Big brother China sits next door, Japan is to the north, and the rest of Asia a short jaunt away – so, why Taiwan? The food to start with – but the mountains, hot springs, delicious teas, and friendly window into both Chinese and indigenous cultures are nice perks too.By Michael M. Clements
Asia is synonymous with sprawling urban centers fueled by world-class vibrant economic hubs. Taipei isn’t as supercharged as Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur; but, in many ways, that is part of its charm. Life zips nimbly by in Taiwan’s capital city like the ever-present scooters, which are as much a part of its culture as the soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung (No. 194, Xin Yi Road, Sec. 2). But the city has a quiet side too. Stroll along a riverside park and you’ll see septuagenarians idly sipping tea under the shade of a sleepy sub-tropical tree as the breakneck pace of life unfolds around them.
Beijing and Shanghai might be current beau monde Asian hot spots, but travel in the PRC can be frenetic and taxing. And have you ever tried to find your way through Tokyo’s tangled underground system? Headache! Not so in Taipei. The city is easy to navigate, drivers (mostly) follow traffic rules (even the scooters), the air is breathable, and there is order … and democracy.
Taiwan has a long history of immigration and colonialism; with each wave, it has adapted. The Han Chinese influence currently permeates style, cuisine, communication, and built environment. But unlike the PRC, which continues to redefine itself following the cultural revolution, traditional Chinese arts and customs have survived in Taiwan uninterrupted. Still, the country isn’t defined solely by its Chinese roots; it has Western, Japanese, and indigenous cultural influences as well. Taiwan’s democratic ideals and close ties with Asian neighbors means Japanese cuisine, fashion, and “J-Pop” music are as pervasive as high-end Italian restaurants, McDonalds, Gucci, and hip-hop, creating a uniquely flavorful, cultural, and less commercial Asian travel experience.
Any trip to Taipei should include the National Palace Museum and The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. You can’t understand what Taiwan is today without understanding where it came from. The museum has 650,000 works of art and antiquities dating back to 1400 B.C. but only shows 3,000 pieces currently. Chalk out a minimum of four hours to absorb as much as you can in the world’s most extensive and preeminent collection of Chinese cultural artifacts. While there, stop for tea at San-hsi-t’ang Tea Room, located on the fourth floor of the main exhibition building, or consume edible replicas of two of the museum’s most famous items – the Jadeite Cabbage with Insects and the Meat-Shaped Stone (both Ch’ing Dynasty, 1616-1911) – during dim sum at Silks Palace. This high-end restaurant is operated by Taiwan’s top luxury property developer, Formosa International Hotels Corporation. Reservations are recommended, even for lunch.
Just as fascinating, but with a modern twist, is Taipei 101. The pointed tower is an engineering marvel and must see. It also houses the luxury brand boutiques we’ve all come to love. However, the items are just as expensive (if not more so) than in the U.S. – Taipei 101 is no bargain shopper’s paradise. What is amazing, is the view and the elevator, which rockets visitors from the fifth to the 89th floor in 37 seconds.
Eat, sleep, party
Some of the best Chinese food in the world can be found in Taiwan. Most visitors first stop at Din Tai Fung (which you can also find in Los Angeles). Order the xiao long bao “soup dumplings,” sample the pork and vegetable shumai, drink Taiwan Beer, and worry about your diet later. There are a plethora of dining options in Taipei. Focus on those serving dumplings or beef noodle soup, and you won’t be disappointed. Gems abound, like local favorite Hunan-styled Peng Yuan Restaurant. Street food is a must try as well. Don’t miss the street samplings at popular tourist destinations Snake Alley and the Shilin Night Market.
High-end dining in Taipei is still developing – there’s almost no mention of Taipei in Fodors; but who needs a Michelin Guide when there are so many delicious local restaurants to sample? Sonoma and Cha Cha The’ hold their own with discerning foodies. The latter is notable for its tea collection. Like wines in France and whiskies in Scotland, tea is serious business in Taiwan. There are countless locally-grown varieties, including notably darker teas such oolong. Search them out – they are delicious and make perfect travel gifts for friends and family. You’ll never drink Lipton again.
