Old world charm on Taiwan’s outlying islands
Vase Rock is one of the most popular rock formations along Xiaoliuqiu's coastline. (Cindy Sui)
Unknown to many visitors, Taiwan consists of more than the sweet potato shaped main island. The little-known, under-promoted outlying islands are so peaceful and quiet that you can have a whole beach to yourself without paying a penny, ride a bike around an entire island with nearly no cars passing by, and get to know the laid-back locals in the quaint fishing villages.
The food is often better than what you might find in Taipei, because the seafood is freshly caught, the vegetables are locally grown and the chicken is free to roam. Unlike the capital, no one locks their cars and passersby greet each other. The old architecture alone is a photographer’s dream: grand 17th-century, southern Chinese-style courtyard houses you otherwise do not find in China, and elaborate village temples with impressive pointy eaves are all still lived in or in use. The islands are also great for scuba diving, snorkelling, surfing, swimming and bird watching.
The Penghu archipelago consists of 90 small islands, but the key attractions are easily reachable. The Twin Hearts Stone Weir, a stone maze shaped like two hearts, is a smart and environmentally friendly way of catching fish that swim in during high tide and are trapped when the tide recedes. The Basalt Cliffs, the best example of Penghu’s beautiful rock formations, are imposing columns of basalt rock that stick straight out of the ocean. Scuba divers have acres of coral reef and tropical fish to explore. And save time for slow walks in the villages to admire Penghu’s unique coral stone houses. These 400–year-old houses were built by settlers from southern China’s Fujian province. With few trees on the windswept archipelago and little money to buy wood, the early inhabitants painstakingly collected dead coral stones from the ocean, dried them and stacked them into beautiful homes. Some have been renovated, others remain largely untouched.
A few years ago, Penghu residents rejected a proposal to build casinos on the island in favour of keeping it peaceful and promoting eco-tourism instead. Being here feels a little like being in a Taiwanese version of Anne of Green Gables, with a great aquarium.
Located in the northeast corner of the Taiwan Strait and closer to China than mainland Taiwan, you can see China’s Fujian Province from Matsu. The island is an interesting mix of culture, history and scenery, best known for its Mediterranean-like stone houses that are built on its hillsides in villages such as Qinbi (aka Chinbe). Tourists can stay in some of them, like at the Chinbe Hotel.
Footpaths zigzagging through Matsu take hikers through small farms and quiet villages, and offer panoramic views of mountains and sea. The War and Peace Memorial Park’s museum, wartime tunnels and forts are a treasure for history buffs. Battles between China’s Communists and Nationalists were fought on Matsu even after the Nationalists’ troops fled to Taiwan when they lost the civil war in mainland China in 1949. The museum tells stark tales, like how Taiwanese soldiers were massacred in the middle of the night by swimming Chinese troops, and how the Matsu residents’ bravely defended their island. Memorabilia includes personal and false messages that were stuffed in artillery shells fired by China to lure the Nationalists back to the mainland.
Save time for sitting at the outdoor hillside cafés in Qinbi to admire the sunset and enjoy today’s relative peace.
This island, off the southwestern coast of Taiwan, is the only offshore island of the outlying islands that is composed of coral. It is also one of the smallest and most relaxing of the group. Activities include biking around the island, leisurely enjoying a sea-view lunch and checking out the interesting rock formations that dot the coastline. One of the most popular is Vase Rock. Donggang, a port town where you can catch a ferry to Xiaoliuqiu, holds Taiwan’s largest festival each April to honour Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea. The goddess – once, worshipped mainly by fishing families, is now the most popular deity in Taiwan. The colourful and highly elaborate festival, which thrives here and is only beginning to be revived in China, attract tens of thousands of Mazu adherents from Taiwan and other parts of Southeast Asia.
All of these islands are just a short, one-hour flight from Taipei’s in-town airport Songshan or a short boat ride from the nearest coastal town. Plane tickets can be purchased at the airport, but it is best to check the flight schedules and book tickets in advance with agencies such as ezTravel (886-2-4066-6777, ext 9 and then 3 for domestic tickets). Once you are there, you can get around on foot, bike, motorbike or a hired taxi. Many bed and breakfast owners pick you up at the airport or port and some gladly give you a lift whenever it is convenient during your stay. For more information, including accommodations, check out Offshore Islands on the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s English website.