- Eating your way around Magong’s wonderful variety of traditional Taiwanese snacks and seafood
- Admiring the amazing basalt formations at Chixi, or at Tongpan, Bird, and Yuanbei islands
- Enjoying the sun, sand, and sea at Shanshui Beach, or on Wang’an and Jibei islands
- Exploring the scenic eastern coast of Qimei Island.
Blessed with perhaps the best beaches in Taiwan, the most convenient air-transport connections, the largest residential population, and the widest range of facilities, Penghu has long been the most popular of the nation’s outlying island destinations. A laid-back, traditional, no-frills kind of place, over the last decade or so Penghu has transformed into one of Taiwan’s premier summer resorts, with a growing reputation among the Taiwanese as a party place offering loads of sun, sea, sand, and seafood. It’s also one of the best places in Taiwan for enjoying water sports; and the wind surfing here is world class.
Apart from its magnificent beaches, Penghu has several other great natural draws, including the amazing columnar basalt cliff formations that lie scattered around the archipelago of about 64 islands, while Wang’an, in the south of the archipelago, is presently the only place in Taiwan where endangered Green Turtles breed. On the cultural front, the islands remain one of the most traditional areas in all Taiwan, and besides several well-preserved villages of old stone houses you’ll see stone tablets called shigandang and various other examples of abiding folk beliefs all over the islands.
Unfortunately, Penghu has suffered more than any of Taiwan’s other outlying islands from the ill-effects of poorly planned modernization and “development.” But away from the main roads, the authentic Penghu — with its slow pace of life and beautiful, unspoiled coastal scenery — is still easy to find, both around the central island group and on the smaller outlying islets.
- Some of Taiwan’s best beaches and water sports opportunities
- The widest range of food, drink, and entertainment options in the outlying islands
- Lots of beautiful coastal landscapes
… and what’s not so great:
- Wildly popular in summer
- Renting a scooter without a local driver’s license is difficult on the main islands
Penghu has a long history of settlement; archeological evidence from Guoye (Guǒyè Yízhǐ / 菓葉遺址) on the east coast of Penghu Island dates back five millennia, while sites at nearby Longmen (Lóngmén Yízhǐ / 龍門遺址) and Suogang (Suǒgǎng Yízhǐ / 鎖港遺址) on the southern tip of the same island were settled nearly four thousand years ago.
Chinese settlers from Fujian inhabited the islands in the ninth and tenth centuries, but the first documentary evidence of settlement on the islands dates back to 1171, about five centuries before the Chinese began populating the main island of Taiwan. Settled first by fishermen and used as a hideout by pirates, the islands (christened the “Pescadores”, a name by which they’re still occasionally known, by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century) became valued for their strategic position between China and Formosa, which was colonized by Dutch traders in the seventeenth century. The islands themselves were briefly occupied by the Dutch (between 1622 and 1624), who intended to use them as a staging point for their Far Eastern Trading operations. Koxinga, who succeeded in booting the Dutch off Formosa, also used the islands as a base in 1661 during his attempt to re-establish Ming control of China, which had just fallen to the Manchus.
In 1885, toward the end of the Sino-French War, the islands were briefly occupied by the French in an attempt to stop Chinese reinforcements reaching the main island of Taiwan. Penghu fell to the Japanese with the remainder of Taiwan a decade later in 1895, during the First Sino-Japanese War. Penghu was the first place on Taiwan that the Japanese came ashore (at Longmen on the east coast of Penghu Island on March 23) — even before the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki which handed Taiwan and Penghu over to Japanese control “in perpetuity.” The Japanese army occupied Magong a few days later.
During the Second World War, Penghu was largely spared from Allied bombing until aerial strikes began in October 1944, forcing many of Magong’s civilian inhabitants to flee to the countryside for safety until the end of the war the following year. With the return of Taiwan to the Chinese in 1945, Penghu came under ROC control, only to be placed under martial law, which was not lifted until 1987.
Despite their enormous tourism potential, the islands were for many years valued mainly for their use as a strategic naval base; and apart from serving the soldiers stationed there, the main form of employment continued to be fishing. It was only with the creation of Penghu National Scenic Area in 1991 that the archipelago began to take off as a tourist destination. In the short two decades since, it has changed beyond recognition. A proposal (in 2009) to legalize casinos on the islands was thankfully rejected by Penghu citizens; unfortunately the islanders of Matsu have since voted to accept that appalling offer.
Planning a Trip
Unless you’re a windsurfer or you love constant gales, it’s worth considering a trip to Penghu only between April and September. Despite the number and frequency of flights to Penghu, they book surprisingly early during the peak summer months and on weekends, which are always the busiest times. Ferries, on the other hand, can usually be booked just a few days in advance. Accommodation-wise, although popular places book up very early, there are countless places to stay in Magong and some simple digs on almost all the inhabited islands; so those who prefer a little spontaneity should have few problems finding somewhere to stay upon arrival.
