The windswept PENGHU ISLANDS (澎湖群島; pénghú qǘndǎo) are considered national treasures by the Taiwanese, who invariably gush over their epic histories, striking topography, searing heat and, perhaps most of all, the brilliant fine-sand beaches that attract legions of holidaymakers every summer. Situated in the south of the strait, the sprawling archipelago stretches some 60km north to south and 40km east to west, encompassing 64 islands – only twenty of which are inhabited. The major population centres are on the main islands of Penghu (the largest island and the archipelago’s namesake), Baisha and Xi – the large landmasses that comprise the island chain’s heart. Sprinkled to the north and south of here are distinct groups of islets known as the North Sea Islands and the South Sea Islands, accessible by ferries operating from two separate hubs on Penghu, whose main town of Magong is the primary entry and exit point for most tourists.

The Penghu Islands are continually buffeted by strong northeasterly winds, which have weathered away their rock foundations, creating some of their biggest attractions – the magnificent basalt mesas that rise sharply from the sea in astonishing arrays of temple-like columns. The winds also make Penghu a major centre for windsurfing, particularly in winter, when Magong hosts one of the sport’s premier international competitions. The islands are also havens for other watersports such as sailing, sea kayaking, fishing and snorkelling.

Rounding out Penghu’s appeal is the rich assortment of historic sites scattered throughout the chain, and unusual local snacks such as dried squid, brown sugar cakes and peanut candy. You’ll need at least a week to see everything.

A brief history

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlements in Penghu were not formed until the early twelfth century. In 1281, shortly after the Mongols conquered China and founded the Yuan dynasty, they set up an official garrison to govern the islands.

During the late Ming period, Penghu’s population began to rise dramatically as droves of Fujianese fled the political and military upheaval on the mainland. The Dutch set up a temporary base in 1604, but the Ming government expelled them under threat of force. After failing to seize other outposts in the South China Sea, the Dutch returned in 1622, reoccupied the main island of Penghu and built a fort near Magong. In response, Ming forces attacked in 1624 and, after eight months of fighting, the Dutch signed a treaty that actually allowed them to build outposts on the main island of Taiwan in exchange for leaving Penghu.

In 1661, when Ming loyalist Koxinga was en route to Taiwan, he used Penghu as a base, and a garrison was later established here. But his family’s rule over the islands was short-lived: Qing-dynasty admiral Shi Lang seized Penghu in a naval battle in 1683. Just over two hundred years later, in 1884, the French briefly occupied Penghu, but their rule was also cut short when the Qing ceded the islands to Japan in the 1895 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Shimonoseki. Just over fifty years later, the archipelago again fell into Chinese hands, when the Nationalists seized it during their retreat from the mainland.

Following the lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwanese began to visit and the archipelago was officially designated a national scenic area in 1995. Though development of Penghu has been decidedly low-key until now, the local government has been pushing to build a slew of giant five-star resorts and casinos to attract more international (read mainland Chinese) tourists. The plan was quashed, in its current form at least, by a referendum held in 2009 (56 percent of residents voted against the casinos).

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