I dunno…. After two trips (separated by a decade), I’m not sure how much I really like Penghu. I still have a love-hate relationship with Taiwan’s largest set of offshore islands. For sure, Penghu looks wonderful in photos (as I hope my attempts here go some way to showing), and there’s no doubt about it, Penghu is an amazing place. I just wish its development had been handled with a bit more sensitivity. The islands are a disconcerting mixture of strange beauty and thoughtless ugliness. Much of the culture for which they are famous has gone or has been heavily diluted in the understandable rush to make money on tourist custom from Taiwan. Two villages of traditional houses remain (one each on Xiyu and Wangan islands) but the houses are moldering away after decades of neglect which is only now starting to be addressed. The coral walls which once protected farmers fields from the strong winds that sweep across the islands for half the year are largely gone in most places (although they survive fairly intact on little Xiamen island), replaced with the kind of ugly, utterly functional kind of architecture familiar from Taiwan itself. Unsightly flotsam (such as polystyrene and empty plastic bottles), dropped overboard from ships in the Taiwan Straits washes onto the sand or shingle beaches of picturesque coves all over the archipelago. Despite the photos gracing the tourist literature for the islands, Penghu is a very far cry from the rustic calm and unspoilt beauty of Lanyu or Matsu.
OK, perhaps we’re off to a bad start here; the often thoughtless development of the islands disappointed me on both my visits, and it’ll never be one of my favorite areas of Taiwan, but there’s plenty to see and do here, lots of beautiful corners, some fascinating cultural and culinary gems, and plenty of scope for the curious to get off the tourist routes and explore, which makes Penghu thoroughly worth three or four days of anyone’s time.
Forget the dull interior – the best of Penghu by far lies along the coastline of its 60-plus islands. Penghu is justly famous for its glorious beaches. Kenting doesn’t stand a chance – Penghu has far and away the best in Taiwan. I’m not really one for laying on the sand, but the long sand spit on Jibei island, the beaches of the southern and southeastern coast of the ‘main’ island (actually a string of islands strung together by a series of bridges), the magnificent long stretch of golden sands on the southern Wangan island, and several small but enchanting coves on various other islands are really very, very nice.
For more curious visitors, the extraordinary basalt cliffs that line the coastline of many of the islands offer almost endless opportunities for exploring. The Penghu coastline, at its best, is extremely beautiful, and second only among Taiwan’s outlying islands to beautiful Matsu, Green Island and Lanyu. In many places the volcanic basalt that makes up all but one of the Penghu group has cooled into cliffs of countless ‘columns,’ a striking formation that in Taiwan is found only here. The formations of Yuanbei, Bird island, Tongpan and Hujing are probably the most impressive among the more accessible islands of the archipelago, but there are also a few fascinating areas on the main island.
So, that’s my impression of Penghu, after a pair of visits and seven days exploring twelve of the 64 islands in the chain. It’s probably not an idea shared by most who come, and I’ll be the first to admit there’s lots to enjoy here, and some wonderful scenery to boot. Try, however, to get away from the main islands and explore some of the smaller islets. Personal favorites are Yuanbei, Tongpan and the stunning east coast of Qimei, but for the adventurous there’s scope getting further off the beaten track (Hua island, for instance, served by just three public ferries weekly). Penghu, for all it’s failings, is the best place in Taiwan for an island hopping holiday. I’ll be back next year, and with another fifty odd islands left to explore, there’s still plenty left to discover!