Keep an eye on the weather, especially if in Penghu for more than a couple of days. If a typhoon rolls in it can wipe out air and sea connections with Taiwan for several days, even if it doesn’t score a direct hit.
Penghu’s tourism engine is relatively well used to foreigners, so there should be no major problems. On the other hand, the Penghu National Scenic Area lags well behind most of the other outlying islands in providing informational material in English; at present most locally produced maps of the archipelago are in Chinese only.
Penghu is the best-connected of all the outlying islands, with regular flights between Magong and Taipei, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. There are also flights from Kaohsiung to Wang’an and Qimei.
Magong’s airport is about 8 km east of Magong City. Almost all accommodation providers offer transfers from the airport. Alternatively, there are taxis; and passing public buses run into the city.
Boats connect Magong with Kaohsiung harbor and Budai in Chiayi County. The trip from mainland Taiwan takes between 90 minutes and 3 hours. Magong’s ferry terminal is conveniently located on the edge of the old town, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the main tourist area.
From Budai, about 35 km southwest of Chiayi, ferries run by Kai Shiuan Marine Transport Company (Kǎixuán Hǎiyùn / 凱旋海運) run daily (NT$1,000 one-way) to and from Magong. From Kaohsiung Port the company you need is Taihwa Ferry (Táihuá Lún / 台華輪), which runs services most mornings to Penghu, returning in the afternoon.
Both services can be booked in advance online or by phone, or you can turn up on the day and buy a ticket before the boat leaves.
- Kai Shiuan Marine Transport: http://boat3.okgo.tw/
- Taihwa Ferry (Kaohsiung): http://www.tnc-kao.com.tw/
There are daily flights between Magong and Qimei.
Public boats connect Magong with Qimei, Wang’an, Hujing, Tongpan, Hua, and Dacang islands, while Jibei, Yuanbei, and Niao islands can be reached by boats from a pair of harbors on Baisha Island, about 30 minutes north of Magong (by scooter; longer by public bus).
Boats leaving from three harbors in Magong serve both the outlying islands and the main island of Taiwan. The main Magong Port Terminal, just a few minutes’ walk from the southern end of Zhongzheng Road in the old town, is the place for boats to Kaohsiung and Budai, near Chiayi on Taiwan. The South Sea Visitor Center, a 15-minute walk from the old town, is the place for boats to Qimei, Tongpan, Hujing, Wang’an, and Hua Islands.
A small third harbor, several kilometers north of Magong’s city center at Chongguang, has boats to Dacang Island. See the directions, as the harbor is a little tricky to find.
For boat services to Jibei, Niaoyu, and Yuanbei islands, see below.
Buses from the terminus on the corner of Minzu and Minsheng Roads in the center of Magong run to most larger places on the main chain of islands, including one all the way to Wai’an (Wài’ǎn / 外垵) at the southern tip of Xiyu Island (passing close to the ferry terminals for Jibei, Niaoyu, and Yuanbei islands on the way), and another to Fenggui, at the far end of Penghu Island. Get a Chinese speaker to phone the bus terminal in Magong at (06) 927-2376 for times.
By Scooter or Car
Scooter hire is available on every corner in Magong; but a local Taiwanese scooter license is essential almost everywhere.
Several sizes of bike are available; to get around the main chain of islands you should go for at least a 100 cc bike (about NT$300). A 125 or 150 cc would be better.
Car hire is also available at the airport, but again a local license is required.
There are plenty of gas stations on the main islands, although there is only one — on Route 203, near Tongliang — on the road across Baisha. On the outlying islands there should be no need to worry about filling up, as scooters are rented with full tanks.
There are plenty of taxis in Magong. (Ask your accommodation to ring for one.)
Countless travel agents organize a series of day tours (with lunch), mainly around the outer islands of the Penghu group. This is the best (or at least the cheapest) way to take a look at many of the uninhabited islands. Although the exact itinerary varies, most offer the same few tours, which combine visiting (although not always landing on) a number of islands in the North or East Sea areas, with lots of time for snorkeling, fishing for squid, or water sports.
Useful day tours leave from the South Sea Visitor Center in Magong, and combine Tongpan, Hujing, Wang’an, and Qimei islands, with time to explore each by scooter or on foot.
There are plenty of banks (and convenience stores) with ATMs in Magong, and a sprinkling of ATMs elsewhere on the main chain of islands. (Look for the local post office and for 7-Eleven.) If venturing to the smaller islands, bring plenty of money as ATMs are rare as hen’s teeth there.
