MATTHEW JONES takes us to Taiwan’s southern summer capital for some sun, scenic landscapes, and nightlife.
Kenting is to the Taiwanese what the Côte d’Azur is to the French and Bali is to the Indonesians—the definitive beach resort destination. But unlike its better known international counterparts, it remains blissfully free of the influence of big corporations, making a holiday here a welcome break for your credit card, too.
Nestled in a sparsely populated crescent on Taiwan’s southern tip, sleepy Kenting is a world away from the island’s industrial north, where factories churn out everything from key fobs to blade servers. The 330-kilometer journey by road from Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport takes less than half a day and passes through many of Taiwan’s most famous cities. Along the route, the scenery changes from gray clouds and tree-covered mountains in the north of the island, to blue skies and tropical palms in the south.
Most visitors stay in Hengchun, a typical Taiwanese provincial town, save for its hundreds of tourist hotels that range from two-room family-run B&Bs to five-star international properties. Though the town itself is unremarkable, it serves as the gateway to the stunning Kenting National Park, which covers a total of 33,269 hectares of emerald peaks, primeval forests, unspoiled coastline, and a thriving tropical reef.
There’s so much to see and do in Kenting that it’s hard to know where to start. Nature lovers should head for Sheding Nature Park, home to nearly 240 species of plants and 100 different kinds of butterflies. The park’s beauty lies in its striking scenery—limestone caves, fissures in the uplifted coral, and the outlines of gnarled, windswept trees all compete for attention. Sheding is also famed as one of Taiwan’s premier birdwatching destinations. An information center and specially designed lookouts help ornithologists track and photograph the many rare species.
Nearby, the Kenting Forest Recreation Park offers hikers substantial trails and is home to an even wider variety of vegetation, including tea trees, rubber trees, medicinal herbs, tropical fruit groves, and coconut palms.
A short drive north of the parks is a rare natural wonder the locals call chuhuo, or eternal fire. Here, amid an otherwise unremarkable field, natural gas escaping from rock fissures deep underground makes its way to the surface, where it burns as ghostly flames. Chuhuo is best visited at night when the flames are most visible.
Sand and Sun
After a day exploring the great outdoors, it’s time for a relaxing day at the beach, and it is for the seaside that most Taiwanese head to Kenting. Nanwan (South Beach) is the largest of Kenting’s beaches, and offers a wide range of activities from ATV rides and jet skiing to surfing, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Baishawan (White Sand Beach), a little further north, is altogether a more relaxing place where motorsports are banned. This is the place to head for a romantic day out or just to relax in the sun with a book and work on a tan.
Come sunset, make a detour to Mount Guan, whose westerly facing viewing platforms overlooking the sea are perfect for taking in the golden sunset.
Kenting’s National Park status ensures that its coral reef is protected from commercial exploitation, and that’s great news for scuba divers and snorkelers. Kenting is home to a handful of dive operators, all of whom rent equipment, organize dives, and offer instruction.
“Kenting is home to 60 percent of coral species found worldwide,” says Andy Gray, a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer who currently lives in Kaohsiung. “Within the marine park boundaries are found some 1,105 species of reef fish, 42 species of stony corals, and 42 species of soft corals.”
“Diving from the shore in Kenting may present some challenges for the novice diver,” he adds. “Not least are the coral rocks, coral sea cliffs, and lava flow rock that bound many of the shorelines, rip currents, and swiftly moving tides. This makes Kenting an ideal place to learn how to dive as open water, advanced open water, and rescue divers come out of their courses far better able to cope with the less than ideal conditions.”
For those not inclined to observe marine life in its natural habitat, many of the species can be seen at the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium. At a length of 81 meters, the aquarium has the longest underwater viewing tunnel in Asia, offering visitors the chance of a face-to-face encounter with a whale shark and a host of other captivating marine creatures.
It takes a full day to explore all the exhibits in the aquarium complex, but visitors on a tight schedule should at least check out the dedicated beluga pool, the penguin enclosure, and a kelp tank with a viewing window as large as a movie screen. The aquarium is open daily and entrance costs NT$450 (US$15).
One of the most picturesque spots in Kenting is Oluanpi Lighthouse, a former working lighthouse that has been restored to its former glory and which now serves as a museum. It was built in 1883 following the wreck of the U.S. cargo ship Rover off the southern tip of Taiwan 16 years earlier.
The sober-looking tower stands within an all-white fortified compound that was built to keep out marauding aborigines. Because of its color and beautiful vantage point on the coast, it is one of Taiwan’s most popular locations for shooting wedding photos.
Dining and Nightlife
Henchun comes alive after sunset, when Kenting Main Street road turns into an enormous night market offering Taiwanese, Chinese, and international snacks for as little as NT$100 ($3). The town is also home to a huge variety of restaurants serving up Chinese, Western, Japanese, Thai, and Balinese cuisine.
Pubs serve food well into the small hours and offer entertainment such as belly dancers, singing contests, and other usually raucous activities.