Taiwan's Taipei

Written by  Maria Lisella

Agents should advise their shutterbug clients to have camera in hand (or phone) as soon as they land in Taiwan because photo ops show up as soon as they leave the tarmac on the ride from Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport to the capital city of Taipei. The road is flanked by verdant hills with bouquets of Tung flowers spilling down like snow in May; marking the start of so many surprising delights from what the Portuguese called Ilha Formosa, or beautiful island. It has since been called other names, but Taiwan holds sway to this day.

People refer to Taiwan as “reaching for the clouds,” as it is one of the original Asian Tigers that experienced accelerated economic growth between the 1960s and 1990s. Slightly larger than the states of Maryland and Delaware, Taiwan’s leaf shape boasts a magnificent 973-mile coastline between the Pacific Ocean and the Taiwan Strait with some 21 small islands in its realm.
The classic journey travels from Taipei to the natural wonders of Taroko Gorge, past the Shrine of Eternal Spring, the Swallows Grotto and the Tunnel of Nine Turns, with stops at Bachi lookout, Baisan Caves, heading west to Kaohsiung, a burgeoning cruise port to shop at the Liuhe Night Market; arrive at the Chengkung fish harbor in time for the day’s catch for fresh out of the sea sashimi at the fish market; visit or stay in Taiwan’s ancient capital of Tainan and overnight at the Foguangshan Buddhist Monastery before boarding a hi-speed train back to Taipei.
Taipei may well be the most sleepless city on the planet: Bookstores (Eslite’s Dunhua S. Rd. branch), restaurants, teahouses, supermarkets, are open 24 hours a day. Taipei 101, now the second highest building in the world, houses Google headquarters on the 73rd floor. In the Hsin-Yi commercial district, a skywalk links one department store to another, a kind of zipline for shoppers. The business center at the The Regent Taipei hums all night; a stay at the Palais de Chine is a step into modern luxury next door to the Taipei Main train station that sweeps travelers to the coast.
First-time visitors will be captivated by the world’s finest collection of traditional Chinese art inside Taipei’s National Palace Museum-just 150,000 of its 650,000 objects are displayed. Feel like royalty at the San Hsi Tang tearoom on the fourth floor sipping the Emperor’s favorite concoction. An easy option for lunch is the Silks Palace Restaurant that designs its
Cantonese and Taiwanese dishes to look like artwork. The poached bok choy with mustard bears a strong resemblance to the “Jadeite Cabbage with Insects,” a piece of carved jade that was the dowry of a Qing-dynasty concubine. For dinner, consider booking the extravagantly eccentric Five Dime restaurant.

Layered with public art on sidewalks and vest-pocket parks, Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in the former City Hall, and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum features Taiwan’s best contemporary artists. Clear your thoughts at the waterfall in the Longshan Temple; appeal to the gods to make the right choices at the Huaxior Night Market, the oldest in the Manka area or at the Shilin Night Market, the biggest of the lot.
Dine on loofah squash dumplings at the Kingpin Restaurant two doors down from Wang De Chuan Tea, a boutique tea shop selling Taiwan’s highest-grown oolong. Delight in identifying the most fascinating shapes of rock formations you have ever seen at Yehliu Geopark: from the Queen’s Head (Nefertiti-like) to giant ginger roots rising out of the earth.
British anthropologist, Jane Goodall is a fan of the world-class National Museum of Prehistory in Hualien that documents the history of the 14 groups that energize Taiwan’s aboriginal culture.
Suggest a visit in tandem with the excavations at Beinan Cultural Park, Taiwan’s first Archeological Park that gave birth to the museum in 1988. Dine or stay at Leader Village Taroko to sample aboriginal cuisine in the most natural setting in the park. Spend the night in a “Retreat” Room at the Silks Place Hotel and start the morning off with a short walk to the highest Earth Buddha in the world.
Coastal art communities such as Dulan make use of Taiwan’s industrial past as a mecca of art studios jammed with driftwood from the Pacific Coast - much of it transformed by local artists from the Dulan and Amis tribes fill the abandoned Shin Dong
Sugar Refinery.
Slip into a hot thermal spring, one of the sybaritic pleasures the Japanese left behind. In town, shimmy into Taipei’s famous Beitou hot springs’ sites with fanciful names like Hell Valley, XinYi Road or Phoenix; or, leave town for Taiwan’s hot springs capital, Taitung County at the Royal Chihpen Hotel.
Taiwan is emerging from a tarnished image as it drove itself into the 21st century through heavy industry. It has transformed into a gentle Asian tiger that is no longer called Formosa, but whose beauty is inside and out.
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