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.
It’s 6:00 a.m., and I’m sitting by a little pavilion on the island’s east coast to watch the sunrise. There are clouds over the horizon, but a golden glow is flaming between them. A dozen or so other people have shown up in the last twenty minutes to this site advertised as the best spot for watching the sunrise, but I was here first.
|My persnickety camera did manage to take this
sorta-decent sunrise picture before it decided not to
cooperate any longer.
The sun itself has finally shown its face between the strips of cloud. Everyone else is standing there taking pictures, but since my camera isn’t cooperating this morning, I’m limited to the pictures I can produce with words. (Thank goodness I bought this notebook yesterday!) The sun is spilling golden light over the lower layer of cloud, turning its overly-hardboiled-egg-yolk-gray (wouldn’t that be a great name for a crayon color?!) to a translucent pearly gleam. I can just make out the mountains of Taiwan below it, only their crisp upper edge visible through the cloud. The blue-gray ocean below glitters silver-yellow in wriggling wrinkles as diagonal shafts of sunlight stretch down toward it.
The rhythmic pulse of the surf and the twitter and squawk of birds mostly cover the voices of the tourists not far away and the ticking of the newest-arrived scooter that a couple parked right by my bench. Now that the sun has fully ascended, most of the others have left. But this pair, munching their breakfast on the next bench, apparently didn’t look up the time of the sunrise last night.
Speaking of last night, Janice and Kenny and I went out to dinner at a restaurant advertising mahi-mahi cheeseburgers. I’m not usually a big burger fan, but it was good! Afterward, we stopped at a tea shop, and I tried a “mango cheese tea”. It came in three layers, with fruit and crushed ice on the bottom, sweet milky juice in the middle, and a foamy, salty froth of some sort of whipped cream cheese mixture on the top. It was strange but delicious, with the best results (in my opinion) coming when I mixed the top two layers.
We had signed up for a night-time scooter tour, so at 7:15, our hostess at our bed and breakfast took us to a place in town where a big group of people on scooters were waiting to meet the tour guide. He led us all first to a place where we all dismounted and looked at a tree with big, beautiful blossoms that apparently only bloom at night and for four hours at a time. He said a lot about these flowers in Chinese while we took pictures, and then we all got back on our scooters to go to the next tour stop.
|Aren’t all these flowers pretty?
Actually, they’re all the same flower,
seen in our tour guide’s different flashlight settings.
The top one is its original color.
Unfortunately, I had trouble getting my scooter started. Janice and Kenny were nice enough to wait for me, and by the time I realized to my embarrassment that I simply hadn’t turned the key far enough in the dark, the rest of the group had gone. We took off after them as fast as we could, but when we came to a fork in the road, we had no way to tell which direction they’d taken. We picked one at random and hoped we’d catch up, but sadly, we never did. So the three of us ended up doing our own night-time scooter tour in the form of another circuit of the island (always fun) before returning to our B&B for the night.
As we got back, Kenny joked about getting up early to watch the sunrise, which inspired me. So here I am, still sitting by the coast, squinting while the now fully risen sun peers down intently to see what I’m writing about it.
Now I’m off to take the coastal road around the island again. I should just have time to make it back before our breakfast arrives at the B&B.
It’s almost 9:30 a.m., and I’m sitting on a bench partway along the Wild Boar Ecological Trail in the Wild Boar Trench (“ravine” would be a more accurate word). It’s the only one of Xiao Liu Qiu’s three main scenic spots that I didn’t get to yesterday. For some reason, I couldn’t find it, although I realize now that I drove right by the trailhead at least twice.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to announce that a family of Taiwanese tourists just walked past me, the oldest son carrying their pet bird on a leash. Might as well bring the whole household when you go on vacation, right?!
Anyway, I feel as though I’m barely in Taiwan anymore. There’s actually an option to step off the walkways with their pavement and handrails and onto – gasp! – DIRT trails!! Craggy cliffs loom all around, plastered with climbing plants. Spindly trees perch precariously at the top, their snake-like roots weaving their way clear to the bottom, clinging to the vertical rock face. Some don’t even try to find a footing in the rock, but stretch through the air and plunge directly into the soil like freestanding pillars. Vines of several varieties twist their way down the cliff, decorating its surface like intertwining ribbons. Some dangle in midair like tangles of braided rope. Coral boulders lie tumbled here and there, surfaces dusted with bits of dead leaves, live vegetation peeking out their pores, hinting at long-ago earthquakes and landslides. (How did chunks of coral get hundreds of meters from the beach and dozens of meters above sea level, anyway?)
