Discover Taiwan's quiet side
Escape Taiwan's bustling coastal strips and head to where the sand and water are cleaner, writesRalph Jennings
Picture 200 metres of white sand beach between a calm aquamarine ocean and a jungle of coconut palms. When film director Ang Lee saw it, he chose this beach for the scene in Life of Pi when the hero ends a treacherous 227-day journey at sea as a castaway in a lifeboat.
But most of Lee's fellow Taiwanese don't visit aptly named White Sand Bay even though it's on their island's south coast in Pingtung county just a minute's walk from the highway. Taiwanese veer more towards better recognised beaches where they can sit in cafes, buy flower-print shorts and stay at guest houses.
Local preferences for developed beaches leave Taiwan's quietest and cleanest ones with plenty of space to throw down a towel. They're also in low supply as factories, piers and rocky slopes line much of the 1,566-kilometre coastline. But they are becoming more popular with young people looking for a wilder escape.
"This beach is clean, the water clear and not too many people use it," says Tsao Hung-chang, 38, a bicycle builder from central Taiwan who visited White Sand Bay in November with four family members. "A lot of people won't come here simply because they prefer more food and drinks."
The few who join Tsao say the calm waters of the Taiwan Strait invite easy snorkelling and diving. Most of those who know about the beach already live in the fishing hamlets along coastal Highway 153.
About 10 kilometres away, people sit towel-to-towel at the bigger, developed beaches of the Kenting National Park, which is served by public buses. The national park logged three million visitors in the first half of last year.
"There are no good beaches left in Kenting," says Andy Gray, a south coast diving instructor. "They have been completely ruined by jet ski operators and people aggressively selling umbrellas on all the main beaches. Even the reefs are close to ruin now, snorkellers trample all over them and jet ski operators frighten the fish away."
Six kilometres down the road, 100 metres of white sand forms a quiet cove marked by Sail Rock just offshore. It draws isolated groups to explore the rocks on either side or launch watercraft over the gentle waves. Guest houses, offering basic rooms and the odd spa, are expanding just behind the beach.
"That's what I was looking for, something kind of small and kind of remote," says Sail Rock beach swimmer Martin Balog, 34, a Slovakian scientist working on a project in Taiwan. "I had one month to go travelling and didn't expect to find this."
Around the corner and up the east coast, a wide Pacific Ocean beach by the tiny town of Jialeshui brings out surfers for the waves frothed up by high winds and a fast north-moving current. Swimming and photography are common seconds after surfing. A few inns and restaurants sit just above the tree-lined parking lot.
In the warmer months from April to October, coves in the rugged coastal mountains north and east of Taipei shelter the odd sandy beaches. Highway 2 passes all of them, and they're accessible by public buses from Tamsui station on Taipei's metro line and the railway station in the port city of Keelung.
But the primo beaches are hard to spot among the nuclear power stations, half-built housing tracts, fishing piers and piles of trash - though most of the coastline is simply too rugged to allow for a build-up of sand.
"As far as the north goes, due to the industrialisation of the area, I don't rate the beaches," says Clayton Wholley, general manager of Quiksilver Taiwan.
Qianshui is closest to Taipei but is often bypassed for beaches further north. Photographers and researchers go to slog around the beach's algal reefs which support many intertidal life forms, according to Qianshui Bay's keeper, the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area Administration.
Common beachgoers can scope the tidal pools without getting too wet.
But most people go for the wide beach or to play in the water. They may finish a seaside romp at one in a string of Mediterranean-style cafes nearby. Outdoor seats face sunsets over the Taiwan Strait.
To the east, a spacious beach in the fishing town of Wanli draws a crowd in the summer, but there's so much sand that the place seldom feels packed. Some go snorkelling or dive off the rocks just off the beach known as Green Bay, and paragliders can often be spotted overhead.
The lesser-known Dawulun beach lies a few kilometres eastward, in a cove northwest of urban Keelung. Mainly local people use Dawulun for swimming. The beach banks enough white sand for lounging or building castles. Most motor vehicles use the highway, so bikers and walkers get two-lane Huhai Road largely to themselves.