Matsu Islands 馬祖列島
On the far east coast of the Taiwan Strait, just off the coast of China’s Fuzhou city lies the Matsu Islands, and archipelago consisting of primarily 5 inhabited islands. It is part of Taiwan. While not as close to China as Kinmen, it is still very close and you can see the Chinese coastline from the islands, but Taiwan is nowhere to be seen. It is another very much worth your time and effort outer island to visit in Taiwan. One that has only recently become popular as people are locked into the country and look for places to explore. Otherwise, it has previously been one of the lesser ventured to outer islands, except for the months of April through June when people flock for a chance to see “Blue Tears” 藍眼淚, bioluminescent plankton that glow a striking blue (but to see it in large quantities requires a godsend combination of perfect weather, visibility, water temperature and currents and masterful non-phone camera skills for that insta shot). Not only did we discover important histories of Taiwan and maritime trade but also some stunning localities that exude Mediterranean/ European Riviera vibes.
One area where Matsu is definitely unique in Taiwan is the food. It is deliciously fantastic.
It is steeped with history and a very unique culture and identity. This is similar to that of Kinmen Islands. However, Kinmen’s heritage originates from Southern Fuzhou province while Matsu’s comes from Northern Fuzhou. There are some differences in what they eat, how they cook certain foods and their religion as well. Matsu has a unique identity in that the locals do not identify with or see themselves as Mainland Chinese, nor do they truly see themselves as Taiwanese either. Historically the Matsu island people consisted of a diverse diaspora. Given its location it came to be a key trading and fishing hub in the oceans and passageways from China/ Northeast Asia to South/Southeast Asia, so strategic that the British built a lighthouse on DongYin island to assist in navigation on the spice trade routes. Its historic maritime importance also meant pirates took interest and established themselves on the islands. Dynastic China never took Matsu seriously, nor did it seek to truly protect it, this is primarily due to pirates. The islands were also not conceded to the Japanese Empire. When the KMT fled to Taiwan, Matsu was used as a key line of defense and attack against Mao’s forces in China and the island was seen only as such, a strategic military outpost. Because of this Matsu Islands are now home to the highest density of underground tunnel/bunker systems in the world. Modern day PRC dont exactly identify with or embrace Matsu people and Taiwanese people from the main island also have the same mentality, largely due to Matsu Islands and its people’s distinct “otherness” as I learned. But despite all this, the Matsu people remain proud and inviting. They speak a mix of Mandarin, Hokkein and the Northern Fujian Dialect. It is sometimes an odd juxtaposition, as you walk around the islands. You can all at once feel you are in Taiwan, China and even Singapore/Malaysia.
Matsu islands 馬祖 (third tone on the Ma) gets its namesake from Mazu 媽祖 (first tone on the Ma), Goddess of the Seas. Legend has it that on Nangan lays the burial site of Mazu herself, you can visit said grave and temple in the shadows of the tall Mazu statue overlooking the seas. The main island is Nangan 南竿, then a short 20 minute ferry ride across is Beigan 北竿. Off to the Northeast is Dongyin 東引 (2 hour ferry from Nangan) and to the Southwest are Juguang Islands 莒光島 consisting of XiJu 西莒 and DongJu 東莒, 10 minute ferry between, and 1 hour ferry from Nangan.
We spent 4 days and 3 nights on the islands. 2 nights spent in Nangan and 1 night in Beigan. To hit every inhabited island would require at bare minimum 4-5 days if you are quick on your feet and in good fitness. However, it is recommended to do it in more 5-7 days at a more leisurely pace, and especially if you opt to fly in. The ferries between the islands are often delayed or cancelled due to currents and fog. Other than April through June to catch the Blue Tears, another great time to come in order to take in the local culture and festivities is Moon Festival (September/October) or Lunar New Year (January/February), they celebrate a little differently here than on mainland Taiwan or China, its definitely a lot more traditional and historic.
