Rivaled only by the white-sand beaches of Kenting in Taiwan’s far-south, Penghu’s pristine beaches border the sort of translucent tropical waves which adorn screensavers and greeting cards across the world. Given that Penghu is a lesser destination within Taiwan, a country little-visited by outside visitors, it is likely that you’ll be one of a few visitors here. Additionally, unlike Kenting, Penghu has almost 194 miles (312 kilometers) or shoreline, overwhelming visitors through sheer choice.
Ludao, or Green Island, was once home to the Ami, a group that comprise the majority of Taiwan's aboriginal population. Under the auspices of Chiang Kai-shek and his successors, Green Island became a prison camp for the many Taiwanese dissidents, among them writer and satirist Bo Yang, most famous for his novel The Ugly Chinaman, a critique and expose of Chinese culture.
Mere miles from mainland China, Kinmen (or Jinmen) is the northernmost limit of Taiwan. During the Chinese Civil War, Kinmen was the site of fierce fighting and relentless shelling from the Communist Chinese forces; today, however, thanks to improved relations, Kinmen is a quiet, tranquil island; because it was listed as a military zone for years, development was forbidden – leaving its many temples and historical structures intact.
One fascinating trinket found on Kinmen are knives made from the steel of propaganda shells, of which several hundred thousand were fired at Kinmen during the Chinese Civil War. Unlike regular shells, which fragment upon impact, propaganda shells are made from high-quality steel that split open to reveal leaflets and posters. With such a plentiful supply of steel, several artisans began to forge knives – the most famous of whom is undoubtedly Maestro Wu, whose work is sold all over Kinmen and Taiwan.
A volcanic island formed millions of years ago, Lanyu, or Orchid, Island is home to the Yami people. While there have been a history of tensions between the Yami and the central government in Taipei, today Lanyu is a pristine island with rugged mountains and thick forests, peeking out of the deep blue waters of the South China Sea. Given its distance from the main island of Taiwan, Lanyu is a peaceful, serene destination, with abundant natural wonders.
Named after Mazu, the goddess of the sea, Matsu is, along with Kinmen, a stone's throw from the mainland Chinese province of Fujian. Once a military base, Matsu today is a quiet, relaxing island with a wealth of abandoned fortresses, tunnels, and even a bird sanctuary. For a glimpse into the lives of Taiwanese soldiers, garrisoned in concrete bunkers and awaiting attack from the mainland, visit any number of landmarks: the Bei He tunnels, carved into solid granite, and the Iron Fort, overlooking a small cliff by the sea.
Known as the Hawaii of Taiwan, the Penghu Islands are a collection of reefs, islets, and shoals that were designated a National Scenic Area by the central government. Unfortunately, this did not grant the Penghu Islands full protection, thereby forcing residents of the islands to balance economic development and ecological preservation. Today, while Penghu’s white-sand beaches and cerulean waters remain immaculate, its natural wonders are threatened by a deluge of visitors.
While the waters off Green Island are home to a number of extremely fast currents, they also host myriad corals - including the world's largest living coral head, measuring 12 feet (4 meters) wide and almost two stories high. The dive sites throughout Green Island feature a mix of hard and soft corals.
The warm waters of Penghu host a stunning range of dazzling, polychrome tropical fish, swaying hard and soft corals, as well as hundreds of species of marine plants. While the currents nearby can be treacherous for inexperienced divers, the stunning underwater views are rare, and among the best in Taiwan.
The Yami are the original inhabitants of Lanyu, and have, like many other aboriginal groups, faced discrimination. Today, however, their culture has flourished, partly as a result of a reversal of longstanding central government policies against Aboriginal culture. The Yami live in houses built partly into the ground, and build and steer bangalays, elaborate, swift canoes with distinct, pointed prows.
A rare example of sanheyuan, (a three-sectioned residential compound) design, Zhongshe is a series of quaint, stone structures that have withstood the passing of the centuries. Assembled from roughly hewn coral, as both stone and wood were lacking, Zhongshe was one of the first settlements in Penghu. After the village had begun to fall apart, locals pushed through restoration efforts - and petitioned for Zhongshe to be put on a list of protected historical sites.