All year round, the offshore islands of Matsu, Kinmen, Penghu, Green Island and Orchid Island (Lanyu) offer water activities such as swimming, windsurfing, scuba diving and hot springs, as well as a wealth of beauty and culture.
The archipelago of Matsu lies in close proximity to Mainland China. For a long time it was mostly off limits to tourists due to its military importance. However, restrictions have eased in recent years, and this group of islands, the main ones being Nangan, Beigan, Dongyin and Jyuguang, are now under the jurisdiction of the Matsu National Scenic Area.
What makes Matsu unique is that with just a short one-hour plane ride from Taipei you feel like you are in another country. As Matsu is off the beaten path, and has less than 10,000 residents, the locals are very welcoming to foreign visitors and will be what you enjoy most during your stay.
The landscape differs from Taiwan proper and so do the food and even the language. This is the only place in the Republic of China where the Fuzhou dialect is spoken, which sounds nothing like Mandarin or Taiwanese.
In terms of food, there are a number of dishes that you won't easily find back on Taiwan, such as "fish noodles." This does not mean flour noodles served with fish, but rather noodles made from ground fish. Matsu has its own two forms of hamburger: seaweed cake served between slices of raw turnip and cooked egg mixture served on a sesame bun. This bun, called jiguangbing, is only found on Matsu.
Another interesting feature of Matsu is its traditional stone houses. The best places to view such homes are in Fusing Village on Nangan and Cinbi Village on Beigan. In both places, some of the homes have been converted into guesthouses.
Also in Fusing Village is the Matsu Winery, which turns out a very strong liquor called Matsu Old Wine. The process for this liquor is said to have been brought from Fuzhou over 200 years ago. It is aged in Tunnel 88, a tunnel that was once used for military purposes.
Matsu maintains many traces of its military history, such as the Beihai Tunnel on Nangan. This tunnel was built in the 1960s to hide small boats, and measures 700 meters in length. It is now open to the public, but as it is located inside a military base, visitors must register to enter.
In terms of ecological attractions, Matsu offers excellent bird watching opportunities. As Matsu is closer to China than to Taiwan, the migratory birds differ from those on Taiwan. In 2000, a preserve was created on Matsu for the Chinese Crested Tern, a bird once thought to only exist in ancient Chinese legends. This protected area is also an important habitat for other bird species such as the bridled tern, roseate tern, black-naped tern, greater crested tern, Japanese gull, Pacific reef egret and fork-tailed swift. Entry into the protected area is banned, but birds can be viewed by taking a boat to beyond the buffer zone about 100 meters from the low-tide coastline.
Kinmen for history, wetlands ecology
Like Matsu, Kinmen has a long military history due to its close proximity to Mainland China, and tourism was all but restricted until 1992. Kinmen is not just one but a total of 12 islands and islets. However, most travelers stick to the main Kinmen Island and Little Kinmen.
In 1995, Kinmen National Park was established to protect the area's traditional settlements, military historical sites and ecology.
The Rushan Old Bastion is located within walking distance of the Kinmen National Park Visitor Center. It displays military equipment and weapons, including tanks and airplanes. An observation platform provides excellent views of the park and there are battleground sound effects such as gunfire and explosions.
Kinmen is also a birdwatcher's paradise. There are 283 species of birds. Among them, some 86% are migratory. The greatest number of migratory bird species is found around Lake Cih and Lake Tai around December or January.
Kinmen also has much to offer the cycling enthusiast. For example, on Little Kinmen, tank roads have been converted into 18.5 kilometers of bike trail.
Kinmen has the largest concentration of historical buildings in the Taiwan area. This is mostly due to the preservation of its traditional settlements. Representative traditional settlements include Jhushan, Shueitou, Cyonglin and Shanhou. The earliest residents of these settlements built homes in the southern Fujian (Minnan) architectural style, from wood brought over from Fujian Province and brick and stone from Quanzhou. Local granite was also used. Construction of large two-story mansions in a mixture of Chinese and Western architectural styles began to appear in the early 1930s.
