By Sean O'Bryan
Penghu is known for white-sand beaches' historic sites' and fresh seafood' but it's also one of those places where you can take your time to just wander about and take in refreshing island scenes.
Riding a scooter in Penghu' especially for those who know the chaos of Taipei's city rush-hour' is time spent in a paradise of wide-open pavement. Here' the rare traffic-light stop is almost lonesome — no honking convoys of taxi drivers and motor scooters jockeying for position. Instead' you are met by a striking silence' a thin' salty breeze off the ocean' and on all sides' panoramas of vast blue skies.
To conclude that Penghu is dull' however' devoid of that pulsing energy that makes Taipei such an endearing city' is way off the mark. After a full day's riding' the only regret I had was not having nearly enough time to see all I'd wanted to. I consoled myself with the thought that Penghu — a large cluster of islands between Taiwan main island and mainland China — is less than an hour's flight from Taipei. With all the stylish and amenity-laden yet still inexpensive guesthouses springing up along the beaches' I would be crazy to miss out on a return trip.
If you're visiting Penghu' renting a scooter is essential to getting around. Not only is it cheap (about NT$300 for a whole day)' it's entirely hassle-free. Your guesthouse can take care of all the arrangements' and all you need is a passport or ID for a deposit. And for anyone who is concerned about language trouble — don't be. Almost all road signs come with English' and at the airport or guesthouse' you can find an English map' complete with natural and historical sights' of the entire archipelago. (Note: Though you may not be asked for it' an international driver's license is legally required.)
On Penghu you are met by a striking silence' a thin' salty breeze off the ocean' and on all sides' panoramas of vast blue skies
Lastly' though Penghu has probably three times as many cows per capita as police officers' we were cautioned to steadfastly follow the rules of the road. Despite the deserted roads' I felt hardly any impulse to speed' anyway. We weren't going to any place' we — me and my companion Sunny — were simply going. Our sole destination was the journey itself.
Route 203 is ideal for gaining a general sense of Penghu's landscape. It is a broad loop moving straight through the three largest islands (Magong' Baisha' and Siyu)' which are linked by two expansive bridges that are sights in themselves. At just under 40 kilometers in length' an uninterrupted drive along the route takes only an hour or so' though as the road offers access to almost all of Penghu's sights it could theoretically take days.
From Shanshuei Beach at the southernmost tip of Magong we drove north to Baisha ("White Sand") Island' where the Penghu Aquarium is located' famous for its glassed-in underwater tunnel. Route 203 then heads west to Siyu' the third island' and then as far as its southernmost tip. There' you can explore a Western-style fortress' Sitai Fort' walls still intact' built in the 1880s during the Qing Dynasty as a defense against pirates and invaders.
In order to keep the coast at our side' we ventured off the main route after hitting Baisha Island. We passed a fire station with a lookout tower that' sadly' was still under construction. Situated right at the edge of a beach' once finished it will be perfect for passersby looking to get their bearings' surveying the island to spot their next destination.
Soon we arrived at the town of Jhenhai' and got lost briefly in its broken' tiered streets and the lazy charm of a small town on a hot Sunday. There' we spent nearly an hour at a beautiful temple which I couldn't find on my map and which proved to be not widely known. Its anonymity was less a knock on Penghu's tourism department than an indication of just how rich and unexplored the islands remain. Living in Taipei' I've visited some of the most costly' consciously preserved temples in Taiwan. Yet this temple at the heart of a tiny town in Penghu — the stone pillars fashioned into dragons' the immaculately preserved paintings spread across the walls and ceilings' and the glittering statue of Mazu' the Goddess of the Sea' so important to a people surrounded by the sea — was arguably the most beautiful.
Back on the scooter' we spied an old shipwreck in the distance' the skeleton of some sad vessel the lighthouse had failed to save. Intrigued' I pointed the nose of the vehicle westward' to Siyu. At this point' though' the sun had well passed its midway point' and we had to be sure to get back to the guesthouse for dinner. We sped toward Penghu Trans-Ocean Bridge' which would carry us to Siyu.
