Almost everyone realises that Taiwan is an island, but few realise that there are many smaller islands that you can visit offshore.
Why should I visit the offshore islands of Taiwan? There are many, many reasons to visit the islands of Taiwan such as history, beauty, tranquillity and friendly people.
The main island of Taiwan has developed quite rapidly over recent years, but the same is not true of the islands. The rate of change is much slower, life is slower, and much of the culture is not only stronger, but also more preserved. Many Taiwanese from the main island have never visited the islands so you will definitely be in the minority.
Do yourself a favour and get out to the islands of Taiwan!**
Ok, so now you know that Taiwan has some exotic offshore islands, are you ready to learn more? Let’s go!
Taiwan’s islands at a glance
Here is a map that outlines the transport options that are available to get you from the main island to the outlying islands.
As always, double check this data as things can change.
Planning your visit
The islands tend to be much quieter than the mainland so getting there is usually pretty simple but bear in mind that if you are planning to fly on busy weekends, then it is best to book your flights in advance. There are daily flights from the major cities of Taiwan. Ferry sailings are much easier to arrange at short notice and go to all the islands except for Kinmen.
Always check the weather forecast before your trip as both flights and sailings can be severely disrupted by typhoons.
|Diving / Snorkelling||★★★★||★★★★||★★||–||–||★★|
I have a separate resource page just to help you get around Taiwan. it covers Air, Train, Ferry and Bus:
Where to stay
You can book in advance, but it is not always necessary. This will allow you a great deal of freedom.
There are bus services, but the easiest way by far is to rent a scooter. This should be easy to do. You may be asked for an international drivers license or in some cases a local scooter license. Another great option is cycling. Bicycles can be rented, or you can take your own bikes if travelling by ferry. If you decide to rent be sure to check your bike over carefully as the quality of rental vehicles can vary. Some of the islands have very steep roads that require good brakes!
You can fly to either Nangang or Beigan airports, and you can take a ferry from Keelung (north-east of Taipei)
Geographically, the islands are located 175km north-west from the main island and are in fact very close to the Chinese mainland. There are roughly 19 islands with 5 of those considered to be the “main” islands:
- Nangang – 10.43km²
- Beigan – 8.86km²
- Dongyin – 4.35km²
The population is around 13,000, and the weather is subtropical with 4 distinct seasons. The average temperature range is between 13ºC – 29ºC. I have visited the islands twice in the summer and winter. The summer was hot and sticky, and the winter temperatures dropped down to 8ºC which felt a lot colder due to the wind!
There is a lot to see and do on the Matsu islands so it would be easy to spend a week or more here. The vibe of the islands is very leisurely, so it’s a perfect place to get away from it all. One of the highlights of the year is the Lantern Festival in early February. These islands have a distinct military presence, and a lot of young Taiwanese get sent here to do their national service. So don’t be surprised to see soldiers walking through the streets or even running mock exercises.
All of the islands have something to offer, but my favourite is Beigan. If you go there, then you must visit the picturesque villages of Qinbi which has a beautiful location and Qiaozi whose array of temples that overlook the sea are stunning.
Kinmen lies almost 200km west of Taichung city, but only 2km from China and the only way to get there from Taiwan is to fly from Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, Taitung, Chiayi and Penghu. There is also a ferry from mainland China. Interestingly, there is a 5.4km bridge being built to link Kinmen and the nearby, smaller island of Lieyu. The bridge is due for completion in 2020 at the cost of 9 billion NT$.
The population in December 2014 was 127,000 and has an area of 153km².
The name Kinmen means “Golden Gate”, and it has been traditionally the gateway from mainland China to Taiwan. The island has had quite a stormy history with many conflicts over the years. It’s inhabitants speak the Min dialect of Chinese and Mandarin. Few people can converse in English especially when you leave the tourist areas.
The island’s economy is mainly based on tourism and the well-known Kaoliang liquor.
The main town of Kincheng is small enough to explore on foot, but most of the island’s interest lies outside so you will need some form of transport. Scooters (Electric versions too) can be hired on a daily basis. You may be asked for an international driving license. Bicycles can also be utilised.
There are many military installations on the island that have been decommissioned and are now open to the general public.
Overall Kinmen is a charming place and should not be missed if you really want to experience the “real” Taiwan.
Situated 55 kilometres off the west coast of Taiwan, Penghu arguably has the best beaches in the whole of Taiwan. The archipelago comprises roughly 66 islands, but there are 5 main islands:
- Magong. The largest island with flights from Taipei, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan, and Kaohsiung.
- Wangan. Flights from Kaohsiung
- Qimei. Flights from Kaohsiung
Penghu has the largest resident population of any of the islands. This means that it has the most facilities. Magong city is built up, but once you get outside, then the pace of life slows down considerably. Finding peace and quiet on Penghu is easy. I have cycled around much of it, and it was a truly marvellous experience. One thing to note is that you will not find a convenience store on every corner once you leave Magong city. Even restaurants become scarce, so it is wise to plan ahead for each day.
The islands have massive tourism potential that has not been realised. There was a vote to allow casinos on the islands, but thankfully the locals voted against it.
