The Windswept Allure of Penghu

Starry sky at Qimei Island.

Taiwan’s Penghu County is an archipelago of 90 islands and islets, yet many of the tourists who fly in from Taipei, 275 kilometers to the northeast, never set foot on a boat once during their vacation. From the main airport, four of the county’s six local-government divisions can be reached by rented car or motorcycle, bus, or taxi.

There is much to see and do in Magong City and the adjacent township of Huxi, but even those staying on the islands for just one night should make good use of the bridges and causeways that provide access to the islands of Baisha and Xiyu.

The coast at Magong.

Road 203 heads north out of Magong – home to over half of the county’s 104,000 permanent residents as well as serving as the archipelago’s administrative center — and through Huxi before veering westward across Baisha.

Baisha has a little over 9,800 inhabitants spread across 20.1 square kilometers. By comparison, Taipei’s Nangang District is the same size but has 12 times the population. Those used to Taiwan’s bustling cities are immediately won over by the sheer sense of space, not to mention the unspoiled scenery and friendly people.

Located in Baisha’s main settlement, a town you can cross on foot in less than 10 minutes, is the North Sea Visitor Center, which does more than dispense travel advice. Here, visitors can book and board ferries to the islets that lie a few kilometers to the north.

The most popular of these is the 3.1-square-kilometer island of Jibei. Best known for its dazzling white-sand spit, Jibei attracts both daytrippers and overnighters. Everyone who comes here takes a close look at the rightfully famous sandbank, an entirely natural accumulation of tiny coral and shell fragments that varies in length depending on the tide and recent weather conditions, but typically stretches 700 to 800 meters south from the island’s rocky southern shoreline.

Repeat visitors tell first-timers to make sure to visit the other sides of Jibei, where the beaches are less crowded and hand-built fish-trapping weirs dot the shoreline.

Vessels sailing between Jibei and the North Sea Visitor Center pass a post-card-beautiful but uninhabited islet called Xianjiao (literally “risky reef”). As its name suggests, the various reefs that surround this flat and strikingly sandy scrap of land spelled doom for a number of ships in the past. However, it is now possible to safely approach and even land on the island. Day-long excursions to Xianjiao often include swimming, snorkeling, and stargazing.

Continuing along Road 203 brings you to the village of Tongliang. Like many of Penghu County’s outlying areas, Tongliang has suffered from population outflow in recent decades, and several picturesque ruins can be found there. Here, as in other parts of the archipelago, cinder-block sized chunks of coral were used to construct walls thick enough to protect from the gales that plague the islands during the cooler months.

Xiyu’s Niuxinshan

From Tongliang, a 2.5-kilometer-long bridge links Baisha with Xiyu. Very slightly smaller than Baisha in terms of both land area and population, the latter township is a treasure-house of traditional residences and 19th-century military architecture.

If you have time for just one of Xiyu’s sights, make it Erkan. This village’s 50-odd enchanting old abodes now outnumber its permanent inhabitants. Erkan’s most ancient ruin dates from 1690 and is an interesting mish-mash of coral, stone, and mud bricks.

Several of the families that used to live in Erkan established Chinese-medicine shops in Taiwan proper because of the limited business and farming opportunities in Penghu. Among those who returned after making their fortunes were two brothers who commissioned what is now called the Chen Family Historical House. This 1910 Fujianese-Baroque courtyard residence is open to the public, and the furnishings inside are still in excellent condition, as are the painted wall panels. The yellow-orange pomegranates depicted in one such panel are symbols of fecundity, as hundreds of seeds mean hundreds of descendants. The motif in another panel is the pumpkin, an emblem of wealth.

About a mile from Erkan you can see evidence of the volcanic activity that created all but one of Penghu’s islands. When the basaltic lava that poured out of the seabed between 8 and 17 million years ago came into contact with the ocean, it cooled rapidly to form imposing rows of beguiling hexagonal columns. Among the locations where these can be seen above sea level is Daguoye. Like almost every place of interest in Penghu County, it can be found easily by following bilingual road signs.

Xiyu West Fort is the better known of the island’s two sprawling fortresses. (The other, logically enough, is called Xiyu East Fort.) The West Fort was built just after the Sino-French War of 1884-85 by the Qing imperial authorities who then ruled Taiwan. From behind massive walls made of stone blocks cemented in place with glutinous rice, the fort’s garrison controlled nearby shipping lanes with the help of four British-made Armstrong cannons.

Sunset at Xiyu Lighthouse.

Xiyu was originally known as Yuweng Island, which is why the beacon on its westernmost promontory is called Yuweng Island Lighthouse. The current lighthouse, 11 meters high and dating from 1875, was manned in its early days by British and Irish expatriates who stayed there for up to 10 years at a time, often with their families, before returning home.

At Yuweng Island Lighthouse, as at Land’s End in the English county of Cornwall, the fact that no other land is visible across the waves leaves outsiders with a memorable “ends of the Earth” impression. This area is battered by powerful winds all year round, and one of the few plant species able to thrive here is Opuntia dillenii, a type of cactus. The plant has yellow flowers and a green-skinned fruit whose purple flesh is used to flavor a local version of the prickly-pear ice cream eaten in Arizona and a few other places around the world.

Prickly-pear ice cream cones.

For information about more than 70 eating establishments – including prickly-pear ice cream vendors, seafood restaurants, and coffee shops – plus details of accommodation options and souvenir ideas, visit the website of the Penghu National Scenic Area Administration. For information of all kinds about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).