Xiao Liu Qiu (pronounced “shau-lee-oh-cho”, sometimes shortened to XLQ) is a pretty little island off the southwest coast of Taiwan. My husband and I spent a few days there during our recent spring break, and I think it just might be my new favorite place in Taiwan (which is saying a lot in a country so full of natural and cultural beauty)!
XLQ is famous for its beaches and snorkeling, and with good reason. We discovered a new (to us) beach this time, called Secret Beach – small but perfect! The reef comes right up to the shore on both sides, with an open space in the middle that’s perfect for swimming. I’ve snorkeled plenty of times before, and it’s hard to beat the beaches and reefs of Kenya and rural Indonesia. But XLQ comes closer than most other places I’ve been! Among other unfamiliar underwater sights, I met one skinny fish that was all nose and pointy tail, swimming head-down like a pencil standing on its tip and sharpened at both ends (it turned out to be a razorfish). A couple of smaller fish looked as though they were wearing puffy fairy dresses. Beautiful creatures just hanging out, giving glory to their creator simply by existing. (More about beautiful underwater creatures further down.)
Further down in this post, you’ll see a picture of Secret Beach from a nearby hill. We drove our rented scooters most of the way up to see a lighthouse and a famous tree (the “Old Banyan Tree”, featured in this short video), and then hiked a short way from the tree to the viewpoint.
Renting scooters was another really fun part of the vacation. We love driving around on the quiet little island roads where there’s almost no traffic most of the time, enjoying gorgeous coastal views and the salt breeze. I think we (well, I – the two of us split up a few times to do different things) must have made at least eight circuits of the island during the four days we were there, not to mention lots of shorter rides.
Another thing we love about XLQ are the bings! A bing is a well-known dessert in Taiwan. In its most basic form, it’s constructed of shaved ice with a topping of fruit or beans. Yes, you read that correctly! Beans (especially red beans and mung beans) quite often show up in desserts here, though never in savory dishes. Starbucks even offers a red bean Frappuccino. Sweetened beans are an acquired taste, and let’s just say that after almost fifteen years in Taiwan, I have yet to acquire it (and not for lack of trying!).
But I digress! Mango bings are the polar opposite of bean bings in their incredible out-of-this-world deliciousness, but they are only available in the summer, when mangoes are in season. The mango season was just starting in Taichung, where we live, but since XLQ is further south and thus warmer, the season was well underway when we arrived for our vacation. And that meant that all the many bing shops on the island were doing great business with their various versions of this nectar of heaven! (Seriously, I’m pretty sure mango bings feature prominently in the dessert section of heaven’s menus.)
The fun thing about mango bings is that every bing shop makes them differently. Sometimes the shaved ice is just ice (kind of like a snow cone), but other times it’s made from frozen milk or mango juice or sweetened condensed milk, or a combination. And the mango topping is always a little different in terms of how it’s sweetened and/or what kind of sauce/syrup the mango pieces come in. Some bing shops add a scoop of ice cream, sprinkles, boba, bits of chopped candies, and/or other toppings/mix-ins to their bings. Buying a mango bing from somewhere new is always a fun discovery! And since XLQ specializes in them, and since we hadn’t had any in almost a year, and since the weather was warm while we were there … well, I’m not ashamed to admit that five mango bings found their way to me in the four days we were there! (And I’ve been going through mango bing withdrawals ever since we got back!)
This time we discovered a new secret of XLQ that we didn’t know about on our last visit. One night some friends took us to a quiet little cove accessible only through a narrow gap in rocky walls in an out-of-the-way area by a marina where we would never have thought to explore on our own. When we waded in, our feet stirred up tiny bioluminescent creatures that drifted around like specks of light in the shallow water. In the darkness, it was like watching underwater fireflies flicker about, appearing and disappearing around our ankles. The more we walked around, the more sparkles spangled around us. It felt as though we had stepped into some magical world where the water was full of enchantment! (Yes, I’m a fantasy author. Why?)
But none of the beautiful sights on XLQ could compare with what we saw while snorkeling. Speaking of magical worlds! Sadly, my attempts to take pictures under the waves met with dismal failure. We had brought a waterproof case for Floyd’s phone (his is older than mine, so we were less nervous about taking it in the ocean). However, I found that what with the lighting and the additional layer of plastic, I could barely see the screen under the water. Several times, I pointed it at beautiful things and pressed where the button should have been, but nothing really turned out. I must have accidentally bumped other buttons, because at one point I saw enough to realize I was no longer in the camera app, but I couldn’t figure out where I was or how to get back there. (Floyd’s phone is pretty different than mine!) I even got out of the water a few times to try to deal with it, but to no avail. All we ended up with after several gorgeous snorkeling experiences was a few extremely unclear pictures that could just as easily have featured UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster, plus an unintended video of my leg. Yeah.
But here’s what it’s like:
You’re floundering out in the breakers under the barren sky, struggling because you can’t really swim while your hands are occupied with putting on your snorkel and mask properly, gulping salt water and trying not to panic as the waves tumble you around. Then you finally get everything in place and your face under the water, and the world instantly transforms.
You’ve been transported to a magical fairy kingdom of color and movement, where the only sounds are the faint, constant crackling of crabs in the coral. The waves ease you gently up and down; no more thrashing and crashing. You don’t even have to swim, though now it’s easy, if you want to. You just lie on the surface, face-down, while amazing creatures go wandering by about their business below. You float over the towers and turrets of coral castles, where narrow, probing tentacles protrude from crannies and spines bristle out of crevices. Tendrils wave from the windows as brightly-colored fish flit in and out, weaving around bastions and battlements.
Iridescent blue specks float over everything, glinting like daylight stars in the watery sky. A cloud of thousands of tiny fish billows about you, darting and jerking, always moving in exactly the same direction as though controlled by a single mind. Big turtles, blundering but graceful, soar around, sunlight dappling their shells as they tug up mouthfuls of the algae growing on the coral. They drift back and forth, and you drift back and forth, and all the little plants growing in the coral weave their fronds back and forth, everything drifting in sync to the waves.
Way down below everything, you spot glimpses of the sandy ocean floor between pillars and protrusions of multicolored coral, some pieces sitting in solid chunks, some waving like graceful foliage in an undersea breeze. And you wonder how many millions upon millions of fantastic creatures, delicate and grotesque, live out the minuscule dramas of their lives, unseen, in the pores of the rainbow-hued reef all around you.
You twist your neck to look up and see the surface like a shimmering ceiling of undulating glass above you. But when the tip of your snorkel dips into the waves and your mouth and lungs fill with saltwater, you discover you twisted too far. You panic and stick your head up into the cold air, coughing and choking and spitting. And you realize you can’t touch the bottom, and you’re kicking and struggling as you yank off your snorkel and mask, which has somehow also managed to fill up, and dump about half the ocean out. Waves crash menacingly over your head and throw you around as you struggle to tread water and not inhale the other half of the ocean while wrestling with your mask and snorkel, and you think, Yikes, what am I doing way out here? You have no idea how the shore managed to swim that far away or how you’re ever going to make it back, surrounded on almost every side as you are by this endless heaving circle of blue under the endless upturned blue bowl of the sky.
And then you finally get your gear in place and your head under the water again, and the splashing and crashing turns off as though you flipped a switch. The waves are your friends again, drifting you gently up and down. You hear only the peaceful crackling of the crabs in the coral as the underwater kingdom surrounds you once more, its multi-hued denizens still going about their daily lives in their fantasy world. And a turtle glides by, soaring gracefully from one clump of coral to the next with its wing-like flippers, browsing from the buffet God has set out for it.
And you remember exactly why you’re here.