Friday, August 24, 2012

The Hengchun Peninsula

This article was written for the Travel in Taiwan magazine. To read the published version, follow this link

Isolated, sparsely populated, and largely undeveloped, The Hungchun Peninsula is a world apart from the rest of the country. Although dominated by the bright lights of Kenting, it’s also home to an incredible range of attractions and highlights that includes barren coastal grasslands, towering sand dunes, and small farming villages that time has forgotten. The East Coast stretch, in particular, shouldn’t be missed.

I didn’t know anything about any of that, however, until a few weeks ago. Before then, my stunted spirit of adventure and curiosity had only taken me as far as Erluanbi, which isn’t very far at all. It all changed when I found myself at a loose end in Kaohsiung and decided to take a road trip. Setting off from Kaohsiung, I drove south to Checheng for the start of a looping route that would take me around the entire Hungchun Peninsula.

The first, and probably most important, thing to say about this drive is that it’s not short, and there are a lot of places to stop off at along the way. You can definitely do it in a single day, but if that is your goal then try and plan out your trip before you set off. You can’t visit every tourist stop along the way, so pick out the two or three you most want to see, and leave the rest for another time.

After grabbing a bit to eat in Checheng, I hit Highway 26 and headed south. It wasn’t long before I passed signs for the National Museum of Marine Biology. I’d definitely like to check out the museum, but I wanted to see the rest of the peninsula more, so on I went. The first sizable town you pass on the route is Hungchun. It’s an ancient settlement, and there are signs in both English and Chinese leading you through the town to its old gates, but in all honesty, there are far more impressive sights further on.

South of Hungchun, rolling, inland hills make for a picturesque drive, and it’s easy to make good time down the wide, well-maintained Highway 26. It was tempting to plough on all the way to Nanwan, but I decided instead turn onto road 153 and head southwest to a little coastal town called Maobitou. The turnoff is on the left just after the 29km sign; it’s marked by a huge tourist hoarding bearing the number 153 and a few names in Chinese. The roads after this point aren’t exactly straightforward, and having a good map will come in handy. I’d recommend getting the Kenting/South-Link Highway map in the orange, Map King (兜風地圖王) series, as it covers the entire Hungchun Peninsula in detail.

Although small, Maobitou Park has some gorgeous coastal scenery. The cliffs here are made of dark, craggy rock and jagged coral formations, and they’re topped by dense outgrowths of coarse plants and mangrove thickets.

Retrace your path back to Highway 26 and continue on to Nanwan, which is a bit of a local mecca for water activities like jet skiing and riding banana boats. Stuff like this is great fun if you’re with friends or family, but if you’re on your own, like I was that day, then riding a banana boat would just be a bit weird. Nanwan’s also a great place to stop if you’re feeling hungry, as there are a string of cheap restaurants to lunch in.

There are more restaurants a couple of kilometers down the road in Kenting, and I stopped for lunch in Smokey Joe’s Café. You’ll pay NT$400-500 for a meal and a drink, so it’s a bit more expensive than other places in town, but it’s got a nice atmosphere and good service, and the Tex-Mex food they serve is delicious. You’ll find it at the far end of town next to the Howard Resort Hotel.

Kenting is really a nighttime town, and if you’re around after the sun goes down, you’ll find the main street filled with people and a lively night market. Daytimes, though, are fairly quiet, so after eating I went back through the town and headed for the Kenting Forest Recreation Area and the Sheding Nature Park. If you enjoy nature then you’ll find both destinations great places to stop off at. Which one you choose really just depends on how much time you have, as the Kenting Forest Recreation Area is far bigger than the Sheding Nature Park. I went for the latter option and had an hour-long walk through narrow caves and open grasslands.

Sheding isn’t well-signposted, but you can easily get to it by driving a few kilometers past the clearly marked road to the Kenting Recreation Area. If you follow the road along after Sheding, you’ll come out on Highway 26 at the eastern end of Kenting. You might also get a sight of some rare wildlife – I was lucky enough and totally amazed to see a beautiful golden brown deer run across the road about 10 meters in front of my scooter.

About 10km down the road, you’ll pass Erluanbi, which stands as mainland Taiwan’s southernmost point. A lot of people come here to walk and take pictures of the views, but I was eager to head on up the east coast. I’d never traveled along that stretch of road before, and it wasn’t long before I was mesmerized by the scenery. Wide, flat expanses of grass and heathland dominate the surroundings, the only breaks coming where the vegetation has been worn down to reveal the hard, rust-red earth underneath. To enjoy the landscape more fully, stop at Longpan Park or Fengchuishan, which you’ll find about 5 and 8km north of Erluanbi.

About 20 minutes north of Fengchuishan, Highway 26 stops. You will meet it again further along the route, but the road only continues in isolated sections. The end of this stretch is marked by Jialeshui, a tourist destination that apparently features some incredible rock formations. If, like me, you decide not to go, then don’t drive all the way to the end of Highway 26. Instead, about 5km north of Fengchuishan, start looking for road 200甲 on your left. Follow it along till you meet road 200. If you need gas, then turn left and head inland for a few hundred meters. I don’t remember seeing another gas station for at least 30 or 40km, so it’s not a bad idea to fill up.

Your gas needs met, head west and then north along road 200. You’ll soon pass the town of Manzhou and then it’s another 20km to the next stop off point. The lush, gentle hills and beautiful, rural countryside give you more than enough things to look at until you get back onto Highway 26 and arrive in Gangzai. This town is home to some colossal sand dunes, which are sometimes advertised on roadside signs as the Gangzai Big Desert. The largest of the dunes must be at least three or four stories high, and I don’t think there’s anything quite like it anywhere else in Taiwan. Some of the townspeople have set up businesses renting out jeeps and quad bikes that you can drive over the sand, but after spending so long sitting on my scooter, I was happy just to get out and stretch my legs with a walk.

Back on Highway 26, the scenery is once again breathtaking. The road hugs the meandering coastline and looking north, you’ll see promontory after promontory standing resilient against the power of the sea. This section of the highway is about 10km long and terminates at the beginning of road 199甲, which takes you back inland. The first place of interest, Xuhai, is only a few minutes down the road and you should look out for a small 3km side road leading to the Xuhai grasslands.

The longest of the walks at the grasslands should take about an hour finish and will lead you past a small herd of thankfully tame rather long-horned cows. You wouldn’t need to walk that far, however, to enjoy a wonderful elevated view of the coastline you’ve just driven up.

As you head further inland, the 199甲 meets up with the 199, which will take you all the way back to Checheng. The road’s about 25km long and takes you past shallow hills and rice fields. It’s all nice enough, but it can’t really compare to the scenery you’ll have already driven past. If you’re running low on gas, there is a station about halfway along the road in Shimen.

Plan your route well and riding the Hungchun Peninsula makes for a fantastic day. There really is nowhere else in Taiwan like this, and I know I’ll be going back. There are new places I want to see, like Jialeshui, and other things I can’t wait to see again.

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