What!? White sandy beaches in Taiwan? This guy has got to be out of his mind. Is he talking about Thailand? Nope! No mistake here my friend. Believe me, there are some really gorgeous beaches that dot Taiwan's coast and the most beautiful (and popular) ones are located at the southernmost tip of the island, in and around Kenting National Park.
Note: Kenting is sometimes spelled Kending.
IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT ACCOMMODATION... (Seriously, this part is crucial!)
Book your hotel before you get there, especially if you're going to visit the area during a weekend or holiday! You do not want to waste your time driving or walking around looking for a place to stay there. I always reserve my rooms on HotelsCombined.com and I recommend you do the same if you want the best rates. If you do visit during a peak period and you end up stranded without a bed and everything is fully booked, your best chance will be to look for a room in Hengchun, the town north of Kenting Village.
If the weather is your main concern, do not worry - Kenting has good weather year-round. Still, keep in mind that typhoons are frequent during the summer months and most beaches are closed on those occasions. Also, just like other popular places around the island, expect a gazillion Taiwanese tourists on holidays, and for that reason, I prefer visiting Kenting and the beaches in the area during quiet weekdays only. I seldom travel here on weekends nowadays.
Baisha Beach (Baishawan)
My favorite one is (use to be!) Baisha Beach, located in the quiet Baisha Bay (not quiet anymore!) about 5 km away from Kenting. By the way, bai means white and sha means sand. I like it because it's removed from the hustle and bustle of Kenting town, it's free, long, clean and you can even camp on the sand at night or have a barbecue without worrying about being kicked out.
There's a campground and some vendors at the entrance of the beach, at the southern part of the bay, where you can shower, buy drinks and rent beach umbrellas.
To visit this Taiwanese jewel, head north toward Hengchun on Kenting Rd (for about 2 or 3km) and turn left at the 7/11 (road 153). Follow the sign that says Maobitou or Fishing Harbour. It helps if you have your own scooter or car. Otherwise you can hitchhike or take a bus from Hengchun bus station.
Update 2016: Thanks to the KMT party's push since 2008, it is now incredibly easy for Chinese from the mainland to enter Taiwan both with tour groups or as independent travellers. Baisha Beach in Kenting is one of the places that's been destroyed to accommodate thousands (yes, thousands) of Chinese tourists. Baishawan is no longer on my list of places to spend quality time around Kenting. Really sad.
Update 2017: Tour groups from China have drastically decreased, and Baisha beach is not as crazy as before. Check it out and let me know how your experience was.
You won't have any difficulty finding the other beaches along Kenting Rd. As you drive around the peninsula (the tip of the island) you'll pass about a dozen parking lots where you can stop and it's usually only a short walk to the shore. Try Nanwan beach if Baisha is too far for you.
Nanwan is the busiest beach in the Kenting area, it's the big, busy bay that you'll see by the road as you pass Hengchun, just a few minutes before you enter Kenting town. It's busy, noisy, a little dirty, but it offers the convenience of hotels, restaurants, a 7-11, as well as 2 scooter rental shops right in front of the sea.
Many visitors who don't have their own transportation opt to spend their whole vacation in Nanwan as everything needed is within walking distance. That being said, it IS extremely busy and there is even a nuclear power plant right on the northern edge of the bay, as you can see on the following picture...
Just to confuse things a bit, Nanwan means "South Bay", but it is located north or Kenting town.
If you're a surfer, your visit to Taiwan won't be complete without a trip to Jialeshui. It is considered by many to be the top place on the island for surfing. You can rent surfboards at one of the little surf shops nearby the beach. There are also some camping spots available by the parking lot.
(Update 2016: It is no longer legal to camp at Jialeshui, but few people still pitch their tent once it gets dark. By any means, keep a low profile, don't make a fire, and keep the volume as low as possible if you still decide to camp there.)
