No part of Taiwan is more than 67.5 kilometers from the sea, and because steep mountains occupy much of the interior, the vast majority of the country’s 23.4 million people live in the lowlands. Yet surprisingly few people see the ocean on a regular basis. Of the island’s major cities, Kaohsiung is the only maritime metropolis. What is now downtown Tainan abutted the Taiwan Strait until sedimentation pushed the sea back. The city’s magnificent Confucius Temple, the merchant houses that line Shennong Street, and Fort Provintia (the remains of a bastion built by the Dutch in 1653) were on or very near the waterfront until well into the 1700s.
Visitors eager to understand Taiwan should make an effort to appreciate the island’s relationship with the surrounding ocean. Getting to the coast is not that straightforward, however. No high-speed railway stations are near the sea, and but for a few short stretches in the northeast and the northwest, none of the conventional trains operated by the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) afford passengers views of the ocean.
Fortunately, some of Taiwan’s most picturesque fishing villages are served by regular buses. Services along Highway 2 between Tamsui and Jinshan in New Taipei City stop a short stroll from the Fuji and Fugui capes. Nanliao in Hsinchu City is also easy to get to by city bus. This sounds fine in theory, but many travelers are likely to hesitate in the face of Chinese-language bus schedules and monolingual drivers. In view of this situation, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has over the past several years expanded and refined the Taiwan Tour Bus system.
More than 100 different excursions are provided by several local travel agencies, many of which specialize in a particular region. The price covers not only transportation and the services of a guide, but also admission charges and insurance. Most of the outings last a whole day, and include a delicious lunch that incorporates the best of the region’s cuisine. Full details, including where buses can be boarded and how reservations (which are essential) can be made, are available at Taiwan Tour Bus.
For tourists wanting a taste of coastal life, the Taiwan Tour Bus Tainan Salt Country one-day tour (price varies according to group size and guide requirements) is a great introduction. Because passengers are picked up at various locations in Tainan, coordinating ahead of time with the travel agency that operates the tour is essential. It is often possible to be picked up at your hotel, or at a train station if you are coming from further away.
The first hour of sightseeing is spent at the Sicao Mangrove Preserve, appreciating the special ecology of this watery landscape, including the “green tunnel” formed by the mangroves. The “tunnel” and much of the surrounding area belong to Taijiang National Park. The next stop is Beimen Crystal Church, a recent addition to Tainan’s thinly populated, pancake-flat northwestern corner. Built to attract wedding photographers and young couples, the church is strikingly different from any other building in the area. If the whiteness of the exterior makes you think of salt, that is quite fitting, as after lunch the tour takes you to a place where salt production was long the main economic activity.
Thanks to consistent sunshine and winds, between the 17th century and just a few years ago salt was made by evaporating seawater at several locations on Taiwan’s southwest coast. This heritage is preserved at Jingzaijiao Tile-Paved Salt Field, a fine place to both understand the process and appreciate the arduous lives of those who engaged in this work.
The next stop is an escape from the hot sun, but equally tied to the locality. Hung Tung (1920-1987) was an illiterate Beimen native who took up the paintbrush at the age of 50. The nativist images that flowed from his untrained hand astonished the art world, and several are on display a stone’s throw from his old house.
On the way back to downtown Tainan, the tour makes a stop at Qigu Salt Mountain (another remnant of the now-defunct salt-making industry), before continuing to a lagoon that has become a mecca for birdwatchers. This spot is where one of Taiwan’s star avian species, the Black-faced Spoonbill, spends the winter. This bird is widely adored by the Taiwanese public, and not only on account of its rarity (thanks to conservation measures, the global population has in recent years rebounded to more than 3,000). It is a handsome creature, and many find the way in which it sweeps its oversized beak through shallow seawater, searching for small fish and tasty crustaceans, especially endearing.
If you are going to be staying in Kaohsiung, it makes sense to sign up for the Essence of Kaohsiung Harbor one-day tour (NT$1,500 per person on weekends and holidays, NT$1,300 per person on weekdays; NT$300 extra per person if a foreign-language guide is required). The tour begins where the city began, on Qijin Island. In addition to its seafaring character, Kaohsiung’s oldest neighborhood boasts a fortress, a lighthouse, and an ancient temple. The first dates from 1875, the second was rebuilt in 1918, while the third was founded way back in the 17th century.
Next up is Formosa Boulevard Station, part of the city’s metro system and location of a remarkable ceiling installation called The Dome of Light. It is said to be the world’s largest piece of glass art. In recent years, much of the original harbor area has been repurposed, part of it becoming the Pier-2 Art Center. Not far away lies one of Kaohsiung’s most important historical sites, the British Consulate that operated here between 1879 and 1897, when Kaohsiung was known as Dagou. The red-brick abode on the hilltop, the consul’s official residence, affords superb views over Qijin, the old harbor, and what in the 20th century developed into downtown Kaohsiung.
Before culminating at one of the city’s bustling night markets, the tour stops by the banks of the Love River, the waterway that both serves as a point of reference for those finding their way around the city and provides some of Kaohsiung’s loveliest late-afternoon and early-evening views.
Anyone expecting to spend time in Greater Tainan can find detailed information on the Tainan Tourism Bureau website. If Kaohsiung has a place on your itinerary, do browse the Kaohsiung city government’s website. For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765, toll free within Taiwan).