Basalt Archipelago: Taiwan’s Penghu Island
Situated off the Western coast of mainland Taiwan lies the Penghu islands – an archipelago of 90 small islands in the middle of the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and mainland China. Also known as the Pescadores Islands (as they were first christened by the Portuguese in the 1500s), it’s changed hands between the Dutch, French, and Japanese before finally becoming part of Taiwan in 1945.
Today, visitors come to Penghu for a variety of reasons: for its pristine beaches, water sports (especially windsurfing and sailing), seafood, historic villages, military history, unique geology, and scenic beauty. In addition, fireworks festivals are held in spring and summer, while in fall it hosts the Penghu Seafood Carnival.
The main island in Penghu is Magong, which is the main transport and accommodation hub of the islands. The island is shaped like a crescent moon, with Baisha and Xiyu Islands just offshore and connected by an ocean bridge to form a horseshoe shape.
Magong City’s Zhong Zheng Road is its main artery, which becomes a pedestrian street at night. Just off this street are the famous Tianhou Temple (the oldest Mazu temple in Taiwan), the Four Eyes Well (a 400-year-old well with four holes that still holds freshwater today) and the Old Street which is lined with well-preserved nostalgic houses and shops. Not far from town is Duxingshi Village, the oldest military housing in Taiwan where you can explore the abandoned living quarters.
One of the most popular ways to explore Magong is to take Highway 203 from Magong City all the way to
Baisha Island and Xiyu Island – along the unique Penghu Great Bridge which connects the three islands on a 2.5km-long deep ocean bridge. Known as the ‘north perimeter’, the route passes some of Penghu’s famous sites, including Tongliang Great Banyan on Baisha, as well as Daguoye Columnar Basalt, Chixi Rock Waterfall, and Erkan Historical Village on Xiyu.
Connected to Magong and Baisha islands via the Penghu Great Bridge, Xiyu is home to numerous geological and historic sites.
A highlight is the Xiyu Western Fort, one of two forts – the other is the neighbouring Eastern Fort – erected during the Qing dynasty (19th century) to protect against pirates and invaders. Here, you’ll see old canons and tunnels complete with ancient artillery shells. The best-preserved and largest of Penghu’s ancient forts, it was capable of housing a thousand soldiers.
Situated on Xiyu’s southern coast is Yuwengdao Lighthouse, the first lighthouse to be built in the Taiwan area, back in 1778. While no longer a working lighthouse, this well-preserved cluster of whitewashed buildings is worth a visit for its stunning views.
Another historic gem is Erkan Village, collection of about 50 heritage houses built in the Minan style of China’s Fujian province, constructed of coral, stone, brick, and any conceivable material salvaged from the ocean or mined from the local area. Here, you’ll find items of long-forgotten days, like Qing-era scales, ceramic jars, and winnowing equipment.
About 1km south of Erkan is the Daguoye Columnar Basalt, one of many beautiful basalt cliffs that faces the inland sea, formed from the cooling lava that created Penghu millions of years ago. Nearby is a set of three column- walled dead-end canyons called the Secret Three Stone Walls, and spectacular scenery of basalt pillars nicknamed Chixi Rock Waterfall that resemble waterfalls cascading above the horizon.
Another geological wonder is the Whale Cave, a wave-cut rock promontory that resembles a giant sperm whale located on Xiyu’s north coast.
To the north of Baisha is a small collection of islets known collectively as the North Sea Islands – they’re popular with visitors because of their white sand beaches. The largest of these is Jibei island, popular as a watersports heaven thanks to its pristine white sandbar that extends out into the clear blue waters for about 1.5km.
The beak-shaped sandbar is a hotspot for watersports – the action is limited to one side of the beak, with the other side being ideal for relaxing in the calm waters. Thanks to the windy conditions and shallow waters, it’s an ideal location for windsurfing and kiteboarding.
Accessible via a 20-minute boat from Magong, the island is famous for its stone weirs built by fisherman using basalt and coral reefs as traditional fishing traps. An ancient fishing method that’s been passed down for over 700 years, there are over 550 stone weirs in Penghu, with up to 88 of them distributed around Jibei.
South of Magong is a collection of sparsely-populated islands known as the South Sea Islands – Qimei, Wangan, Hujing, and Tongpan – which are popular for day-trippers to Penghu. Each of them has different attractions, which range from scenic basalt rock formations to pretty weird.
The southernmost island of the Penghu archipelago (at a 70-minute cruise away), Qimei is known for its legends of chaste women. The island’s name – Qimei, or ‘seven beauties’ – was built around a well down which seven Ming dynasty maidens threw themselves into to escape from lecherous pirates. Local residents then filled the well and left it as a tomb which later sprouted seven trees. Today, the Tomb of the Seven Beauties is a popular tourist site.
Another local legend is centred around a rock formation – which resembles a reclining woman – called ‘Watching for Husband Rock’ located on a shore below Nanhu Lighthouse. It was named after a woman who is said to have turned to stone while waiting for the return of her fisherman husband.
Basalt rock formations make up much of Qimei’s coastal landmarks: there’s the Little Taiwan Rock which looks like a miniature version of Taiwan and the Stone Lion which vaguely resembles its namesake creature.
Qimei is perhaps most famously known for its iconic Double Hearts Weir, one of Taiwan’s most emblematic landmarks which is shaped like two intertwining hearts. The stone weir – once used by fishermen to catch fish – is the most well-preserved in Penghu, and best viewed during low tide when the two hearts are clearly visible.
The most convenient way to get to Penghu is to catch a domestic flight to Magong Airport from Songshan (Taipei), Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan, or Kaohsiung. Alternatively, there are ferries available from both Budai Harbour in Chiayi City and the Port of Kaohsiung.
There are plenty of operators at Magong that will take you to both the South Sea Islands and the North Sea Islands – you can choose from single- or multi-island tours. It’s recommended to take a full day for the south, and half a day for the north. The best time to visit Penghu is in May and September when the weather is dry and the winds are tame. In summer, the sun is very intense during the daytime, while winter can be very cold and windy. Visit Penghu National Scenic Area: www.penghu-nsa.gov.tw.
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