When I bought my ticket for Taiwan as a rest stop on the way from Bangkok to California, it was hiking that I had in mind.
Taiwan has 26 peaks over 3,000 meters with over 800 marked trails that crisscross the island. There are famous waterfall hikes and beach hikes, and there’s the slightest possibility of seeing a Formosa bear. It was a coincidence that I met up with some friends of friends who own a little bar and brew their beer in a small town on the East Coast a week before I was to leave.
They described a cool surf town that harbors an eclectic cast of expats, local artists, and craftspeople. How their bar is built inside the guts of an old sugar factory and that Dulan, their town, looks down on a black sand beach and is backed up by craggy green mountains. It was reason enough to put off hiking and check out Taiwan’s east coast instead.
Dulan is at the heart of Taitung County’s surf coast. Taitung has a tropical monsoon environment that gets big storm-driven waves and high winds during typhoon season. The wind and waves that carved out the dramatic geography of the place also dictated the way the towns hunker against the steep hillsides.
Highway 11 which winds along the East coast is a highway in name only. The curves on the mostly two-lane road keep traffic slow, and there’s no express train or bus service to the area. But as surfing has caught on, it has brought with it an upsurge in visitor numbers.
“Surfers first started coming about 20 years ago, at first mostly foreigners living in Taipei. But over the last ten years the scene has blown up and become a great mix of foreigners and Taiwanese,” said longtime resident Brian Curran.
It’s easy to see why the surfers came. There are empty beaches and line-up free sets of monsoon-driven waves through autumn and early winter. Summer brings beautiful warm water and lazy waves, good for longboarding.
There are breaks of different difficulties all along the coast, the most popular of which is Jinzun only a few kilometers north of Dulan.
When I was there, the weather was cool enough to walk the cliffs and black sand beaches for five hours, but still warm enough to strip off for a plunge into the sea late in the afternoon. I walked from Dulan on a purpose-built coastal trail north to Jinzun beach that twisted along the cliffs and through high grasses.
A few surfers had paddled out into rough water to catch raggedy waves. The viewpoints of the sea from the trail are the stuff of postcards. After walking back to Dulan, I sat drying off among the scattered boulders and watched both kiteboarders and windsurfers beating against the surf in the stiff wind.
The beauty of the area draws more than just surfers to the coastline. The east coast is a favorite for both on and off-road cyclists and motorcyclists who come to ride the twisty routes that wind through the mountains. Hikers also find their way there to explore the spectacular trails.
I commandeered a motorcycle and rode up into the lush mountainside hoping to find one of the numerous hot springs. Vegetable gardens bordered squat concrete block houses built to withstand the brutal winds that pound the hillsides during storms. The roads though are in fine condition and coil like snakes through the hills.
I headed back to the coast to check out a surf competition. It was a local affair, and the kids were giving it their best, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. The rain hadn’t materialized but the last remnants of the typhoon that had been threatening were blowing through and the sea was like a washing machine.
Respite can be found in the amiable towns of Taitung County. In Dulan, a highlight is the Sintung sugar factory. Built during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the raw concrete structure dominates tiny Dualong. It sat defunct and collapsing until the early 1990s when local artists began to repurpose it with the county’s financial help.
Today, the factory is the de facto center of Dulan’s art scene. There are studio spaces showrooms and galleries within. There’s also a clutch of bars, including the one owned by my friends. Outside the lawn plays host to regular festivals and events. When I was there, a local band was playing out in the drizzle, so I took a seat near the fire with one of the bar’s homemade meads.
On my final day, the weather cleared and was warm and fine. I rented an SUP and went out into the now calm surf with it. Knee-high waves rolled in, and I got to paddle and soak up the view for a few hours. I observed the strip of black sand, the blur of rock cliffs scattered with small houses clinging to it with the dense green hills looming up behind. From the water, it was like an abstract painting.
Before I visited, someone described Dulan as the Venice Beach of Taiwan. I can’t say I saw much in the comparison. I didn’t see any roller skaters in fluorescent thongs or fire-breathing jugglers. Or, indeed, many people. The long-timers may complain about too much new blood spoiling the place. But, from what I’ve seen, Taitung, and Dulan, are just about right.