Friday, June 26, 2009

Pacific Paradise: Taiwan's Offshore Islands
Kinmen, Matsu, Penghu and More

Welcome to Paradise
By Stephen A. Nelson

Imagine a place where the turquoise ocean waters are crystal clear and the daytime skies are cobalt blue. A place where you can lie in the white sand and soak up the sun or bathe in the warm waters surrounded by the kaleidoscope of tropical fish that inhabit the coral reefs.

In the afternoon, you can wander through picturesque fishing villages where centuries old cultural traditions are as alive today as they were a hundred years ago.

At night, you lie on the rocks and gaze up at the clear sky stretched out like an endless black canopy studded with countless stars.

To some, this would be an unattainable paradise. For you, however, it is as close as the offshore islands of Taiwan. To get there, all you need is a map and a plane ticket. But when you arrive, you’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.

In big cities, high-rise buildings, city lights and urban haze can often obscure our view of Nature’s wonders. But when you come to Taiwan, you'll discover why early Portuguese explorers called this place the Ilha Formosa, “the beautiful island.” And when you visit our offshore islands, you’ll never want to leave.


Sometimes people forget that the country of Taiwan is not just one island — it’s a group of islands, including not only the main island but also several smaller islands in the Taiwan Strait and the Pacific Ocean.

Taiwan is right on the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire” — the fault line where the Euro-Asian and Philippine continental plates meet. It’s this unique geography that has sculpted the dramatic landscape and extremely diversified natural environment on Taiwan’s main island.

But this fiery force has also created the diverse and individual personalities of Taiwan’s offshore islands. From the mountains of Kinmen and Matsu off the coast of China, to the ocean hot springs of Green Island in the Pacific, each island has its own unique scenery, history and culture. And each offers its own version of paradise.

The main offshore islands are:

  • The Penghu Archipelago (also known as the Pescadores)
  • Green Island (once known as Fire Island)
  • Orchid Island (also known as Lanyu)
  • Kinmen (also known as Quemoy)
  • Matsu Islands (traditional home of the Goddess of the Sea)
  • Turtle Island
  • Little Liuqiu

Each of these places has it own unique scenery and culture, where the land has shaped the people — and where the people, in turn, have shaped the land. As a result, the scenery and culture on each island is as unique and diverse as the people and the land themselves. Therefore, each island offers you something different. Whether you’re here to go sightseeing, souvenir shopping or snorkelling — and whether you’re interested are in our history, our culture or our natural wonders — there is something here for you.


Taiwan is separated from China by the Taiwan Strait (Formosa Strait). The character of all the islands within these windswept straits is quite different from Taiwan’s main island. Where Taiwan can be mountainous and urbanized, the offshore islands are known for their sandy beaches, turquoise seas, and quaint fishing villages.

For centuries, these islands have been a favourite stopover for explorers, adventurers and migratory birds. They come here for the climate, the natural wonders the and for the fish. So if you’re looking for a place to get away from it all, you’ve definitely come to the right place — especially if you like seafood.

Picturesque Penghu

The Portuguese explorers who discovered Taiwan called it the Ilha Formosa, “the Beautiful Island.” But they had another name for the Penghu Archipelago — they called these islands the Ihla Pescadores, "the Fisherman’s Islands." And when you go swimming or snorkelling in the surrounding waters you’ll find out why.

Penghu is made up of 64 small islands situated about halfway between Taiwan and China. These islands provide quite a contrast from Taiwan proper. Whereas Taiwan has high mountains and is carpeted with verdant forests, Penghu is flat, dry and covered with grasslands and brush. This has made Penghu's islands an ideal habitat for migratory birds that flock here each year, turning the islands into a bird-watcher’s paradise.

But bird watchers aren’t the only ones who will enjoy the wonders of Penghu. In the summertime especially, the islands are bathed in the tropical sun, highlighting the stark beauty of the coastlines. There are more than 300 kilometres of coastline in the Penghu Islands. Anywhere you go, you can head to the shore for a panoramic view of nature’s mosaic: black basaltic rocks, coral reefs and sandy white beaches that are especially beautiful when warmed by the reds, oranges and purples of the setting sun.

Historic Kinmen

In Chinese, the word Kinmen (or Jinmen) means “Golden Gate,” and certainly Kinmen can be your gateway into Taiwan’s past.

Kinmen (also know as Quemoy), is a hilly, rocky island that lies just 2.1 kilometres off the coast of Fujian province in China. As the site of several major battles, and home to several underground military bases, it can give you fascinating insight into the relationship between Taiwan and China. Indeed, many of the historic sights and museums in this national park will show you a side of Taiwan you will not see elsewhere.