Getting to Matsu Islands
Taipei Songshan to Beigan or Nangan, Nangan with the most frequencies as it is the largest and most populous island and is where the local government mainly sits. At this time, Uni Air is the only domestic carrier that operates into the islands with ATR-72 turboprops. Full fare one-way is around NTD$1911.
Beigan has around 2-4 flights/day depending on season. Nangan can see 6-10 flights a day depending on season. Matsu flights are often delayed or cancelled due to fog/ high winds, even if it is a clear day in Taipei. So just be ready for that possibility. There is also always a waitlist for flights to and from the islands. Beigan has a weight limit on flights as such they seemingly do not sell every single seat given the shorter runway.
Flights bookable direct on Uni Air’s website, through agencies or at the airport. Remember you must have ID information to book.
There is the overnight ferry from Keelung Harbor called the TaiMa Star 台馬之星. A seat is NTD$640, a single bunk in shared cabin is NTD$1050, private cabin that sleeps up to 3 is NTD$5020. The overnight journey takes around 7-8 hours, departs Keelung around 11PM and arrives at DongYin around 7AM. The ship first stops at DongYin, Taiwan’s northernmost point and the closest island to Taiwan mainland of the Matsu islands. It then stops at Nangan. This is a great option for those who want to be efficient with time, arrive in the morning, explore Dongying then take the 2 hour ferry to Beigan/Nangan and explore those islands for a few days before hopping on the 1 hour ferries to XiJu and DongJu. Unfortunately it does not appear the online website or booking tool for the TaiMa ferry has English, perhaps give them a call or use an online travel agency.
Getting Around The Islands
On each island you can either rent a moped or a car. I recommend car as do the locals. The roads here are steep and hilly. While the islands are generally small, Nangan and Beigan are still rather large given all the hills you have to drive through. Roads are well-paved and lit at night. These arent Green Island or LanYu (Orchid Island) roads. All guesthouses and hotels have parking as well. There are also public buses that run around the islands and on both Beigan and Nangan there are taxis. They primarily wait at the ports and airports, but you can call on their service if needed.
Where to Stay
The islands have a variety of guesthouses, hotels and bed and breakfasts. No major chains or luxury hotels. Though a handful of boutique guesthouses/bed and breakfasts. I cannot speak for XiJu, DongJu or DongYin as we did not go there, but from what we gathered the accommodation options there are more basic though still comfortable. Nangan and Beigan are home to more options.
In Nangan we stayed at what is widely considered one of the best options on the island, DaySpring 日光海莊. It is a locally owned and run boutique hotel. Every single room has ocean or partial ocean views. Breakfast is included, and it is quite tasty and is mainly local dishes. It is a minimalist/industrial vibe and aesthetic but very much incorporates the local as well. Rates start at around USD$100/night for double occupancy. I highly recommend this place. Very comfortable, down to earth, amazing unobstructed views and friendly staff. It is also located away from the tourist sites but also very central and the main sites are all within a few minutes drive.
In Beigan you must stay in QinBi Village 芹壁, there are a lot of boutique options, all mainly bed and breakfasts, and all locally owned and run. We stayed at ChinBe D.S. House B&B 芹壁德順號民宿. Rates are lower than DaySpring, around USD$80/night double occupancy with breakfast, tasty local breakfast too. All boutiques in QinBi are housed in restored traditional homes. Some are in truly traditional style wherein there is one shared bathroom and living room on the ground floor and bedrooms are upstairs, such as ChinBe D.S House, which worked fine for our family as we occupied both rooms in one of their 2 houses and so sharing the bathroom was not too terrible. Newer ones that were restored under new regulations have ensuite rooms with enlarged windows and concrete floors. Personally I think the truly traditional style ones are the way to go. But you will still get a very wonderful authentic experience in a newer restored place. More on QinBi below, but truly a remarkable village that just transported us to the Southern European Coastline.
What to Eat
For this section I think I will go more by the individual dishes you can find in Matsu that are must haves. Most restaurants, big or small, should have these and you should not have any issues trying most if not all of these. I will still include a list of restaurants we went to.
