Languid, tropical south Taiwan is a world away from Taipei, a land of betel nut plantations, pineapple groves and sandy beaches. The southern plains are home to Taiwan’s oldest Chinese settlements, a bastion of Taiwanese culture with a correspondingly high proportion of independence supporters – the counties of Tainan, Kaohsiung and Pingdong are Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) strongholds and the Taiwanese language is spoken everywhere in preference to Mandarin. The lush southern mountains, while not quite as dramatic as the central ranges, still offer plenty of gorgeous scenery, predominantly inhabited by the Bunun, Paiwan and Rukai tribes – although, sadly, they were hard hit by Typhoon Morakot in 2009, with eight Rukai and Paiwan villages effectively abandoned. Much of the region’s exuberant culture is encapsulated in its festivals: many temples hold elaborate boat-burning ceremonies every three years, while the horizontal firework display at Yanshui is a chaotic but exhilarating event held over Chinese New Year.
Tainan is an essential stop on any tour of Taiwan. The former capital is crammed with ornate temples, engaging historical sights and some of the best snack food in the country. From here the Southern Cross-Island Highway snakes east across the mountains to Taitung, a dramatic and sometimes perilous route with incredibly scenic views; it cuts through the northern end of Maolin National Scenic Area, no less captivating, with the slate Rukai village of Duona and the thrilling mountain road up to Wutai, another Rukai village. (Much of the Cross-Island Highway and Scenic Area was inaccessible post-Morakot, but most of it should now be open again.) Kaohsiung is the biggest city in the south, with a laid-back, friendly character, rapidly throwing off its grimy industrial image and close to the impressive monastery at Foguangshan. The narrow stub of land at the foot of Taiwan is dominated by Kenting National Park, with its somewhat overrated main resort but a wealth of less visited beaches and excellent surf easily accessible by scooter. The intriguing coral island of Little Liuqiu is just off the coast.