The islands around Taiwan offer up a unique blend of history, beautiful scenery and water activities that make them a good destination for any traveller looking for the more relaxed side of Taiwan.
Penghu is actually a large archipelago that encompasses 64 small islands, among them Penghu Island. The islands are mostly low lying, with lots of grassland plains, which is in stark contrast to mainland Taiwan’s mountainous landscape.
With its almost-deserted beaches, old temples and traditional Chinese homes, Penghu Island is a unique and picturesque little place.
It is a mecca for windsurfers (and kitesurfers), owing to the strong winds that blow across the island during winter and spring. The mountain ranges in mainland China and Taiwan form a sort of wind tunnel that results in almost gale force winds, with speeds of 40-50 knots being common. It is recommended that you have at least intermediate wind/kitesurfing skills if you’d like to try it out since there is no place to learn on the island.
The island also has a burgeoning surf scene; the waves are modest compared to the monsters you get in places like Hawaii, so it can be a perfect place to learn how to surf. Shanshui Beach is Penghu’s main surf spot and also sports the island’s only surf shop where you can get the equipment you need.
While snorkelling and diving on the island are decent, unfortunately, due to a cold snap in 2008, a large portion of the coral reef surrounding Penghu died out. Good spots do still exist at the far end of the beach – head to Shanshui for gear rental.
If water activity isn’t your thing, you can relax on the sandy beaches or just rent a bicycle (NT$200) or scooter (NT$400) and explore. Wandering off the beaten path will reveal old stone houses, lush grasslands and plenty of isolated spots. Some of the islands are linked by bridges, the longest of which is the 2.5km-long Penghu Great Bridge which connects Baisha and Xiyu.
Just offshore is Tongpan Island, home to Taiwan’s most spectacular basalt column formations, the best way to see these is from the water.
There are two ways to get to the island, by ferry or you can fly. There is only one city on the entire archipelago: Magong, which is home to hotels as well as Penghu’s only airport.
Ferries from Kaohsiung to Magong take about 4.5hrs, costing from NT$860 to NT$1,700 for a one-way trip. There are also ferries from Chiayi’s Budai Harbour which take less than half the time and cost about NT$1,000 one way. Most ferry services do not operate during winter when the seas are rough.
Flights to Magong Airport come from domestic airports in Taipei (50 mins), Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan, and Kaohsiung (30 mins). Uni Air, TransAsia, and Mandarin Airlines all make regular trips.
This is another great destination for those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Formed by volcanoes, the island is a quiet destination with a small population of about 3,000 people.
Located a short distance off Taiwan’s east coast, the coral reefs surrounding Green Island make it a haven for snorkellers and divers. The rich volcanic waters play host to a large variety of marine animals such as batfish, eels, spotted rays, and lots of sharks.
A good spot for shark diving is Shark Point (Gun Swei Bi), where huge shoals of hammerhead sharks can be found just off the island’s southern tip between January and March. However, the strong current and diving depth (30-37m) means that only experienced divers should attempt it. Green Island Adventures Dive Centre and Blue Safari Diving Centre offer dive tours.
There are three designated spots for snorkelling and diving: Chai Kou, Shi Lang and Da Bai Sha. Each site has a concrete path that takes you out past the sharp coral and to the drop off (it is recommended that you wear thick-soled shoes or sandals). Diving centres and equipment are available in the main village of Nanliao.
On land, you can get on a bicycle or scooter and explore the island’s landmarks. One is the 33m high Lyudao Lighthouse, funded by the American government in 1938. Guanyin Cave is also worth a look, as it is the home to a stalagmite that looks like the deity, with a colourful Chinese arch at the entrance.
The Little Great Wall is a short trail that stretches from the main road to a lookout point and provides spectacular views of Haishengping Bay and the rock formations of Sleeping Beauty and Pekingese Dog Rock.
There are also the Youzihhu Old dwellings, the ancient stone houses once inhabited by the island’s people, as well as Gongguan Village which is a small, quiet community next to some of the best diving areas on the island.
