Matsu is an archipelago of 19 islands and islets in the Taiwan Strait, very close to China. In fact, on a clear day you can see the coast of China and stories persist of frogmen from either side of the Strait swimming across to perform nefarious acts on their counterparts. Despite recent and ever increasing warming of relations between China and Taiwan, the military influence is still present, although the conscripts may soon be guarding a casino rather than the island itself.
Being slightly more northerly than the main island of Taiwan it can be chillier, and it certainly was in March. Downright chilly in fact. It’s worth pointing out that if the air-conditioners have a red setting then it’s a fair bet it will warm rather than chill. Worked for me, but my travel companion didn’t get the connection.
Matsu is being pushed as a tourist destination even before the casino project has been approved (as of writing), and I was very impressed. We only got to Nangan and Beigan, but the impressive beaches, people, time to get there, ambience, coast line, and history make it somewhere to which I am looking forward to return. That and the pirates, birds and guns of course. You can read about the trip in detail here as I’ll keep this article to an introduction.
The two main islands are Nangan and Beigan with each having a small airport, although quite why is a mystery. You can fly to either from Songshan Airport in Taipei, and if you have a few days you can fly into Nankan and back from Beigan. The flight takes around 50 minutes with Uni-Air, or you can take a 10-hour ferry ride from Keelung (http://www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw/User/Flight-Info.aspx?oid=0&a=471&l=2&destid=0 flight info; MFK = Beigan and LZN = Nangan). Getting to Matsu can be tricky though as it is very prone to fog (especially from around March to May) when planes will not fly (thankfully). The waters can also be rough in which case the ferry will not sail, so always confirm your ticket before heading out to the respective terminal (flight and ferry information http://www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw/User/Article.aspx?a=128&lang=2).
There is a public bus service around both islands, and you can also hire buses, cars and scooters (hire information: http://www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw/User/Article.aspx?a=130&l=2). Both islands are small and only take about half an hour to drive around, however the roads are often steep so bear this in mind when hiring a scooter. You can also hire a taxi driver to take you round the islands which is probably best if you don’t want to drive and your time is limited. You can find details via the previous link. The boat trip from Nangan to Beigan only takes 10 to 15 minutes and isn’t as prone to cancellation due to high seas. There is a regular service from Fu’ao Harbor.
We had really wanted to visit Dongyin Island, but you will have to plan your trip carefully to do so and hope for good weather. You can only get there via the Keelung ferry, which stops at Nangan before Dongyin, sometimes. If the weather is rough however, it might not sail at all, or go to Dongyin first, so it’s part luck part planning. You can take a helicopter but it’s not cheap.
You can also visit Juguang Township, which is actually two islands (Dongju and Xiju). There are ferries from Fu’ao Harbor (weather permitting) which take 50 to 60 minutes, or if you are feeling flush then you can also take a helicopter.
Matsu has become an internationally renowned birding spot, due in part to large numbers of migrating birds stopping off on the islands, including the endangered Chinese crested tern. Some of the smaller islands are now protected sanctuaries, but the abundance of bird life on the islands was evident even in March. You can find a lot of info on the web about this, but here’s an official link. http://www.matzu-nsa.gov.tw/english/discover06.asp
In fact the official Matsu National Scenic Area website is excellent (apart from the irritating Flash entry page) and I advise reading through the site before you embark on your journey.
Don’t forget you read the account of our trip to Beigan and Nangan. Matsu Ho!