I wanted to give Kenting a chance. I really did. Early this year, I floated the idea of going to Kenting for a beach-y getaway from Taipei. But when I could barely find any inspiring information online, we ended up in Okinawa instead.
Then in July, Kenting got a bunch of bad press. Its tourist numbers had plummeted in the first half of 2017 compared to 2016. People within Kenting’s tourism industry blamed declining tour groups from China and also domestic Taiwanese tourists who preferred to go overseas.
Strangely, hotel operators even extended blame to the government’s adjusted vacation policy and pension reform. Bit of a stretch, if you ask me.
Could things really be that bad down there? Turns out, yes. I recently spent three days in Kenting and Hengchun, and I can’t imagine ever going back.
The first problem with Kenting is getting there. It took 90 minutes on the High Speed Rail from Taipei Main Station to Zuoying Station (costing 6,000TWD for two). Then we had to hop on a 2-hour shuttle bus to get to Kenting itself. That’s about the same time and price as flying to Okinawa from Taipei on a low-cost airline.
The second problem with Kenting is accommodation. If you know this blog, you’ll know that we’re not backpackers, spring breakers, cycling enthusiasts, waterfall hunters, or cave dwellers. The whole point of this trip was to experience Kenting as boring tourists — we were looking to escape Taipei and enjoy a comfortable, fun stay by the beach. But after doing my research, I don’t think there would have been any option that would’ve inspired the thought, “I want to come back to Kenting.”
I’ll go through them quickly. I started by looking at the big resort options. There are three “5-star” options all along the main road: Caesar Park Kenting, Howard Beach Resort and Chateau Beach Resort Kenting. Caesar Park and Howard Beach are next door to each other and 5-minutes’ walk from the end of the night market. Both properties are extremely dated but the rooms at both have been renovated. They’re priced around the same during peak and off-peak seasons, and have similar negative comments on Google.
The third resort-style option is Chateau Beach Resort Kenting, a fellow “5-star hotel” that has access to its own private beach. The private beach sounds nice except guests are discouraged from swimming in the ocean unless they wear one of the hotel’s life jackets. And by the hotel pool, reviewers commented that people were smoking in the public areas and you’re required to wear a swimming cap in the water. I loathe swimming caps.
Two other places I was considering were Hotel de Plus and Gloria Manor. Hotel de Plus is all over Instagram — it’s where young Taiwanese hipsters are staying and getting their glamour shots taken. The rooms are around 3,000TWD per night and there’s no pool. It’s just a hipster hotel property on a nice, green hill. And of course, you need a rental car, scooter or bike to reach the night market or anywhere else.
Finally, Gloria Manor is located within Kenting National Park on the original site of Kenting House, Chiang Kai Shek’s vacation house in the south. The Gloria Hotel Group took over the property in 2012 and converted it into a luxury hotel with restaurant, pool and bar. It’s brand new, priced higher than the “5-star” options and it looks like a popular destination wedding spot. Thing is, there’s nothing “Kenting” about it. It’s just an isolated luxury resort.
I ended up picking Caesar Park Kenting for a few reasons: I wanted to be by the beach and get a sense of what Kenting has to offer. We wanted a hotel pool, be walking distance to convenience stores and food options, and not have to rent a car or scooter. Also, Caesar Park runs a daily free bus service from Zuoying Station, which we took both ways. More on our stay in Caesar Park below…
I booked Caesar Park for 3 nights at 4,200TWD/night through Hotels.com. Buffet breakfast for two was included. A couple of weeks earlier during school summer break, standard rooms were 7,000TWD and up, which is pretty ridiculous considering there’s very little about it that’s 5-star.
Across the street from Caesar Park is Little Bay Beach, shown in the second photo above. The beach has its own bar operated by Caesar Park, and no outside food or drinks are allowed. There are no toilet facilities down there either, and literally everything — from the wooden steps leading down to the beach, to the beach chairs and the umbrellas, to the rental jetskis — looks tired, faded or rusted. As if nothing has been updated, maintained or fixed since 1998. We spent no more than three minutes on that beach, so factoring it into our decision to stay at Caesar Park was seriously stupid. On the bright side, the sunsets are really nice.
The third problem with Kenting is the biggest: food. If you go to Kenting, I guarantee you will be hungry. There is almost nothing edible.
Our first meal at Caesar Park was their Garden BBQ dinner buffet. Total bust. Like the beach, the best thing about it was the sunset. The first sign of trouble was the fact that we were one of two or three tables that didn’t have dinner vouchers included with their hotel stay. So we actually paid 700TWD + 10% service charge for some of the worst cafeteria style food I’ve ever had. Even the Chinese dishes were bland and lukewarm. It’s no wonder there’s a mass migration of people from the two resorts to the night market every evening — the hotel food is so bad you have to supplement your meal with whatever you can find by the road. I tried to recoup some “value” by drinking three mini-cans of Sprite.
So what about this “famous” Kenting night market? We ventured over there on our first night, after the buffet dinner, along with the rest of the resort guests. It was a painful experience. The night market runs down each side of the the two-lane main road. There are large bins placed along the outside lane to indicate where pedestrians can walk. Meanwhile on the inside lane, scooters, cars and even buses still have right of way. You can imagine how horrific this is with people weaving through the traffic trying to cross the street in the dark. Not to mention young families with little kids and strollers.
Here’s a short video I took of the market scene before dark. You can see cars parked on the side, people in the middle of the street and traffic moving as usual. Just a general mess.
But back to the food. The food at Kenting night market has been criticized as being overpriced. However a bigger issue for me was the lack of variety and general trashiness of everything. There are plenty of questionable grilled meat and seafood stalls, as you’d expect, but the rest was mostly repetitive. I’m not saying they need cutting-edge food concepts, but why make it so hard for tourists to spend their money?