Like many others in the West' ever since I was a kid I've had the superstition that it is lucky to hold your breath when crossing a bridge. This would be my toughest challenge' I realized this day' peering into the distance for any sign of the end. Alas' I made it maybe a tenth of the way' giving up before I endangered our lives. The sheer size of the bridge is a feat of architecture. It was a curious sensation' to be surrounded by water on all sides for miles and miles' and I won't forget it.
Once across' a few travelers stopped us with a must-see recommendation. "Go to Dayi Temple' for the turtles." Turtles? We didn't ask questions.
The turtle exhibit was bizarre' to say the least. The basement of the temple had been converted into a mini-aquarium for ancient green turtles' a protected species. They were colossal. The largest' if put on their hind feet' would be as tall as I am' and had been coasting along these pools for as much as 50 years.
It was a curious sensation to be surrounded by water on all sides for miles and miles' and I won't forget it.
It was these creatures' their surprising bulk and captivating' absolute laziness' that made us miss the shipwreck. As soon as we left the temple we realized it was too late. We had to get back. Before hitting the road' we walked across the street for some cactus ice-cream. The island is famous for this magenta-colored' slightly sour treat' definitely a must on a hot day.
After arriving at our guesthouse' the Beach Castle Villa' we relaxed and washed up before dinner. The best feature of our place was its distinctiveness of design. No major chain hotel with hundreds of identical rooms lumped together in a giant box; every one of the 10 or so rooms here had some unique feature. Whereas the balcony below me offered a hammock' another sported a hot tub. Mine was topped by a glass roof' and wrapped around the guesthouse to afford views of the beach on one side and the town on the other. Inside' just under the wide windows overlooking the ocean' there was a low coffee table and couch for reading. A nice touch was the white-silk curtain that separated this section from the queen bed. Downstairs' there was a reading room with a veritable library of books and magazines' along with computers for Internet access.
I mentioned earlier the quality of the guesthouses flourishing in Penghu' and that night' at one of the newest (and most stylish) of these places' I met the director of tourism in Penghu' Hong Dong-lin. We met for coffee at the Greek Frontier Villa' a guesthouse painstakingly designed by its young owner to mimic the authentic Mediterranean style of architecture.
Its high' white-washed walls were lit up sharply in the night' enhancing the royal-blue trim of the gates and window shutters. There were subtler touches too: a doghouse built into the side of the staircase leading up to the patio' where a small bar was tucked into an alcove' and a shallow pool in the ground beyond the patio that suddenly came into view' invisible from the front entrance.
I was nervous at first because of my poor Chinese' but was soon relieved to discover the director had a good command of English. I learned that Penghu was considering introducing casinos' in very limited numbers' as a way to attract tourists. After my experience there' however' I couldn't help but agree with him how unnecessary' how disheartening' it would be to see a place with so much natural beauty turned into a gambling mecca. I was grateful to know that this change' if it ever came to pass' was a long way off.
Before I left' the director made me promise to make a return trip. It didn't take much to get my consent. I'd had such a good day exploring places that weren't even on the map' how could I pass up the chance to see the sights that actually were? The icing on the cake was the assurance that the Greek Frontier Villa also sported the only "official" pub in Penghu. I figured it wouldn't be so bad to throw a couple cold ones back' laze in the pool a bit' drift across the street to the beach….
A toast' to a future that could and should be yours as well!
BEACH CASTLE VILL
TEL: +886-6-927-4250 +886-6-995-0855
ADDR: 3-10 Jhujiang' Shanshuei Li' Magong City' Penghu County
(both sites in Chinese only)
GREEK FRONTIER VILLA
ADDR: 59 Shanshui Li' Magong City' Penghu County
(only in Chinese)