The Chinese Bagel JiGuang Bing 繼光餅, plain or Matsu Burger 馬祖漢堡
This particular item has its roots in 1563 Dynastic China. The bagels helped the Chinese army defeat Japanese pirates. The Imperial Troops realized their camp fires were signaling to the pirates their locations. As such, they created the bagels to bake in underground/ enclosed ovens so that the fire wouldnt be seen. CNN’s Great Big Story has a short and fantastic segment on these bagels, it is worth a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WuOZM9shZ0
Today, you find these bagels everywhere in Matsu. It is a staple. Eaten at every meal and as a snack too. At breakfast, eat it plain fresh off the oven of as a Matsu burger, stuffed with Taiwanese breakfast pork chop and eggs 豬排蛋 or go with local seafood like oysters and egg 蚵仔蔥蛋 or shrimp and eggs 蝦仁蔥蛋. Every and all combos of the bagels are so good. At the central market in Nangan you can find stalls selling these fresh off the oven.
Red Yeast anything 紅糟
Red yeast is a core ingredient in Matsu/Fujian cuisine. Red Yeast is the same as Lees, fermented/dead yeast, usually residue from wine fermentation. Indeed Matsu is known for its Gaoliang (Sorghum) liquor like Kinmen, hence why red yeast is so commonly used in the food. The taste is quite aromatic and not potent at all. It is slightly sweet but mainly savory and creamy. This is also a popular gift to bring back for family and friends or to use in your own cooking.
Key items included Red Yeast the following:
1) Fried rice 紅糟炒飯, 2) fried or steamed fish 紅糟魚, 3) Fried eel 紅糟鰻魚, 4) Fried pork belly 紅糟紅燒肉, 5) Aged wine chicken rice noodle 紅糟老酒米粉湯 or just regular aged wine noodles 老酒麵線.
Fish Noodles 魚麵:
Steamed or stir fried noodles made of fish paste.
Matsu, is after all a group of islands, one wherein maritime trade, warfare, piracy played a key role. As such, so did survival on it surrounding resources, aka the ocean. The seafood here is very fresh, restaurants and locals alike flock to the market every morning to buy the fresh hauls from local fisherman. At Nangan market you can literally see fisherman selling the catch of the day from the back of their pickups.
However, the most famous seafood dish in Matsu are the Mussels 淡菜, cooked in a variety of ways but most often steamed/stir fried with a dash of Gaoliang/aged wine. There are also a variety of different shellfish, including sea snails, razor clams and barnacles 佛手. But if you are not into shellfish or mussels, not to worry, plenty of fish, shrimp, squid and crab to go around. Again, cooked in a variety of ways. Steamed, fried, stewed in clay pot. Matsu is also very famous for their Fuzhou style Fish Balls 福州魚丸，one of the best places in Nangan to taste and also buy bulk frozen fish balls in a variety of flavors is DingXinHang 鼎興行 (not on google maps), directly across from the Matsu Liquor Factory and Museum 馬祖酒廠。
Fried/steamed Sweet Potato Dumplings 地瓜餃/黃金餃
These amazing desserts are so delicious. Fried little wonton like dumplings with skin made of sweet potato and filled with a mixture of pork fat, scallion oil, and peanut. It explodes with goodness and temperature heat when you first bite into them. In Beigan you can even get freshly steamed ones topped on your bowl of mungbean shaved ice at XieHeShiHang 協和食行, call ahead of make it your first stop to pre order boxes to take home but really the best thing here is their Radish Cake 蘿蔔絲餅, which you can only get by pre-order. The store is located just down the street from Beigan airport too.
Street Food at the Nangan Wet Market 2nd floor 南竿市場小吃
Wake up early and head down to the Nangan central wet market to not only see locals buy their daily produce and fisherman selling their catch off their pickups but to also sample some delicious local street food on the second floor “food hall.”
Potside Noodles 鍋變麵: delicious rice flour base noodles. They pour the mixture on to the side of the wok. Once it forms, they shaved it into the boiling fish based broth below. Served hot and perfect with some white pepper. The stall also has Wontons 餛飩.