The main hospital is on Zhongzheng Road, in the tourist strip of Magong. There are health centers (wèishēngsuǒ / 衛生所) on larger settlements elsewhere around the main chain of islands, and some kind of clinic (wèishēngshì / 衛生室) on all the other inhabited islands on the archipelago.
Wi-Fi is everywhere in Magong and is available in many homestays. On the smaller islands there may not be any public Internet connection at all.
The main tourist information center on Penghu is in the Penghu Scenic Area Administration, on route 204 several kilometers southeast of Magong. Additionally, there are tourist offices in many areas frequented by tourists. Unfortunately, the Penghu National Scenic Area has so far directed its aim squarely at local tourists, so there’s an acute lack of good English-language maps and info.
There’s a bewildering mass of accommodation for all budgets available in Penghu. The majority is clustered in and around Magong. There’s also a good smattering of nice places on popular beaches such as Aimen and Shanshui. Accommodation is also available on all the accessible islands, although outside of popular destinations such as Jibei and Qimei it’s mostly fairly simple.
Good accommodation lists (in English) can be found on the websites of the Penghu County Government and the Penghu National Scenic Area (for addresses, see below). The three places listed below are intended simply give some idea of the wide range available.
- Lishin Travel Agency (Lìxíng Lǚxíngshè / 力行旅行社)
- 34 Zhongshan Road, Magong
- 馬公市中山路34號Mǎgōng Shì, Zhōngshān Lù 34 hào
- tel.: (06) 927-3427, 926-9776
- doubles: NT$1,000
- This agency owns and runs at least three cheap, good-value guesthouses nearby in Magong old town, and can often find a room at short notice in summer, when everything else is booked out.
- Pescadores Resort (Bǎishì Duō Lí Huāyuán Jiǔdiàn / 百世多麗花園酒店)
- 420 Xindian Road, Magong
- 馬公市新店路420號Mǎgōng Shì, Xīndiàn Lù 420 hào
- tel.: (06) 921-9399
- doubles: NT$6,000 and up
- Out east in the new town, this is Magong’s top-end choice, and boasts a seven-story-high lobby and huge Swarovski chandelier.
- C’est la Vie (Sàinàměi Dùjià Cūn / 賽納美渡假村)
- 17-27 Zhujiang, Shanshui Village
- 馬公市山水里珠江17-27號Mǎgōng Shì, Shānshuǐ Lǐ, Zhū Jiāng 17-27 hào
- tel.: (06) 995-0808
- doubles: NT$5,000
- Thanks to the crazy windmill adorning the exterior wall, this homestay has become a familiar sight on Penghu tourist publications. It’s just one of many homestays (of widely varying styles and prices) a couple of minutes’ walk from one of Penghu’s best beaches. This one is strictly for couples in love and lovers of Taiwan’s special brand of kitsch cuteness.
Food and Drink
In Penghu most of the selection is in Magong City, which includes the only fast-food options on any of the outlying islands, plus plenty of seafood, some Western-style choices, and lots and lots of excellent Chinese food. A selection of the better-known places is described in the Magong section, below.
Elsewhere the selection remains quite limited, although as expected seafood is excellent and easy to find. On the outlying islands be sure to eat early in the evenings (before 7:00) or bring your own supplies, as places close early after the day trippers have left and there’s often little choice.
- Penghu County Government: http://tour.penghu.gov.tw/en/index.aspx
- Penghu National Scenic Area: http://www.penghu-nsa.gov.tw/
- Penghu Windsurfing: http://penghuwindsurf.blogspot.tw/
Shigandang, Zhufu, & Shita:
Guardians of Penghu’s Villages
Despite the annual summer invasion of city slickers, Penghu remains one of Taiwan’s most traditional corners. Signs of the islanders’ still strong folk beliefs are visible everywhere, not only in the many temples and shrines but also in the form of shigandang (shígǎndāng / 石敢當), zhufu (zhúfú / 竹符) and shita (shítǎ / 石塔).
Shigandang are stone tablets placed beside roads (especially at intersections) and at the entrances to villages to ward off evil spirits and protect villagers against typhoons.
Zhufu are rows of (usually three or five) lengths of bamboo about 1 meter long. The top of each piece of hollow bamboo is covered with gold paper, and then wrapped in red cloth. Characters are written on the surface of the bamboo stakes, which are pushed into the ground or stood upright, often at the entrance to villages — once again to repel evil spirits.
Shita (literally “stone towers”) are Penghu’s unique counterpart to Kinmen’s Wind Lion Gods and Lesser Kinmen’s Wind Roosters. These stone pagodas (square or circular in plan) are believed to improve an area’s fengshui and to calm strong winds. Since gales and Penghu are virtually synonymous, shita are a fairly common sight, especially near the coast. The biggest example, at Suogang, south of Magong, is over 10 meters tall.