Road Trip with Mountains on One Side and the Big Ocean on the Other
Sun, surf, thriving tribal cultures, stupendous geological artwork, and… well, read on.
Text: Rick Charette; Photos: Chen Cheng-kuo (published in Travel in Taiwan, July 2015)
Hualien County is a powerful place. Nature is master, man mere spectator, despite oft thinking otherwise. Though just a few score kilometers away from the west coast as the eagle flies, Taiwan’s Hawaii-like coastal Hualien “secret garden” could not be further away from its industrial side.
Island Taiwan’s thick back of soaring mountains allows just two narrow, long strips of flat land to exist on the east coast, stretching from Hualien into Taitung County and being separated by the Coastal Mountain Range. One, the East Rift Valley, is carpeted with neat, bright-vegetation farms. The other, the exceedingly narrow sea strip, tirelessly serenaded by the pounding chant of Pacific breakers, is the subject of this article. We’re headed on a 3-day sampler trip for you from the north point where the central mountains literally plunge into the sea to the point where Hualien County meets Taitung County.
North of Hualien City, iconic Taroko Gorge is one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist attractions, and certainly the island’s most spectacular natural attraction. We did not travel to the gorge on this trip, but visit our website (tit.com.tw/appdownload.htm) to read our numerous past articles on this magical place (my parents’ favorite; they’ve visited Taiwan three times). Not far behind in awe-inspiring allure, and an immediate neighbor in physical terms, is the magnificent coastal Qingshui Cliff. The Eurasian and Philippine Sea tectonic plates have long been locked in an almighty tussle for dominance, literally throwing up geologically still soaring Taiwan from the ocean bottom, and as part of this titanic wrestling match throwing up the mighty 1,000m-high Qingshui Cliff along a fault line that defines the east coast directly north of Taroko Gorge.
Stretching over 20km, the stunningly picturesque coastal highway snakes along its base. On this trip we visited a number of the lookouts that tourism authorities have set up on old highway sections where tunnels have been punched through jutting cliff sections, as well as one of the long, wonderfully photogenic beaches.
Though a “secret” garden, the theory of tourism relativity applies in Hualien (and Taitung). If you crave quiet, as I do, avoid the tour-bus flow by visiting the following spots mentioned in this article before 10am or after 3:30-4pm: Taroko Gorge (Swallows Grottos), Qingshui Cliff lookouts, Qixingtan, Shitiping, Tropic of Cancer marker, Baxian Caves.
Qixingtan is a landscaped area immediately north of Hualien City. The name means “Seven Star Lake,” but this is in fact a lovely arcing bay of crystalline blue-green Pacific waters, invariably made even more photo-friendly by local fishermen busy on their craft close inshore. The bay’s north end is the north terminus of a breezy seaside bike path stretching 21km to Nanbin Park on Hualien City’s south side. There are bike-rental stations near the bay’s north and south ends. Among the many other facilities are the Stone Sculpture Park, Star Watching Plaza, Sunrise Building (Qixingtan’s sunrises are renowned), children’s playground, and seaside botanical garden. At bikeway-side are signboards explaining the seaside ecology, many with English. Another key draw is the terrific camera-perfect view of distant Qingshui Cliff.
Most of Qixingtan’s tourist-service enterprises are in tiny, compact Dahan Village, toward the bay’s south tip. These include a bike-rental outlet and places by the village’s bikeway-boardwalk section where you can get ice cream, sit down to a coffee, and even have a light meal. Also in Dahan is the enjoyable Chihsing Tan Katsuo Museum (www.katsuo.com.tw), housed in a distinctive low-roofed, wood-built fish-processing factory built in 1984. “Katsuo” is the Japanese name for skipjack tuna, which is dried, fermented, smoked using the wood of the longan tree, and exported to Japan (sometimes bonito is used as a cheaper substitute). The fish is caught in quantity in Qixingtan’s shallow waters – the bay is like a giant fish farm – and the factory was retired in the early 2000s when the industry slowed. Displays I found particularly interesting included a model of the giant multi-section traps still used in the bay, video of the fishermen at work and marine life below, and diorama of the traditional smoking process. The displays have explanations in good English, and guided tours (in Chinese) are offered. There’s also a food court and retail shop with a wide range of fish products (dried-scallop sauce made with XO brandy – super-yummy).
Interest in river tracing has taken flight in Taiwan in the past decade, and gorge-rich Hualien County is the center of the action. Hualien Outdoors (www.hualienoutdoors.org) specializes in taking small groups of foreign nationals on English outings tailored to guests’ skills and desires. We met up with co-founder Matt Hopkins on the Sanzhan River, which snakes through the first gorge south of Taroko Gorge. A Canadian, he fell in love with Hualien on his first visit, and stayed put. The Sanzhan south branch is his default course for outings, but he also leads groups to spots throughout the region (including hiking, climbing, and surfing adventures). On a Sanzhan excursion you see rocks and formations of incredible color and pattern, pass a Kuomintang/American-constructed aqueduct created long ago to bring down irrigation/drinking water, pass into a narrow, steep-sided slot canyon after about 2.5 hours, and cool down at the scenic Golden Grotto waterhole.