Fried oyster cakes/puffs 蠣餅: get it with a fried egg inside. Crunchy on the outside, hot and steamy with scallions and oysters on the inside.
Scallion pancake 蔥油餅
Sticky rice dumplings 龜桃: filled with either radish, red bean or sticky rice paste. You must arrive early for this stall otherwise they sell out of the classic sticky rice flavor.
While there is no speciality drink from Matsu, the thing to drink is the alcohol. Gaoliang 高粱, aged wine 老酒 and sweet potato wine 地瓜酒 in all their forms and varieties. Matsu gaoliang is a lot purer and smoother and natural compared to Kinmen which to meet increased demand and popularity is now much more industrial in their process and most of Kinmen liquor is now blended. Thats why I much preferred Matsu liquor. I recommend the 18 year aged Kaoliang 18年陳年高粱老酒 produced by the Matsu Liquor Corporation. Oh and I found Mussel infused craft beer on the island too, mainly just a craft lager and less so the taste of mussels.
Matsu XiaoChi 馬祖小吃
YiMa’s Kitchen 依嬤的店: probably the best restaurant over all we dined at
LiBin Restaurant 儷儐餐廳
JieShou Lion Central Market 介壽獅子市場
LinYiHe Workshop and Restaurant 林義和工坊: Book far in advance, ideally with a group of at least 10, though they do technically accept smaller groups. We were unable to go. However, they do have a shop selling their handmade items and if your group is large enough you can also book their DIY Red Yeast and/or Rice Wine making classes!
QinBi Restaurant 芹壁食屋
BanLi Breakfast Restaurant 坂里早餐店: get: oil rice with egg 油飯加蛋，breakfast egg crepe 蛋餅，wonton soup 餛飩湯
XieHe Food Depot 協和食行： for snacks and edible gifts but also their sweet potato dumplings as well as sweet potato dumplings shaved ice and pre-ordered radish puff.
What to Do and See
The main sites to see and things to do in Matsu revolve around the military history on the islands. A visit to these key sites is a must especially the many tunnels and bunkers. There are a few museums as well. There are also a lot of temples, all with distinct architecture, mainly of the Northern Fujian style. Besides this, you can hike/ bike at your leisure or visit the surprisingly nice and many beaches, most of which are in little bays/ inlets so rather safe to swim in, but no life guards to still exercise caution. There is no diving/ snorkeling around the islands.
A good starting point are at the following three museums. They are just down the road from each other.
Matsu Cultural and Folklore Museum 馬祖文物館: nicely curated museum on the history and topography of the islands. Primarily pre-KMT. Signs in English. Provides great cultural and historical context.
Victory Fort 勝利堡: One of the many former bunkers, now turned into a museum. The only bunker/tunnel with detailed and well written English signs and guides, as such I recommend starting here to get a sense of the military history on the island as well as life under military KMT days for both soldiers and local residents alike. Plus the fort itself is cool and has nice views from its rooftop.
Victory Lodge 勝利山莊： a bunker dug into the mountain side. This was President Chiang Kai Shek’s place of residence when he visited the island and as such it is the place of residence for any high ranking military official or dignitary who visits the island. It houses mainly photographs and the original desks and chairs sat in by CKS himself.
BeiHai Tunnel 北海坑道：Probably the most famous site in Matsu. A massive tunnel system hand dug by KMT soldiers. Used to store warships and boats. Nowadays it is a tunnel you can either walk through (in low tide), kayak through or sit and have a rower row you and a few others through. It is massive and very impressive that it was dug by hand in rather quickly as well. Year round, at night they offer blue tears boat tours, where they turn off all the lights and give you a paddle to stir and agitate the water/plankton. This is not worth doing off-season as there are few planktons and it just isnt that great of an experience.
NiuJiao Village 牛角聚落: One of the few intact historic villages under government preservation.