Some trees straddle the ravine, trunks and roots and stiff projecting vines splayed across the open space, clutching the rock on either side. Stringly vines dangle like lifelines, swaying in the faint breeze.
Shards of sunlit sky are visible between the tangle of trinks and branches and leaves directly overhead, but it’s fairly dim here on the floor of the ravine. Insects peep and rattle around me, leaves rustle, and birds shrill from above. But it’s peaceful here, though more humid than the surrounding rea. I feels as though I’m sitting in another world.
For now, I’m going to leave this one to the mosquitoes who are trying so valiantly to defend it, and move on.
|I didn’t see any wild boar (or any indication that they actually
live on Xiao Liu Qiu), but there were a lot of these little
cave mouths that probably lead to ideal homes for them.
10:40 a.m. I’m back in the B&B, waiting for the others to be ready to check out.
There are definitely more people visiting Xiao Liu Qiu today. (The island’s name gets easier to write every time – just in time for us to leave. 🙁 ) Many of the roads are narrow, obviously designed only for 2-way scooter traffic. But you round a bend and suddenly a colorful, hulking bus is trundling toward you, stopping at every scenic spot to disgorge throngs of distracted tourists who stand around in the street as though it was made for that purpose. Or you see herds of matching scooters go zooming down the little highways, most with passengers calling to each other or pointing at things or holding Go-Pros. With tomorrow being a holiday (Ten Ten), I’m glad we’re leaving today. It will only get more crowded.
Written from home later:
|The line outside the restaurant after we left.
We fought with the crowds for the next few hours before our boat left. Janice, Kenny, and I decided to go out for an early lunch before the restaurants filled up, so we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that someone had recommended. We got the last empty table and enjoyed our lunch there, but as we were leaving, we saw that the line to get in now stretched out of the door and down the street!
|Janice, Kenny, and me with our bings.|
We wanted to get bings (tasty frozen desserts – Xiao Liu Qiu has a LOT of places that sell them) from another little restaurant that someone else recommended. Once again, we got the last available table. We ordered a mango bing and a caramel-cashew bing to share. (Both were delicious, though I liked the caramel-cashew one better.) Once again, there was a line out the door by the time we left. It seems the tourists were following us!
Behind the bing restaurant, we took a nature walk through a bamboo garden that had ponds full of turtles and fish (and a particularly pretty butterfly). Then it was time to catch our boat back to Taiwan. (It sounds odd to say that, since Xiao Liu Qiu does belong to Taiwan … but I can’t say “back to the mainland” either, since Taiwan is also an island, and the mainland is China.)
|A butterfly (or moth?) in the bamboo garden|
This time I stood outside for the 20-minute voyage. The sea wasn’t too rough, and it was windy and a really fun ride. Then we got on a shared taxi-van like the one we’d come out there on, followed by a train to Taichung, after which I took a taxi back to home sweet home. It was a great trip! I hope to go back to Xiao Liu Qiu again sometime with Floyd.
I’m sitting here in a scenic spot overlooking the ocean in Xiao Liu Qiu (pronounced “shauw lee oh cho”), a small island off the coast of Taiwan. It’s mid-afternoon and I’ve been having a lovely day driving around the island alone on my rented scooter.
|A-Road B&B: the office is to the left,
rooms in the building to the right
(there are more behind it)
We left Taichung early yesterday morning: me, my coworker Janice, and her husband Kenny. We took the train to Kaohsiung, a 3-hour ride, then rode in a shared taxi-van for another 50 minutes to the harbor, then took a ferry across to Xiao Liu Qiu (about a 20-minute ride).
|my room at A-Road|
We rented scooters and found the place we’d arranged to stay, called A-Road Bed and Breakfast. Turns out it isn’t even officially open for business yet, but somehow we’d been able to get a reservation. I love my little room there — as far as I can remember, though I’ve been blessed with opportunities to travel a lot, this may be the first time I’ve ever had a hotel room all to myself anywhere. It has two beds with duvets, a place to hang up clothes, its own little bathroom, and the all-important air conditioning. And a TV that I have no intention of using. The door opens to the outside, and there are two little translucent windows that there’s no point in opening unless you want a view of a wall about eight inches away, or a water tank. The complimentary packets of drip coffee that awaited me on the mini-fridge when I arrived are labeled “Coffee n Fins”, which is the name of the coffee shop right next door. I especially appreciated that there were not only two little bottles of water for me, but a special faucet in the room for drinking water. (I’ve already used it to refill those two bottles plus my original one multiple times.)
