Tripping Around Taiwan
Article and photography by Susan Campbell
Truth be told, my recent whirlwind trip through Taiwan was an extremely over ambitious itinerary, there were just too many spots that deserved far more time to truly enjoy. But it did give me a kaleidoscopic overview of what this fascinating region has to offer, and a brief glimpse into their complex culture. So, here are just a few highlights if you’re considering a visit…
Taiwan’s capital city has a vibrant electric energy and deserves at least a week or more to explore. And I was surprised at how modern, clean, and in some cases very green the inner urban area was. I was also surprised at the dearth of factories. I had imagined it would be full of smoke-stacked structures due to its reputation as a manufacturing hub, but apparently the factories are scattered all around the country and mostly small family-run enterprises. Go figure.
Today, the city is a really happening place and the focal point is the iconic structure Taipei 101. No longer the tallest building in the world since it was recently dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, tourists still throng to this skyscraper named for its 101 floors anyway- where at the summit of 1,600 ft. you can get a fantastic panoramic view of the city. From there you can also easily spot Elephant Mountain- an urban oasis of nature with steep stairs up and hiking trails mere minutes away that also affords a great view of the city from the top.
The Taipei night markets are also a huge draw- especially for very adventurous foodies! Think oyster omelets, pig kidneys, barbecued squid and cooked snake beyond the famous noodles and dumplings. But be forewarned, if you’re sensitive to smell, the aromas of all those different types of street food cooking in the hot night air can be overwhelming. And stinky tofu really does live up to its name! But it’s worth it to wander through the carnival like scenes all aglow in neon and buzzing with a gazillion choices to eat, drink and purchase until the wee hours. Shillin Night market is the most famous, but there are many more peppered around the city. Then there are the temples.
You can’t miss these stunning structures popping up in striking contrast to the concrete jungle- all rainbow colors and amazing architecture adorned with intricate carvings and each boasting a complicated history. And though you might not understand the complexities of the religions, centuries of traditions, superstitions, and the curious practices going on within, everyone is welcome to participate- light a candle, give an offering, or try a good luck ritual in hopes of receiving better health, longevity and prosperity. Longshan is the most famous downtown temple, but there are many lesser ones worth a visit as well. For more in-depth understanding of Taiwan culture and history, there are many first-rate museums that offer guided tours in English.
Taipei is also chock full of cultural attractions like the modern design park, and there are burgeoning hipster neighborhoods like Dehua (Old Street) with trendy new cafes and shops sandwiched in between the export markets full of bulk goods. Contemporary hotels also abound; I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the Amba Songshan and the Citizen M Northgate, both within easy walking distance to night markets.
Penghu county is a collection of 90 islands located off Taiwan’s western coast. A short flight from Taipei brought us to the main port city of Magong just in time to attend their annual fireworks festival over the water. It was beautiful. I also loved the Pescadores Hotel, it was designed to look like a cruise ship and delivers surprising luxury for its location. This region is most famous for its fresh fish and seafood- and though I’m not a fan of either- those who are, will really enjoy the maritime based cuisine at places like the oyster farm. I did enjoy interesting plant-based dishes though like seaweed and loofa- yes, the same sponge we use in the bathtub! It’s actually a gourd that looks like a pregnant cucumber and is a popular side. You can buy them at the daily outdoor market along with all kinds of other produce and fish so fresh that sometimes they are still flopping!
Penghu’s most famous temple is right downtown called Tian Hou, it’s believed to have been established some four centuries ago making it Taiwan’s oldest. It’s small, but still an incredible explosion of color, smoke, incense even videos walls, and a hub of constant local activity, full of amazing intricate carvings at every turn and warmly welcoming visitors with big pink smiling “happy deities”. But I also recommend a visit to the fascinating 300-year old Banyan tree hugging Baoan Temple in Tongliang Village which creates a massive shaded canopy. Locals say it never grows taller than the temple roof out of respect. Fascinating.
I also enjoyed a visit to the West Fortress (replete with tunnels and huge cannons) and Er Kan Village- an old fisherman’s settlement now adorned with offbeat modern art and offering samples of local food like purple prickly pear cactus ice cream! Delicious! There’s plenty more to do there including boat trips to neighboring islands, and we did take a short one to Chimei for a tour to their famous fish trap hearts of stone in the sea- and a snorkel off their coast. And there is great diving to be had all around the archipelago apparently. But again, time was of the essence, and before we knew it we were back on a plane and off to the big modern city of Taichung.
Taichung Pit Stop
We hit the uber modern urban sprawl of Taichung for a pit stop to see the architectural marvel of their National Theatre building designed by famous Japanese architect Toyo Ito. Also, a must-do while in Taichung is to visit the Chun Shui Tang tea house- the spot where bubble tea was first invented, and you can take a class in how to make it from scratch, too! And of course, we sampled fine teas just about everywhere we went. But speaking of teas, Taichung has a gorgeous shop called Miyahara full of unique souvenir tea gifts that come in cool packages like album covers and book jackets, but what they are most famous for is their ice cream! There is usually a line-up down the street for their insanely huge sundaes (think almost the size of your head,) overflowing with crazy toppings like pineapple pastry or cheesecake, and the homemade ice cream comes in a unique variety of flavors- some 17 kinds of chocolate alone- and many made from teas as well. Worth the wait in line, and not too expensive either!
Sun Moon Lake Surprises
Next stop via bus was to a manmade lake in the mountains surrounded by a circular bike path – a very popular escape for family holidays. Though again, our visit to Sun Moon Lake was brief, we packed a lot into a day including a boat trip to the touristy port town Ita Thao full of street food and shops, and a cable car ride up the mountain to a big amusement park where we watched a cultural show and visited a recreated aboriginal village. Back at the hotel area we had a delightful lakeside dinner where I discovered another new favorite dish- pumpkin noodles! The next day we took the HSR (high speed rail- a real treat in itself) back to Taipei for a final night of urban revelry. We ended our whirlwind trip with a massive international and Asian buffet dinner at the magnificent Taipei Grand Hotel which included all-you-can-drink beer and all-you-can-eat Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Maybe not a local specialty, but seriously enjoyable all the same.
Air Canada has begun daily direct flights to Taipei from Vancouver making it easier than ever to get there for Canadians.
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