Riding The Wave: An Insider Guide To Taiwan’s Surf Scene

Taiwan might not be the first place you think of for surfing in Asia, but the island nation is home to sandy beaches, consistent breaks and year-round warm weather

Surf coach Ah Yu is yelling instructions. "Stand up! Zhan qi lai!" A wave yanks me forward on my board. It's the first time I've had a surfing lesson delivered in two languages - my high school Mandarin is working overtime to keep up - but I'm in good hands. Over the next two hours, Yu alternately advises, cajoles and encourages me until I'm popping up on my board like a pro, riding with confidence towards the Kenting shoreline, where a photographer from Afei Surf Hostel is sitting with a DSLR camera to capture the action.

Taiwan - home of bustling night markets, craggy mountain ranges and luxuriantly green valleys - may not be the first destination that comes to mind for surfing in Asia. But there are plenty of good reasons to opt for the island nation found around 177km off the coast of China, not least because it attracts significantly fewer numbers of surfers to its shores than other surf spots. In fact, up until 1987, Taiwan's shoreline was entirely off-limits to civilians, when a long period of martial law requisitioned the country's beaches for military drills.

Surfing has blossomed into a thriving subculture in a country where most locals still view the beach as a backdrop for sunset selfies

In the years since, surfing has blossomed into a thriving subculture in a country where most locals still view the beach as a backdrop for sunset selfies (which is understandable - the first time you see the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean from one of Taiwan's pristine beaches, you'll want to reach for your phone, too).

Surfers wanting to stick close to Taipei can hop on a train heading to Wai'ao beach in Yilan county. But those seeking sunnier climes and more reliable waves can travel south along the coastline to Kenting - described as the "Florida of Taiwan" for its year-round sun and agreeable temperatures. Its sandy beaches and lush, verdant scenery stood in for the coast of Mexico in Ang Lee's Life of Pi - in fact, the Taiwanese-born director once joked that "Kenting looks more like Mexico than Mexico".

Hanging off the southern tip of Pingtung county, where the peaks of the Central Mountain Range run out of road into the sea, the area around Kenting boasts several surf beaches (Jialeshui and Nanwan among them) offering consistent breaks and reliably warm waters.

Kenting, Taiwan

Outdoorsy types can combine surfing with breathtaking hikes through limestone caves and canyons formed of old coral reefs in Kenting National Park, Taiwan's first national reserve, and there are enough bars and restaurants in Kenting and nearby Hengchun to satisfy foodies, including a bustling night market on the main Kenting strip. You can rent scooters or grab a YouBike from Taiwan's public bike-sharing system from one of the docking stations along the coast. Be warned: the wind in Kenting can get pretty strong, so don't be surprised if cycling proves a bit tricky.

On Nanwan beach, there's only a handful of surfers joining me on this 600m stretch of fine sand. It's January, which means it's technically winter in Taiwan - not that you'd know it from the board shorts one of my surfing companions is wearing. The water is a balmy 24°C, and I can just about make out the thumbs-up that the photographer is giving me from shore as I successfully ride my first ever green wave. Soon it'll be time to grab lunch at one of the seafood restaurants dotting the coastline and spend the rest of the day lounging at a beach bar. I can't think of a better reward.

A pocket guide to surfing in Taiwan

Where to stay

Red Garden Resort
Red Garden Resort, Taiwan

Red Garden Resort

This vibrant, Bali-influenced guesthouse is about five minutes by scooter down the road from Kenting town. With ocean views and tatami-mat garden huts for lounging in, it's a tranquil bolthole away from the bustle of Kenting. It also overlooks Sail Rock beach, a small crescent of sand named after the nearby sail-shaped rock that juts out of the ocean. There are a handful of seafood restaurants and a 7-11 within walking distance.

18 Lane 846, Chuanfan Rd, Hengchun Township, Pingtung County
+886 8 885 1001
red-garden-resort.com

Gloria Manor

If you're after secluded luxury, you could do worse than this eco-conscious boutique hotel in the heart of Kenting National Park. Once the holiday residence of former Taiwanese president Chiang Kai-shek, the rooms are tastefully minimalist and there's everything you'd expect from a luxury hotel: spa, swimming pool and in-house restaurant. There's even a shuttle to take you from the hotel out to the beach and other local destinations.

101 Gongyuan Rd, Hengchun Township, Pingtung County
+886 8 886 3666
booking.com

Where to eat and drink

Beach Bistro, Taiwan

Beach Bistro

Those on the hunt for western food can find it at the Beach Bistro, where a French-trained chef turns out European dishes with a smattering of Asian influences in cheerful, maritime-inspired surroundings. If you're not in the mood for food - although their mussels in white wine sauce comes highly recommended - their fresh fruit slushies are a welcome balm in the heat.

230 Chuanfan Rd, Hengchun Township, Pingtung County
+886 9 192 37280

Little Bay Beach

Beach Bar

Little Bay, or Xiaowan, is one of the smallest but prettiest beaches on the coast, fringed generously with tropical rainforest and only a short walk from the main Kenting strip. Grab a sundowner from Beach Bar, which serves snacks and drinks till 11pm, say hello to the resident cats and watch the sun go down over the horizon.

6 Kending Rd, Hengchun Township, Pingtung County
+886 8 886 1888
Sail Rock Beach
Three Cup Chicken at Ten Seafood, Taiwan

Sail Rock Beach, left, and three cup chicken at Ten Seafood Restaurant

Ten Seafood Restaurant

Rechao restaurants are huge in Taiwan - meaning "hot stir-fry", these are unpretentious and lively, usually nighttime, spots where food is served fast and hot from the kitchen. Ten, a homely family restaurant tucked away from the shoreline, serves a mean three-cup chicken and more unusual dishes such as yu lai gu - a type of wild black fungus-like vegetable that only grows after rain.

160-8 Chuanding Rd, Hengchun Township, Pingtung County
+886 8 885 1888
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Hengchun Liang Zhai Ban

At the height of summer, the mercury can nudge towards 30°C in southern Taiwan - which makes a dish of cold noodles (known as liang mian) all the more enticing. This breezy noodle joint in Hengchun serves freshly pulled noodles in a variety of different Asian sauces, with toppings including shredded chicken, peanuts and vegetables.

118 Huancheng N Rd, Hengchun Township, Pingtung County
+886 9 700 33118

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What to do

Kenting, Taiwan

Take a surf lesson

There are several surf schools-come-hostels in the area, where you can either rent a board and wetsuit or book a lesson. Afei Surf Hostel is the most well-established spot in Kenting and is just across the road from Nanwan beach. Those looking for a quieter surf or stay can opt to stay on the other side of the peninsula in Jialeshui, where there are a smattering of guesthouses and hostels near Jialeshui beach, which has attracted surfers from around the world for decades. Summer Point offers both accommodation and surf lessons.

Explore the local night markets

Night markets are a staple of Taiwanese nightlife and offer the chance to sample a huge variety of foods from the island and abroad, as well as a colourful line-up of fairground rides and cocktail stalls. Take note: the night market in Kenting runs daily and can get very crowded in peak season, while the one in Hengchun only opens on the weekend.

Check out the catch at Houbihu Fishing Harbour

Houbihu is the biggest fishing marina in the area, with boats regularly hauling in lobster, swordfish and mahi-mahi, among other fresh catch. Wander through the fish market and take your pick from the stalls and eateries that line the market and the harbour. It's a great place to pick up some cheap sashimi.

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