Nightlife in Taiwan is active but lacks the voguish mania of Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Shanghai. That’s all right – it also lacks the pretension and inflated drink prices. For a chilled lounge with top-notch cocktails and DJs, try Barcode near Taipei 101. For the full-on club scene, there is the venerable Room 18. If you’re an under-30 bottle service type and feel like a night of lemon drops, canto-pop, and hip-hop then Spark is right for you. Wednesday is ladies night – work it!
Taroko National Park
It would be a shame to spend one’s entire trip inside restaurants, nightclubs, and museums. Taiwan’s mountains and miles of Pacific coastline offer perfect weekend escapes. Taroko National Park is a popular destination. To get there from Taipei, hop a one-hour flight to Hualien City then take a breathtaking 45-minute car trip into the mountains. The Grand Formosa Taroko, run by the same hotelier as the Grand Formosa Taipei, is nestled into a scenic mountain valley next to the Liwu River. It is the most luxurious accommodation and spa in the park. Taroko has something to see all year round. Favorite spots include the colorful rocks of Shakadang River, Lotus Pond, and the Bilyu Sacred Tree. Don’t forget your hiking shoes and camera.
The Road Less Traveled
To experience local culture, head to Taitung in Taiwan’s southeast corner. Travelers can fly from Hualien to Taitung in less than an hour or opt for a scenic but bumpy five-hour jaunt down the Hualien-Taitung Coastline Highway. The route has numerous places to stop and enjoy the beaches and waves of the Pacific. It also gives travelers a chance to see the country’s local side. Stop in the small towns and villages along the way to sample regional cuisine and culture.
After spending the night at the family-friendly Hotel Royal Chihpen – regrettably the “Thomas the Train” and “Barbie” theme suites were booked – I headed over to Taitung’s municipal gymnasium for the Ilisin harvest festival. Each summer, hundreds of Amis (one of 14 officially acknowledged indigenous groups in Taiwan) take part in a centuries-old gathering and purification dance. Their smiles indicate how proud they are to keep the customs and language of their ancestors alive in the face of rapid modernization around them. The locally-brewed rice vodka helps lift spirits as well.
An Artist’s Life
“This is the real Taiwan. It’s what Taiwan used to be before the shopping complexes and modern construction came,” says Matrico, who lives in Atolan Village, an artist’s commune in the village of Dulan, an hour drive north of Taitung City. He stands on the patio of a rundown tin-roofed cinder-block building, which serves as Atolan’s de facto café and social center. Inside, small folding stools circle five mismatched tables placed on a smooth cement floor. With Bob Marley songs playing nonchalantly in the background, I order an iced mocha. I notice a book on the table, pick it up and begin to read. A shirtless man with Maori-esque tattoos stretching shoulder-to-shoulder approaches. He holds the butt of a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand and a book that looks like the one I’m reading in the other. “I am Alien. This is my book,” he says with a toothy grin that exposes a red betel-nut-stained mouth. He points to the page I’m viewing and translates some of the Chinese characters on it. I’ve just met the Robert Mapplethorpe of Taiwan. The book, odd sexual references aside, would be an instant hit at an edgier U Street gallery. I buy one for US$7. He signs it “I am an alien of Asada who only worships myself.” So artistic!
For those looking for Zen close to Taipei, the hot spring town of Beitou is highly recommended. There are a number of hot springs resorts and spas in the area, but the crown jewel is Villa 32. Here, next to peridot green steaming geothermal hot springs is one of Taiwan’s best kept secrets – a 6,000-square-meter open air pubic hot spring and ultra-exclusive five-room resort. The style is Japanese country home mixed with a modern design aesthetic built around the elemental themes of wood, stone, and water. It is clean and simple, yet über sophisticated and inviting. At a time when so many boutique hotels offer austere minimalist contemporary encounters, Villa 32
captures the essence of reductionist luxury in a form that is part jet-set, part pampered spa, part home, and part hideaway. Two rooms are Japanese style, three are European. I recommend a Japanese room ($600 night). As I soak in one of seven different pools of fresh geothermal mineral water and reflect back on a journey that took me across Taiwan and back; one word keeps coming to mind – authentic.
