikes). There are however plenty of delightfully pastoral scenes in the island’s remoter corners, especially in the northwest and out in the east. Best though, for lovers of culture and beautiful old architecture, it’s possibly the finest destination in all Taiwan. National Park status seems to have given Kinmen the kind of money needed to carefully restore its fabulous heritage; if only similar care could be addressed to some of the decaying old buildings in beautiful old Lugang, near Changhua!
It’s possible to get a quick overview of Kinmen in two days, but the island (and quiet, peaceful Lesser Kinmen island across the little strait to the west) has the highest concentration of interesting sites of any of the outlying islands (old houses, ancestral shrines, educational academies, ancient tombs) plus a few slices of attractive countryside, some amazing military relics and the best, longest, loneliest beaches in all of Taiwan. You’d need a week or more to explore everything.
Kinmen also has 70-something unique Wind God statues. Finding some of them makes a good excuse to get into some very out-of-the-way places, but be aware that ‘collecting’ them all can become an obsession! I managed to bag ‘all’ 74 in four days, but it’s hard work finding a few of the most elusive ones, and not recommended for those without bags of time! Lesser Kinmen amusingly has its own Wind Rooster statues, which are intended to do the same jog: improve an area’s Fengshui by repelling bad forces, and calming the strong gales that blow over the islands.
Confession time: Matsu vies with Lanyu for the title of my favorite Taiwan island(s). The seven accessible islands of the Matsu group seem to have it all – fantastic scenery, a real feeling of being ‘away-from-it-all’ (although that’s slowly changing), some beautiful old architecture, and (like Kinmen) fascinating cultural traditions that owe very little to the rest of Taiwan. Matsu is also undisputedly Taiwan’s best island-hopping destination. It would take a week to explore all of them; if time is short, combine Nangan with Beigan or exquisite, forgotten Dongju in the far south. Arrive with the soldiers on the overnight boat from Keelung (surely one of Taiwan’s most fun travel experiences) and Dongyin is worth a day (its spectacular sea cliffs supply some awesome photo ops), although the army presence is still very strong here, and it feels far less relaxed and idyllic than any of the other islands.
There’s a great deal of variety on the islands – Taiwan’s most impressive legacy of military relics, the best (albeit short) hikes in the outlying islands, countless fabulous seascape views, some of Taiwan’s most spectacular coastal scenery, striking, ‘fire-blocking’ temples and beautiful old southern Fujian-style villages of photogenic stone houses.
Like the popular parts of Penghu, Green Island is overwhelmed with tourists during the summer, which would normally turn me straight off, but Green Island is just so beautiful, so enchanting, that for once it doesn’t seem to matter. The island is crammed with beautiful spots, and although the beaches aren’t especially fabulous, no one comes here for a beach holiday. Most come for the amazing snorkeling and diving (anyone for a spot of hammerhead shark spotting?). Much as I love the underwater world here (although I only tried once) Green Island is well worth exploring above water as well. Most of the sights lie along the coast. On the way round don’t miss a good, long exploration of the Youzihu area – one of the most extraordinarily beautiful spots in all the outlying islands, imho. There’s also a pair of attractive cross-island trails (which can be combined into a loop); the scenery itself is nice, but hike through here very early in the morning, and there are some great wildlife-watching opportunities. Many of the island’s most famous animal residents, its sika deer, congregate around the northeast corner of the island (join a night-time scooter safari to see them – a uniquely Taiwanese experience, that!). Here, however you have the chance of seeing (or at least hearing) the barking deer that can be found in these woods.
Green Island would be great if it were just about sun, sea, and snorkeling in beautiful surroundings, but then there’s the New Life Correction Center and Oasis Villa. Site of not one but two establishments that once held political dissidents, the north coast is now site of the large and very impressive Human Rights Memorial Park. A visit here is a bit of a downer (so do it in the morning and go on to more cheerful pursuits in the afternoon), but an essential stop for all visitors to Green Island. It seems impressively objective in its approach, eschewing the temptation to play up the nastier details (and Oasis Villa especially was a really horrifying place to be interred) in favor of presenting the facts as they stand. It’s a place that’ll set you thinking, and elevates a trip to Green Island to a whole new level….
Beautiful, enchanted Lanyu isn’t for everyone. Although its reputation for being hard to reach is overstated (the boat trip can be a bit choppy, but I’ve had no major trouble during my six crossings to or from the island; if you want to fly, though, good luck getting plane tickets!) this is one place that, more than ever, you need to work at in order to appreciate it to the full. Get to know the locals a little (you’ll need, of course, to speak Chinese to do this) and Lanyu might just provide some of your most unforgettable memories of Taiwan.
