By Andrew Crosthwaite
Isolated, sparsely populated, and with large portions undeveloped, the Hengchun Peninsula in the far south of Taiwan is a world apart from the rest of the island. Best known for the white-sand beaches in and nearby the town of Kending, it’s also home to an incredible range of other scenic attractions that includes barren coastal grasslands, towering sand dunes, and small farming villages. The peninsula’s eastern coast is particularly beautiful.
A relative newcomer to Taiwan, until recently I didn’t know much about Hengchun’s scenic attractions, my spirit of adventure and curiosity not yet taking me to the island’s far south. All this changed when I found myself in the southern city of Kaohsiung with some spare time on my hands, and I fixed on the idea of doing a quick trip by scooter. I decided to start at the town of Checheng, on a looping route that would take me around the peninsula, following Prov. Highway No. 26 to the southernmost tip of Taiwan and then moving north along the eastern coast before heading inland and returning to Checheng on narrower county roads.
The first, and probably most important, thing to say about this ride is that it’s not short, and there are a lot of places along the way worth stopping. You can definitely do it in a single day, but if that is your goal then try and plan out your trip in detail before you set off. Since you won’t have time to visit all places of interest along the way, you’d best select a few beforehand and leave the rest for another time.
After grabbing a bite to eat in Checheng, I hit Highway No. 26 and headed south. It wasn’t long before I passed signs for the National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium (www.nmmba.gov.tw). I’d definitely like to check out this modern museum one day, but on this excursion I wanted to spend more time exploring the peninsula’s nature-crafted attractions, so on I went. The first sizable town you pass south of Checheng is Hengchun. It’s an old settlement, and there are signs in both English and Chinese leading you through the town to its old gates and other historic sites.
South of Hengchun, rolling hills on the inland side make for a picturesque drive, and it’s easy to make good time along the wide, well-maintained highway. It was tempting to plough on all the way to the beach at Nanwan (South Bay), close to Kending town (also often spelled “Kenting”), but I decided instead to turn onto County Road No. 153 and head southwest to Maobitou (lit. “Tip of a Cat’s Nose”), a promontory forming Taiwan’s second most southerly point. Although not very large, Maobitou Park has some gorgeous coastal scenery. The cliffs here are made of dark, craggy rock and jagged exposed-coral formations, and they’re topped by dense outgrowths of coarse plants and thickets.
The cliffs at Maobitou are made of dark, craggy rock and jagged exposed-coral formations, topped by dense outgrowths of coarse plants and thickets
Retracing my way back to Highway No. 26, I continued on south to Nanwan, which some call the peninsula’s mecca for such water activities as jet-skiing and riding banana boats. This is great fun if you’re with friends or family on a summer vacation, but if you’re on your own, like I was that day, riding a banana boat would just be a bit lonely. Nanwan’s also a great place to stop if you’re feeling hungry, as there are a string of inexpensive restaurants.
There are more restaurants a couple of kilometers further down the road in Kending, and I stopped there for lunch at 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 Beach Resort Kenting.
Kending comes alive at night. If you’re around after the sun goes down you’ll find the main street filled with people, and a lively night market takes shape. During the day, though, it’s fairly quiet, so after eating I headed for Kenting Forest Recreation Area and Sheding Nature Park, both located inland, north of Kending on Township Road No. 165. If you enjoy nature you’ll find both destinations great places to explore. Which one you choose might depend on how much time you have, as the former is far larger than the latter. I chose Sheding, and had an hour-long walk through narrow caves and open grasslands. You might also get a sight of some rare wildlife in the area – I was lucky enough, and quite amazed, to see a beautiful golden-brown deer run across the road about 10 meters in front of my scooter.
The route to Sheding has limited signposting, but is found with minimal difficulty by driving a few kilometers past the clearly marked section to Kenting National Forest Recreation Area. If you continue on No. 165 after Sheding, you’ll meet Highway No. 26 again, further to the east on the way to Eluanbi.
