Surrounded by bigger and more famous neighbors, Taiwan is an oft-overlooked and seriously underrated travel destination. While that's quickly changing as tourists discover this hidden gem of an island, most visitors have been concentrated on the northern capital city of Taipei. But as all the locals know, the north may be the city center, but the south is where the heart of the country is.
Lush and tropical, the southern province of Pintung is home to Taiwan's oldest settlements and to many aboriginal communities, and is unique in being the only region of the country where the Taiwanese dialect is spoken more often than Mandarin. Bounded on all three sides by the Pacific and attracting millions of visitors each year, the warm waters, white sand beaches, grassy cliffs, unique spas, cheap delicious eats, and pulsing nightlife of it's greatest city Kenting is an irresistible combination.
To explore Kenting right, start out like a local and rent a scooter – the unofficial Taiwanese mode of transportation – and putt it out to the excellent surf at Jialeshui beach. A hot spot for beginners and professional surfers alike, the waves are never crowded and the community is friendly. There are plenty of cozy boutique hotel options along the stunning coast if you're looking to stay the night; or if camping under the stars is more your style, the grassy fields behind the beach are open for tent-pitching too. Looking around at the soft yellow sand and rich green forests, it's no surprise that Life of Pi was filmed here.
With waters ranging from 73°F to 86°F, it'd be a pity not to dive right in. If scuba diving's more your thing, a handful of PADI-certified scuba schools and shops along the beaches are waiting to take you under the surface to meet the Nemos and Dorys. For a region that's lost up to 63% of its native coral reefs from environmental changes, Kenting is still noted as a great place to fish-watch and is surviving well compared to many other reefs of the world. Little Bali Bay is often cited as the best beach for scuba.
If you'd rather hit the water in a more relaxing manner, nearby Sichongxi is amongst the top four hot springs on the entire island of Taiwan. For a country with more than 150 hot springs to choose from, fourth place is no minor feat. Rumor even has it that their alkaline waters were the honeymoon destination of choice for Japanese royalty back in the 19th century. The surrounding spas all provide themed springs featuring gingseng water, rose pools or even ones with little fish that gently nibble and exfoliate your toes.
After all that time spent by the water, it's time to scoot back into town. No trip to Taiwan is complete without a visit to the night market, and Kenting just happens to have the liveliest one outside of Taipei. Overflowing with food stalls, cocktail trucks and gift boutique stores, you can spend hours -- some claim even days -- eating, drinking and shopping to your heart's content. And while there are the traditional oyster pancakes, mango shaved ice, and infamous stinky tofu to be had, Kenting Street's night market is unique in its proximity to great seafood and it's 'beach town vibe'. This means that the giant barbecued squid skewers, deep fried desserts and Cuban sandwiches (bet you didn't see that coming) are must-tries.
But the ultimate cherry on the top of your trip should be Kenting National Park. Catch a sunset on the long white-sand beaches with the famous Eluanbi lighthouse in the distance, built in 1883. The entire park spans 181 square kilmoetres and include limestone caves, coral tablelands, isolated mountains and slumping cliffs, an adventure seeker's dream come true.
There's more than enough reasons to leave the familiarity of Taipei for the wild beauty of Taiwan's southern coast. Intimate yet vast, the landscapes, seascapes and culture of Kenting will make you wish you could live the rest of your life out here.
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