Kenting is Taiwan’s Florida: Sandy beaches, abundant sunshine and a year-round holiday vibe. But just as the US state has the Everglades, Kenting National Park also offers world-class bird-watching, carefully protected coastal ecosystems and a gorgeous, unspoiled hinterland.
From Kaohsiung to Kenting, the most direct route isn’t necessarily the one tourists will want to take. Those curious about Taiwan’s agricultural interior or its indigenous tribes should allot the better part of a day to slow driving through the pineapple fields and rice paddies of the lowlands – perhaps stopping for a lunch at Foguangshan – all the way to Sandimen. From there, Road 185 is a splendidly bucolic approach to Taiwan’s southernmost region.
A popular pit-stop on the way to Kenting, the little town of Hengchun is notable for having preserved most of the 19th-century city wall which protected it from bandits, rebels and head-hunters. Less than 10 minutes’ drive away, there’s a beguiling natural phenomenon. Chuhuo (literally, ‘out comes the fire’) is a spot where natural gas seeps through cracks in the mud and burns throughout the year. Come after dark for the best photos, but don’t get too close!
For late-afternoon arrivals coming from Kaohsiung or points north, it makes sense to detour to Guanshan. This ridge isn’t especially high, but it’s perfectly positioned for watching the sun sink into the placid waters of the Taiwan Strait.
The main resort area has a string of beaches, each with its own character. For those coming from Kaohsiung, first up is Nanwan (‘South Bay’), a 600 m-long stretch of sand where jet-skiing, banana-boating and other forms of excitement await those who find simply swimming and sunbathing a bit dull. Sleeping options near here include the Chateau Beach Resort. Sheltered by two headlands, Xiaowan (‘Little Bay’) is the beach closest to the centre of the resort. From here, it’s just a short stroll to the restaurants and watering holes that line Kending Road.
The beach facing and named after Chuanfan Rock is much liked. The rock itself is a squarish column which American visitors say resembles the profile of the late former US president Richard Nixon. Continuing southeast, one comes to Shadao Beach, where there are no crowds because the national park takes its environmental-protection mission seriously. The foreshore is off-limits to the public as it’s ecologically unique; the little on-site exhibition hall (free admission) explains why.
The usual warnings about tides, currents and other hazards apply in all of these places, but on the whole these locations are highly suitable for families who want to dig in the sand and dip in the water, as well as more boisterous personalities looking to let off steam.
That said, the ocean isn’t gentle in every part of Kenting National Park. At Jialeshui in the east, the forces of erosion have created an extraordinary selection of wind- and wave-sculpted rocks. The nearby Nanrenshan Ecological Protection Area is utterly different, a sprawling reserve dedicated to low-altitude primeval forest and para-tropical rainforest. Lucky visitors may spot the rare (and unique to Taiwan) Coxing’s white-bellied rat, while the green-fingered will revel amid the reserve’s 1,000-plus plant species.
Kenting’s sea, sand and sunshine are wonderful, but those who feel they’re getting too much of a good thing may well be tempted by a pair of shaded retreats in the hills just behind the beach resort. There’s something very soothing about the lush monsoon rainforest inside Kenting National Forest Recreation Area. From the observation tower, the Pacific Ocean, Bashi Channel and Taiwan Strait are all visible. Sheding Nature Park is just as good, and there’s no admission charge. A mix of grasslands, mixed forest and uplifted coral reefs (including two narrow gorges kids love to squeeze through), it’s more wilderness than park. Macaques and deer sometimes put in an appearance.
Serious ecotourists should consider timing their visit to coincide with October’s raptor migration, and planning ahead carefully to obtain permits for the ecological protection areas.
Those embarking on a full circuit of Taiwan will enjoy spending a night in Kaohsiung just before or after Kenting. This metropolis of 2.8 million has a very broad range of accommodation and eating options. Perhaps the most intriguing sight in the city proper is the hilltop Former British Consular Residence, a relic of the era when Victorian diplomats and merchants could muscle their way into foreign markets. Located near the main nightlife district, its commanding views over the ocean and harbour makes it an excellent late afternoon stop. An excellent way to soak up the city’s maritime character is to jump on one of the ultra-frequent ferries between Sizihwan and Qijin. The former is a small fishing harbour near the Former Consular Residence that’s easily reached by bus or underground train. The latter is a salty island community with a 340-year-old temple and countless seafood restaurants.
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