The onetime place of exile has become a tourist magnet. Like Alcatraz in the San Francisco area, Taiwan’s Green Island was for decades synonymous with the loss of freedom. Unlike Alcatraz, however, it offers much more than penal history. Many visitors to Green Island stay a night or two to escape to a more pristine environment away from traffic jams and canyons of concrete.
At high tide, the island consists of a mere 15 square kilometers of dry land. At low tide, this expands to a little over 17 square kilometers as receding waters expose coral platforms rich in marine life. The fish, crabs, and other sea creatures that inhabit the tidal zone make snorkeling one of Green Island’s most popular activities.
Because the Kuroshio Current draws fish towards the island and then traps them just offshore, the scuba diving is excellent. Many divers prefer the winter months when underwater visibility can be as much as 20 meters. For non-divers, April and May are good months as temperatures and humidity levels are lower than during the summer peak season.
Green Island is 33 kilometers east of Taitung in southeastern Taiwan. Ferries leave from Fugang, a small fishing community 8 kilometers up the coast from Taitung City. Several buses per day link Taitung with Fugang. Travelers doing their own driving can usually find a place to park within walking distance of the dock.
Those approaching by boat enjoy stirring views of the mountains near Taiwan’s east coast. Taking time for a close look at the ocean is also worthwhile, as flying fish skim the surface, while dolphins leap out of the waves.
The boat journey takes 40 to 50 minutes but is not everyone’s cup of tea. People who are prone to seasickness may prefer to fly. It is, of course, more expensive (NT$1,100 one way, compared to NT$460 for the ferry), but the flight never takes more than 20 minutes.
Three flights per day in each direction connect Green Island and Taitung. Because the aircraft are small – twin-prop 19-seaters – and the airport on the northwestern tip of the island is not the world’s most sophisticated, flights are likely to be canceled when weather conditions are bad.
Green Island is so compact that it would be possible to walk from the airport terminal to the center of the main settlement of Nanliao in less than 15 minutes. Everything the visitor might need – including places to sleep, eat, buy essentials, and browse for souvenirs – can be found in Nanliao, but that does not mean tourists should rule out staying in a homestay or a campsite on the southern or eastern sides of the island.
Whether you arrive by air or sea, think about touring the island on a hired scooter. A rental is often included in the price of a hotel room, and by the time you get to Green Island, every two-wheeler there may well be electric. To reduce carbon emissions, the government has been subsidizing not only electric scooters but also a network of solar-powered charging stations.
Getting around by bus is another option. During low season, a bus circles the island four times per day, and between April and September there are 11 services daily. Each circumnavigation takes two hours, with the vehicle halting at major attractions long enough for passengers to get off, look around, and take photos. The NT$100 ticket does not restrict you to a particular bus, so if you find one place especially engrossing, you can hang around until the next bus comes.
Moving clockwise from Nanliao (the direction the bus takes) the first stop for many tourists is the Green Island Human Rights Culture Park. The park preserves buildings and relics associated with the grimmest period in the island’s history.
Between the early 1950s and the late 1980s, the Chiang Kai-shek regime sent thousands of its own citizens to jails on Green Island because they were suspected of political crimes. Numerous political and cultural heavyweights were imprisoned, among them Shih Ming-teh, a dissident who has been compared to both Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.
The writers Bo Yang and Yang Kui spent years on the island. The former is best remembered for his book The Ugly Chinaman. The latter was incarcerated for 12 years after calling on Chiang Kai-shek to release all prisoners of conscience and forswear violent oppression. After his release, he quipped: “I got paid the highest royalties in the world. I wrote just a few hundred words [the length of the article that got him into trouble] but I could eat free rice for more than 10 years.”
Between breaking rocks on the beaches and helping to build the airport, prisoners endured interrogation and re-education sessions. The last political convict was released in May 1990, and visitors can now tour the buildings where prisoners were held.
The shadow the island cast over a generation of activists is the theme of Green Island, an acclaimed 2016 novel by Shawna Yang Ryan. In The Washington Times, Claire Hopley called the novel, “gripping: a triumph of sustained focus on unusually thorny material.”
Besides those drawn to Green Island by its history or scenery, some come for religious reasons. Guanyin Cave in the northeast, named for the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, attracts pilgrims from Taiwan proper.
Green Island’s eastern half has few permanent inhabitants but an abundance of topographical features. The most dramatic promontories have been given names inspired by their shapes, such as Cow’s Head Hill, Pekinese Dog, and Little Great Wall. If you wander from the road down to the seashore, you will come across thick clusters of screwpine plants, easily recognizable because they bear fruit similar in size and shape to pineapples (but harder and far less delicious).
Located in the island’s southeast, Zhaori Hot Springs is utterly different from almost every other geothermal spa in Taiwan. The vast majority of the country’s 100-plus hot springs are located in the mountainous interior. Zhaori, by contrast, is right on the seashore.
Closed only from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., it is often busiest after sundown, when tourists come to soak beneath a canopy of stars. Others like to come at opening time at dawn, so they can watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. If you are leaving on a midday ferry, it makes for a fitting conclusion to your Green Island adventure.
Green Island is part of the East Coast National Scenic Area, and the area’s multilingual website has useful background information about the island. For general 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).