Experiencing Taiwan’s Most Convenient Island Getaway

Cartoon motifs of the native green sea turtle are ubiquitous in Xiaoliuqiu. Photo: Sergio Palma

Just a quick jaunt from Taipei, Xiaoliuqiu has a lot to offer the weekend traveler – beaches, hiking, wondrous wildlife, and the chance to snorkel alongside green sea turtles.

There are no American servicemen stationed here, but Xiaoliuqiu (or Little Ryukyu) doesn’t do a bad job of living up to its name as Taiwan’s mini Okinawa. Just like Japan’s southernmost prefecture, this tiny island, a mere nudge southwest of Kaohsiung, has crinkly coral reefs, secret coves, beaches, and marine wildlife.

And while the coronavirus pandemic continues to stifle plans for holidays abroad, it makes an excellent choice if you want to get away without leaving the country. From Taipei, catch the 7:31 a.m. high-speed rail to Kaohsiung and you can be dipping your toes in the ocean on one of Xiaoliuqiu’s beaches by late lunchtime.

Shaped like a little running shoe, the 6.8-square-kilometer island is just a half-hour ferry ride from the Taiwan mainland. You can scooter around it in less than half an hour. If you’re fit, you can hire a bicycle and cycle it in a few sweaty hours. You’ll see many locals power walking the coastal roads, but that will take considerably longer and be far less pleasant.    

Don’t let its size mislead you. It takes at least three days to enjoy all the island’s attractions, which include turtle spotting; snorkeling and diving; the inexplicable Taiwanese favorite – rocks shaped like people or animals; cave exploring; dramatic cliff views; mini-hikes through bamboo and banyan forests; canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding; semi-submersible boat trips; hands-on nature tours; half-decent beaches with clear, clean ocean water; and zipping around on a scooter with the sea wind in your hair. Dramatic sunsets and sunrises are an extra treat.

A wild-boar-like rock at the intertidal zone. Photo: Sergio Palma

Getting there from Kaohsiung is easy. From Zuoying (Kaohsiung’s high-speed rail station), take the MRT to Siaogang Station at the end of the red line, and then grab a taxi or Uber (about NT$500) to Donggang Port, where a vessel from one of the two ferry companies leaves every hour or so for the 30-minute trip to Xiaoliuqiu. Before jumping on the first speedboat after arriving at Donggang, however, you’ll first want to make a stop at Huaqiao Market just past the ferry terminal. This famous seafood market has some of the best sashimi in Taiwan for a fraction of the cost in Taipei. You won’t find its equal on Xiaoliuqiu either.

First impressions

Baishawei Port in Xiaoliuqiu. Photo: Sergio Palma

As you disembark at the main tourist port of Baishawei, you’ll notice a pretty harbor with bobbing boats, painted houses, and a string of scooter rental shops. Getting a scooter (an international driving license officially required) will give you the freedom to explore this lovely island easily. There are public buses, but service is infrequent.

Xiaoliuqiu itself has a kind of sleepy Southeast Asian feel to it while still remaining indisputably Taiwanese (there are three 7-Elevens and one Family Mart). On sultry summer evenings, locals sit and gossip outside on stools, cooling themselves with hand fans. The pace of life here is decidedly slower than in the cities. The few streets – there are only two main roads on the island, a coastal road and another down its spine – are mostly empty of cars and large vehicles, although they do hum lightly with scooters.

Along with fishing, tourism is Xiaoliuqiu’s main economic activity, reflected by the impressive number of places to stay. Wonderfully, some of the kookiest guesthouses in Taiwan can be found here. There’s the very fancy, ocean-facing Peekapoo that looks like a giant concertinaed doll’s house; the nautical-themed Chuanwu Homestay that has a shark-jawed doorway and a giant hull protruding from its façade; and the Holding Hands Hotel, whose entrance is flanked by a statue of a horse with a lightbulb on its head. We stayed at Moon Star Villa, clearly designed by a fan of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The balcony bulged in yellow mosaic, the roof was rippling and sky blue, while walls were daubed in the lavender, pink, and purple hues of dreams.

If it’s not a guesthouse, then it’s probably a house of worship, as more temples than you can shake an incense stick at are scattered across the island. One that stands out is Shangshan Fuan Temple on the western side overlooking the sea. An enormous stone lion with golden claws roars at the entrance.

Another particularity of Xiaoliuqiu is a multitude of friendly cats. You’ll find them sunbathing on the rocks, lounging about on tourist trails, snoozing in empty flowerpots, and winding themselves around the postcard rack in town. And in a nod to the main tourist draw, the Chelonia mydas or green sea turtle, cartoon motifs of the creature – sometimes showing them riding a scooter or snacking on baozi – can be found all over the island. You’ll spot them on postboxes, painted on rocks, and grinning on tourist guide T-shirts. The ubiquitous claw crane machines here come stuffed to the gills with turtle plushies of all sizes.

Swimming with turtles

The best place to spot turtles is around the corner from the main harbor at Flower Vase Rock, the island’s iconic feature. The rock itself is a bit underwhelming, a top-heavy hunk of coral topped by a thatch of vegetation next to a scruffy triangle of pebbly beach, but turtles can’t get enough of the algae covering the rocks here. If the sea isn’t too rough, it’s safe to snorkel and with some luck encounter one of these gentle giants. But be sure not to disturb them – that includes trying to touch or feed them, swimming directly above them or getting closer than five meters – as the animal is an endangered species. Last year, a German teenager was nabbed by the Xiaoliuqiu Coast Guard hours after he shared a photo of himself online pawing at one.

