Penghu islands show a unique side of Taiwan

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      On an overcast afternoon at the end of April, it was hard to tell if I was wandering around an English hamlet or if I was, in fact, in Taiwan. I was exploring Erkan Village—located in the Xiyu township of Penghu county, an archipelago off the west coast of the main island of Taiwan—but the cobblestone walkways, stone cottages, and mossy green hills reminded me more of what I had experienced in Britain than what I had seen in many other parts of Asia.

      Midway through my weeklong trip to Taiwan, my guide, Konrad Hao, had insisted that our tour group take a two-day detour from sightseeing in Taipei and Kaohsiung to check out a handful of the 64 small islands that make up Penghu. “It’s like the Hawaii of Asia,” Hao, a Taipei resident who had only visited Penghu once before, told us as we waited to board a flight at Kaohsiung International Airport.

      Around 30 minutes later, I was walking across the tarmac at Magong Airport—a flight being the only way onto the islands besides taking a ferry. Almost instantly, I could see why Hao had recommended we visit Penghu. The sky was much clearer and bluer than it had been in the city, and the temperature was at least 5 ° C higher than on Taiwan’s main island. Similar to Hawaii’s light tropical breezes, warm rushes of air conveyed the salty scent of the Taiwan Strait, and there was an undeniable touristy feel as I walked through the airport.

      After stopping for lunch at a seafood restaurant not far from the airport, where fresh local fish, sliced squid, and black seaweed tossed with vermicelli and prawns were the house specialties, we arrived at Erkan. The settlement of 50 houses, an outdoor school, and an extravagant temple was built by families who had moved from China’s Fujian province to Penghu in the early 1900s. Almost all of the buildings were uniform in colour and shape—not all that different from the townhouse developments we’re used to seeing here in North America—and constructed from rocks, corallite, and basalt, which are found all over Penghu. With small slit windows, no electricity, and limited running water, it was difficult to imagine what it must have been like to live in houses in Erkan—until I learned that the village is still inhabited by descendants of the original settlers.

      Residents stood outside the houses selling bags of assorted snacks to the throngs of tourists passing through. At first, it felt a bit intrusive—taking photos of these people’s homes, peering into open doors and windows—but Hao assured me that the villagers welcome the heavy flow of vacationers between March and September, and told me that Erkan residents make most of their annual incomes from tourism. In the 1990s, the Taiwanese government began turning Penghu into a vacation destination to offset the county’s sea-based economy, which was declining due to overfishing. It isn’t hard to see why the islands attract thousands of people from across Asia each year—much of the land is undeveloped, and what’s not to like about white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, lush greenery, and open blue sky?

      As another tour bus pulled up to the entrance of the village in the distance, I pointed at bags sitting on a table and asked one of the locals what was in them in Mandarin—which served me well everywhere else I went in Taiwan—but her response was something I didn’t understand. To me, it barely even sounded like Taiwanese, and later I learned that older generations of people living in Penghu speak a unique version of Taiwanese that’s infused with words and pronunciations from their ancestral Min dialects.

      Hao told me that the bags were filled with dried black seaweed and cuttlefish strips, which I dared to try. Both snacks were dry and extremely salty. The seaweed felt sticky on my tongue before disintegrating almost instantly, while the cuttlefish strips took more effort to chew. Another vendor a few houses down sold sugarcane lollipops, bright red cactus fruit, and milky almond-flavoured drinks—all a hit with the few children riding around the village on old tricycles.

      While the schoolhouse and homes in Erkan were modest, Erxing Temple at the far end of the village was impressive. The building looked excessively large and ostentatious compared to its bleaker surroundings. Hao said that these stylized temples are found in most villages on the islands as a way to honour Taoist gods. Bright red doors, front and centre on the building, were at least three metres high, and colourful dragon sculptures danced across the green tile roof and down the columns on either side of the temple’s entryway. While it wasn’t open to tourists—unlike many temples in Taiwan, including Taipei’s popular Longshan Temple—the faint smoky-sweet smell of incense left over from services earlier in the day still emanated from the building.

      After spending two hours in the village, we boarded our tour bus and made the long, windy drive back to Magong. Several of Penghu’s islands—including Xiyu, Baisha, Magong, and Huxi—are connected by bridges, and our tour bus made a stop at the side of the road as we approached Penghu Great Bridge. The start of the bridge is marked by a white archway that reads Penghu Trans-Oceanic Bridge in Chinese, and the bridge itself appears almost completely flat, not far above sea level. What is most impressive about the Great Bridge is that it spans a whopping 2.5 kilometres, connecting Xiyu and Baisha townships, and is the longest bridge in Taiwan.

      It was nightfall when we finally made it back to Magong, so we headed straight to Guanyingting Recreation Park to catch the Penghu Fireworks Festival. Before the fireworks began, Penghu locals performed pop songs on the main stage while vendors sold kitschy souvenirs, such as pencils inscribed with I love Penghu—simple, seemingly silly things that allow people to make a living on the archipelago.

      The buzz of tourists, however, became still with the first crack of fireworks, and the 15-minute spectacle that followed required almost no head cranking: they were quite a distance away, suspended over a neon-rainbow-lit outline of Penghu Great Bridge. Just as I found myself feeling increasingly enchanted by this idyllic place, the fireworks were over and the mob of tourists began to leave the harbourside park for one of the tens of tour buses and taxis waiting in the crowded street.

      Access: The writer travelled as a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. For more information on Taiwan, visit the bureau’s website. Travellers can fly to Penghu’s Magong Airport from six domestic airports in Taiwan, including Songshan in Taipei. The Penghu Fireworks Festival is held from mid-April to the end of May each year. Find more information on visiting Penghu at the Penghu Tourism Bureau’s website .