Southern Charm in Taiwan
Secret surf gem, outdoor-adventure zone, and cultural and culinary treasure-trove, Taiwan's south is singing sweetly. DUNCAN FORGAN makes the most of the tough breaks, and breezes through this underrated haven. Photographed by ALBERTO BUZZOLA.
Published on May 10, 2016
WHEN I WAS A KID, MY FATHER wouldn't let me near the ocean," says my surfing guide, Roy Huon, on the southern shore of Taitung. "He said that it was full of spirits and ghosts. That way of thinking is not so prevalent among the younger generation, but there's still a wariness." Huon has competed internationally and is considered one of Taiwan's top surfers, a ranking that at first may seem like an oxymoron but is quite impressive in this island nation's increasingly competitive field.
Chugging along the coastline near Taitung.
Confucian beliefs may have stymied the local surf scene, but demand for Taiwan's waves is growing. The spotless conditions and unoccupied breaks are perfect for boarders in search of new frontiers. In fact, you might consider the entire south of the country a new tourism frontier. There's great cycling and trekking, not to mention, in Kenting National Park, which covers the island's southernmost protrusion, the best beaches in Taiwan. Kaohsiung, once known only as a scrubby port town, is having an industrial-chic revival, and Tainan, the former capital, is still rich in culture and perhaps better known as having the island's liveliest street-food scene. The region's advanced transport links, strong traditions and gorgeous scenery make it an unsung alternative to the busier north.
I dive in headfirst, and immediately wonder if the brief moment of balance I managed to achieve on a previous surf excursion in England was a hallucination induced by the frigid North Atlantic.
Tainan's Confucius Temple.
"Just remember that it is all about weight distribution on the board," Neil "Moonwalker" Armstrong, Huon's boss and the co-owner of Surf Taiwan explained to me. "If you can get that right, you are halfway there."
What sounded so simple on a sun-drenched stretch of deserted volcanic sand has taken on a more abstract hue in the water. The breaks rolling in from the Pacific render useless my efforts to put on a respectable display. On my first go, I have enough time to register the fact that I'm facing the wrong way on the board before a wave puts me out of my misery. Subsequent tries involve tangled limbs, salty confusion and even the odd glimmer of hope when it seems that I'm about to channel my inner Kelly Slater.
Only one thing is consistent: each attempt ends with me toppling like a domino back into the brine. After snorting up a decent portion of the ocean after one last tumble, I decide to call it quits, leaving the stage to more deserving performers—like Huon, Armstrong, his wife Yen-Yi Wei, and a group of holidaying Aussie surf moms who form balletic shapes on the horizon.
In all honesty, I already knew it was not going to be my day. When I heard that Taiwan had a nascent surf scene I mistook its lack of fame for timidity in its breaks. Ideal for a rank beginner, I thought to myself. But on contacting Armstrong ahead of my planned trip, this notion was soon disabused.
Finding the right balance on southern waves.
"The breaks here are perhaps not as intense as the ones in parts of Australia or at Mentawai in Indonesia, but they are a test,” said the Queenslander, an experienced surf photographer who opened his Taitungbased bespoke surfing safari business in 2009. "The surf is consistently good due to typhoon or northeast monsoon swells that light up a range of powerful beach breaks and points around the island. What's best is that it remains very much under the radar."
Armstrong has established himself as an in-the-know guide to some of the island republic's best secret breaks, many of which are in the tropical south around Taitung and Kenting. The drill on these tours is, it seems, very simple. Every day after breakfast boards are loaded into a minibus, which is driven, either by Armstrong or one of his expert Taiwanese guides, to a selection of favored spots. Once a location is chosen, guests are free to surf all day or head back to base as they see fit. There are no rules: just good company, empty waves and blissful blue ocean.
WE SPEND THE EVENING AT TAITUNG'S NIGHT market, filling up from stalls selling oyster pancakes, stinky tofu, fried dumplings and other sinful items. The next day I decide to try my hand at other outdoor activities, hoping to find one that's more my speed.
Food is never far away at the Taitung Night Market.
Cycling, especially, is resurgent thanks to the government's promotion of pedal-power. The annual Taiwan Cycling Festival, first held in 2011, is a good indicator of this trend. In 2013, 22,473 cyclists participated in the races, tours and other activities associated with the event. Numbers more than doubled the following year.
Lacking time, an expensive bike and a desire to don skin-hugging Lycra, I am ill-equipped to attempt the ultimate cycling adventure in Taiwan—a 1,000-pluskilometer circumnavigation of the entire island. Thankfully, I have access to the gentle routes that crisscross the countryside near Yuli. The village lies a few kilometers north of Taitung in the East Rift Valley that sits right on the seam of the collision point between the Philippine and Eurasian plates.
Love River Kaohsiung.
