Musical performance at National Center for Traditional Arts
The plan of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau to develop the annual Taiwan Cycling Festival as a national effort to draw both domestic and international visitors to the island nation’s scenic countryside as recreational tourists was demonstrated to positive effect in early November during the 2013 edition of this growing nine-day event.
Those who ventured from Taipei to enjoy cycling races in the countryside learned much about Taiwan beyond its passion for two-wheel pedal bikes. The venues discovered during cycling events ranged from Hualien in eastern Taiwan’s Yilan County seashore to the spectacular Taroko Gorge and National Park to Sun Moon Lake in Taichung County. Cycle touring sites included other “Formosa 900” starting locations such as Kaohsiung City in southern Taiwan and Yuanlin Town near the country’s west coast.
Our Taiwan Tour Manager Peter Lee, who graduated from the University of Southern California and doubles as a translator for the Taiwan Tourism Bureau while serving as an expert licensed tour guide, shared many insights of his country’s people and history. Much of the information was little known either to first-time visitors or those whose previous experience of Taiwan was limited to the business hub of Taipei.
Lee explained that a new 8.4 mile mountain tunnel, built at a cost of US$8 billion to cut through the mountains, was completed a few years ago to enable people to live outside Taipei and commute more easily from homes in the countryside to jobs in the capital. We learned that Taiwan, an island of just under 14,000 square miles, or about one-eleventh the size of California, is dotted with hot springs, spa towns and wellness hotels that qualify this as a serious destination for health spa tourists.
Food court at National Center for Traditional Arts
Taiwan’s Aboriginal Tribes
Most impressively was the discovery that about 14 tribes of aboriginal native Taiwanese were the original inhabitants of the island, pre-dating the arrival about 300 years ago of the Han Chinese from mainland China. While Han Chinese now comprise about 98 percent of the population of Taiwan, many aboriginal tribes are still represented in Taiwan, especially in the mountains to the east and the Sun Moon Lake area in the west where cycling festival events were designed to spotlight their cultures. We learned about the Hakka tribe, which still has a visible active presence in Hualien and Yilan County, and the Thao tribe, whose members are the original surviving settlers of the Sun Moon Lake area in the lakeside village of Ita Thao.
Some of Taiwan’s history can be experienced in a short visit to the National Center for Traditional Arts (NCTA) in Wujie Township in Yilan County. This is a historic amusement park where the focus is more on history than amusement. Here traditional culture, food, entertainment, and craft-making demonstrations are the attractions instead of thrill rides.
There is a traditional street with shops where artisans create and sell their goods from jewelry to art pieces and clothing. A food court surrounds a Taiwanese water garden, and the Dongshang River runs through the park. Musical shows, one of which was performed during our visit, describe the history of Taiwan in colorful, traditional songs and costumes. Across the river traversed by footbridges a farm and Taiwanese villa can be visited. Entry to the park, where lunch and snacks can be enjoyed at numerous vendor shops, is US$5.
One of the most comfortable hotels we visited in the Taiwan countryside was the 251-room Evergreen Resort Hotel (www.evergreen-hotels.com/branch/jiaosi) in Jiaosi, a stop in Yilan County on the way east to Hualien. Jiaosi is a hot-springs resort area and our guestrooms included Asian-style hot tubs and seating areas. The hotel has warm hot spring pools, an extensive health treatment spa, and traditional performances of Taiwanese songs on some evenings, all in a modern hotel setting. Wi-Fi and buffet breakfasts are included with the room rates, which at this writing start from US$245 per night at online travel sites.
Evergreen Resort Hotel guestroom
Country Hotels and Dining
Another accommodating property was Yoou Shan Grand Hotel (www.yooushan-hotel.com.tw) in Puli, located in Nantou County in central Taiwan. The property has a spacious gym and outdoor pool, as well as a revolving rooftop cocktail lounge with welcoming servers and vertical floor to ceiling windows. A rooftop garden patio nearby affords views of Puli and the surrounding countryside. The breakfast buffet here was generous and included in room rates starting from US$250 per night in the hotel’s brochure.
Two of our tastiest Taiwanese restaurant meals were enjoyed in countryside settings. One was in the restaurant of the Leader Buluowan Village in the Taroko Gorgo National Park. Along with spectacular views of the mountain gorge were servings of traditional Taiwanese aboriginal dishes such as boar sausage, wild vegetable soups and salads, baked mushrooms with herbs and bamboo tubes stuffed with glutinous rice. An outdoor flower garden with dancing butterflies attracted visiting photographers.
Traditional lunch in Leader Buluowan Village Restaurant
Another memorable meal was in the Fleur de Chine Hotel (http://en.fleurdechinehotel.com) located in the town of Yuchi overlooking Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County. The dinner buffet in the very popular hotel restaurant featured Italian, Japanese, American and Taiwanese food sections with chefs responding to individual requests at sushi, carving and dessert stations. It was difficult not to overeat, but still possible to be very happy after this sumptuous feast that attracted Taiwan Cycling Festival participants and spectators from miles around. Deputy General Manager Claudia Cha and her staff at the Fleur de Chine welcomed us and provided splendid hospitality.
