The Magical Matsu Islands

Each of Taiwan’s outlying islands has a character of its own, but perhaps none are more beguiling than those that comprise the Matsu archipelago.   

Just over 14,000 people live on these rocky islands, 114 nautical miles (211 km) northwest of Taiwan. Because there is a lack of flat land and the growing season is short, life here has never been easy. During the 17th and 18th centuries, pirate incursions plagued the islands’ isolated fishing communities.  

Following the withdrawal of Chiang Kai-shek’s government to Taipei, Chinese Nationalist units stationed on the islands clashed repeatedly with Chinese Communist forces on the mainland. The garrison on Gaodeng Island is just 9.2 km from the People’s Republic of China, while no more than 17 km of sea separates Nangan Island – the most populated of Matsu’s 36 islands and islets – from territory ruled by Beijing. 

Over the past four decades, the Matsu archipelago has experienced a remarkable transformation. Taiwan has withdrawn most of its soldiers. Rather than exist as tense frontline outposts, the islands are now a tourist magnet and a gateway for travel between Taiwan and China. 

Ferries regularly connect both Nangan Island and Beigan Island (Matsu’s second most populous center) with harbors in Fuzhou, China. Flights between Taipei Songshan Airport and Nangan or Beigan take around 50 minutes. From Taichung, the flying time is 65 minutes. Every evening, a large ferry that carries cars and cargo as well as people sets out from Keelung in north Taiwan and reaches the archipelago early the next day. 

Matsu’s military infrastructure is a key attraction for many tourists. The Beihai Tunnel was hacked into the side of Nangan to ensure resupply boats could reach the island during wartime. Special forces trained at the nearby Iron Fort. 

Others are more interested in the island’s characterful stone cottages and halls of worship. One of the latter was built around what the faithful believe to be the grave of Lin Mo-niang, the Fujianese girl now revered throughout Taiwan as the deity Mazu (often spelled Matsu, but written in Chinese slightly differently than the name of these islands). Some say that after she swam out into the ocean on a fatal mission to rescue her father, Lin’s body washed ashore here. Others think the tomb holds her clothing, but her mortal remains were interred elsewhere.  

A third type of visitor has very different priorities. Birdwatching enthusiasts are a special breed, willing to endure every hardship if it means getting to see a rare avian. 

Over the past several years, Taiwan has emerged as a favorite destination for globe-trotting birdwatchers. In addition to an exceptional range of endemic species and subspecies, it offers reasonable costs, high levels of safety and convenience, and a stunning variety of landscapes.    

A total of 178 bird species have been recorded in Matsu. Among them are 28 protected species, one of which is the Chinese crested tern. 

In 2000, the rediscovery here of the Chinese crested tern astonished the international birdwatching community. Long written off as extinct, four pairs belonging to this critically endangered seabird species were spotted within a greater crested tern colony. Since then, the Chinese crested tern has been seen as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia, yet the global population may not exceed 100. Even now, scientists admit to knowing little about its life cycle or migration routes. 

It so happens that, just a few months before the Chinese crested tern made its sensational reappearance, Taiwan’s government declared eight locations to be the Matsu Islands Tern Refuge. In addition to greater crested and Chinese crested terns, these uninhabited islets and reefs protect breeding grounds used by black-naped, bridled, and roseate terns, as well as black-tailed gulls, reef egrets, and fork-tailed swifts. 

To bolster the chances of survival of the Chinese crested tern, which is not a prolific breeder, researchers and volunteers clean up likely breeding areas before the birds arrive, then position decoys to lure them to specific sites that can be observed and patrolled. Fishermen and ordinary citizens are barred from entering sensitive parts of the 71.6-hectare refuge, but approaching on a boat as part of an approved ecotourism excursion is a popular option.   

July and August are the best months to see Matsu’s gulls and terns, but the birdwatching season begins as early as April. A convenient spot for birding is Kunqiu Beach in Juguang Township, in the far south of the archipelago, where the authorities have built a pavilion that faces Sheshan (an islet also known as Shedao), one component of the tern refuge. 

This beach is also one of several locations around the Matsu Islands where late spring and summertime visitors may get to see “Blue Tears,” a dazzling phenomenon of bioluminescence. 

Matsu’s largest non-human inhabitants are sika deer, of which around 200 live on Daqiu Island. Their ancestors were shipped to the archipelago decades ago, to provide the garrison with fresh meat. Some of the animals were released on Daqiu, where they have prospered ever since.  

Between June and September, tourists can sign up for deer-spotting expeditions to Daqiu, which is a mere 20 minutes by boat from Nangan. Visitors typically stay for around two hours, watching deer, appreciating the rich flora, and hiking through the rugged terrain. 

The archipelago’s hospitality and sightseeing industries recently took a major step forward with the creation of the Matsu Tourism Union, a destination marketing body that brings together over 120 enterprises, government units, and other stakeholders.  

The tourism union aims to foster a creative reevaluation of local resources, so as to promote and market the Matsu Islands in ways that build a highly distinctive profile and encourage repeat visitors who seek in-depth experiences. At the same time, the grouping hopes to address the high-season/low-season imbalance, and assist hotel businesses that face worker shortages, ensuring the sector’s long-term viability. 

Extending a Taiwan trip to Matsu involves additional expense. But even those who have seen every other part of the country agree: This far-flung corner has a uniquely soothing and fascinating appeal.


Travelers interested in exploring the Matsu Islands can gather additional information from the following websites:  

Matsu National Scenic Area:

Taiwan Tourism Administration: 

Travel in Taiwan:  

Foreigners in Taiwan: 

Taiwan Scene:

Taiwan’s 24-hour tourist information hotline at 0800-011-765 is toll-free within Taiwan.