Xiao Liuqiu Island
Xiao Liuqiu is 13 kilometres from the main island and is only accessible by a 30-minute ferry from Donggang. There is no airport on the island. The islands close proximity to the city of Kaohsiung means that it is a favourite getaway for the locals. This can make it very busy at weekends.
Since the late 2000s, the island has become more tourism focused, so there are hundreds of B&B’s and hotels. These often offer packages that include bicycles, scooters and scuba diving.
Interestingly, this is Taiwan’s only coral island. Combine this with average sea water temperatures of 25ºC, and you have an excellent place for diving and snorkelling. The island is small, only 6.8km², with only eight villages and a population of around 13,000.
The most famous landmark is “Vase Rock”, a 9-metre high rock formed by rising coral. There are 38 temples on the island with the most famous being Pinyun Temple (Dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Mercy).
There are also many caves that you can visit.
You can expect to see a lot of wildlife on the island. It is home to more than 170 types of fish alone. You can see green sea turtles, maybe even sperm whales!
Orchid Island, otherwise known as Lanyu is home to an ethnic minority group called the Toa. It has a population of around 5,000 people of which 4,000 belong to the original aboriginal community.
There are eight mountains on the island over 400m with the highest being Mt. Hongtoushan. The climate here is tropical.
Despite its natural beauty and heritage, the island is also home to a nuclear waste storage site that was built in 1982 without any consultation with the Islanders. Many protests have taken place over the years as the islanders are rightly furious about the decision. Taipower, who operate the facility have been looking into alternatives. The Islanders get free electricity and have an average consumption twice that of consumers on the main island. Perhaps they have found a way to get their own back!
You are probably thinking, “Why on earth should I visit a radioactive island?”
The island is primarily home to fishermen, and their catch of flying fishing and the farmer’s production of taro, millet and yams make up most of the economy. Taro is a root vegetable that is very popular in Taiwan. I must admit that I have grown to enjoy its taste and I always order a side dish of it when I have hotpot. There are also “Taro Chips” that are quite delicious!
Tourism is not a significant industry here, and for me, that is precisely why I would want to go. It is rare these days to be able to go somewhere that is authentic.
Located 33km off the eastern coast of Taiwan, is the volcanic and isolated Green Island. You can fly there or go by ferry.
It is famous for a few things, but the most well-known fact is that it was a penal colony for political prisoners between 1948 and 1987. During this period, Taiwan was under martial law, and over 140,000 people were arrested, and almost 4,000 were executed. Many of these prisoners served their sentences on Green Island. The prison is still there, and it is open for you to explore.
It’s not all doom and gloom; however, Green Island is home to a saltwater hot spring. There are not many saltwater hot springs in the world, they are rare! I have read some reports that vary from excellent to terrible about the hot springs on Green Island. The admission price is 200 NT$ (2019). If you are on the island, then check them out.
Scuba diving here is superb, with incredibly clear water with excellent visibility. Along with colourful marine life, there are also large coral formations. There are many packages available (some include pick-up from the train station in Taitung, the ferry crossing and scooter hire.)
How much will it cost to get to the islands?
This is a very reasonable question to ask as you must be thinking, “Hey, I already spent a fortune getting to Taiwan, and now you want me to spend more.” The good news is that like most forms of transport in Taiwan; the ferries are cheap. There are numerous options to choose from, but I will give you the rough cost of the ship from Keelung to Matsu. Shorter voyages are of course a little cheaper. You can often book a return ticket that will further reduce the cost.
|Keelung to Matsu Ferry prices – each way(2019)|
|First class||1800 NT$|
|Business class||1500 NT$|
|Economy class bunk||1000 NT$|
|Economy class seat||600 NT$|
Do I need to pay for a bunk? The choice is yours. If you are going to Matsu, Penghu via Kaohsiung etc., then these can be overnight voyages. I have tried both options and let me tell you that I didn’t get much sleep when I chose the seat option. I was doing a week-long cycle tour of Penghu, and I can still remember arriving at Magong city at 6 am feeling very tired and then having a few hours cycling to do. I vowed next time to reserve a bunk.
What happens if there is a typhoon?
You need to be wary of the typhoon season (June to October). Ferry sailings get cancelled along with flights. Thankfully the weather forecasting is good, so there shouldn’t be a “surprise” typhoon as they originate in the Pacific Ocean and then head towards Taiwan giving plenty of warning.
If you have an international flight booked right after a potential trip to the islands, then please check for typhoons before you go!
Will I need any special paperwork?
No, but you will need to take your passport and driving license if you want to hire a scooter or car. Other things to consider are your insurance details and maybe so brave sickness pills just in case the seas are rough.
Q: Which Taiwanese island is the best? A: This depends on what you like to do. I personally love the Matsu Islands; maybe it is because they were the first islands that I visited or perhaps it’s because they are a cool place to visit.
Q: I want to see the “Blue Tears” when and where can I see them? A: Visit the Matsu Islands during the summer months to see this unusual phenomenon. The blue tears are the algae called noctiluca scintillans that can emit a blue glow. I have heard that July and August are the best months and that dark skies and still weather conditions produce the best blue tears.