Dumpling chefs at Din Tai Fung in Taipei 101
|Taipei 101 soars into the clouds.|
The Regent Taipei
A high-speed ride on the Taiwan National Railway from Taichung took only 90 minutes to reach Taipei at speeds approaching 186 miles per hour at a ticket cost of about $75 per person. The high-speed rail service, opened five years ago, races up and down the west coast of Taiwan with eight possible destinations between Taipei in the north and Kaousiung City in the south of Taiwan.
Once in Taiwan our welcoming hotel was the Regent Taipei (www.regenttaipei.com/en), a five-star member of the Regent luxury hotel chain. Duty Manager Jamie Lin and her staff provided a warm welcome offering assistance with any travel needs. Our oversized guestrooms were fitted with minibars, neutral colors and dark wood decor designed with business travelers in mind. There was a relaxing window view of the city skyline above and a green park below, and the comfortable bathroom with walk-in shower, bathtub and luxury amenities tray added pampering details to the accommodation. The Regent offers a western and Taiwanese breakfast buffet that is among the most satisfying meals we found in Taiwan.
During two-plus days of sightseeing in the capital city our group visited several visitor highlights starting with the historic Lungshan Temple, Taiwan’s oldest built in 1738, and rebuilt in 1957 after an earthquake. The temple felt to this visitor like a Taiwanese version of Beijing’s Forbidden City on a smaller scale.
We next visited Taipei 101, the third-tallest building in the world and one whose summit was only visible sporadically in the cloudy weather we encountered. An elevator whisking visitors to the observation deck in under a minute is certified in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest. Although views from the top were difficult due to weather, an audio guide in English points out city highlights. A jade jewelry store on the observation floor with dazzling pieces at dazzling prices lays claim to being the highest jewelry store on earth.
The Michelin-star dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung, located on the ground floor of Taipei 101, was easily the best meal we experienced in Taiwan thanks to an engaging series of tender, tasty dim sum delivered in family-size bamboo steam containers. The plentiful succulent tastings of pork, shrimp, vegetable and fish dumplings led to a satisfying feeling of justified over indulgence.
Shopping at the Taipei night markets.
National Palace Museum
A visit to Taipei is incomplete without a visit to the National Palace Museum where, according to guide Peter Lee, about 650,000 pieces, mainly from Beijing’s Forbidden City, are housed with only a portion of the archives on display at any time. We were in time to see a special exhibition on the artistic treasures of the 18th-century Qing dynasty of China.
On a visit to New Taipei City, a suburb on the western outskirts of the capital, we enjoyed one of Taiwan’s famous foot massages, a soothing 40-minute treatment available in many retail spas throughout the city. We also experienced a hot springs bath in the Lulu Spa of the Hot Springs Hotel (www.springresort.com.tw), where one of 13 private bath rooms, providing a Japanese-style soaking experience, can be had for US$20 per hour.
Brand clothing and spicy street food can be found at bargain prices each evening in Taipei’s night markets which extend for several square blocks in the north end of downtown. One recommendation is to ask about the content of fast food selections served here before biting in. Adventurous eaters will love the experience, but neither the taste nor description of a meat or fish offering will always match what it appears to be at first blush. We enjoyed the desserts.
Weekday street scene in Taipei
Taipei Historic Sites
Two historic sites are worth exploring in Taipei. One is the Beitou Folk Culture Museum (http://www.beitoumuseum.org.tw/eng/main.asp), formerly a Japanese property known as the Jiashan Hotel and owned by a wealthy merchant as a private villa open to private guests. Built in 1921, this property gives keen insight into the Japanese culture in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation of the island from 1895 to 1945.
A second historic treasure in Taipei is the commercial district of Bangka and Ximending where government-protected merchant buildings from the early 20th-century Japanese occupation period mix with modern fashion shops, food markets, and music and cinema entertainment venues.
One recommended restaurant in Taipei is the Red Castle, a former military castle in New Taiwan City serving traditional Taiwanese favorites such as spicy beef with onions, tofu and fish soup and smoked salmon. It has an outdoor bar with relaxing patio furniture and river views. Another great choice is Ciba Restaurant in the Amba Hotel (www.ambahotel.com) in the Ximending area of western Taipei. The restaurant, themed after a traders’ outpost in the Far East, offers selections from cuisines around the world, including Asian, European and North American dishes. The food was fresh, tasty and a departure from all-Taiwanese cuisine.
The lesson of the 2013 Taiwan Cycling Festival is that the Republic of China offers more to visitors beyond the thriving commercial capital of Taipei. An itinerary exploring the mountains, lakes and seashores of Taiwan in combination with its gateway city can deliver a memorable Asian town-and-country experience.