Xiao Liuqiu (小琉球嶼), Swimming with turtles

Liuqiu or Xiao Liuqiu (小琉球嶼, Xiǎo Liúqiú Yǔ), sometimes also called Ryukyu (its Japanese pronunciation) or Lambai, is a small island of about 7sqkm in the southwest of Taiwan. Surrounded by corals, covered in limestone, hollowed out by caves, and only a 30 min ferry ride from Donggang – and thus about an hour away from Taiwan’s second-biggest city Kaohsiung – it is no surprise the island is popular with tourists.

We traveled to Xiao Liuqiu in May with friends. It is famous for its green sea turtles that swim lasciviously between the corals, grazing algae like ocean’s sheep. Xiao Liuqiu’s beaches are of a fine white sand. Cliffs offer shade against the sun that sets straight over the sea. It is paradisiac, especially for someone coming from Taiwan’s north where beaches are often a bit neglected yet quite crowded.

An idyllic island a few hours outside a major metropolis, you could expect mass tourism or overpriced exclusive resorts. (Or both, if you look at Europe’s island-gems). Yet you’d find neither. Xiao Liuqiu is friendly and laid-back, of a somewhat rebel nature. There are no Porsche sports cars, no Luis Vuitton bags.

A playful life

Time flows slower here. Visitors are often young, and of a devil-may-care attitude quite rare in Taipei. As we were out to buy breakfast at a stand in the streets one morning, looking for the seller of all the wonderful fresh fruits, the owner of the scooter repair shop next to it shouted at us: “auntie is not here. Let me call her!” Ten minutes later, a 70-something lady came on a fiery red motor bike, carrying her knife to cut our pineapple.

In their hospitality and concinnity, the locals surpass even the main-island Taiwanese. (Who many Europeans already describe as the kindest people they’ve met.) The batteries of our e-bikes were swapped at the shop as we pleased. (“Come when they fall below 32V, it’s less fun then.”) As we were drinking a coffee in a nice jazz café next to the harbor, the owner brought us four wonderful cappuccino and then left us with his vinyl collection for half an hour – probably taking a stroll or seeing a friend.

The best kind of Backpacking

In a way, Xiao Liuqiu felt like a throwback to the grand years of backpacking some 10-20 years ago, when Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam were less crowded and more “authentic,” their beaches still rough jewels, not yet polished for the ‘Gram, the resorts still hotels, the hotels still hostels, each with their charming own story on offer.

And thus, we spent our days lazy at the western beaches, snorkeling with the green sea turtles. (In respectful distance, of course! There were always about 3-6 in close proximity to the beach). Fresh seafood was easy to find, in some hip western-y BBQ trucks or – even better and much cheaper – the typical Taiwanese diners made of a ribbed roof and a couple of camping chairs. And we enjoyed our small electric mopeds. Their chattering offered a nice reminiscence of teenage years, and given the island is small and there are no cars, 30km/h was all we needed to feel free.