Monday, May 15, 2017

The Island, the Harbor and the Bay (En Voyage)

Three very different places, each defined by water. Fisheries have made Donggang the busy town it is today. Dapeng Bay, one of Taiwan’s largest lagoons, is in fact saltier than the adjacent ocean. And 15km of brine separates Xiao Liuqiu, a 6.8km2 island inhabited by 12,400 people, from “mainland” Taiwan. All three are within striking distance of Kaohsiung, and very popular with day-trippers. But this trinity could easily fill a weekend, especially if you have an interest in ecology and a hankering for fresh seafood. 

Southwestern Taiwan is easy to get to, and easy to get around. The southern terminus of Freeway 3 is less than 1km east of Dapeng Bay, and frequent buses link Donggang with central Kaohsiung. Ferries from Donggang make the 30-minute crossing to Xiaoliuqiu several times a day, and once on the island it’s possible to rent a 50-cc scooter or electric bike.

For self-driving visitors, the bay makes a logical first stop. Half an hour for a leisurely circuit of the lagoon is probably enough, unless it’s dusk - an especially delightful time of day to be here - or one of your party is a birdwatcher. The six artificial wetlands which fringe the bay are avian magnets, especially during the winter. Fish farms left fallow draw Mallards, Black-crowned night herons and Black-winged stilts.

Dapeng Bay has emerged as one of Taiwan’s foremost watersports venues, and large yachts can access the lagoon and its marina thanks to Taiwan’s only folding vehicular bridge. If this sail-shaped, cable-stayed structure isn’t the bay’s most photographed feature, that badge surely goes to “oyster shell island” - the result of oyster farmers dumping unwanted shells at the same spot, year after year. Like an artificial reef, this  accumulation attracts and shelters fish.

And why the remarkable salinity? For most of the year, evaporation exceeds freshwater inflows. Also, because salt is heavier than water, it tends to sink and linger, rather than wash out through the bay's narrow mouth.

Visitors more interested in eating sea creatures than seeing them swim should head to Guangfu Road in downtown Donggang. Gourmets applaud the town’s “three culinary treasures” - bluefin tuna, sakura shrimp, and escolar roe. The availability of the first, which makes for divine sashimi, peaks in early summer. The second is usually served shallow fried and lightly seasoned on white rice. At its best, the third is truly symphonic. Eaten thinly sliced and cold, the roe abounds in subtle, almost cheese-like, tastes and textures.

The King Boat Festival is Donggang’s triennial media moment. The next edition of Taiwan’s most famous and spectacular ritual boat-burning is scheduled for October 2018. Expect dignified rites at several locations before a rough-and-tumble rush down to the beach where the climactic conflagration takes place. 

Travelers to Xiao Liuqiu board the ferry near Donggang’s Huaqiao Market, around which there are several seafood eateries, and disembark at Baisha’s little harbor. From there, it makes sense to move in an anti-clockwise direction, stopping first at the photogenic geological anomaly called “The Vase.” You’ll likely be tempted to wade out toward it, but do so only if you’ve something on your feet - shards of coral litter this and most of the island’s other beaches. 

As you work your way along Xiao Liuqiu’s north coast, and then around its southern end, explore every cave and trail you come across. Most attractions are free; one admission ticket covers them all. Place names like Mountain Pig Ditch and Black Ghost Cave obviously weren’t contrived to attract tourists, but each spot offers a good view, and sometimes also an intriguing backstory. The fewer the people, the better your chances of seeing crabs scuttle across the path. Look out to sea, especially late in the afternoon, as that’s when green loggerhead turtles come closest to the shore. 

Xiao Liuqiu’s oldest building overlooks Sanfu Fishing Harbor. The gorgeously delipidated Tai Mansion, which isn’t open to the public, dates from the 1820s. Formerly home to one of the island’s most prominent families, it’s said by some that when the harbor’s breakwater was built, the location’s fengshui was irrevocably disturbed, causing the family to scatter.

Continuing southwest, one comes to Geban Bay, also known as Venice Beach. This sublime cove appeals to both romantics and scientists. The former come for the sunset, the latter to marvel at foraminifera, five-pointed star-shaped shells of organisms less than 1mm across. (The local authorities forbid the collection foraminifera, other shells, pebbles or sand as souvenirs.)

Many sightseers treat Xiao Liuqiu as a full-bodied day excursion, but there’s a lot to be said for staying overnight. The most compelling reason is the chance to join an after-dark ecotour of the intertidal zone and see some of the hundreds of marine species recorded in the shallow waters. A knowledgeable guide will show you curiosities such as rock-boring urchins, ink-squirting sea hares, sea cucumbers, starfish, and bioluminescent plankton. 

Alternatively, bring your snorkel and roll out your beach blanket at any spot that looks inviting and safe. Just remember that the entire island is made of coral, which can be very sharp when it breaks, and that you shouldn’t touch any sea creatures. They won’t enjoy it, and if it’s a rock-boring urchin, neither will you.

Congestion and over-development have never blighted Xiao Liuqiu, and its tourism industry has always been driven by grassroots entrepreneurs. Overnighting on this gem of an islet is one of Taiwan’s finest slow-travel experiences.

This article appears in the print-only inflight magazine of EVA Air, May 2017 edition. The top picture was taken in Donggang's Donglong Temple, the house of worship which organizes the King Boat Festival. The lower picture shows Tai Mansion on Xiao Liuqiu.

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