Eluanbi is about 10km east of Kending. This is Taiwan main island’s southernmost point, and many people come here to walk and take pictures of the splendid views and the picturesque lighthouse. After this, Highway No. 26 turns north, moving along the east coast, and I was mesmerized by the scenery along this stretch of road. Wide, flat expanses of grass and heathland dominate the surroundings, the only breaks coming where the vegetation has been worn down by the elements to reveal the hard, rust-red earth underneath. To enjoy this landscape to the fullest, stop at Longpan Park or Fengchuisha (“Sands Blown by the Wind”), about 5 and 8km north of Eluanbi, respectively.
About 20 minutes north of Fengchuisha you come to the intersection of Highway No. 26 and County Road 200A. Turn right, to continue moving north along the coast. At the end of this stretch, about 5km, is Jialeshui, a tourist destination that features some incredible rock formations. Afterwards, head back along the same road to the aforementioned intersection, then continue along County Road 200A, heading inland, until you meet County Road 200. If you need gas at this point, turn left and head west for a few hundred meters to what is the only gas station in this part of the Hengchun Peninsula; I don’t remember seeing another gas station on the way from Kending to this point, nor on my way from this point along my loop route until I had almost returned to Checheng.
The lush, gentle hills and beautiful countryside gave me more than enough things to look at
My gas needs met, I headed back east and then north along County Road No. 200. After passing the small town of Manzhou I rode another 20km to my next stop-off point. The lush, gentle hills and beautiful countryside along this stretch provided wonderful visual pleasure as I ventured to the town of Gangzai, where the next stretch of Highway No. 26 is found. (On the peninsula’s east side, No. 26 is a long-term work in progress, and on your map you’ll see gaps along the coast where sections of the highway are waiting to be built.) Gangzai is home to some colossal sand dunes, advertised on roadside signs as the Gangzai Big Desert. The largest of the dunes must be at least three or four stories high, and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in Taiwan. Some of the townspeople have set up businesses offering jeep tours across the dunes and renting out quad bikes that you can drive over the sand, but after spending so long sitting on my scooter, I was happy just to stretch my legs with a long walk.
Back on Highway No. 26, still heading north, the scenery continued to be breathtaking. The road here hugs the meandering coastline, and you see promontory after promontory standing resilient against the power of the Pacific Ocean. This section of the highway is about 10km long and terminates at the eastern end of County Road No. 199A, which takes you back inland. A few minutes down this road brings you to a place named Xuhai; look for a narrow side road, on your right-hand side, leading to the Xuhai Grasslands. There is a sign at the road’s mouth; the road itself is 3km.
The longest of the walks at these grasslands takes about an hour to finish and will lead you past small herds of thankfully tame, rather long-horned cows. Taking the walk rewards you with a wonderful elevated view of the coastline.
The final stretch of my trip took me further inland along County Road No. 199A to its connection with County Road No. 199, which (turning left and heading west) takes you all the way back to Checheng. This section is about 25km long, and takes you past low hills and rice fields. If you find yourself running low on gas at this point, note there is a gas station at the settlement of Shimen, close to Checheng. Shimen is the site of an old battlefield where Japanese forces and warriors of the indigenous Paiwan Tribe clashed in 1874. Before reaching Checheng you will also pass the hot-spring resort of Sichongxi, offering relaxing hot-spring soaking.
Riding the open roads that characterize the Hengchun Peninsula makes for a fantastic day – or two, or more. There really is nowhere else in Taiwan like this, and I know I’ll be going back. There are many places I didn’t have time to check out on this trip, which requires a return trip, and others I can’t wait to see again and explore further.
ENGLISH & CHINESE
Gangzai Big Desert 港仔大沙漠
Hengchun Peninsula 恆春半島
Kenting National Forest Recreation Area 墾丁國家森林遊樂區
Kenting National Park 墾丁國家公園
Longpan Park 龍磐公園
National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium 國立海洋生物博物館
Sheding Nature Park 社頂自然公園
Xuhai Grasslands 旭海大草原