The first major tourist site you come to when traveling south out of Hualien City is Hualien Farglory Ocean Park (www.farglory-oceanpark.com.tw; entry fee). This is the most popular attraction on the Hualien coast, if you discount Taroko Gorge for not being right “on” it. Multi-tiered, built on slopeland directly above the coastline, this place is a heck of a lot of fun, with rides galore and a fairytale castle, underwater world, marine-animal shows, and much else. Something important: Stated management policy is to use show animals saved from unpleasant prospects, not snatched from the wild. Another something important: You can’t do this place justice unless you give it at least half a day.
Starchasers (as in “movie stars”) will be especially thrilled to learn about the existence of Niushan, where legendary director Martin Scorcese, Irish actor Liam Neeson, and other big names recently did shooting for the movie Silence, scheduled for release in 2016. What you’ll find at the end of a steep, narrow, long-grass-brushed road that leads off the here inland-and-upland coastal highway is a long and dramatically fetching arc beach bracketed by mountains that drop into the sea. The only buildings here are right behind the isolated beach – those of the Niushan Huting, a combination restaurant/café/bar/homestay/campground complex (www.rainbowiscoming.com/huting; Chinese), owned by members of the Amis tribe, Taiwan’s largest, and beside these a couple of tourist-draw thatch-roof structures from the faux village built for Silence (the rest were being torn down the day we visited). “Niushan” means “cow mountain”; to find the side-road entrance, look for the highway-side “Niushan Huting” sign on a totem pole capped with a steer-head sculpture (26.6km mark).
Readers keen on surfing will be interested to know that, according to Matt of Hualien Outdoors, the east coast’s best is found at the 3km-long, soft-sand Jiqi Beach, surrounded by mountains on three sides. This is also the first good swimming beach south of Hualien City. On the south end is a beach resort (entry fee) with water- and beach-fun equipment and bungalow/campground accommodation. The Baqi Lookout, off the highway on the north-side mountain, offers tremendous views north and south.
Continuing south along the coastal highway, our next major tourist-site stop was Yuedong, or Moon Cave (NT$100 entry fee). High up and far in from the coast, the large, approximately 130-meter-long two-chamber cave was formed long ago by sea erosion. Filled with water – the cave is connected to the sea via underground passage, and the water waxes and wanes with the moon, hence its name – members of the Amis tribe, for whom the cave is sacred, take you on a 20-minute boat tour, providing commentary (Chinese) on the large bat colonies, impressive resident eels, stalactite formations, fish and bird’s-nest fossils, Amis mythology, and more.
Shitiping. The name means “stone steps.” The dramatically terraced volcanic rock and raised-coral formations here form what looks like a staircase rising out to sea. The sea’s great erosive powers are in visually inspiring evidence here – all about are kettle holes and surging tide pools. The teeming marine life draws fishermen, shellfish collectors, and scuba divers. The distinctive ecology also features such oceanside-adapted plants as screw pine, cactus, and morning glory. There isn’t much shade, so bring water; there’s also ice cream, popsicles, and other cooling goodies available at the visitor center.
Readers keen on whitewater rafting will be happy to know about the organized adventures through the rugged and oft breathtakingly beautiful Xiuguluan River canyon, cut by the river right through the coastal mountains. You start on the East Rift Valley side at Ruisui town, and travel 21km (4hrs) over a Class III set of 23 rapids to just before the river’s mouth south of Shitiping. Even if you’ve no time for the water-fun, enjoy the scenery with a drive along the mountainside-hugging highway that connects coast and Ruisui.
Everyone stops at the soaring, sundial-shaped highway-side Tropic of Cancer Marker to take a quick photo – and so did we. Stand spread-eagled before the obelisk and half of you is in the tropics, half in the subtropics. The tropic is the northern hemisphere’s furthest location from the equator where you can experience the sun directly overhead, with a shadowless noon; you no doubt already knew this, but here’s your spot to prove it for yourself.
Taitung Bonus – Baxian Caves
If you were intrigued by Moon Cave, you’ll be thrilled with the Baxian Caves or “Caves of the Eight Immortals,” a key Taiwan archeological site. The caves are about 8km south of the Tropic of Cancer Marker in Taitung County. Carved out by wave action and now pushed high above sea level by tectonic activity, the numerous holes are linked by paths and stairs. Visit the small visitor center first for basic explanation in English. Once home to some of Taiwan’s earliest settlers, today a number of caves serve as Buddhist/Daoist shrines.
Note: All places south of Hualien City mentioned here are within the East Coast National Scenic Area (www.eastcoast-nsa.gov.tw).