Volcanic activity was a major force in shaping the landscape of Taiwan when it was in its geological youth – eruptions spewed lava and rocks, creating many of Taiwan’s mountains and offshore islands like Green Island and Lanyu (Orchid Island). While fumaroles still dot Yangmingshan, Taiwan’s only active volcano lies beneath Guishan Island.
The Kinmen islands lie just 2km from mainland China’s Xiamen. For 50 years, it has played the role of military outpost since the 1950s when it was heavily fortified with barricades, forts, and tunnels. Today the islands boast abundant historical monuments ranging from Minnan-style houses to military fortresses and western style villas.
Kinmen is also famous for its Wind Lion God statues which were originally installed to prevent wind damage to the island. Over time, these colourful lion-like statues have evolved to have individual personalities and accessories and are dotted all over the island.
A great way to learn about Kinmen is simply to wander around the five townships and its historic villages. You can take advantage of several themed cycling routes or buses that take you past historic sites.
From old forts and army barracks to underground tunnels, these have become monuments that tell the wartime stories of Kinmen.
Landmarks include the three-storey Juguang Tower, built in the classical palace style, where you can learn about Kinmen’s history and culture, and the decorative Deyue Tower which offers sweeping views of the surrounding village. Underground tunnels litter the island, like the Qionglin Tunnels with 12 exits that connected all the island’s villages, and the Zhaishan Tunnel, which at 100m long can accommodate 42 military boats at anchor. Other military instalments like General Fort, Yongshi Fort and Warrior Fort are also worth visiting.
Thanks to its military history, Kinmen is famed for its knives which are made from the thousands of old bombshells.
Jincheng Township is the most populated town which showcases Minnan and expatriate culture. Walk through Mofan Street for its redbrick Japanese-style buildings of the Taisho period, or visit the picturesque village of Shuitou which is a tapestry of Western- and Minnan-style houses.
Jinsha Township is located at the windward side of Taiwu Mountain and boasts the largest number of wind god lions in Kinmen. It’s also home to Shanhou Village with its 18 southern Fujian-style old houses with their ceramic wall ornaments, sculpted arches and narrow entrances.
Comprising of two islands, the larger Kinmen Island is home to four townships which are small enough to explore on foot; get between townships via public bus, scooter or bicycle. The main town is Jincheng where the majority of attractions are. Just off Kinmen’s wester shore is Lesser Kinmen, which is also dotted with historic sites, accessible via regular ferries (30 mins) from Shuitou Port.
The main mode of transport to Kinmen is by air; it’s 50-55 minutes from most cities in Taiwan like Taipei and Kaohsiung. Visit http://kinmen.travel for more.
October to December is the best time to visit Kinmen when the weather is comfortable and sorghum fields are in bloom; March to May is the fog season which is not ideal for flights.
GUISHAN (TURTLE) ISLAND
Before this currently uninhabited island opened to the public in 2000, it was once home to a handful of villagers until it became off limits in the 1970s when it became a military base. Situated 10km east of Toucheng Town, Guishan is Yilan County’s largest island and so-named because of its resemblance to a turtle from certain angles.
Thanks to its active undersea volcanic vents (it’s Taiwan’s only active volcano), the sea around the island bubbles with thermal water at 110oC, and despite the large amounts of sulfur and acid, there is a wealth of sea life. You can take a boat tour to Guishan, and you are guaranteed to see dolphins, various types of whales, as well as flying fish.
The island itself is blessed with a hilly landscape – the highest point is 398m above sea level – which is carpeted by blooming wildflowers like lilies in the latter half of April. Visitors to the island can see traces left behind by the fishermen and soldiers who once lived here, like small shrines, an army fort and a former school, as well as the picturesque Gui Lake, which has a boardwalk.
To protect its natural environment, Guishan is only open between March and November – which coincides with the whale watching season – with strictly limited visitor numbers, and overnight stays are prohibited. Apply a couple of weeks in advance to secure a spot during weekends or the peak summer season.
Several boat operators in Yilan offer tours of Guishan Island – including island tours (2-3 hours), and combined island and whale watching tours (4 hours). Visit www.necoast-nsa.gov.tw for more.
Lanyu (Orchid) Island
Floating about 80kms off the southeast coast of Taiwan, Lanyu is yet another island formed by a volcanic eruption. Surrounded by pristine coral reefs – which attract schools of fish and green sea turtles – it’s a great destination for snorkelling, diving, and even fishing (especially for flying fish).
The humid, rainy climate has cloaked the mountainous interior of the island with a thick rainforest cover that houses numerous tropical plant species – like the orchids that inspired the name of this island (although they are harder to spot today).
The island has always been the home to the Yami (Tao) people, who have primarily depended on the sea for their livelihood, heading out to sea in their richly-decorated canoes called tatara (these are visible everywhere on the island). In fact, one of their most important ceremonies is a boat launch to mark the annual flying fish season (February to May). During the Flying Fish Festival is when men sing and pray in their traditional garb: loincloth and sometimes a metal conical helmet.
Because of the rough weather that the island occasionally experiences, the Yami people traditionally live in semi-underground houses. You can see these stone-and-wood homes today in Langdao and Ivalino villages. There are also caves dotted throughout the island, and the Five Hole Cave – a series of caverns – has been repurposed to house a popular church.
Lanyu is pretty rugged, with an interior of steep slopes that reach 551m high, covered in dense undergrowth. Hiking is possible on marked trails, like the steep one leading to the beautiful Heaven Lake (90 minutes each way) which is nestled in the thick forest about 350m above sea level.
There are also plenty of coastal walks where you can appreciate the stunning coral and rock formations; some famous ones have names like Old Man, Battleship, and Dragon Head, where the sunsets are stunning.
There are six villages on the island, all connected via the coastal ring road (38kms) which can be explored by scooter or bicycle.
The administrative centre is Yeyou Village, and Kaiyuan Harbor on its outskirts is the island’s gateway where the ferries from Taitung arrive. Lanyu is about 2-3 hours by ferry from Taitung port, and it’s best visited between late spring and early fall when the weather is more agreeable. A flight from Taitung to Lanyu takes 20 minutes and has to be booked well in advance. For more, visit https://tour.taitung.gov.tw.