Small Wonders: Penghu’s Beautiful Bays

As is true for all island nations, Taiwan’s history and character have been shaped by the surrounding ocean. The ancestors of its indigenous people crossed the sea more than four millennia ago. From the 1600s onward, large numbers of migrants sailed from the Chinese mainland and settled on Taiwan’s western lowlands.

Nowadays Taiwanese are far more likely to work in an office than on a trawler, but the island continues to be one of the world’s great fishing nations. Taiwan’s deep-sea fishing fleet ranks number one in the world for Pacific saury production, and number two for tuna. Annual per capita seafood consumption is more than quadruple that of the United States.

Drying squid

Bays have played an important role in the history of human settlement. In addition to being safe to fish in, their calm waters facilitated the development of maritime trade. When written in Chinese, the second character in “Taiwan” means bay or gulf. This is likely nothing more than a coincidence, however. The place name is probably a transliteration of an indigenous place name. In fact, the main island of Taiwan lacks any coastal feature comparable in significance to Tokyo Bay or Manila Bay.

The inlets at Shenao and Dawulun near Taipei are certainly pretty, but neither is more than half a mile across. Travelers in search of unspoiled corrugated coastlines will find outlying Penghu County, 45 minutes by plane from Taipei, an especially rewarding destination. The beauty of this archipelago of 90 islands and islets has received international recognition from The Club of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World, a non-profit tourism association founded two decades ago and based in France.

Penghu has been a member of the club since July 2014, committing itself to “saving the natural heritage of the bay, preserving its identity, [and] respecting the way of life and the traditions of those that inhabit the area whilst ensuring economic development compatible with these commitments.”

The county’s membership application was approved in part because of the efforts made over several years to protect the endangered green turtles that crawl ashore at six locations on Wangan Island in order to lay their eggs in the sand, as well as efforts to replace many of the archipelago’s gasoline-powered motorcycles and scooters with electric vehicles, and to greatly increase the amount of electricity generated by solar arrays and wind turbines.

Portuguese sailors bound for Japan in the late 16th century called the Penghu archipelago Pescadores (“fishermen’s islands”). By that time, people of Han Chinese origin had already been living on the islands for over 400 years, and some striking relics have been preserved. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the Tianhou Temple in Magong, the county’s administrative center and home to over half of the archipelago’s 104,000 permanent residents.

The temple is more than 400 years old and is devoted to Mazu, the goddess of the sea and protector of fishermen. A thorough restoration was completed in late 2013, yet the shrine retains a charming air of antiquity. Within the complex, visitors interested in the history of interactions between Greater China and the West will find a fascinating artifact – a tall stele (inscribed stone pillar used to promulgate decrees) dating from 1604.

It restates an order from the Ming imperial court in Beijing for the Dutch expeditionary force then anchored at Penghu to leave the islands forthwith. The Europeans evacuated, but they soon returned to this part of the world to establish a trading base at what is now Anping in Tainan City.

If they are seeking sublime bays, visitors to Penghu need not go far. North of downtown Magong, an inlet more than 1.4-kilometers across contains two fishing harbors. A pair of sizable bays are also located near Penghu’s airport. The county jail stands on the west side of one, and Qingluo Wetlands, a nature preserve full of mangroves and waterbirds, is on the east side of the other.

Taiwanese have long been aware of Penghu’s charms. Each summer, tens of thousands of visitors head to the county’s sandy beaches to frolic in the ocean. Others come for the world-class windsurfing and kitesurfing, or to take photos of picturesque semi-deserted villages like Erkan and Zhongshe.

Later this year, Penghu will have a unique opportunity to present itself to the global tourism community when it hosts The Club of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World Congress and Carnival from September 27 to October 1. More than a thousand foreign delegates and their companions are expected to attend the convention and related events. These include the finals of the Global Charity Queen beauty contest (September 19 to 24), the Yacht Life International Expo and Yacht Life Festival (September 27 to October 31), the Ironman International Triathlon (October 1), and the National Beach Woodball Championship (October 11 to 15).

The season-long Penghu Autumn Festival features long-distance swimming and cycling events, as well as a culinary festival. Another affiliated event is the Penghu International Marathon on October 15. Runners who miss that race can come instead on November 12 for the Penghu & FAT Marathon, sponsored by Far Eastern Air Transport (FAT), an airline with service several times a day between Magong and Taiwan proper. From November 14 to November 21, Penghu will be the venue for the 2017 RS:X Windsurfing Asian Championships.

Even though reaching Magong from any of Taiwan’s major cities is a cinch, the words “Penghu” and “day trip” should never appear in the same sentence. At 141 square kilometers, the county is simply too big and spread out. Worthwhile attractions can be found on almost all of the 19 islands that have permanent human populations.

Double hearted weir

Two of the most-photographed sights – the spit at Jibei and the Double-Hearted Weir that decorates Qimei’s intertidal zone – are 60 kilometers apart. The former is a one-kilometer-long, teardrop-shaped sandbar that stretches out from the island’s southern tip. The latter, laboriously maintained over generations, was constructed to trap fish as the tide recedes.

Penghu’s three main islands are linked by bridges and causeways. Tourists who hope to explore beyond this horseshoe-shaped landmass will want details of the various ferries that sail between Magong and places like Qimei. These, along with a great deal of other useful information, can be found on the website of the Penghu National Scenic Area Administration. For all kinds of information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).

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