There are several other spots where you can see turtles – the best ones being Gebanwan and Beauty Cave on the west side and Secret Beach on the east side. Gebanwan is probably the nicest beach for sunbathing. Secret Beach, in spite of its name, is a popular pebbly cove that is somewhat protected from the crashing waves. While I bobbed about here, a turtle glided past and dove down, disappearing into the shadows. It was a magical experience. A few minutes later she reappeared and then in an instant was gone again.

Xiaoliuqiu is not just sea and sand; there’s also some nice walking. Wild Boar Trench is a mini-hike under a cool canopy of ferns and banyan trees; aerial roots and vines snake down the coral rock and spiral around trunks like Medusa’s hair. A wooden boardwalk path winds through the forest, emerges at points to offer bird’s-eye views of the ocean crashing below, and slips between sheer rock faces creating an otherworldly scene, straight out of Jurassic Park. The spot is named after a legend about a lusty pig spirit that stole the clothes of a bathing fairy in order to force her to marry him. After she escaped, the hog, driven wild with grief, died of a broken heart.

Along Xiaoliuqiu’s dramatic coastline, there are countless vantage points to admire the energy of the battering waves. If you want to feel the spray in your face, Black Devil Cave (sometimes signposted Black Dwarf Cave) is a maze-like walk through coral tunnels that open onto viewing platforms that are safe yet close enough to taste the salt in the air. The pathway snakes through the rock faces pitted and whorled by generations of erosion and weather, in some patches showing the neat imprints of fossils. As dusk falls, the setting sun turns the green sea into marmalade.

Flora and fauna

Everything is well signposted and with a helpful tourist information office in town, you can explore the island easily by yourself. But there are two excellent nature trips that should not be missed and can be booked from most guesthouses (the cost is just NT$100 each). You must have your own transport to get to the start of the tour, so if you can’t rent a scooter, check out an electric bicycle, which does not require a license.

The night tour takes you to a lookout point on the coast to see the distant pinpricks of light from Kaoshiung and Donggang, the lamps of fishing boats that look like little stars, and any local flora and fauna picked up in the beam of the guide’s flashlight. We were treated to the sight of the cement-colored bottoms of birds roosting in a tree. The warbling white-eyes, as they turned out to be, didn’t seem to mind, as they continued to snooze despite the guide’s booming commentary.

He also pointed out a hapless crab scuttling across the road, a dancing stick insect on a lonely twig, and one of the most psychedelic flowers I’ve ever seen. The blooms of the Barringtonia asiatica, otherwise known as the fish poison tree, are like pink and white electric wires erupting from a center. They only open at night when their heady scent attracts bats and moths.

Even better is the intertidal zone ecotour. You’ll get your feet wet as you wade through the shallows of slippery rocks and coral, but you’ll be able to hold in your hands an array of fantastical ocean creatures from the cool pulpy bodies of sea cucumbers (its anus, ringed with tiny teeth, doubles as its mouth); sea hares (who spit a cloud of purplish ink if they feel threatened); and the spiky balled sea urchins that look black but are actually a midnight green. Scores of them crowd rock pools looking like a forest of soot sprites from a Hayao Miyazaki film. If your tour is at Shanfu Ecological Walk, look out for the giant rock shaped like a plump pig.

Quiet times

The intertidal zone tour is so popular that three or four big groups were wading through the shallows the day I went, despite tourist numbers being dramatically hit by the coronavirus pandemic. It was a different story in town, with restaurants and cafés closed and guesthouses offering half-priced rooms.

Matthew Tsai, owner of snorkeling gear rental shop No. 88 Wharf (88號碼頭) on the main tourist strip of Minsheng Road, said pre-pandemic business had been booming but was now down to about 40% of the previous level. “I’m not worried,” he said. “I’m from here, so I don’t have any extra costs. During quiet days I just relax at home.”

But he is one of the lucky ones. Many of the guesthouse and restaurant owners come from the elsewhere in Taiwan and they must be hurting. These days Tsai said he keeps irregular hours, telling tourists who rent his life jackets, flippers, and snorkels to just leave them at the doorway if he’s not in, which is often.

Modest menu

Despite many restaurants being shuttered, you won’t starve on Xiaoliuqiu. Although there is nothing on the island that comes close to matching the melt-in-your-mouth sashimi at Donggang Port, Liuqiufan (Liuqiu Sushi) at 30 Guanguanggang Street is a cute Japanese joint that dishes up decent rolls on black slate plates. Super popular with locals and tourists alike is breakfast joint Yoyo at 169 Sanmin Road. Perch on one of their stools outside and enjoy a piping hot, deep-fried dough wrap filled with melted cheese and your choice of bacon, tuna, or chicken.

Mahuajuan (麻花捲), fried dough convoluted into a twig shape and sometimes called sesame twists in English, make a simple and cheap gift option. Its origins are in northern China, but Xiaoliuqiu has its own “recipe” and vendors hawk bags for NT$50 apiece. A cross between a cookie and a cracker, the twists come flavored with your choice of brown sugar, peppercorn, sweet plum powder, seaweed, or mustard. Hard and crunchy, they are not really that tasty, but still hard to put down once you get started.

For drinking options, Wave Bar just up from the harbor at 308 Sanmin Road has a resident dog, a good selection of bottled craft beer in the fridge, and an outdoor patio. There’s no ocean view, but if you’re lucky the dog will come out and keep you company. And what better way to end a day swimming with turtles than enjoying a cold beer with a furry friend at your feet?

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