A Remote Island We Call Paradise
To the east of Taitung County in the Pacific lie two islands, which are in fact also two townships of that beautiful county, the Green Island and the Orchid Island. The Green Island has been the mecca for avid divers and ecotourists. It’s easier to reach and has more well-established facilities for tourism. The Orchid Island is, however, a true paradise if visitors are eager to get away from the crowds and to expose themselves in a more primitive destination for holiday. The Orchid Island is not only an alluring attraction for those who have always been looking for the “road not taken” but also a quieter place to define your own vacation that is not much bothered by the industrial civilization in Taiwan.
Orchid Island, aka Red Head Island
The Orchid Island is known as the “red head” island before the WWII because of the human head-like tinted rugged northwestern cap against the sunset. It’s called “orchid” island after the war by the then Taiwanese government simply because of some new species of orchids which can only be found on the island with a romantic hint to the flowery primitive land. With a area of nearly 50 square kilometers, it takes about two hours to ride a moped on the only highway around the island, being flanked with azure ocean and towering mountains in the Lanyu Township (lányǔ in Mandarin Chinese means “orchid islet”). The island also houses the highest mountain on any remote islands of Formosa – the Red Head Mountain, at an altitude
of 552 meters above sea level.
Crossing the Pacific to Discover the Paradise
Visitors generally choose to take ferries to the island though flying is also an option. Due to the very limited seats on the routine services of small planes, which only depart Taitung airport, taking ferries should be your more convenient and quick choice to visit the island. Most of the accommodations there only accept bookings with at least two nights. That is to say, you’ll have to set aside at least three days to spend on the island, which is a fairly reasonable length if it’s just part of your whole visit in Taiwan. Ferries are quite frequent nowadays, making the Orchid Island more and more accessible compared to the time I first visited in 1990. I traveled from Kenting National Park this time, which is generally believed to be a bit quicker compared to the departure from the bigger Fugang Fishing Port near Taitung City.
Home to the Tao Tribe
The Orchid Island is well-known among Taiwanese as the homeland of one of the 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes in Taiwan. Used to be known as Yami Tribe, the Tao Nation have lived on this far-flung island for centuries, if not thousands of years. Their culture and language are still well kept thanks to its secluded location.
Decades ago the bitter disputes as to the arbitrary storage of nuclear waste on the island is still lingering. Besides, the possible higher autonomous status or exclusively special economic development plan on the island has been discussed on and off though without much progress. So, the isolated island is not only primitive environmentally but sort of mysterious as well. The locals’ resilient attitude toward life should be admired, and their friendly yet uncompromising faces should be appreciated. They have made this paradise even more desirable and successfully got the attention of the public in a more positive way.
Interesting Shapes of Rocks
The entire island is primarily made of igneous rocks which were given imaginary names by the locals or the government. For example, some of the famous landmark attractions, such as “steamed bun” rock, helmet rock, elephant trunk rock, duo lions rocks, and so on are all interesting rock formations carved out by the severe weather or rogue waves. Offshore the eastern part of the island, there’s even a series of rock formations resembling a naval ship, which is said to be bombed during the World War II.
The coastal landscape on the island reminds me of the flagship attraction on the East Coast National Scenic Area – the Three Immortals Platform, or Sanxiantai in Chinese. It’s like an enlarged version of that beauteous scenic spot but not connected to the mainland of Taiwan by a man-made bridge. Those volcanic rocks marvelously accompany the coastal tour of wide-eyed tourists.
Snorkeling, Canoeing, or Diving
As an outlying island on the Pacific, Orchid Island’s water activity is definitely something you shouldn’t miss. The island claims to have one of the clearest waters around Taiwan and the passing Kuroshio current brings abundant fish to the Tao tribe for centuries. The coastline of Orchid Island is beautifully dotted with some coral coves, which are generally visited by amateur divers and snorkelers. If you haven’t received any rigorous training in diving, these are wonderful sanctuaries to soak yourself in the azure ocean with various coral reef fishes which seem to be not afraid of human beings. They probably thought you were part of them! Some coves might be too deep and sort of scary, so don’t forget to bring a life jacket or snorkel vest with you or just rent them from the diving shops.
What’s more, some free divers see the Orchid Island as the unspoiled paradise. The most unusual part of water activities you can experience here is paddling on a traditional tribal canoe, which is technically called “plank boat”. Vacationers can sign up for this new form of recreation online or via the hotels before getting an unprecedented experience of canoeing, normally in a safe harbor, like what the Tao tribesmen usually do in their everyday lives.
