A verdant Pacific gem about 33km east of Taitung, LUDAO (綠島; lǜdǎo) flourishes with tropical vegetation inland and a jaw-dropping abundance of colourful marine life amid the nourishing coral that skirts most of its shoreline. Its beauty and relative accessibility – a twelve-minute flight or fifty-minute ferry ride from Taitung – have made it an immensely popular tourist destination, with a holiday atmosphere starkly at odds with its recent history as Taiwan’s principal place of exile for political prisoners. Site of the notorious Ludao Lodge, where tens of thousands were held without proper trials and routinely tortured during the White Terror period, the island is now equally well known for some of Taiwan’s finest snorkelling and diving. It also boasts the atmospheric Zhaori Hot Springs, one of only two known natural saltwater hot springs in the world (the other is near Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy).

Given its small size – an eighteen-kilometre surfaced road loops round it – Ludao can easily be explored by scooter or taxi, and many Taiwanese opt to fly in for a day-trip before returning to Taitung for the night. It gets very crowded during the summer holidays, and especially at weekends, when tourist numbers easily dwarf the island’s summer population of just over two thousand. In contrast, during the winter months, there is a sharp decline in the number of visitors, and ferries and flights are prone to last-minute cancellations due to inclement weather. If you come during this time, you’re likely to have the island mostly to yourself, but many tourist facilities are closed and it’s hard to arrange snorkelling trips unless you’ve brought your own kit.

A brief history

Archeological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Ludao as long ago as 1000 BC. According to aboriginal myth, it was known as Sanasai, and the Ami, Kavalan and Ketagalan tribes believe their ancestors used it as a land bridge for migration. The first Han Chinese immigrants arrived in the early 1800s and named it Huoshaodao (火燒島; huǒshāodǎo) or “Fire-burned Island”, in reference to the fires that locals would light to help guide fishing boats to shore (the island’s highest point, at 281m, is still named Huoshaoshan). In the early 1930s, the occupying Japanese built processing plants for dried fish, which was shipped to Japan. By the 1970s, the raising of Sika deer, prized commercially for their antlers, had become a boom industry, and at one point there were more of these diminutive creatures than people. Though this industry has been in decline on Ludao since 1986, there are still plenty to be seen, and today they are something of a tourist attraction. In the main village of Nanliao, some hotel and restaurant owners keep them as pets, sadly tied up for photo opportunities.

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