Volcanic Wonderland: Taiwan’s Green Island

Located 33km east of Taitung City, Green Island – like thousands of tiny islands that adorn the Pacific – is a remnant of volcanic eruptions. Nicknamed “Fire Island” – or “Lyudao” in Chinese – it has a mountainous heart surrounded by dramatic cliffs and dotted with unique hot springs, interesting rock formations, and lush rolling hills. With just over 3,000 residents, it is largely free of commercial development, making it an idyllic getaway.

Historic Sites

The 33m-tall Lyudao Lighthouse is a popular sunset photo spot, although you can’t climb to the top. This still-functioning lighthouse was constructed in 1938, funded by the American government after the SS President Hoover struck a nearby reef and sank.

A must-see on the island is the Human Rights Culture Park, where you’ll find the notorious yet sardonically named “Oasis Villa”, an infamous prison compound that once housed political prisoners during the ‘White Terror’ period (1949-1987) when thousands of dissidents were shipped here to perform hard labour.

Another historic site is Youzihhu, an abandoned prehistoric village at the bottom of a cliff. The houses were built with local coral reef rocks, featuring small windows to protect from the strong winds. Today you can freely walk among remnants of these houses that stand amidst the overgrown jungle.

Some locals travel to Green Island to pay their respects to Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) at Guanyin Cave, a small underground cavern that has a stalagmite that apparently resembles the deity. Legend is that while lost at sea, some fishermen followed a fireball to safety and that it led them to this cave.

Hot Springs

Jhaorih Hot Springs is one of only three places in the world (with Japan and Italy being the other two) where saltwater springs can be found. The clear springs are fed by seawater and underground water heated by volcanic lava, which vary between 60oC and 70oC.

The hot spring spa complex is open year-round (entry fee NT$200), and features 3 open-air pools and a spa pool where you can enjoy the sunrise or bathe under the stars at night.

Night Safari

Organised night safaris (on scooters) are popular here, where you can spot wildlife like coconut crabs, civets, flying foxes, and roaming Sika deer (once bred for antlers, they were released from captivity in the 80s). You may also spot the endemic Tsuda’s giant stick insect – once sold at high prices to Japanese collectors, it’s now a protected species that secrete a mint-scented defensive fluid from its thorax.

Things to Do

Most visitors set foot on the island at Nanliao Harbour, and Nanliao Village on the west coast is the main town.

Diving and Snorkelling 

Thanks to its location along the north-flowing Japan Current, Green Island is rich in marine life, with an abundance of brightly coloured reef fish, shellfish, turtles, and coral.

The best places to snorkel are around the white sand beach of Dabaisha and Chaikou where you can see rock pools at low tide. At both locations, a stone path stretches out into the ocean from the shore, allowing you to access the water without damaging the reef. On a snorkelling tour, expect to be hauled across the water on flotation rings.

The most popular dive sites are at Dabaisha, Shihlang and Chaikou. While Shihlang’s famous Big Mushroom Coral was destroyed by a typhoon in 2016, there are other sites that boast colourful corals and fish.

From January to March each year, schools of hammerhead sharks congregate off the southern tip of the island for a few months as they travel from the Philippines to Japan. The hammerheads – usually smooth hammerheads (Sphyrna zygaena) that grow up to 4m long – tend to show up in schools of up to hundreds of individuals. Diving with hammerheads is only open to divers with a minimum of +50 Advanced logged dives, as it’s at a depth of some 30m with strong underwater currents and surface waves.

Hiking 

This hilly island has a number of short trails leading to spectacular lookouts.

A popular hike is the Guoshan Gu Dao (“Across Mountain Ancient Trail”); the trailhead starts just behind Nanliao Village and cuts across the island all the way to the east coast. At 1.8km long, it traverses the island’s highest point at the extinct volcano of Mt. Huo-shao (281m) before heading down towards Jhaorih Hot Springs.

At the northeast point of the island is Niutou Shan (Ox Head Hill) which is a grassy headland surrounded by water on three sides. Famous for sunsets, it is so-named because it resembles an ox head with curling horns. Trails cut across this headland, passing the ‘horns’ before ending at impressively sheer cliffs, with views across the island’s rugged eastern coastline. Below the cliffs lie Swallow’s Grotto, a huge cavern where the bodies of dead inmates (from the nearby prison) were cremated; their remains lay buried beside the trail en route to the cave.

Haishenping Bay is an area surrounded by volcanic rocks with dramatic views of Green Island’s most famous rock formations: Sleeping Beauty and Pekingese Dog. An undulating 400m path nicknamed Xiao Chang Cheng (Little Great Wall) takes you from the main road to lookouts where you can see the moon-shaped coral reef gulf. The area is also ideal for stargazing.

Further south is another viewpoint at Fanchuanbi. A short climb leads you to a patch of grassland where you can see Haishenping in the distance and Jhaorih just below.

Getting There and Around 

You can get to Green Island by ferry from Taitung’s Fugang Harbor, which departs every 2 hours in summer (winter departures are infrequent). The trip lasts about an hour (NT$460 one way). You can also fly to Green Island from Taitung Airport on Daily Air (15 minutes; NT$1,130 one way) although they are often fully booked months in advance.

Most visitors explore the island in a clockwise direction along the 18km-long ring road (Huan Dao Lu). The easiest way is by electric scooter; you don’t need a driving license to rent one (NT$600/day with a spare battery). There is also a public bus service at NT$20 for the whole circuit, and bicycles are also available (NT$200/day) if you prefer to ride the undulating roads.

For more on Green Island, check out https://www.eastcoast-nsa.gov.tw.

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