Natural wonders: a deep dive into Taiwan’s Green Island and Liuqiu Island – South China Morning Post

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Coral, turtles, diving, and rare saltwater hot springs: southern Taiwan’s Green Island and Liuqiu Island

Stepping onto the small passenger ferry to Ludao, or Green Island (population: 3,000), few of my fellow travellers show any trepidation.

Although the island is only 50 minutes east of Taitung’s ferry port, I have been warned that the choppy waters off southeastern Taiwan can make for an uncomfortable ride.

And indeed, water sprays the ferry windows and the generous allocation of plastic vomit bags is put to use, but thankfully not by me.

Nevertheless, the journey will prove to be worth it.

Green Island is a 50-minute ferry ride from Taiwan’s main island. Photo: Pete Ford

The ferry docks at Nanliao Harbour; the terminal serving Taiwan’s seventh largest island is little more than a long thin shed, with a few restaurants nearby.

I am staying a five-minute walk north of the harbour, on the road towards the island’s tiny airport. This is the main commercial strip, complete with restaurants, convenience stores, gift shops and a small pharmacy.

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I drop my belongings and pick up a snorkel from the front desk of the guest house.

Within 30 minutes of setting foot on Green Island, I am in another world: parrotfish in purples and turquoise, bright orange “Nemo” clownfish, foot-long thin grey fish; and similar variety in the coral, an explosion of colour and texture, some waving in the current, others looking immovable.

This natural beauty is worth writing home about – and here the world’s deepest postbox, in the shape of a Coleman’s pygmy seahorse, accepts the waterproof postcards of those who dive the 11 metres (36ft) down to it.

Among the guest houses and rentable villas that line the coast between the harbour and Ludao Airport are a variety of restaurants, including a pair that are prison themed, a tasteless reminder of the role that Green Island played during the 38 years of political violence in Taiwan known as the White Terror, which ended in 1987.

Another reminder is the Human Rights Memorial Park, on the northern coast, which incorporates old prison buildings and bears witness to the crimes committed here against Taiwanese urging for a freer society.

Political graffiti linked to the White Terror on an abandoned building on Green Island, Taiwan. Photo: Pete Ford

The park’s large, grassy lawns are bordered by dramatic black rocky outcrops, providing a stark contrast to the white limestone walkways and memorial structures.

Etched into the walls are the names of the hundreds of prisoners that were interned in the vast prison complex, highlighting the scale of the repression.

Nearby, the buildings of the White Terror Memorial Park vary from the grim to the fantastical; tiny prison cells and the solitary-confinement block contrasting with the auditorium, where prisoners staged theatrical performances.

High walls built from the nearby dark rock still bear the faded artwork and propaganda messages that prisoners would have seen every day, compelling them to stop resisting the government and recognise the perils of communism.

Green Island lives up to its name, with verdant plant life everywhere. Photo: Pete Ford

With its high cliffs, forested interior and political-prison infrastructure, Green Island bears many similarities to Con Dao island, in southern Vietnam.

A gentle walk from the lighthouse at the northwestern tip of the island across the green and quiet interior are the Zhaori Hot Springs, one of only three sets of seawater hot springs in the world.

Birdsong is an ever-present accompaniment on the two-hour hike to the southeastern tip of the island – 15 square kilometres (5.8 square miles) at high tide – with brief views of the coast possible through the trees and scrub on the twists and turns of the quiet road.

I am lucky enough to see one of the island’s endemic Reeves’ muntjac, the shy, diminutive deer fleeing into the trees as soon as it sees me.

Crashing waves make the experience at Zhaori Hot Springs on Green Island extra special. Photo: Pete Ford

At Zhaori, three levels of Cappadocia-inspired man-made tiled pools offer plenty of space to submerge oneself in the hot salty water cascading down towards the crashing waves.

The pools, which face east, are great for early risers in the summer months, when they are open 24 hours a day.

For the rest of the year, they are open between 4.30pm and 11pm. Once the families and children leave at sunset, the waves are easier to hear, and offer a dramatic auditory accompaniment to the splendour of moonlight and stars on a clear night.

On the other side of Taiwan’s southern tip lies Liuqiu Island (pop: about 13,000), which is within three hours’ travel from Green Island if you time the connecting transport – a ferry from Green Island to Taitung ferry station, a bus to the railway station, a train to Chaozhou, a bus to Donggang and 20-minute ferry to Liuqiu – just right. A mapping app might be necessary.

Scuba divers can access the coral straight from Liuqiu Island’s shore. Photo: Pete Ford

Similar in size to Green Island, this coral rock can be walked tip to toe in an hour, but most visitors seem to prefer traversing the winding lanes on rented motorbikes.

An electric Gogoro is the most powerful I can hire without a valid driving licence. With battery-swap stations dotted around the island, the steep road up from Venice Beach presents a bigger obstacle than running out of power.

The 200 or so sea turtles that call the waters of Liuqiu home are its main attraction, and signs – both stern and official and the heartfelt creations of island children – urge environmental awareness and protection.

The cute, polyester, stuffed cuddly-toy versions of the turtles that are available everywhere tourists congregate suggest some work remains to be done on eliminating plastic.

Vase Rock is a major attraction on the northern tip of Liuqiu Island, Taiwan. Photo: Pete Ford

While most visitors keep to the north of the island, where most of the accommodation and restaurants are to be found, less than an hour’s walk along the quiet east coast road are some great snorkelling spots, where gaps in the coral that wreaths the island make it easy to walk into the water and start exploring the aquatic world.

For NT$200 (US$6.20), a snorkelling mask is mine for the day at the not-so-secret Secret Beach. Through it I spy fish of all colours and sizes, spiky urchins lurking in crevices in the coral and anemone swaying in the current. But the turtles remain elusive, much to the declared surprise of the diving guides.

They suggest a second attempt after lunch, when the water will be a little warmer.

After French fries and handmade ice cream at the beach cafe, and watching paddle boarders making their way slowly along the coast, I am ready to try my luck again.

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As I follow a cornetfish – a thin, grey, sticklike creature – making its way between coral outcrops, a single turtle emerges from under a rock, making a break for the surface.

And for 10 minutes, it is just me and my new friend alone in the clear blue afternoon waters, the turtle swimming effortlessly while I increasingly flail at the surface to keep up.

The spell is broken when a scuba-diving group arrives and gets too close, the turtle diving in search of peace and quiet without a backward glance.

That night, strolling Liuqiu’s southern shore, I pass nocturnal fishers trying their luck – the headtorch beams of the less intrepid following the surf for their prey, while the underwater meanderings of those snorkelling for their supper can be tracked by following their lights.

Liuqiu’s beaches offer a peaceful break from Taiwan’s bustling mainland. Photo: Pete Ford

Having had such joy snorkelling among Taiwan’s aquatic beauty, there is something perverse in then seeing so much seafood offered in the glass tanks and plastic buckets placed outside restaurants across Liuqiu Island.

Tangled strings of piping pump bubbling air into the water to ensure the freshness of the fish, crabs, lobsters and shrimp swimming and wriggling in the tanks, close to which are large tables groaning with heaped plates of these same creatures, now embalmed in garlic or soya or ginger.

A trip to these two southern islands proves Taiwan’s rich natural beauty can be appreciated with one’s eyes and stomach, and I am already planning which of its islands I shall explore next.

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