Many people think of Taiwan as a single island, but the country actually has dozens of smaller offshore islands, each of which is a unique destination. Among this is the Matsu islands, which are grouped into 4 townships – Nangan, Beigan, Dongyin and Juguang – and are geographically closer to China than Taiwan. As the smallest part of Taiwan at just 29sq.km., what the islands lack in size, they make up for in historic sites and local culture.
BIRDING IN MATSU
Matsu Islands is Taiwan’s undisputed birding capital, thanks to its geography near coastal wetlands along key migratory routes. Matsu enjoys both spring (Mar-Apr) and fall (Sep-Oct) migration seasons, although hundreds of species can be seen year-round.
While Matsu is home to over 400 species of birds (roughly 60% of all species found in Taiwan), it’s most famous for its terns. From May to September, thousands of terns soar above the islands, including Bridled Terns, Greater Crested Tern, and the critically-endangered Chinese Crested Tern.
Other colourful species include numerous types of buntings, drongos, flycatchers, wagtails, and warblers – many of which are endangered, like the Crested Bunting, the bright blue Zappey’s Flycatcher, and the Citrine Wagtail. There’s also an abundance of raptors including eagles, hawks, and kites, alongside fishing birds, and even migratory cranes.
The hilly islands of Dongyin and Xiyin – which are connected by a causeway – feature the most striking topography. Dongyin’s Thread of Sky is a wave-cut gully made by two sea cliffs with tunnels within that are connected by a concrete bridge. You can enjoy the unique scenery from a wooden platform surrounded high sea cliffs. Nearby is Suicide Cliff, accessible via a footpath through three vertical rock faces to the edge of this dramatic cliff, with the waves crashing below.
In May and June, you can experience the Sea of Stars (or Blue Tears), a luminescent algae which blooms in a blue glow along the coastline.
First settled by fishermen from eastern Fujian – the islanders still retain their Minbei dialect to this day – the islands transformed from fishing villages into a military stronghold in the 1950s.
Thanks to its isolation, Matsu is the only place you can get kaoliang, a sorghum liquor. You can visit kaoliang distilleries in Matsu (which also produces laojiou rice wine) and Dongyin.
MILITARY FORTS AND TUNNELS
Matsu’s geographic location has made it an ideal spot as a military outpost and still retains its martial vibe today (many people here are in uniform). When martial law was lifted in 1992, visitors were allowed to explore its military sites, including tunnel networks, bunkers, and gunposts.
Nangan’s southern coast houses the Iron Fort, a former outpost manned by special forces. The sea rock was excavated to form a tunnel which contained canons, murder holes, and accommodation equipped for coastal defence.
Nearby is Beihai Tunnel, the most famous – and largest – tunnel in the Matsu islands; the granite walls were excavated by hand and dynamite from 1969-1971. Located near the Dahan fortress (itself a stronghold featuring a tunnel), the 700m-long tunnel was an underground wharf. It takes about 30 minutes to walk along the footpath in the tunnel; at high tide, the footpath is submerged, so it’s only accessible by a boat cruise.
On the island’s northeast is Tunnel 88, which was enlarged in 1974 by the army to accommodate tanks. By 1992, it was turned over to Matsu Distillery which used the tunnels to store jugs of old wine and kaoliang spirits.
Dongyin Island is the northernmost point of Taiwan, and the most heavily militarised. Here you’ll find the 640m-long Andong Tunnel which is accessible via a 260m-long tunnel with 464 steps. Besides military utilities, tunnels lead to openings on sheer cliffs (formerly gunposts) where you can see terns nesting on rocky cliffs.
Traditional Fujian villages
Matsu is one of the last strongholds of traditional Fujian architecture in Taiwan – you can see authentic cube-shaped stone houses from the 19th century, with roofing tiles held in place by stones. While many of the villages were once prosperous, they declined along with the fishing industry. Some of these villages are now being preserved and converted into restaurants and rustic B&Bs for visitors.
On Nangan Island, Fujian villages can be found in Niujiao – where some of the temples and local shops have also been restored – and Jinsha, which features stone houses piled atop one another on the slopes of this steep, hilly village. Some military constructions nearby have also been renovated for tourism.
Qinbi Village – which once thrived on producing dried baby shrimp – on Beigan Island has the best-preserved Fujian-style buildings in all of Matsu. The closely-packed granite houses are piled atop one another between the mountain and beach.
Dongju Island has two Fujian fishing villages – Fuzheng Village in the north and Dabu Village in the south. Fisher- men used to move between the two villages so that they could continue to fish year round; today the fishermen are gone, but you can find retro cafes and street art.
Uni Air operates regular flights between Taipei’s Songshan Airport and both Beigang and Nangan airports (NT$2,000 one-way, 50 minutes). There are also daily ferry services between Keelung and Matsu’s main islands (Beigan, Dongyin, Juguang, and Nangan), taking roughly 8-10 hours one-way. Within Matsu, local ferries run regular services between the islands (eg. Nangang-Dongyin, 2 hours).
The best time to visit is from late May to September, as the islands are shrouded in thick fog from March to early May and battered by heavy winds in winter, making air and sea connections erratic.
Visit www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw for more.