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Taiwan's green paradise

Green Island off the eastern coast of Taiwan hides unusual surprises, from a rare saltwater hot spring to the remains of a political prison

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Jaclynn Seah on 28 Jul 2019

The Straits Times

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The first time I visited Green Island 10 years ago, I was convinced it earned its moniker from all the green-faced people stumbling off the ferry at the dock.

 

The hour-long journey from Taitung's Fugang Harbour to Green Island had been a stomach-churning one, with choppy waves rolling the boat from side to side and a chorus of retching seasick passengers.

 

It was no wonder that the staff on board had been armed with gloves, masks and a ton of plastic bags.

 

This time around, I mentally steeled myself for a tough journey ahead, but thanks to fair weather and more stable modern boats, my ferry ride was much less eventful and I disembarked at Nanliao Harbour ready to re-explore the tiny island that had captured my heart a decade ago.

 

Little has changed in Green Island in all this time. There is still just one 7-11 store on the entire island with a single ATM machine.

 

There are a few more souvenir stores and more foreign tourists trawling the main streets than before, but it has managed to retain much of its small-town charm.

 

Located off the eastern coast of Taiwan, Green Island or Ludao is where Taiwanese go to get away from city life during the hot summer months.

 

The 16 sq km island is as green as its name suggests, with lots of trees covering its interior and barely any tall buildings in sight as you circle it on its single ring road.

 

It takes under an hour to drive around the entire island without stopping, thus it is quite difficult to get lost if you stay on the road.

 

But surprises await the adventurous.

 

The entrance to the ox head-shaped headland known as Niutoushan is marked only by an easy-to-miss signboard.

 

I parked my scooter by the roadside and took a little trek through grassy pastures and, suddenly, the ground dropped away to spectacular cliff-top coastal views, the perfect spot to watch the sunset with only the company of a random herd of black goats eyeing me as they grazed in the distance.

 

Green Island was not always known by its current name.

 

Before 1949, it was known as Huoshaodao, which translates into the more evocative Fire-Burning Island. This name originates from the fires burnt on shore to help guide fishermen out at sea back to land safely, but it is an apt name for this island formed from undersea volcanic activity.

 

The underwater volcanic activity is also the source of a Green Island attraction, the Zhaori Hot Springs, one of the world's few saltwater hot springs. Located on the rocky shoreline, this outdoor facility is perfect for a warm soak while you stargaze at night or watch the sunrise with the calming sounds of lapping waves in the background.

 

I took along some raw eggs to the hot spring, boiling them in a designated trough for about 20 to 30 minutes for a somewhat-springy and mostly-runny egg breakfast.

 

Going even farther back, Green Island was also known as Sanasai, or Samsara, a name given by the aboriginal Amis tribe that called this island home more than 3,000 years ago. Little trace of that aboriginal culture is left today, save for the abandoned village I unexpectedly stumbled upon in the north of the island.

 

A precarious narrow path leads off the main road and down to the beach, where there is a small cluster of stone houses built out of coral and volcanic rock from around the area.

 

It was here archaeologists unearthed remains of prehistoric human life in Taiwan, and have since left the broken-down stone structures to be reclaimed by nature and explored by curious tourists like myself.

 

Time has shaped Green Island in other unusual ways.

 

In the bay of Haishenping, visitors can enjoy the incongruous sight of a Pekinese Dog and Sleeping Beauty side by side, two large volcanic rock formations that are some of the most photographed sights on the island.

 

A little farther down is the Confucius Rock that supposedly resembles the philosopher sitting down and looking out to sea, and you can visit a legendary Guanyin Cave and pay your respects to a Guanyin-shaped stalagmite - if you squint right.

 

Green Island's stunning natural sights hide a dark history - the remoteness of this island meant it was once used as a prison for political opponents during Taiwan's "White Terror" regime from the 1940s to 1980s.

 

The old jail complex was then known as the Green Island Reform and Re-education Prison or, colloquially, the "Green Island Lodge".

 

It has since been transformed into a human rights memorial and museum that I spent some time wandering around in.

 

The echoes of my footsteps in the empty hallways combined with the life-sized human figure cutouts that transform the jail cells into a living diorama made the whole experience a little eerie and sobering.

 

Fun fact: Green Island is still home to an actual jail today - that is off-limits to tourists, though.

 

More of the island's beauty is hidden underwater and it is one of the top places to go scuba diving in Taiwan, thanks to an abundant and colourful coral reef and clear waters.

 

I managed to visit the "Big Mushroom", the tallest coral rock of its kind that was unfortunately toppled by typhoons in 2016.

 

Snorkelling is also popular for non-divers - it is common to see lines of people clinging to fluorescent lifebuoys with their faces in the water as they are towed out to sea by seasoned instructors in the shallow bays of Chaikou and Dabaisha.

 

No trip to Green Island is complete without indulging in some of its local delicacies.

 

Sika deer were introduced to the island in the 1970s and once outnumbered the human population. These days, you might catch glimpses of them in the evenings or enjoy their meat fried with noodles or rice.

 

Seafood is another island-fare staple and I happily crunched on the brittle fins of a deep-fried flying fish for dinner that night. I topped off dinner with a refreshing mountain of ice served in a giant clamshell bowl, covered with strands of the island's famous seaweed.

 

As my ferry departed the shores of Green Island, I took one last look back, wondering whether it would be another 10 years before I returned again.

 

No matter what name it bears then, Taiwan's Green Island will always be a tiny piece of paradise to me.

 

• Jaclynn Seah is The Occasional Traveller, a freelance travel writer and travel blogger.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

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