After dropping our luggage off in our rooms, Janice, Kenny, and I went out walking to find lunch. It was fun to explore the neighborhood a little. The nearest major cross street is called Zhong Shan Road, because of course it is. (Anyone who’s traveled around Taiwan much will get that.) A-Road B&B isn’t located in one of the main touristy areas, so there aren’t a lot of dining choices right around it, but we eventually found a little restaurant not far away. I ordered curry chicken on rice, which was delicious and not spicy at all.
|following the rest of the tour group|
We had signed up for a tour of the “intertidal zone”, so we hurried back to A-Road to meet the representative who would lead us to where the tour guide was waiting. Since we were planning to go swimming after that, we put on swimsuits under our clothes and brought our snorkel gear.
We joined a group of a couple dozen Taiwanese tourists down at the beach. The tour guide, who spoke only Chinese, led us around in the shallow water and picked up various sea creatures to tell us about. I was thankful to be wearing water shoes as they had recommended ahead of time but wished my shorts were shorter, since they were soon drenched.
|no idea what this guy is|
Afterward, I found a place up the beach to stash my things between a couple of boats that didn’t look as though anyone would be needing them any time soon and went to try out the snorkel and mask I’d bought for this trip. In retrospect, it may not have been the wisest move to leave my wallet there containing my ID, credit cards, and all the cash I’d brought, but since this is Taiwan, I wasn’t too worried. I just wrapped everything in my towel, left it in the shadows, and waded out to look for some turtles.
|I left my things between the colorful boats on the right.|
Xiao Liu Qiu is famous for its sea turtles, and I did see quite a few. It was a beautiful experience, just floating face down, feeling myself gently rise and fall with each wave, swimming just a little as I let myself drift. All around, the water was filled with the gentle crackling sound that I remember from snorkeling in Indonesia and that I’ve always assumed comes from the coral itself, but it turns out it’s made by the tiny shrimp living inside it. The coral was interesting and pretty, though nothing compares to the gorgeous underwater fantasy kingdoms I’d snorkeled over in Indonesia (but what could possibly compare to that?!). Still, I enjoyed watching interesting varieties of fish and avoiding hundreds (maybe thousands) of bristling sea urchins, some of which were the largest I’ve ever seen, about the size of soccer balls.
And the sea turtles. Yes, I swam among sea turtles for the first time in my life. Sometimes they appeared seemingly out of nowhere, so close that I had to hurriedly back away, since there are laws about not getting within five meters of them. They were all sizes: some obviously youngsters, others almost as long from flipper to flipper as I am tall! I got to watch them grazing (is that the right word?) on the algae that cover the chunks of coral.
|instructions at the BBQ restaurant|
Eventually I returned to shore to find all my belongings waiting safely where I had left them. That evening, Janice and Kenny and I dined at an outdoor barbecue restaurant just down the street from our B&B, where it was all we could eat for 389 NT. We chose veggies, sweet potatoes, and various kinds of meat and seafood from the refrigerators that held the buffet items, and then grilled them at our own table. All the while, we were watched intently by several well-fed cats that wandered from table to table trying to convince people they were starving. It was a fun and delicious meal.