If you wish to hike, there are a couple of good trails on the island. The nicest is Guoshan Gu Dao Trail, which begins behind Nanliao Village and stretches 1.8km across the island to its east side. The alternative is Mt. Huoshao, a 281m dormant volcano and the highest point on the island. Since the top is a military base, you can’t actually get up there, but a few trails weave around it.
After a long day, you can proceed to the Zhaori Saltwater Hot Springs, one of only three saltwater hot springs in the world. Considered by many Taiwanese to be the best springs in the country, the water temperature is a comfortable mix of hot spring and ocean water. Entry is NT$200 and gives you access to changing facilities, a shower and storage for your belongings.
Green Island is 33km from the city of Taitung in the southeastern part of Taiwan. It’s accessible via an hour’s ferry ride from Fugang Harbour, at NT$980 for a roundtrip. Alternatively, a flight (NT$1,500 one way) takes about 15 minutes.
The island itself is small, with the entire thing linked by an 18km round-island highway. Most of the scenic spots can be accessed from this road – you can rent a bicycle (NT$150) or scooter (NT$350) for 24 hours from the airport or ferry station.
Located a mere 2km from mainland China, Kinmen bares the remnants of the bitter civil war between the communist and nationalist forces. After 1949, much like Matsu, ROC forces maintained Kinmen as a forward base. The island is now a mecca for military history enthusiasts with its abundance of installations, some abandoned and some not.
Since tensions in the region eased, Kinmen has come to rely on tourism for its economy. A big draw is its old abandoned military installations. Huge briefing halls carved into the rock, disused towering propaganda speakers, and rusting anti-landing barricades are all open to be explored. Some military posts are still active, so heed the warning signs.
There is also a military museum on the island called the 823 War Museum. Named after the famous shelling campaign by China that took place on August 23, 1958, it displays various aspects of war, from jets and tanks to historical documents. Another thing Kinmen is famous for is its knives, which are made of the artillery shells that litter the island. You can head down to the most famous craftsman workshop, Maestro Wu, and have a tour of the knife-making process.
While most visitors are from mainland Taiwan or China who want to see a slice of history, the island’s beautifully crafted Fujian-style houses and cobbled streets give you the impression that you’ve stepped back in time. The best place to experience its culture is at the Shanhou Folk Cultural Village, built during the Qing dynasty, which houses 18 buildings of traditional Fujian style that are built on a hillside facing the sea in 3 rows. You can spend the night at a quaint B&B in one of these restored homes.
Getting to Kinmen is fairy easy, as there are regularly flights from mainland Taiwan, mostly Kaohsiung and Taipei, with tickets costing about NT$2,000 each way.
The Matsu Islands are a collection of 19 isles that like Kinmen are closer to mainland China than Taiwan, something they share with Kinmen. They also have a high military presence, as they too were a key strategic point in the war between the PRC and ROC, so much so that you might find yourself as one of the only people in civilian dress.
The two main islands of the archipelago are Nangan and Beigan, both of which have an airport. The other 17 islands are easy to travel to from the two main ones and well worth the trip if you’re there.
Places like the Iron Fort (an intricate network of army tunnels that you can explore), as well as Chiang Kai-Shek’s Wall, which bears his slogan painted in big red letters ‘Sleep on Spears, awaiting the dawn’ (a warning to the Communist Party), are worth a visit.
The real draw of the Matsu Islands, however, is its traditional temples and architecture. Matsu was named after a goddess, who according to legend, washed up on the shores there. As such, various temples dedicated to her dot Nangan Island and are worth exploring.
As Taiwan has modernised, a lot of construction traditions have died out. This is not so on Matsu, which still has a wealth of beautiful and maintained Fujian architecture to explore.
Not to be missed is the natural spectacle called ‘Blue Tears’ when the coastline of the Matsu islands glow in fluorescent blue. Usually occurring from May to August, it’s caused by tiny bioluminescent marine life that inhabits the shores. The phenomenon is best viewed at night when there are little light pollution and low waves.
To get there, you can book a flight via Uni Air from Taipei to Nangan or Beigan. Advanced bookings are recommended. You can also get to Nangan Island by ferry from Keelung port (north of Taipei), which takes about 10-11 hours. Once there, ferries can take you to the other islands for about NT$100.