But Kinmen’s story is not just about the battles. It is about the people who live here and the lives they have built. When you visit the villages and towns, you will see historic temples and large numbers of houses built in the traditional southern Fujianese, three-sided courtyard style. Walking into these towns is like walking into Taiwan’s past, where you can literally breathe the rich atmosphere of how things used to be.

Magnificent Matsu

Like Penghu, Matsu is not actually and island but rather a group of islands — 18 islands to be exact — the largest of which are Beigan and Nangan.

These small islands are situated in the northeast corner of the Taiwan Straits and — like Kinmen — are separated from China by only a narrow strip of water. And like Kinmen — they are made up largely of granite.

So you won’t be surprised to find out that Kinmen and Matsu have other things in common. Like Kinmen, wind, water, and fire have sculpted the landscape of Matsu. On each of the islets, you can see the jagged coastlines where sand dunes and pebble beaches are framed by steep cliffs. This has made the Matsu islands an ideal habitat for migratory birds — and a great place to be if you are a bird watcher.

Because it is so close to China, Matsu shares Kinmen’s military legacy. So, like Kinmen, Matsu has several defensive fortifications and that serve as a reminder of the historic relationship between Taiwan and China.

Matsu also shares a cultural legacy with Kinmen, but here life is more laid-back and perhaps more like it used to be in the olds days. Here, too, you will see historic temples dedicated to Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea. And here you will see houses built in the traditional southern Fujianese style, with a three sides and a courtyard. The difference is that here, you will see these houses built on the mountainsides.


Green Island

Green Island is located some 33 kilometres off the coast of Taitung in eastern Taiwan, and is a volcanic island where winds blow and waters eat away at the rocks all year round, creating a beautiful and diverse coast. Taiwan has plenty of hot springs, but on Green Island you will find something truly unique in Taiwan — a seawater hot spring. In fact, this is one of only three such hot springs in the whole world.

Orchid Island

Banyu, or Orchid Island, is situated off the south-eastern coast of Taiwan and, like Green Island, its neighbour to the north, was raised from the sea floor by the accumulation of volcanic lava. It has a humid and rainy climate, and its mountain areas (which occupy most of the island) are covered with dense rain forests that are filled with a great variety of plant and animal life.

Coral reefs decorate the surrounding seas, and the Japan Current, which flows past, brings in large numbers of fish. This makes Orchid Island a paradise for fishermen and the place to be for snorkellers and scuba divers.

In addition to savouring the beautiful island scenery, during a trip to Orchid Island you can also enjoy a glimpse into the fascinating aboriginal culture. Orchid Island is inhabited mainly by the Yami tribespeople, who still retain much of their traditional culture and lifestyle. For example, their traditional stone houses are built largely underground to avoid extremes of temperature as well as the ravages of typhoons. And if you love ceremony and spectacle, the Yami Flying Fish and Boat Launching festivals are like no others on earth.

Turtle Island

This small, solitary island located about 10 kilometres off the coast of Toucheng in Ilan County has volcanic terrain that, from certain angles, looks like a turtle floating in the sea.

Here, water and fire have carved out an island where steep oceanside cliffs give way to caves carved by the sea. Mountain peeks are filled with steaming volcanic vents and hot springs that well up from deep under the ground. The whole island is home to unique vegetation and its surrounding waters are teeming with rich marine ecological resources. It is a perfect place to study both the volcanic terrain and the natural ecology.

Little Liuqiu

If you’re in southern Taiwan, especially if you’re around Kaohsiung, look out to sea. About 14 kilometres to the southwest of Donggang in Pingtung County, is Little Liuqiu Island. It’s a great place to go for a day trip or for an overnight stay.

This islet is the only one of Taiwan’s offshore islands that is actually made up of coral. Strange coral rock formations are found throughout the island

The ocean scenery is entrancing. During the day, you can take a trip in a glass-bottomed boat to view the many different kinds of living coral reefs around the island. In the evening, you can join the other visitors as you stand on the shore and wonder at the amazing sunset.

Since this is a fishing island, you can expect two things. The first is a lot of seafood. The second is that the people here are intensely religious. There are a great many temples here — most of them dedicated to Matsu, Goddess of the Sea — each with its own unique features and special attractions.

If you are longing for a peaceful holiday spent on an island paradise, what are you waiting for? Let the clear ocean waters, blue skies, and local people calm your soul and enrich your mind!

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