A number of cultural industries make unique destinations. For example, the Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor Factory is a favorite tourist stop. Kaoliang is made from locally grown sorghum using a traditional process. The remains of explosive shells and propaganda shells showered on Kinmen in past bombardments have found use as steel knife blades. At the Chin Ho Li Steel Knife Factory visitors can view knives being made. Kinmen has an abundance of fine clay and feldspar for making porcelain and ceramics, and a number of ceramics studios can be found there. For example, the Wu-Chou Ceramics Art Co. produces a wide variety of items, with the focus on feng shih yie (wind spirit lions). Wind spirit lions are unique to Kinmen. There are approximately 75 in civilian areas, with the oldest dating back 300 years. Kinmen experiences strong winds especially in the fall and winter. With no tall mountains to block the winds, they can cause severe damage. Thus, settlements began erecting wind spirit lions for protection, as it was thought that the lion drove away evil.
Penghu for water sports
The Penghu archipelago (also called the Pescadores) is world famous among windsurfers and in summer attracts large crowds of tourists to its white sand beaches, a rarity on Taiwan proper. However, this archipelago, which consists of 64 islands and islets situated in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, offers excellent recreational opportunities all year round.
Magong is the Penghu County seat, and the starting point for most travelers to Penghu, whether arriving by ship or plane. On the surface, Magong looks like a typical beach town with shops selling swimsuits and other beachwear. But, dig deeper and you will find some of its unique historical attractions, such as the Tianhou (Queen of Heaven) Temple. This is a grade 1 historic monument and the oldest Matsu temple in the Taiwan area. It was already in existence when the Dutch first landed in Penghu in 1604. Jhongyang Street was Penghu's earliest marketplace. Its maze of narrow lanes now contains pubs, cafes and gift boutiques. For a deeper understanding of local history visit the Penghu Reclamation Hall. This was the Penghu County Executive's Mansion in 1935 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), and was also the mansion of the county magistrate after Taiwan's Retrocession.
Travel between Penghu's islands does not always involve boats due to the construction of the 5,541-meter-long Penghu Sea-Crossing Bridge connecting Baisha Island, Fisherman's Island, Penghu Island and the four towns of Magong, Husi, Baisha and Siyu (West Island). On West Island is Taiwan's oldest Western-style lighthouse. Also in this area is the West Island West Fortress, a grade 1 historic monument. Construction of this fortress started in 1887 and was finished in 1889. It covered an area of over eight hectares, and included a series of mound-like buildings that served as barracks and ammunitions storage, connected by a maze of passageways.
West Island also includes one of several of Penghu's traditional hamlets, namely the Erkan Hamlet. In addition to traditional homes, some of which are undergoing reconstruction, the village is actively decorated with stone sculptures, painted rocks, old fishing net floats, carts, boats and shop and product signs from decades ago.
However, one of the most interesting traditional settlements is Jhongshe Village on Wangan Island, about an hour's boat ride from Magong. This settlement has been included in the World Monuments Fund World Monuments Watch List. Relatively untouched by the modern world, the village boasts a remarkable collection of historic structures including 151 traditional courtyard houses, some of them nearly 200 years old.
Wangan is also known as the home of the green turtle, one of four species of sea turtle found in the Taiwan Strait. The Wangan Green Turtle Tourism and Conservation Center opened to the public in September of 2002. Its exhibitions introduce Wangan Island and the green turtle, as well as other protected creatures in Penghu and the South China Sea.
About a two-hour journey by boat from Magong is the southernmost island of the Penghu archipelago: Cimei Island. Its most famous destination is the Double Heart Stone Fishery located along the eastern coast. A stone fishery is a kind of stone bank built between the tides. As its name suggests the banks form two large, interlocking hearts, making it a popular photo spot for couples. The eastern coast is also home to a number of spectacular and intricate rock formations. Some have taken on recognizable shapes such as a lion looking out over the sea and a miniature Taiwan.
Green Island for marine hot springs
Green Island is located off the coast of Taitung. It is most well known for its excellent diving opportunities, with shops devoted to renting of wet suits and other equipment, usually with an attached cafe for enjoying the coastal view along with a hot cup of coffee.