For the next morning, the proprietor of our B&B had given us pictures of four breakfast options to choose from, all of which she would pick up from local eateries. I can’t tell you what mine was, except that it involved a bowl of soft, starchy paste topped with ground pork and a few pieces of slightly-sweet Taiwanese sausage. (We had the option of soy milk, coffee, or milk tea along with breakfast, but I forewent them because I planned to try out Coffee n Fins later.) There was also a complimentary package of twisty fried snacks for each of us, and an extra drink that apparently is a local specialty. I’m not sure what the drink was called, but it was sweet and tasty and involved a syrupy base with grass jelly and some kind of little seeds (not basil seed or passion fruit) mixed in.
|one of many little harbors in Xiao Liu Qiu|
After breakfast, the other two went off to spend the day snorkeling in various places along the coast, but I wanted to see more of the island. I wasn’t sure if I’d end up wishing for company, but it has turned out to be a really fun day for me, even spent all on my own. I decided to do a circuit of the island, stopping to see the sights along the way, so my scooter and I set off along the coastal road. It was a lovely, quiet drive with almost no traffic except for the occasional scooter. And the views! It’s so pretty around here, with the ocean on one side and often hills or cliffs on the other, along a gently winding road that dips in and out of shade and sunshine, up and down gentle rises. I’ve been getting more confident in my driving, and it’s been really fun to just feel the wind in my face as I zip along. This little electric scooter can’t go terribly fast — my top speed down a hill was 44 KPH (about 27 MPH) — but everything feels faster and more exciting in the open air!
|Beauty Cave had lots of warnings like this|
My first stop was the “Beauty Cave”, which wasn’t really very beautiful, but involved a pleasant stroll in and out of a series of small caves, under overhangs, and along the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.
|me with my popsicle|
|some of the interesting sculptures|
Then I looked through a nearby gallery of interesting wooden sculptures before exploring the cave itself.
|I assumed this was true at the time …|
|an ocean view from the Black Devil Cave|
Once again, the “cave” involved a hiking trail (read: paved walkway with stairs) through and near a series of small caves and overhangs, with plenty of gorgeous ocean views. Several times, I stopped to just watch the waves and talk to God for a while.
|Coffee n Fins|
Eventually, I ended up back at A-Road, where I stopped in my room to replenish my drinking water supply, and then stepped next door to try out Coffee n Fins, which hadn’t been open earlier. It turned out to be a tiny coffee shop less than half the size of my kitchen back home, with a little family-style table in the middle. I saw that others had taken off their shoes at the door, so I did the same. Inside, the proprietor sat eating a bowl of noodles, making conversation with his colleague and two customers who were drinking coffee. Since there was no English menu, I was thankful that the boss spoke English. He offered me various types of coffee from around the world and let me smell the beans. I didn’t tell him I’m not enough of a coffee connoisseur to detect any difference between them! Though they didn’t specialize in fancy ways to prepare coffee, I asked for and received a good iced latte (with one big spherical ice “cube”) that hit the spot on this warm day. When I inquired about sugar, he looked dubious and dug through a cupboard but eventually found some for me. He talked me into staying to drink my latte there instead of taking it to go, as I’d originally requested. His air conditioning argument won me over, along with the fact that I had no other good place nearby to drink it, unless I wanted to sit in my room, which I didn’t. We all made conversation over our coffee or noodles (the others spoke varying amounts of English), and I found out that the two guys who work there also give scuba diving lessons/tours. That explains the name of their business.
Latte downed, I drove off to look for somewhere to get lunch. I explored the main town and tried out some sidestreets before I eventually found a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with exactly what I’d been hoping for: an English menu. I ordered a bowl of “mixed noodle soup” that contained clams, fish balls, ground pork, and green leafy veggies. Once again, I spent some quality time with my Kindle as I enjoyed the tasty meal.
As I drove around the town and waterfront afterward, stopping to take pictures here and there, I found myself wishing I could write about my day. I had purposely chosen not to bring my laptop on this trip, but the writer in me is embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even bring pen and paper! I knew I could always blog about it after I got back home, but the details wouldn’t be fresh in my mind by then, and the words wanted out in the meantime.
|the place where what you’ve just read got written|
Finding a stationery store, I went in and purchased a thin notebook and two pens. Then I rode around a little longer, back on the coastal road, sure I would find just the right place to stop and write. I ended up taking a narrow turn-off that led me to a scenic spot where there happens to be a little glass-topped table and a couple of fairly comfortable chairs. It’s the perfect place! I’ve been sitting here for almost two hours now, listening to the surf and recording my simple adventures so far.
(Note from later: obviously the transferring did happen. 🙂 )
I’ll sign off now and write some more tomorrow. Time to go rejoin the others and figure out where to eat.