Taiwan’s scattering of offshore islands include the Matsu and Penghu archipelagos, and feature wildly contrasting landscapes that range from great sweeps of golden sand to stunning columnar basalt formations. Their military history is blended with traditional culture and Fujian architecture, not to mention plenty of tasty local cuisine. There are nature and marine reserves to explore here, plus some excellent locations for birdwatching. The surrounding waters are also celebrated for their snorkelling, as well as being one of the country’s best windsurfing spots.
The far-flung Matsu islands lie around 170km or so north-west of Taiwan’s main island, close to the coast of mainland China. There are well over a dozen islands here, each with its own individual character and culture, but the main ones are Nangan – the largest of the Matsu islands, and once a notorious pirates’ lair – Beigan, Juguang and Dongyin. All of them form part of Lienchiang County.
Their geographical position made the Matsu islands a military outpost for many years, and the remains of this past can be both seen and visited. On Nangan, you’ll find the Beihai Tunnel – a 700m-long underground dock bored into the granite coast between Ren’ai and Meishi villages during the 1970s to provide shelter for military vessels. The tunnel took over two years to excavate, is 18m high and can harbour up to 120 small boats. Another military tunnel, known as Tunnel 88, is now used as a storage area by the Matsu Distillery – their sorghum wine ages here for five years before it is sold. The Iron Fort on the south coast of Nangan is another former military site worth visiting; its underground passages lead to cramped bunk rooms and former machine gun placements.
In contrast, Qinbi Village on the island Beigan is one of the best places to see the traditional stone houses so typical of old Fujian architecture, which have a definite hint of the Mediterranean about them. Although many of the houses were abandoned in the 1970s with the decline in the local fishing industry, they have been maintained by the government, and some are converted into guesthouses. For the best view of Beigan, hike up Bi Mountain, the roof of the island at just a smidgin off 300m high. Ferries run between the main Matsu islands, and scooter hire is a popular way to explore the land itself.
Head to Dongyin, the easternmost of the Matsu islands, to see the British-built lighthouse that dates from 1904, or to Daqui which is home to sika deer and plenty of seabirds, including several species of tern that also breed here. Along with some of the other islands, it forms part of the Matsu Islands Wildlife Refuge, which is full of wonders. The so-called ‘blue tears’ in the waters surrounding the Matsu islands are created by bioluminescence (light emitted from marine organisms such as plankton) and is only visible at night. It can typically be seen each year between May and September.
The Penghu islands are much closer to Taiwan than the Matsu islands, lying around 50km west of Chiayi County. The archipelago includes some 90 islands and islets, only 20 of which are inhabited. These scatter an area measuring around 60km from north to south.
The volcanic origins of the Penghu islands have led to the formation of some spectacular landscapes. There are extensive areas of columnar basalt along the coast, formed millions of years ago as lava cooled when it came into contact with the air and water. The most impressive examples of this are seen on the islands of Tongpau, Jishan and Xiaomen, and on Magong Island. Sea cliffs and sea caves are punctuated with gorgeous sandy beaches – Shilhi and Shanshui on Magong are among the best, along with the beach on Xiaomen and the long sandspit on Jibei.
Beneath the waves, the setting is equally stunning, with brightly coloured coral reefs and over 40 species of seaweed. As well as the several species of turtle found here, over 700 species of fish have been recorded in the waters, making this a great place to snorkel.
With its windswept location out in the middle of the Taiwan Strait and the low elevation of its islands, Penghu is also Taiwan’s premier windsurfing destination – head for Longmen Beach on Magong for some of the best wave-sailing around.
Don’t miss the rather ingenious traditional stone weirs on the island of Jibei, built in the intertidal zone by local fishermen to trap fish. One particular group of weirs, which have been carefully restored, form the shape of a pair of intersecting hearts.
As well as flights from the mainland, there are also ferries to the islands from Kaohsiung and from Budai Harbour in Chiayi City.
For more information, head to the official Taiwan Tourism Bureau website.