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The remote Sleeping Beauty Rock at Green Island in Taiwan. Photo: James Wendlinger

Taiwan’s paradise isle: Green Island worth braving the ferry ride for dramatic views, history and some divine dive sites

Sea swells make the hour-long ride from Taitung rough at times, but from an abandoned aboriginal village to majestic views and crystal-clear waters, the journey to the former prison island will reward you amply

Asia travel
Joe Henley

Perhaps in summer, the hour-long ride from Taitung to Nanliao Harbour on Green Island is a tamer one, though Lonely Planet author Joshua Samuel Brown did not call the passenger vessel the “Green Island Vomit Comet” for nothing.

If your ride happens to coincide with bad weather (as was the case on this writer’s recent visit), expect to experience a one-hour journey from hell. The swell sees one hundred-odd passengers dip forward and back, and side to side, from the apex of relentless seven-metre walls of roiling water.

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Each person clutches a transparent sick bag in their pale hands – so that everyone might enjoy the sight of one another’s stomach contents.

Luckily, the trip is well worth the relatively short bout of suffering. Green Island is small, geographically speaking, but the landscape looms large nonetheless. It takes just 40 minutes to ride around the island on a scooter. The best way to see the island is to hire one – as my friend and I do from our guest house.

Dead trees line the route for hikers on the Guo Shan Trail on Green Island in Taiwan. Photo: James Wendlinger

Sleeping Beauty Rock, near the Zhaori Hot Spring, offers a tall, smooth fairway of an outcropping, ending at a narrow green peak with a view of the island’s southern tail that is blasted with salt spray even at its great height on windy days.

For a sunrise view, there is the Little Great Wall on the island’s eastern side, a miniature replica of the Chinese counterpart leading to a seaside vantage point of the wind-whipped whitecaps beyond the jagged shoreline.

Just north of the wall, after a few minutes’ ride, we reach the abandoned aboriginal village of Youzihu, the remaining stone houses cracked and crumbling by a small bay dotted with black igneous rocks jutting out of the warm, shallow water.

An aboriginal village lies long abandoned on Taiwan’s Green Island. Photo: James Wendlinger

The bay offers a secluded place to sit and watch the waves lapping against the shore and contemplate the people who once held to this small corner of paradise that is now an empty shell and a reminder of how nature soon engulfs what man leaves behind.

Further still, on the island’s northern coast, is Green Island Human Rights Culture Park. The former prison, known as the New Life Correction Centre, was once home to political prisoners during the White Terror (1947-1987), a time when thousands of dissidents were imprisoned or executed by the state.

The so-called worst of the worst were ensconced here, and subjected to systematic torture. At one time, it housed as many as 2,000 prisoners, guarded by a military staff and administration of nearly 1,000. Today, though, the prison is a museum, education centre, and permanent reminder of one of the darkest chapters in Taiwan’s history.

A view from a cliff on the Guo Shan Trail captures the tiny figure of a fisherman trying to catch his dinner. Photo: James Wendlinger

Hikers won’t want to miss the Guo Shan Trail. In times past, villagers used the path to cross the island, going over the mountain and down to Nanliao Port and Zhongliao on the other side. Today the path is mostly plied by tourists – some 300,000 visit the island each year – though, it being low season when we visited, none were to be found on the steep stair incline leading to a dirt path along the mountain spine.

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The mountains are home to sika deer (a few unfortunate ones are chained as gimmicks outside local businesses in the villages below), as well as muntjac and Formosan bats. Cattle once grazed on the flat land overlooking the cliffs above the town, and some were known to take the occasional tumble over the edge. Railings on the trail’s steepest sections now keep tourists from doing the same.

Along the path leading up to the island’s weather station, a lonely post at the island’s highest point, banyan trees and wood nettles abound, along with Green Island beauty berry, banana trees, and giant elephant ear fern. A short traverse up to the first steep set of stone stairs, not long past the cattle field, is worth the burning calve and thigh muscles for the view known locally as “Capsize Cape.”
Sika deer with their horns removed are commonly seen tied outside shops on Green Island. Photo: James Wendlinger

The main attraction for many visitors to Green Island is snorkelling and scuba diving. A number of dive resorts and scuba training centres, such as Safety Stop Diver near the Nanliao Harbour, and Lian Celebration Diving, offer courses and guided dives in English and Mandarin.

A scuba diver exits the water between Nanliao and Daibasha. Photo: James Wendlinger

Training sessions just south of Nanliao Harbour get started around 10.30am, with divers going about the awkward task of wading off a stone walkway into the waves rather than plunging off the edge of a boat into deeper waters.

Outfitters also run scuba expeditions starting from Horseshoe Bridge, where a set of stairs lead down to a small, semi-sheltered bay, accessible once again by a broken stone walkway.

Tourists enjoy a walk along the cape on the south tip of Green Island in Taiwan. Photo: James Wendlinger

A popular snorkelling spot is Dabaisha, which has a stretch of white sand leading to an expanse of clear blue water and coral reef right off the shore. It’s also possible to dive in from the rocky outcroppings within sight of the beach, where a few fishermen often get their hooks wet from the shore.

If you’re unsure about safety, or the prospect of sighting some colourful subtropical fish, just ask a local, who will be happy to advise.

A spear fisherman who didn’t want to be named shows off his red snapper catch. Photo: James Wendlinger

Right off the rocky point near the bridge, there are holes in the igneous outcropping teeming with small black urchins. The water plunges immediately to a depth of seven metres, and is impeccably clear.

Just under the surface, needle fish flirt between the divergent worlds above and below. Further down, amid towers and vast expanses of coral that as yet remain miraculously unbleached, there are grouper, clown and parrot fish.

The view from the ferry from Nanliao Harbour to Taitung City. Photo: James Wendlinger
Later, driving back to Nanliao, we come across a spear fisherman who shows off his catch – his net teeming with small red snapper. “I caught these in two hours,” says the man, who – perhaps lacking a spear fishing permit – is reluctant to give his name. “The fishing is good here.”

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Mercifully, a much smoother return from Green Island to Taiwan’s mainland mass awaits, aided greatly by industrial-strength anti-motion-sickness medication courtesy of a Green Island chemist. Lesson learned: if the locals say it works, it works.

Getting there: several airlines including EVA Air and Hong Kong Airlines fly daily between Hong Kong and Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport. From there, take the MRT from Taoyuan to Songshan Airport in Taipei, from where there are daily flights to Taitung Airport on domestic carriers such as UniAir and Mandarin Airlines. Daily Air has three daily flights from Taitung to Green Island. Ferries also run daily (weather permitting) from Fugang Fishing Harbour, towards the northern end of Taitung. The Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus goes from Taitung Station to the harbour.

Getting around: scooter rentals are available at the harbour or at any of the island’s hostels.

Staying there: newly opened in September, the family-run, modern, mid-sized Green Island Happy Dive B&B (19, Nanliao) fronts the sea, less than a kilometre from Nanliao Harbour on Green Island’s west side.