Green Island is also unique in that it is only one of three places in the world with a marine hot springs. The Jhaorih Hot Springs bubble up from intertidal reef along the island's southeastern section. The springs can be enjoyed in one of several pools, either outdoor or semi-covered. There is also an extra hot pool for boiling eggs. For a touch of romance enjoy a dip in these hot springs at night under a star-filled sky.
Rent a scooter and visit the island's many attractions, including its wind and wave carved coastline. With so much beauty it is hard to imagine that this island was once a place of suffering.
Taiwan, although a young nation, has had a turbulent history, including 38 years of martial law (1949-1987), the longest period of martial law of any country in the world. Tens of thousands of suspected dissidents and Communist sympathizers were incarcerated during this period and thousands more were executed.
The first group of political prisoners on Green Island, numbered about 1,000, and arrived in May of 1951 to the New Life labor camp. The daily work regimen consisted of smashing rocks and coral to build the prison walls and sheds, collecting firewood, clearing weeds and blacksmithing.
In 1965, the New Life Camp prisoners were moved to Taitung and the camp was closed. Today all that is left are ruins including a section of stone wall completed in 1958 and the walls of the camp canteen. There is also a shed, built from rock and coral that still stands, although its roof collapsed long ago.
Later on, the Ministry of Defense Green Island Prison or Oasis Villa was constructed adjacent to the New Life Camp and housed political prisoners from 1972 to the end of martial law in 1987.
Today, the prison and its grounds are open to the public. An exhibition hall features displays on Taiwan's human rights record, conditions at the New Life Camp and Oasis Villa, internationalization of the effort to free political prisoners, human rights demonstrations in Taiwan and current human rights policy.
Located across from the Oasis Villa is the Human Rights Memorial Monument, which features the engraved names of political prisoners. Under the names are dates. These refer to the year the victim was executed or to the years of imprisonment.
Another area of the monument features a poem by well-known writer Bo Yang, who was once imprisoned on Green Island. The inscription is in Chinese and translates to "In that era, mothers wept long lonely nights for their innocent sons and daughters held against their will on this islet." Next to the inscription is a fountain that releases water periodically to represent a mother's tears.
This monument, along with Oasis Villa and the ruins of the New Life Camp, is part of the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park.
Orchid Island for indigenous culture
Just like Green Island, Orchid Island is located off the coast of Taitung. However, that is where the similarity ends. The island earned its name from the once abundant wild orchids that grew here. But, now it is famed for its indigenous culture. It is the home of the Yami (Tao) tribe, one of Taiwan's 12 officially recognized indigenous tribes and the only one with a marine culture. The Yami build beautifully decorated seafaring boats that can hold anywhere from one to ten people. Once a boat is ready an elaborate launching ceremony is held.
Orchid Island offers excellent diving and fishing opportunities, and between April and July - flying fish season - the Yami hold a ceremony to greet the arrival of the fish, which was once a staple of their diet. There are six Yami villages to explore. Langdao Village is the best place to see examples of the tribe's traditional semi-submerged dwellings, built this way to escape damage from strong typhoon winds.
Rent a motorcycle or car or bring your bicycle and take a tour of the island. Its natural beauty will not disappoint. Yeyou Village is the island's administrative center and most likely your starting point for your trip around the island. Kaiyuan Harbor, situated on the outskirts of the village is where the boats from Fugang Harbor in Taitung dock.
The Lanyu Lighthouse just to the north of the village provides excellent views of Orchid Island's scenery and the surrounding ocean.
In terms of scenery, the wind and waves have sculpted the coral shoreline of Orchid Island, creating unique and interesting formations. Many of them are named for their shape such as Alligator Rock, Tank Rock, Maiden Rock, Hen Rock, Frog Rock, Twin Lions Rock, Helmet Rock, Elephant Trunk's Rock and Dragon's Head Rock. Other famous shoreline formations include Five-Hole Caves, Redhead Rock and Lover's Cave.