Arriving in a new destination at night has a way of heightening your senses. When darkness falls, first impressions are built only on sounds, smells and moonlit scenes. It isn’t until the flood of morning light that the whole picture becomes clear. Some of these early perceptions are washed away, while others, like Penghu Islands’ seaside potpourri of salt, incense and freshly caught fish, stay with you forever.

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I found myself on one of these enigmatic evening strolls on my first night in Magong, the largest city in the Penghu Islands. Only a 50-minute flight west of busy Taipei, the 90-island archipelago in the Taiwan Strait is – for want of a better phrase – a secret paradise. While Taiwanese residents are in the know, you’ll be hard pressed to see more than a handful of western tourists wandering its reaches at any given time.

On my first night, I felt like somewhat of an imposter, enveloped by the sounds of karaoke and locals chatting over cups of bubble tea and shaved ice-grass jelly. Bed and breakfast-style accommodations abound alongside upmarket options offering infinity pools and sunset views. While the islands are home to the usual holiday draws: white-sand beaches, coral reefs and killer seafood, its age-old quirks differentiate it from other sun destinations.

Wander through the villages and you’ll find relics of Japanese pirates, colonial architecture, 15th-century temples and walls built of coral. Its landscapes, punctuated by 17-million-year-old towering basalt columns and volcanic rock formations, draw eager-eyed geology buffs. The best way to soak in the islands’ charms is by spending some time on the water. After all, Penghuians are known to worship Mazu, the goddess of the sea.

North to Mudouyu Island

Sunrise in Magong marks the return of fishermen and blue skies, painting a clear picture of daily life in the Pescadores Islands (another name for the region which is accredited to early Portuguese explorers). A boat trip around Penghu’s East Sea will take you past volcanic rock formations fringed by coral reefs that attract scuba divers from around the world. The final destination is the idyllic Mudouyu Island, home to crystalline waters and the first lighthouse built in Taiwan, when the country was under Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945.

The breezy boat ride back offers a welcome reprieve from the 40-degree summer heat. In spring and winter, the temperature drops as the region becomes one of the windiest places in the northern hemisphere and a mecca for windsurfers. At the end of the journey, stop in for a cold cactus juice (one of Penghu’s most popular refreshments) at one of the restaurants in Nanliao Village, an eco-friendly community known for its organic farming practices.

Basalt Nature Preserve

While basalt rock is found around the world, it’s rare to see it spread across the ocean like the islands of Penghu. The basalt in Penghu was formed by several volcanic eruptions, during which the lava rose up from beneath the shallow sea or from underground crevices and quickly cooled. Today, the resulting formations make up the Penghu Columnar Basalt Nature Reserve. A few of its highlights include the impressive basalt columns at Daguoye and Xiaomen Village’s Whale Cave, a rock formation that, unsurprisingly, resembles the shape of a whale.

Erkan Village

A walk through Erkan Village will instantly transport you to the early 20th century. About 50 homes make up the charming little town, which features a blend of Fujian and Japanese architecture styles and walls made of coral. Many of these homes open their courtyards to visitors, offering them a cup of iced Erkan almond tea or other local delicacies. Traditional Chinese medicine shops tout herbal remedies while artists can be seen painting incense holders and other handicrafts inside their homes.

In contrast to Taiwan proper, the pace of life is noticeably slower on the islands of Penghu. After a mere two days, I felt like I’ve been away for more than a week. While the cosmopolitan corners of Taipei beckon countless tourists, the Penghu Islands remain a well-kept secret. Sometimes, all you need is a pristine beach, a picturesque fishing village and an iced tea to feel, most pleasantly, a million miles away.

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