The sparkling Pacific coast of southeastern Taiwan beats to a slow diurnal rhythm governed by the tides. Few Taiwanese make the five-hour train or car journey down from Taipei, and those who do often head for the islands reachable by ferry from Taitung, the area’s transport hub. The pristine plains north of the city, caught between the ocean and the eastern flanks of Taiwan’s Coastal Mountain Range, are gloriously unpeopled.
The region’s isolation has kept its black sands cleaner than the northeast’s often plastic-blighted littoral, and the beaches are less crowded. Even over a national holiday, the scene set back from the highway resembles the rural Philippines more than conventional Taiwan. Cows wander untended fields. Fishermen adorn rocky outcrops. Families reunite on patios, barbecuing ribs and sharing around mijiu (rice spirits), along with a bag or three of betel nuts. You’ll be lucky to escape with just a shot or two if, like me, you get lost and accept help in return for a few minutes joining in the fun.
In winter, visitors are mostly surf-seeking Japanese, pack-bearing cyclists circumnavigating the island, and a slow drip of foreigners seeking artistic or musical inspiration in and around the town of Dulan. Summer sees heavier domestic traffic, but nothing like Hualien and Taroko Gorge, where coaches pass with metronomic regularity – a glimpse of our self-driving future, perhaps.
Dulan, which in Taiwanese dialect unfortunate sounds like “poke the penis,” draws mixed opinions. Some herald it as an artistic escape and others as a gathering point for deadbeats.
Either view is tenable if you’re only dropping in (or out) for a day or two. Find the Dulan Sugar Factory to get a handle on artistic and musical events – you’ll notice a strong indigenous Taiwanese aspect to the work. The aboriginals here are a mix of the Amis, Bunan, Paiwan, and Puyama (who lend their name to the east coast express trains) tribes, and their influence remains strong up and down the valley. Hostels, bars and restaurants showcase their music, often easy listening, plaintive melodies over acoustic guitars.
Finding a nice place to stay over the holiday can be difficult, so we chose to camp, and quickly located a breathtaking spot on a headland directly south of the Sugar Factory. Dulan isn’t renowned for its culinary enterprise, but if you can find them, make a beeline for Anita’s taco truck, famous across the island for her own brand of Sichuan-pepper and Taiwanese-chili infused hot sauce. Tuck in to delicious pork with pineapple and salsa, and wash it down with equally tasty homemade Dulan Beer.
Settling down for the night we had the stars to ourselves, save a few cows and the iridescent glow of a couple of fishermen and their poles. The authorities highly encourage camping at a spot next to the police station, but having ignored this advice we were left unmolested to pass a wonderful night around the fire.
The roar of F-16s on maneuvers from their base in Hualien provided a fascinating wake-up call and a suggestion it was time to hit the road. Find Nora at Tangerine House to hire scooters, ideally with an international driver’s license but don’t fret if you misplace yours. The back roads make for a marvelous ride, and there’s a nice trip up the mountain behind Dulan, revered as a holy site by the Puyama, that takes in two sites of Megalithic archeological interest. Follow a well-signposted route to the Moonlight Inn for stunning views back over Dulan and out to Green Island and Orchid Island. Loop back and stop to marvel at water running uphill – in fact an eery optical illusion that will have you pacing around and placing friends along the channel to try and get a handle on the height of the water.
Fifteen minutes up the road lies the sleepy town of Donghe, an under-promoted stretch of surf that offers a paradise for beginner and small-wave boarders. We stayed at Low Pressure Surf Hostel, a Japanese-run operation that features particularly good food (try the BBQ mackerel) cooked by the owner’s Bunan wife. Beds are NT$500 a night (RMB114) and the terrace offers glimpses of the sea and a backdrop of imposing mountains. On the same stretch of road sits the town’s most famous eatery: Donghe Baozi. Choose from flavors including asparagus, cheese and prawn, kimchi or mackerel salad, not to mention the staple Donghe meat buns – they give the best of Dongbei a run for their money. There’s also a handmade Italian pasta place on the same road.
Activity here is confined to mealtimes or the rare occasions there’s a lull in the waves, which break obligingly across a dozen spots along the rocky-bottomed coast. As a non-surfer, I found watching those in the water strangely hypnotic, and their successes enticing enough to prompt plans for a future attempt myself. Avid fans can visit in November to catch the Taiwan Surf Open at Jinzun Harbor.
While your friends catch the surf there is plenty to do in the surrounding country – not least a visit to a hidden beach or two. There’s one a little further south from the harbor that offers decent swimming and footloose sands. Wing your way back north and up into the mountains for an exhilarating, traffic-free ride to the aptly named Monkey Bridge, where you can enjoy being assaulted by our close relatives to your heart’s content. These wild Formosan rock monkeys will happily nip your clothes or swipe your child’s arm, so watch yourself if you invite them to play. Those who fancy something more physically demanding can make a foray to the Rainbow Waterfall, which lies north of Changlong, the next town north along the highway. This trek crisscrosses the river as it tumbles down from a single, epic torrent, and is not for the faint hearted – grabbing one of the walking poles provided at the entrance to the Maloulou Trail is highly recommended.
Twilight in Donghe is time to unwind with fires along the beach, or a beer outside one of the hostels. Yet you could pass every day this way, because for all there is to do down here, the real joy is in the pockets of nothing in between. Donghe and surrounds will have you wondering if you can’t slow down, move away and find a seaside nest all of your own. Wondering, in fact, if those dropouts back in Dulan aren’t on to something.