THINGS TO DO IN TAIPEI
1. Go to the top of Taipei 101
2. Eat at Din Tai Fung
3. Explore a night market
4. See the National Palace Museum
5. Tour Yingge Ceramics Museum and “Old Street”
WL TRAVEL TV VBLOG!
Explore almost all of Michael’s experience over video! Click below for short vignettes of his travels in Taiwan!
We walk the shopping districts and hop a ride on The Taipei Rapid Transit System, also known as the MRT (“Mass Rapid Transit”)
The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park opened in 1987. It contains not only the memorial but also the National Concert Hall and the National Theater. The park covers a space of 24 hectares, with a wide open plaza. It is surrounded by a long white wall topped with small blue tiled roof forming a long hallway which wraps around the park. You can find a variety of interesting historical artifacts relating to the life of Chiang Kai-shek.
For those looking for Zen close to Taipei, the hot spring town of Beitou is highly recommended. There are a number of hot springs resorts and spas in the area, but the crown jewel is Villa 32. Here, next to peridot green steaming geothermal hot springs is one of Taiwan’s best kept secrets – a 6,000-square-meter open air pubic hot spring and ultra-exclusive five-room resort. The style is Japanese country home mixed with a modern design aesthetic built around the elemental themes of wood, stone, and water.
Atolan Village is an artist’s commune in the village of Dulan in Southern Taiwan. It houses a small cafe and gift shop, where local artists, who have studios on site, display their art. The work is both traditional, and surprisingly modern and contemporary. Def some gems can be found here for art enthusiasts looking for non-commercial/tourist Taiwanese art. Most of the artists are not han-Chinese. They are from local Amis tribes.
Each summer, hundreds of Amis (one of 14 officially acknowledged indigenous groups in Taiwan) take part in a centuries-old gathering and purification dance. Their smiles indicate how proud they are to keep the customs and language of their ancestors alive in the face of rapid modernization around them. The locally-brewed rice vodka helps lift spirits as well.
Lotus Lake a man-made lake and popular tourist destination on the east side of Tsoying District in Kaohsiung City in southern Taiwan. Opened in 1951, it is famous for the lotus plants on the lake and the numerous temples around the lake, including the Spring and Autumn Pavilions, the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, and the Confucian Temple.
The pointed Taipei 101 tower is an engineering marvel and must see. It also houses the luxury brand boutiques we’ve all come to love. However, the items are just as expensive (if not more so) than in the U.S. – Taipei 101 is no bargain shopper’s paradise. What is amazing, is the view and the elevator, which rockets visitors from the fifth to the 89th floor in 37 seconds.
The Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum is a museum presenting the best of Taiwanese ceramics. The permanent exhibits present five major themes: Traditional Pottery Techniques Hall, Once We Were: Development of Taiwan Ceramics, Pottery Town: History of Yingge, Shuttle Through Time: Prehistoric/Aboriginal/Contemporary Ceramics, Future Prediction: Industrial and High-tech Ceramics.
In a city bustling with life, the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei hotel offers an elegant blend of traditional decor and contemporary comfort. Situated in the Zhongshan District in the heart of the business, shopping and cultural districts, our luxury Taipei hotel’s location is a short five minute walk from Chung Shan MRT station, connecting you to all the attractions of Taipei.
Taroko National Park is one of the seven national parks in Taiwan and was named after the Taroko Gorge, the landmark gorge of the park. It spans the counties of Hualien, Taichung, and Nantou on the island of Taiwan.
This trippy clip follows the flight of colorful balloons at the opening ceremony of the World Games in Kaohsiung, 2009.
The sport of canoe polo on Lotus Lake at the World Games in Kaohsiung, 2009.
Your dreams realized when you book the Hello Kitty suite at Grand Hi-Lai Hotel in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, you get to use the Hello Kitty car. I’m pretty sure this is a vintage Mini.