It seems there are few coastal areas left that remain undiscovered — places so unspoiled that it’s a wonder why more people aren’t visiting. Taiwan’s Matsu archipelago is such a place.
Several islands make up Matsu, which is located in the East China Sea, but visitors would most likely frequent the main five: Beigan, Dongju, Dongyin, Nangan and Xiju. And while the area has more than enough natural marvels to appreciate, Matsu’s history is just as intriguing as its beauty.
The name itself is a study in duality. “Matsu” has two spellings, two intonations and two meanings: One reflects the more feminine “mother,” and the other is the more masculine “horse.” The legend of Matsu dates back to the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.), when a woman named Moniang tried to save her fisherman father from drowning in a storm but lost her own life in the process. Her remains washed onshore at Nangan, where she was given a grand funeral and the name “Matsu” (or “mother ancestor”). Today, there is a 95-foot sea-facing statue that stands as a tribute to her, which visitors can see in east Nangan on Mount Menqian.
The more rugged, masculine part of Matsu’s history is represented by its function as a military stronghold in the Cold War. After relations between China and Taiwan intensified in the early part of the 20th century, the area became a key military base. Matsu is actually closer to mainland China than it is to Taiwan, and it only became accessible to tourists after martial law was lifted in the 1990s.
On Nangan, visitors can check out recently restored historic communities, including Renai Village, Siwei Village, Niujiao Village and the Jinsha Settlement in the southwest part of the island. But, of course, Matsu’s most defining tourism feature is its historic military structures. Instead of destroying the ruins of defense fortifications, the Taiwanese government has chosen to preserve them, yielding numerous opportunities for travelers to immerse themselves in the area’s history.
One option on Nangan is to explore Dahan Stronghold, a former fort. Or, clients can venture to Tunnel 88, an old military passage that has been repurposed as an wine cellar. There’s also Beihai Tunnel, where travelers can choose between a 30-minute subterranean stroll or, at high tide, a boat ride along the placid waters in what was once an underground docking area for military boats.
Then, for a break from all the sightseeing, suggest visitors make a stop at Thorn Bird Coffee, an independent bookstore, coffee shop and hostel located in a former military stronghold. Its name comes from Colleen McCullough’s 1977 best-selling novel, “The Thorn Birds,” which refers to a bird who searches for the thorn tree where it hatched; when it finds it, it impales itself on a thorn and sings a beautiful song as it dies.
“These military forts often carry a fatalistic atmosphere that I hope to ease,” said Tsao Yi-hsiung, owner of Thorn Bird Coffee. “This will help change the wartime stereotype people have of Matsu and allow them to truly experience the local culture.”
Matsu National Scenic Area Administration