Southern Taiwan is a land of timeless rituals and strong folk culture. The yearly calendar is chock-full of some of Taiwan's most unforgettable festivals: when they’re not burning boats to ask for peace, southerners let off fierce fireworks to seek supernatural protection against disease. Tainan, the island’s former capital, is to many Taiwan's most Taiwanese city.
For many travellers, heading outside Taipei into the north gives them their first taste of how big this little island is. It's not just that there are mountains reaching up to 3886m. It's that those mountains – and their valleys and meadows – seem near endless, and that around every corner is a new hot-spring village, forest reserve or indigenous hamlet.
If you’re looking for variety in your Taiwan travel experience, go west. The Matsu Pilgrimage, one of the country’s biggest and holiest celebrations, is definitely a highlight. This nine-day parade across half of Taiwan is an extravaganza of feasting, prostrating, praying and great acts of generosity.
Taiwan's Southwest Coast
The star of the southwest coast is Tainan with its colourful manifestations of a long and varied history, from brooding temples through quaint canalside houses to an art-deco department store. Though sometimes (unjustifiably) under the radar, Kaohsiung is the hub of modern southern sophistication, its exciting culinary landscape matched by a vibrant art and music scene.
Eastern Taiwan & Taroko National Park
Much is made of the old Portuguese name for Taiwan, Ilha Formosa, which translates as 'the Beautiful Isle'. Well, it's this part of the country that they gave it to, and this part to which it still applies best. The eastern landscape is dominated by towering sea cliffs and marble gorges, rice fields and wooded mountain ranges.
You’ll almost certainly receive looks of jealousy from any Taiwanese person if you mention you’re going to Tainan (台南), and it’s not hard to see why. Traditional culture continues to thrive in Tainan, the oldest city in the country. The name 'Taiwan' was once used to refer to Dayuan (大員), Anping's former name.
Penghu (澎湖; Pénghú), also known as the Pescadores, is famous for its great beaches, glorious temples and the traditional Chinese-style homes surrounded by coral walls. In the summer months Penghu is hot and beautiful, while in winter and spring the archipelago is possibly the windiest place in the northern hemisphere.
Shaped like a snail with its head pointing north, Taiwan's third-largest county runs along the southeast coast of the island, between the imposing Central Mountain Range to the west and the stark blue Pacific Ocean to the east. Thanks to its remote location, this stunning strip of land was the last part of Taiwan to see mainland Chinese settlers in the late 19th century.
Under Japanese, and later KMT, economic planning, Kaohsiung became the centre of heavy industry, Taipei the centre of colonial administration, and Taichung? The centre of light industry. If your image of 'Made in Taiwan' still conjures up visions of cheap toys, shoes and electrical goods, then you’ve got old Taichung in mind.
Kinmen (金門; Jīnmén), lying only 2km off the coast of mainland China, is an odd remnant from the bitter civil war between communist and Nationalist forces. Along with Matsu, Kinmen is a small chunk of Fujian province occupied by Republic of China (ROC) forces and administered from Taiwan.
Taiwan's Northeast Coast
The 166km coastal Provincial Hwy 2 winds along the top of the island from the mouth of the Tamsui River to the alluvial plains of Yilan. It's a stunning route with a wide range of coastal landscapes: rolling grass hills, high rugged cliffs, sand beaches, pebble beaches, rocky terraces and windswept peninsulas.