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The Matsu islets are tucked away in a corner of the Taiwan Strait, their rocky shores eroded into outlandish formations by the sea. The five major islets – Nangan, Beigan, Dongju, Xijju and Dongyin – are covered with wildflowers and home to fishing villages running down the mountain slopes to the water.

Matsu’s important strategic location at the mouth of the Min River, just 62 miles from China’s Fujian coast, has lent it a historic role disproportionate to its size. It was a restricted military post for almost 40 years during the long conflict between the Communists and the Chinese Nationalists. Today, abandoned tanks and cannons still adorn the hilltops, silently awaiting the battle that never arrived. Except for a few camps, soldiers are no longer found at the various sites. Military tunnels, built manually by soldiers and once used to transport landing craft, have become an attraction for strolling tourists.

Military restrictions have helped to preserve nature in Matsu. Terns and gulls breed on islets unspoiled by human activities. The most prominent species is the ‘mythical seagull’ – the Chinese crested tern. Having not been seen for 20 years before it was spotted on the island a decade ago, ornithologists had long suspected that it was extinct. The discovery in Matsu brought the islands into the global limelight.

Each May and June, the flocks of seafaring birds arrive on the islets, clamouring for the best breeding spots. The loud squabbles and squawks of the punky-haired great crested tern, the black-naped tern, the bridled tern and the red foot-and-beaked roseate tern, fill the air during high summer.

For a place formed of granite, and with minimal annual rainfall, there’s a remarkable profusion of wildflowers blooming on Matsu too, with the Lycoris sprengeri – ‘the flower of dreams’ – the real draw. Its pink petals tinged with a slight blush of violet can currently only be seen on Dongyin – and in bloom, just for two weeks each August.

Jessie Chu is a contributor to the Taiwanese edition of Lonely Planet Magazine.

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