For instance, on the east side of the night market (closest to Caesar Park and Howard), there were four wood-fire pizza trucks within 200m of each other, presumably because whichever one was there first became popular then others decided to copy and park themselves right next door. Classic Taiwanese business model. In terms of sit-down restaurants along the road, the most common option was Thai food, not Taiwanese food. Then there were a handful of “bar trucks” and “bar vans” serving beer, shots and mixed drinks on the side of the road. The reggae music must be a hit with the spring break crowd. There was one single stall that had a line of people waiting for food. It was serving up piles of indigenous BBQ meat. Yes, that’s how famished people are in Kenting.
We went to the night market twice — once on Monday night when the resort was still busy from the weekend. The next time on Wednesday night when it was much quieter. Both times we stopped by 7-11 for drinks, then picked up a pizza on the way back from Pizza Swell, the pizza truck that had the most diners. The 10″ crispy thin pizzas were passable, cost 220-250TWD and cured our hunger pangs. Expectations were low.
The breakfast buffet the next morning was a total madhouse. Yes, people were still hungry. Asian options like fried vermicelli and sauteed vegetables were even sadder than the spread we saw at dinner. Who do they think is eating sloppy, cooked onion slices for breakfast? The bread options looked like they were picked up at 7-11 and unwrapped the night before. I ended up having a few of the McDonald’s-style pancakes and mini hash browns with some watermelon juice. I gave up after biting into a crunchy fried egg with eggshells.
The next afternoon, we made the decision to rent a car in search of a decent dinner. We booked a cute little blue Honda through the hotel tour desk. It cost 2,500TWD for 24 hours so we’d have it the next day as well.
The only conceivable option in my mind was Piccolo Polpo Bistro, an Italian restaurant with rave reviews on Google. I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be delicious Italian food for around 2,600TWD. We could have spent less, but I was worried where our next good meal would come from and insisted we order two appetizers, two entrees, then another appetizer, and finally dessert. We were seriously contemplating going back for dinner again the next night, but were told by an employee it’s closed on Wednesdays.
On our third day, we drove 15 minutes to Hengchun in search of lunch and coffee. On the way there, we passed by five or six sad-looking go-kart racing businesses. No doubt one of them was successful back in the 90s, and a cluster of clones quickly sprung up.
Our lunch destination was Kitchen Swell in Hengchun, a restaurant I found on Instagram with an open-kitchen upstairs and a bakery/gelato stand downstairs. There, I finally had a decent iced coffee and we enjoyed two pasta dishes, as well as a caprese salad (the mozzarella tasted Costco-like, but I wasn’t complaining). Even for a Wednesday — the quietest day in Kenting — the place was pretty busy for lunch.
You may have noticed the pizza truck I mentioned earlier was called “Pizza Swell”, and this place is “Kitchen Swell”. I thought it was weird too, and wondered if it was another copycat case. Turns out no. Our server at lunch said the owners of these two businesses are a married couple from Hong Kong, and they also run a bed’n’breakfast in Hengchun called Swell Inn. Coincidentally, I had also considered Swell Inn for our stay but decided against because it was in downtown Hengchun, not Kenting.
So the Pizza Swell truck at Kenting night market came first. When it turned out to be a hit, they opened the restaurant in Hengchun. Finally, the wife decided to open the B’n’B. She’s also an avid baker with a personal Instagram account where she posts photos of her freshly baked macarons, cakes and breads that you can’t buy or ever eat. Is it surprising that it took businesses owners from Hong Kong to create and run businesses where people actually want to spend their money? Sadly, no.
I will say it’s a shame that both of these tourist-friendly places serve Western food, not Taiwanese. In fact, I didn’t find any decent Japanese places in my research either. No ramen, no yakitori, no izakaya. A place we intentionally skipped was Houbihu Fishing Harbour. A plate of “cheap sashimi” for 100TWD just doesn’t sound sustainable. It sounds like a gimmick to me.
After lunch, we drove to the 3000 Brewseum, located in the middle of nowhere. It’s a local craft beer business with a spacious, industrial-style tap room and a one-room beer museum upstairs. Entry is 100TWD, which you can put towards any beverage.
Being Wednesday, we were the only people there. That’s the owner in the background of the photo. We were curious about the beers and wanted to chat, but he wasn’t interested. This is what conversations were like: “So when did you open this place?” we asked. “Last March,” he said. “Wow, so it’s pretty new,” we responded. “Not really.”
Or this: “Your beer must be popular with all the bars and cafes in Kenting,” we said. “Actually most people don’t know about us,” he replied.
I can see why they don’t know about you, sir. You refuse to talk about your business.
We picked up two random cans of beer with our 200TWD credit — of course he didn’t bother telling us about them — then we went on to our next location: the National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium. Yep, the aquarium. We killed an hour and a half there in exchange for the 450TWD per person entrance fee, then we drove through the National Park, over to the lighthouse where couples were taking a hundred selfies, and walked a hiking trail down to the ocean.
Before taking the car back to Caesar Park, we planned ahead to pick up burritos and a quinoa salad for dinner at a take-out stand in Hengchun: High High Burrito. We ate them by the pool then spent a few more hours outside since it was our last night in Kenting. The best thing about the hotel pool? You guessed it: the sunset.
The worst thing about the pool? There are two: all the missing tiles on the pool floor that they never bothered to repair, and this toxic-looking air conditioner unit above the only door that takes you back into the hotel. Seriously, why is that there?
So should you go to Kenting? Well, ask yourself this:
Have you ever set foot on a beach before? Have you ever stayed at a beach resort before? Have you ever experienced or enjoyed a night market anywhere in Asia before?
If you answered yes to any of those three things, you can feel free to skip Kenting.