A giant statue of Mazu, Goddess of the Sea, greets visitors to Taiwan’s Matsu Islands. // © 2018 Elyse Glickman
Feature Image (above): On island hikes, discover old temples and other religious sites. // © 2018 Elyse Glickman
The Matsu islands, opened to foreign visitors in 1994, are steeped in military lore from the cold war between Taiwan and China. The five-island archipelago is geographically closer to Mainland China’s Fujian Province than Taiwan’s mainland, and because of years of isolation, they can feel like time capsules of a tension-filled era.
Just a one-hour flight from Songshan Airport, in the center of Taipei, lies Nangan Island, the most developed of the Matsu chain.
A great way to experience the tropical greenery and ocean vistas of Nangan is by taking the recently paved Fuqing Bike Path. The route passes by fierce military monuments, unusual rock formations and weather-beaten temples and religious statues. Paths created by years of marching soldiers wind through quaint maritime villages, reclaimed military zones and beaches gloriously devoid of chain hotels and supersize resorts.
Those looking to get out of the sun while taking in some history can visit Nangan’s Beihai tunnels. Exhibits of uniforms, guns and preserved instruments of war are wedged into ad-hoc meeting rooms where Taiwan’s generals once strategized against the People’s Republic of China army.
Several small towns have a handful of modest, family-run bed-and-breakfasts, and most hotels in Nangan feel frozen in the mid-20th century. Coast of the Dawn hotel in Ren-ai Village, on the other hand, features an industrial-chic concrete-and-glass design that provides a subtle nod to the military architecture dotting the island. The public areas are cool, clean and enlivened with modern art and panoramic views of the beach, while rooms are basic but comfortably appointed and also have stunning views.
Overall, I found the Matsu Islands to be perfect for visitors looking for a mix of history, nature hikes and adventure. It’s got the off-the-beaten-path, quirky vibe that comes from years of being on the front line of a cold war.