Up the Hills for Better View
The Orchid Island is home to some of the higher mountains on any islands you can find in Taiwan. There are two excellent attractions high up in the mountains you shouldn’t miss. One is the “highest” lighthouse in Taiwan, which sits at an elevation of more than 200 meters above sea level – the Lanyu Lighthouse. The road leading to the entrance gate of the lighthouse is unbelievably steep and narrow, but the vista on the way is still worth a try though the sign before you start the climb actually says “riding mopeds up is not recommended”. The lighthouse is not open for visitors, but the scenery up the hill will absolutely bring you an exhilarating experience on your fun-filled trip in the Pacific.
Another one I’ll introduce, actually my number one recommendation, is the Lanyu Weather Station, which was first built during Japanese era and then restored after the war. There’s only a cross-the-island highway here, and you’ll have to ride up the mountain road until near the saddle. You’ll see a branch road leading further up by a sign saying “Stop your vehicle here and walk up the road for about 15 minutes”. This is a challenging walk because this little road is really steep. After sweating for about 15 minutes or so, you’ll be unarguably amazed at the lush green mountains flanked by the azure blue ocean in front of you. In fact, the panoramic and breathtaking view from the little lawn in front of the weather station is undoubtedly the best I’ve ever seen on the island. It’s definitely worth a visit!
Tao Tribe and Their Culture
The demography of the Orchid Island is still mainly composed of one of the indigenous tribes in Taiwan – the Tao. There are totally six tribal villages and most of them are still practicing their specific custom and persistently preserving and reviving the tribal culture. If you need the cultural savvy to navigate the island, visit the Lanyu Heritage Museum as early as possible. It’s established by the Lan An Cultural and Educational Foundation and the admission they charge entirely goes to the rejuvenation and continuation of the Tao’s better future. Included in the ticket is a short visit to their unique semi-underground house. The guide will lead you into the house and passionately explains the details of the design and structure of this type of
Among the aforementioned attractions, only the Lanyu Heritage Museum has open hours of 08:30-12:00 and 13:00-17:00 with adult admission NT$100 and reduced admission for children under 12 and senior citizens over 65 years of age at NT$50. The guided tours are offered everyday at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. only, which is highly recommended.
This can be a harsh problem in Orchid Island, which still maintains quite primitive tourism facilities. Luckily the island is not especially big and you’ll sweat a lot in this tropical region rather look for restrooms at all times. Most of the restaurants, cafes, and eateries provide simple bathroom for clients. If you need to answer call of nature, go for Mother Nature!
How to get there?
Flying there is almost impossible due to the limited seats and services on small planes even if you don’t mind the higher fares. Frequent ferry services are offered by Jinxing Passenger Ship and Green Island Star transport (which has no English on their webpages), both of which offer two round trips to Orchid Island in a day though highly subject to cancellation due to severe weather. You can choose to depart either Fugang Fishing Port of Taitung County or Houbihu Fishing Port of Pingtung Couty (in Kenting National Park). The traveling time is pretty much the same from both ports and the actual time spent on the ship depends a lot on the size of waves. Better to book tickets before you set off because they don’t guarantee everyday departure.
Useful Tips While Visiting
Too hot in summer?
The Orchid Island is the only place in Taiwan that has rain forests. Humidity and heat is normal when there’s no sea breezes come up. My solution is to organize the tour with intermittent breaks at a building like a museum or a cafe, restaurant, etc. An outlying Island in the Pacific, the Orchid Island has even two 7-11’s and one supermarket. One episode in my trip is that my family couldn’t endure the blistering sun on the way to the Green Green Grassland, so we stopped immediately by a white container-like structure Do House Cafe and ended up finding that this is a great cafe with cool air-con and delicate deserts!
The Orchid Island has some superb restaurants, pubs, and eateries. Most of the larger hotels have beautiful set meals, too. For example, my summer trip this year went to a hotel called Mingming Hotel, or Wǔzhǔabèi in Mandarin Chinese, which offers delicious tribal set dinner for clients at a cost of NT$350. They also provide a variety of interesting activities you can do to go with your itinerary. Their one-stop shopping service perfectly suits vacationers who don’t want to rack their brains before heading there.
AmCham Taiwan has an article Lanyu: Taiwan’s Orchid Island, which offers excellent background information for expats living in Taiwan to plan their holidays ahead. The online travel websites KKday and Klook also provide a wide range of tickets, cultural programs, and day tours you can choose before heading for the island. You can also consider reaching out to Edison Tours to arrange a private tour for your Orchid Island vacation. They can help tailor your experience to make the most of your visit to this serene destination.