Taiwan is famous for dumplings, tea and quirky themed restaurants, but along Taiwan's east coast you'll find a wild side to the country well worth exploring.

The Taiwanese (pop) culture and history we know and love can be experienced in any of the country's major cities, which are all on the west coast. Head east and, where the mountains meet the sea, you'll find a dramatic landscape, offering a wide range of outdoors adventures.

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Taiwan's capital Taipei sits on the northern tip of Taiwan, with Yilan County, the gateway to the wild east coast reached by road in an hour. The drive south from here along the east coast is one of the world's most scenic routes. The highway hugs the coastline, at times through tunnels and across a series of tall bridges that cross wide gorges and wild-looking rivers. Tall mountains line the coast as far as you can see, interrupted here and there by waterfalls and, to your left, the glistening South China Sea.

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The drive from Taipei down to Yilan County is one of the world's most scenic driving routes. Photo / Deborah Dickson-Smith
The drive from Taipei down to Yilan County is one of the world's most scenic driving routes. Photo / Deborah Dickson-Smith

Along this coastal highway, you'll pass through several small towns, each promising a range of outdoor activities, from hiking, cycling, archery and white-water rafting to surfing and scuba diving.

A good place to start your walk on the wild side is at the Lanyang Museum in Yilan, where you'll learn about the region's geological and anthropological history. The east coast of Taiwan has the country's largest populations of indigenous peoples, or Taiwanese aborigines. As you continue south, you'll find a number of fantastic interpretive centres and learn more about these rather mysterious people, whose history dates back 5500 years before Han Chinese settlement.

About halfway down the coast, Hualien County is the best spot for white-water rafting, down the wild-looking Xiuguluan River. At 104km long, it's the longest river in eastern Taiwan and near the coast, between Rui-sui and Da Gangkou, in the Xiuguluan River Canyon, there are more than 20 sets of rapids that provide an exhilarating ride.

The boats seat about eight people and one difference about rafting in Taiwan is that you are in the boats on your own, with no instructor. Lifeguards drive around the river in small motorised boats to keep an eye on things, so while you're in no danger, it makes it a lot more fun being in control of the boat yourselves.

Taiwan's east coast has good surfing that is relatively undiscovered and uncrowded. Photo / Deborah Dickson-Smith
Taiwan's east coast has good surfing that is relatively undiscovered and uncrowded. Photo / Deborah Dickson-Smith

Not far from the southern tip of Taiwan is the county of Taitung and this is the place to come to catch a wave. The coastline through Taitung's townships of Changbin, Chenggong and Donghe is fringed with coral reefs that produce quality waves in terms of size and shape, and the best surf is found between Donghe and Changbin, where the continental shelf extends 50-60m from shore with a gently sloping seabed that makes for stable waves.

Being fairly new to the surfing scene means the breaks in Taiwan are uncrowded, the locals in the line-up are mellow and the scene is very friendly for beginners, although, since this region started hosting the World Surf League (WSL) Taiwan Open of Surfing in 2011, it's now on the radar of surfers with a sense of adventure. The Taiwan Open of Surfing has been held in nearby Jinzuen Harbour in November every year since 2011 and is now a WSL Qualifying Series (QS) event.

In fact, the coastal town of Jinzuen has an almost-southern Californian feel to it, a Taiwanese version of Huntington Beach, only much smaller. There are surfing movies showing in the cafes, surfboards stacked against most walls, long-haired Taiwanese surfers lounging at the bar drinking beer, with menus that are a California-Taiwanese fusion of burgers, tacos and giant bowls of ramen (Surfers' Ramen Bowl).

If cycling's more your thing, a paved cycle path runs the entire length of the east coast of Taiwan, which attracts thousands of cyclists each year. If you'd rather just spend a day (or a few hours) cycling, in Taitung, there are some great cycle paths winding through fields of rice, and plenty of bikes for hire.

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Cycling in Taitung, Taiwan. Photo / Deborah Dickson-Smith
Cycling in Taitung, Taiwan. Photo / Deborah Dickson-Smith

At the nearby East Coast National Scenic Area Visitor Centre, you can experience an immersive session in Taiwanese aboriginal culture, with cultural performances, and plenty of activities for adventurous kids that include tree-tops courses, archery, and you can even learn how to fire a traditional giant bamboo cannon.

There are also several well-maintained hiking trails along the coast, great for exploring the dramatic-looking rock formations and tidal pools, with one of the most scenic in Taitung taking you to Sanxiantai Islet across an eight-arch bridge.

Offshore, the fringing reefs of the southeast coast and nearby islands are where you'll find the best snorkelling and diving. Green Island, in particular, is famous for its biodiversity, colourful reefs and clear water.

The ferry crossing to Green Island takes about 60 minutes and when you arrive you'll feel a bit like you've stepped back in time, to a sheltered bay with a pretty little seaside village and turquoise water.

Green Island, off Taiwan's south east coast, is famous for its biodiversity, colourful reefs and clear water. Photo / Simon Mallender
Green Island, off Taiwan's south east coast, is famous for its biodiversity, colourful reefs and clear water. Photo / Simon Mallender

The bay, once fished out by local fishermen, is now a protected marine reserve and a testament to nature's ability to bounce back. Large coral bommies are surrounded by clouds of colourful reef fish, and in the nooks and crannies you can search for nudibranchs and moray eels, while banded sea snakes wind in and out of the colourful sea fans, and giant titan triggerfish snap at your heels. The water is incredibly clear, with visibility extending at least 40m.

The island is also home to one of only three saltwater hot springs in the world; Zhaori Hot Spring, a large public bathing area with a network of pools on the rocky shoreline that's best experienced at sunrise.

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