If you don't want to camp, but would still like to stay in the area, you could spend a night at Relax Easy Guesthouse Kenting, which is just outside of Jialeshui, along the main road that takes you back to Kenting. Another amazing option, where I stay most of the time I travel to Jialeshui, is Winson's Hostel.
For some of the best - and extremely cheap - seafood, head for Houbihu Fishing Harbor. Follow the directions to Baisha beach (explained above), then follow the signs to the harbor.
There are so many places to eat in Kenting. You can have Chinese, Thai, Italian, Tex-Mex, Mongolian BBQ, Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC... Just walk around and browse the menus on display by the main road.
Take a look at this page where I listed my own favourite restaurants / food stands / cafes in and around Kenting and Hengchun.
The past few times I went down south to visit the beautiful beaches around the southern tip of Taiwan, I was shocked to see the huge amount of new hotels, hostels, guesthouses, and BnB that now line up the road in Hengchun. As Kenting is getting more expensive and crowded, it seems like everyone wants to stay in Hengchun. Check availability and prices for a hotel now if you don't want to have to drive back to Kaohsiung to find accommodation.
Kenting Street turns into a mega-huge, crazy-busy nightmarket at night. You'll find cheap souvenirs, T-shirts, snorkeling gear, swimsuits, sunglasses, iPhone covers, wallets, hand-made jewellery, and all the typical, useless gadgets that are usually sold at beach resorts.
If you need to buy more useful products (like BBQ equipment), head up north to Hengchun town where there is a wide array of "normal" stores which cater to the locals needs, not just tourists.
In Kenting town, there are quite a few bars / lounges, and even a place or two where you can dance your way late into the night. Just walk along Kenting Rd after dusk and let your senses guide you. The liquor store has some nice surprises, and yes, you are allowed to open a bottle pretty much anywhere you want - on the road or at the beach.
Outside of town, options are limited but they exist. Eluanbi has cold beer, beetle nuts, hard liquor and cigarettes. Hengchun is the place to go for KTVs. If you plan to spend the night under the stars in Jialeshui, bring your own juice. There's a place that sells beer but it's overpriced, and they close very early.
If you visit Taiwan in April, make sure you don't miss Spring Scream Music Festival. This massive outdoor musical event features bands both from Taiwan and overseas. Last time I went in 2013, it lasted 4 days, there were around 300 bands playing on 8 stages, and the ticket was 1500NT$.
The bad news for those of you who want to visit Taiwan's southern part is that the train doesn't go all the way down to Kenting - it will only take you as far as Kaohsiung.
Another option is to take the train to Kaohsiung, and then take a local bus to Kenting. Buses leave frequently from Kaohsiung train station. At Kaohsiung train station, just walk outside and you'll find a couple of private companies that offer shuttle / bus / taxi transportation to Hengchun, Kenting, and Jialeshui, for all range of prices. Cheap equals slow and uncomfortable. More expensive equals fast and comfortable.
Kaohsiung HSR Station to Kenting
There are also buses linking the HSR (High-Speed Rail) station in Kaohsiung to Hengchun and Kenting. There are English signs at the HSR station and you'll have absolutely no problem finding your way to the bus stop.
I only have 3 words for you: GET A SCOOTER!
There is no better way to travel around Kenting and explore the little beaches surrounding the southern tip of Taiwan than on a scooter. Here are the reason why:
There are also local buses which link Hengchun, Nanwan, Kenting village, Eluanbi, Sail Rock, Jialeshui, and Manzhou. Buses are only a couple of dollars and are a great way to meet locals and travel at a slower pace.
Hitchhiking in Kenting?
It's not 100% safe (like eating steak or pretzels), but it's fun, free, and IT REALLY WORKS! I've hitchhiked dozens of times all over Kenting and the southern tip of Taiwan, early in the morning, late at night, even at 3am, and I've never had any issue. You can hitchhike pretty much anywhere in Taiwan - except on highways. No better ways to meet locals, and practice your Mandarin!