A Thousand Points of Light: Penghu International Fireworks Festival

Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, Penghu is less than 50 km west of Taiwan’s main island, yet this stunning archipelago looks completely different.

For a start, it’s quite flat, whereas much of Taiwan is ruggedly mountainous. The islands used to be almost treeless, but afforestation programs have changed this. And perhaps most impressively – and to the amazement of those used to the bustle of Taipei – it is mostly empty.

Only 20 of Penghu County’s 90 islands are inhabited, and all but one emerged from the sea due to volcanic activity. When the basaltic lava that poured from the ocean bed more than eight million years ago cooled, it formed hexagonal columns, giving the archipelago’s cliffs and tablelands a distinctive appearance that attracts scores of tourists year-round.

This year, between April 20 and June 29, travelers have another good reason to extend their stay in Penghu. The 2023 Penghu International Fireworks Festival – a much-loved event that has been lighting up the archipelago’s springtime skies for more than two decades – is making a highly-anticipated return to its full glory after the pandemic prompted last year’s festival to be scaled back.

In addition to being an unforgettable visual spectacular, the 2023 edition will celebrate The Walt Disney Company’s 100th anniversary under the slogan “A Century of Fantasy, An Eternity of Wonder.”

Disney’s participation dates back to 2020, when the fireworks festival featured a Marvel-themed drone show. This year, state-of-the-art drone displays will form an even greater element of the festival, reducing its environmental impact while creating dazzling new possibilities.

Flights from Taiwan’s major cities to Magong take less than one hour, but the words “Penghu” and “day trip” should never appear in the same sentence. Simply put, there is too much to see, and the sights are too spread out. Two of the most-photographed attractions, Jibei’s stunning sand spit and Qimei’s Double-Hearted Weir, are 60 km apart.

If you time your trip to Penghu to coincide with the fireworks festival, you can avoid the peak July-August period, when families and college students arrive en masse. That also happens to be the hottest part of the year, with average highs of 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit). If you cannot attend the festival, September is a good month to visit. Wintertime, when chilly winds blast the archipelago, is less hospitable.

Penghu’s environment and history have given the county an abundance of architectural, culinary, and ecological treasures. For hundreds of years life on these windswept isles was hardscrabble. Even after decades of relative prosperity, the county has a population of only 107,000 people, with more than half of them residing in Magong, the county’s administrative center and only city.

On the opposite side of Penghu’s main island, the tiny settlement of Erkan will delight anyone intrigued by traditional building styles. Several of the most imposing abodes were built by villagers who moved away to pursue opportunities. Some made fortunes running Chinese medicine stores in Taiwan, among them two brothers who commissioned the refurbishing of their old residence in 1910. This intensely photogenic homestead, now known as the Chen Family Historical House, is open to the public.

There are also attractive ruins in Tongliang, a village best known for the ancient banyan tree that has created an immense canopy in front of the Baoan Temple.

In the late 16th century, Portuguese sailors bound for Japan called the Penghu archipelago Ilhas dos Pescadores (“the Fishermen’s Islands”), and seafood has always been a central part of the local diet. Delicious lobsters, oysters, squid, abalone, and grouper can be enjoyed at restaurants throughout the archipelago. Dried seafood products are a big hit with Taiwanese tourists who take them home by the bagful to share with relatives and coworkers.

Because the climate is dry and the soil is so sandy, the islands have no rice fields. Vegetables are grown in small enclosures, protected from strong, salt-bearing gales by windbreaks that were made by piling up chunks of basalt. One plant does thrive in these conditions, however: Opuntia dillenii, a prickly-pear cactus, which enterprising locals use to make an ice-cream-like concoction.

Penghu never industrialized, and as a result the unspoiled environment is enjoyed by creatures such as turtles and birds. The green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas japonica) that lay their eggs on Wangan Island between May and October are an endangered species protected by Taiwan law. The county’s four internationally recognized Important Bird Areas host a wide variety of species. One of them is the Mao Islet Seabird Refuge, which gets its name from the shape of its landforms (mao means “cat” in Chinese). Fortunately for its avian residents, it’s free of felines.

The South Penghu Marine National Park is geared toward conservation rather than mass tourism. Still, individuals with a serious interest in ecology can enquire about visiting opportunities through the Interior Ministry’s national parks management agency (https://np.cpami.gov.tw/).

Of course, some tourists just want to hit the beach. Penghu has several appealing strips of sand, and both Aimen Beach and Shili Beach are conveniently close to Magong. A number of homestays can help arrange equipment rental for guests who wish to go windsurfing or kayaking.

Exploring Penghu’s unpopulated islands involves catching ferries or signing up for a boat tour, of which there are plenty during the busier months. But for the horseshoe-shaped core of the archipelago, joined to the main island by bridges and causeways that pass through Baisha and Xiyu Townships, the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus service is a viable option.

The Magong Shuttle Bus North Ring Line makes stops at several points of interest, including Tongliang, Yuwengdao Lighthouse, Daguoye Basalt Columns, and Erkan, pausing at each for between 10 and 40 minutes.

The Magong Huxi Route takes in the quaintly timeworn village of Nanliao, Guoye Lime Kiln (in the early 20th century, lime was one of Penghu’s few non-seafood exports), Magong’s airport, and the beachside Shell Church.

For full details on itineraries and fares, plus schedules you can download and print, go to www.taiwantrip.com.tw. This multilingual website describes Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus services throughout the country, and is a great help when planning any Taiwan vacation.

For additional information – including contact details for the airlines and ferry companies that connect the islands to Taipei, Kaohsiung, and other population centers – see the websites of the Penghu National Scenic Area (https://www.penghu-nsa.gov.tw/English/) and the Penghu County Government’s Tourism Department (https://penghutravel.com/English/).

For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline at 0800-011-765 (toll-free within Taiwan).