Matsu Liquor Corporation 馬祖酒廠：though you cant really visit the actual brewing facilities, the small area where you can visit shows both the current and historic fermentation and brewing process. It is also cool to see the array of special bottles they have produced over the years commemorating all sorts of things. Of course you can sample liquor and buy to your heart’s content.
Baba Tunnel 八八坑道：former military bunker used to store tanks and as a passageway to the airfield turned liquor storehouse and fermentation tunnel. It is very famous due to a Baba tunnel line of Matsu liquor and a commercial that was once filmed here. Have a sip of the clean and fresh water from the water source inside the tunnel. You will also see traditional porcelain barrels of Matsu liquor being stored in here.
ZhengGeDaiDan Memorial Park 枕戈待旦紀念公園： Massive sign with CKS’ famous words etched into them.
Statue of Mazu 媽祖巨神像: One of the tallest Mazu Goddess statues in the world. You cannot climb in or up though. But hike up to it by ways of the underground bunker below it. From there walk down the wood/stone steps to the Mazu Temple below.
Mazu TianHou Temple 媽祖天后宮: Temple where Mazu’s grave is located.
YunTaiShan 雲台山：Highest point on Nangan, panoramic views of Matsu Islands and China. It is also an active military intelligence/ satellite center. Inside is a fascinating exhibit on PRC Military uniforms and equipment, used to educate Taiwan military personnel on how to tell a PRC military spy/defector…etc. As well as items that PRC military were supposed to get from Taiwan to bring back and that Taiwan military to get from China to bring back to Taiwan, these were historically espionage test missions for military personnel.
JinSha Village 津沙聚落: The most intact of the original villages on Nangan. Stroll through the beautifully restored buildings or a section of which has been kept in ruin but beautifully so. The beach here is very nice, soft and mostly clean. We spent a nice afternoon on the beach itself! It also has a public restroom!
Iron Fort 鐵堡：Another bunker/ military stronghold. Formerly not connected to land. This one is very nicely preserved and worth a visit. Look out for the glass put into the concrete fortifications, to prevent PRC military from coming on to shore.
DaHan StrongPoint 大漢據點：One of the most extensive and well preserved underground bunker/tunnel base system.
Canon Base 大砲連營區：One of the preserved canons used ever so minimally by the KMT. At the time these canons were a true source of might and was in part how KMT fended off Mao from Taiwan. NOTE: as this is an active military base, only citizens or valid holders of Taiwan ARC are allowed in.
QinBi Village 芹壁聚落: My favorite place in Matsu. Stunningly restored Fujian stone houses. Get lost through the steps and various little pathways that meander through this village. Check out the restaurants/ cafes and even a 7-11 (its a fun one). There is a beach out front and when the tides and currents are calm you can kayak. Kayak out to turtle island, literally shaped like a turtle, cannot enter the island but still cool!
BiShan Lookout 壁山觀景台: the highest point on Beigan, just at the entrance of a military base. Sweeping views of Beigan and the Beigan airport.
War and Peace Memorial Park and Exhibition Center 戰爭和平紀念公園主題館：A war memorial park and museum, military equipment on display. Did not get a chance to go but if you have time worth checking out.
Tanghou Beach 塘後道沙灘： a man made beach along a road that connects the two islands that form Beigan.
LuoShan Nature Trail 螺山自然步道：Unfortunately also didnt have time to do this. But it is a hiking/ walking trail that offers great views.
QiaoZi Village 橋仔聚落: known as the village of a hundred temples. It is a historic fishing village lined with many many temples.
Matsu Radio/Broadcast Station 馬祖播音站: Where military used to blast Taiwan/ KMT republic propaganda and music across to China.
I would totally come back to Matsu Islands. Not only because I still have 3 of the inhabited islands to explore, including hitting up Taiwan’s northernmost point, but also because of the wonderful people, relaxing vibes and delicious food. For me, I could easily spend a week in QinBi just relaxing, reading, blogging, or staring out into the ocean. There are also still so many tunnels and sites to explore. And of course, would be great to come back to see the Blue Tears in full force.