Tapping assistance from my guide—a cheerful taxi driver who compensates for his lack of English skills by attempting to set a new world record in taking cameraphone portraits—I hire a rickety fixie and head into the hinterland. The roads are practically deserted as I pilot the old rust-bucket past golden fields of barley and through tree-lined glades. The dying afternoon light dapples the surrounding mountains where bubbling hot springs, limpid streams and hiking routes through hidden valleys await the intrepid. I feel invigorated to be actively immersing in the scenery.
Taitung's options for athletic pursuits, which also include diving and snorkeling around Green Island, a 50-minute ferry ride from the mainland, and paragliding from Lu Yeh Highland, are beyond reproach, but beyond the market and a couple of venues, there's not a whole lot to do in the evenings. The American-run Uncle Pete's Pizza is excellent, and I find a ginger duck hot pot joint called Emperor where a stock, based of pure rice wine steeped with Chinese herbs and dried fruit, provides an aromatic counterpoint to plump chunks of bird.
Paragliding in Lu Yeh Highland.
A more elevated standard of dining, as well as new, cool, contemporary hotels and a wealth of cultural attractions are congregated in southern Taiwan's main two hubs, Kaohsiung and Tainan.
The former, the island's main port, has been damned with faint praise in the past, but is now growing out of its reputation as an uninspiring blue-collar hub. Much work has been put into beautifying Kaohsiung, and the grimy industrial enclaves of yore have been transformed into a modern urban landscape of shiny cafés, wide streets, and river- and harbor-side parks. High-design bolt-holes such as The Tree House hotel and an outlet of the Michelin-starred Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung exemplify this change. So too do the designs on display at Pier-2 Art Center, a former warehouse converted into a multi-use cultural space, and the Formosa Boulevard metro station, which features a kaleidoscopic glass mural ceiling designed by American-Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata. There's a feel of wellscrubbed wholesomeness to the place these days, especially on Cijin Island, a slender spit of land that is home to a pocket of inviting seafood eateries.
Pier-2 Art Center, a multi-use cultural space.
Still, more charismatic is Tainan, where I finish my all-too-brief sojourn in the south. Locals still have a big soft spot for the old capital. Certainly, when I was arranging my trip, friends in Taipei advised strongly against passing it by. As I find myself snacking on danzai noodles (an iconic Tainan hawker dish featuring oil noodles with minced pork and fresh shrimp in broth) on a narrow street overflowing with hole-in-the-wall restaurants, I can see why the inveterate gastronome Taiwanese seem to love the city so much.
An afternoon stroll around Anping District reveals quaint, yellow-washed buildings, dignified temples and narrow streets lined with fortune tellers and traditional Chinese medicine peddlers. But Tainan's obvious historic charm comes sharpened with modern style. On my final night, I take a short walk from the hip Art Station X Residence, where sleek upstairs rooms are accessed via a downstairs coffee shop to The Checkered Record Club, a speakeasy-style bar in a handsome shophouse.
Drinks at The Checkered Record Club.
The bartenders do a stand-up job with my whisky sour, made with small-batch bourbon from Kentucky, fresh rosemary and a twist of nectarine. Equally tasty is the soundtrack, which veers from Scottish indie stalwarts Belle and Sebastian to classic alternative rock. As I prepare to order another drink, the sound of The Beach Boys fills the crowded bar. While there's no time left for another surfin' safari, good vibrations are everywhere in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan High Speed Rail's west coast route links Kaohsiung (2 hours) and Tainan (1.5 hours) with Taipei. Taitung is linked to Taipei (3.5 hours), Kaohsiung (3 hours) and Tainan (3.5 hours) by express train.
Illustrations by Autchara Panphai.
Kindness Hotel A classy mid-range hotel in Taitung with friendly service and extras such as free bikes to borrow.
Uncle Pete's Pizza The hub of the expat scene in Taitung dishes up great wood-fired pizzas in a convivial setting.
Emperor Ginger Duck Restaurant To the left of the junction of Nanjing and Gengsheng roads, this family-run favorite sells one dish only: ginger duck hot pot. +886 89 321 952.
The Tree House Design Hotel Creative décor compensates for the compact guest rooms at this design hotel.
Din Tai Fung The Kaohsiung branch of the famous dumpling chain lives up to the brand's exacting standards.
Pier-2 Art Center This formerly disused dockside warehouse hosts everything from contemporary exhibitions to music festivals.
Art Station X Residence Above an art gallery and a coffee shop, the three rooms at this boutique showcase creativity. +886 6 223 3508.
The Checkered Record Club In an attractive shop house opposite a temple, this hidden gem features expertly mixed cocktails and a carefully curated soundtrack. +886 6 222 8716.
Dive Bar & Grubhut Pretty much exactly as advertised: an American watering hole on Hai'an Road with spot-on bar food and good craft beers.
Surf Taiwan runs bespoke tours around the island. A six-night tour for two costs NT$44,354 per person; if you're feeling social, six people sharing a group room is NT$23,688 per person. Accommodation, trips to surf breaks, non-surf activities and airport transfers are all included.