Among all of Taiwan’s outlying islands, Lanyu gives the strongest first impression – the approach by boat on a clear, blue-sky day is an experience you won’t soon forget – but it’s the culture of the Tao (also spelt ‘Dawu’ ; the tribe is also called the Yami) that leaves the strongest impression. This amazingly mountainous, emerald-green island has a strongly South-Pacific atmosphere (it reminds me of a smaller, less outrageously spectacular Tahiti – Mo’orea immediately comes to mind), but get beyond the gorgeous scenery, slow down and find opportunities to speak to the local aborigines and you’ll probably be gobsmacked. I accidentally ‘befriended’ a local in his sixties on my last trip there in June this year, and it soon became apparent he knew next to nothing about life on Taiwan main island. From the way he asked me about it I’m not even sure if he’d even been there before. It was an unprecedented experience for me, even after all my years on Taiwan.
All the people I talked to on this last trip to Lanyu did however have something to say about TaiPower and the nuclear waste stored in a site on the southern tip of the island – the islanders were originally led to believe it would be a fish canning plant. Passing the site (which looks quite innocent from the outside; it’s almost next to the famous Dragon’s Head Rock) adds a certain frisson to a trip to the island, if a sad one at that.
Lanyu is a place that can be enjoyed purely in terms of its scenery, but if you get no more out of the trip than that, it’d be a pity, so be prepared to rough it a bit as it’s less developed than any of the other islands), and study up on it both before going and while out there.
This tiny island of uplifted coral off the coast of Pingdong has become a hugely popular weekend ‘getaway’ with residents of Kaohsiung and further afield, and on summer weekends it groans under the weight of visitors (by the way what stupid dick allowed tour coaches to invade the island’s narrow, curving roads?); to get the best impression of this beautiful place, visit during the week! The crowds seem to come largely for the beaches and for the food. The food is quite good, but the beaches are very average. What makes Xiao Liuqiu so richly worth a visit is the fantastic coral scenery of its west coast. Most of the best formations are contained in three scenic areas, to enter which crafty locals charge a hefty admission ticket, but it’s well worth coughing up the cash: this place is pretty unique.
There’s been talk of possibly opening Taiwan’s newest National Park, the exotic coral atoll of Dongsha (340 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong), for limited ecotourism, but if it ever does it would be an expensive trip. Kinmen’s scenic outlying Dadan and Erdan islands may similarly open to tourists in the next few years.
Meanwhile the only remaining outlying islands that are presently accessible to the average visitor all lie off the northeast coast of Taiwan. Keelung Island is a popular and very enjoyable half day trip from Taipei, even though it’s currently less easy to reach (I’ll have to double-check the latest situation) than a few years ago, unless you can get a group together. The three tiny islets of Pengjia, Mianhua and Huaping, way out in the Pacific can also be readily visited in a (long) day trip from Keelung, although it’s presently not permitted to land on any of them. I’ve never been (even with a group it’s not a cheap day out), but would jump at the chance, especially if in the future Pengjia (which looks rather scenic in photos) is ever opened to visitors.
Finally… Turtle Island. This place, despite being a nature reserve, is big business these days, with seemingly huge numbers heading out to the island every day in season. I last went there just a couple of weeks ago (in late September) on a Friday morning, and there were hundreds of people (including at least one large group from China who accompanied us) milling around Wushih harbor. It’s well worth going to the extra trouble of getting the permit to climb to the summit of the island – the views are mind bogglingly beautiful if you get good weather. All boats circle the island, giving views of the both the tremendous cliffs and the underwater hot springs (this part is perhaps the highlight of the trip, if you don’t get to summit), and the basic permit also gives access to the area close to the harbor, the nearby lake (circled by a path) and the abandoned army tunnels burrowed into the adjacent cliff, which makes for an interesting enough tour. It’s a possibly a tadge too little for the effort and expense it takes to come out here, though.
Well, that’s a quick lowdown on my experiences in the outer islands during my time in Taiwan. Just like on the big island (Taiwan) itself though, it’s an ongoing exploration, and there’s plenty still to discover. One thing that’s beyond a doubt – those scores of little dots and blobs on a map of the ROC are every bit as worthy of attention as the large main island sitting at the center. So get out and start exploring them, and please consider buying a copy of my book (out in December 2012) when you do!
WHEN to GO
Turtle Island and Keelung Island are both open to visit until around the end of November, when the strengthening northeast monsoon means the ocean becomes too choppy for a safe landing. After then you’ll have to wait until April or so. The best weather however is usually during the hot summer months (June to September), and both are at their best on a cloudless day, when they’re magnificent.
If planning to go to Penghu, Kinmen or Matsu, the best time of the year is passing. From October to April that same annoying northeast monsoon wind lowers temperatures, turns skies (which are often a magnificent deep blue during the summer) overcast, and brings long periods of miserable drizzle or rain, and amazing gales to the Penghu island (it’s often alarmingly windy there even during the summer). It’s possible to visit them all during the winter, but beware delays in both air and sea transport (especially in Matsu; our flight out of Nangan was cancelled last year on a visit in late September last year, even though the sky was blue and the weather seemed great).
Green Island and Lanyu can be visited year-round, although again the monsoon winds lead to cancellations of both boats and planes, which might leave you stranded on the island for a couple of days (not necessarily such a bad proposition!). No such problem at Xiao Liuqiu, which is a true year-round destination, and a great spot to find a little winter warmth and sunshine.