I fell in love with Taiwan in 48 hours. During the pandemic, I’ve been dreaming of traveling to exotic places. Taiwan is on my short list of places I hope to visit again. Here’s how the country wow’ed me.
It was a whirlwind trip to a faraway land that had me yearning for more time in this country where ancient history so easily blends with modern technology. From the landscape to the food, Taiwan utterly surprised me as I did a 48-hour adventure exploring the country with Air Canada. Arriving about 10 p.m. at Gaia Hotel in Taipei, I was greeted with a wonderful cup of tea and delightful conservation as I checked in. I melted into the serene aura of this stunning tranquil retreat in Taipei, the country’s capital in the northern part of the island. I was escorted to my room by Annie, who checked me in. She gave me a quick tour of my room, which was huge by Asian standards, and showed me how to use the remote control since it’s all in Mandarin Chinese. As I was settling in, a pot of tea steeped in orange peels arrived. The art of tea and tea service are something I love about Asian cultures. Tea is intricate, yet simplistic. There’s a blend and reason for it any time of day. I drew a bath in my oversized soaking tub and sipped tea as I decompressed. I couldn’t pass up the tiramisu in my mini fridge as a sweet treat to send me off to dreamland.
The next morning, I got up early and went for a walk expecting to find the chaos common for most Asian megalopolises. What I found was a tranquility of the lush Beitou District. I found some hot springs, enjoyed watching some people doing tai chi in the park and strolled along a stream.
Once back at Gaia, I partook in the breakfast buffet sampling eats like fresh dragonfruit, noodles and pumpkin with a wonderful cappuccino. I couldn’t resist the tiny cheesecake bites that looked like works of art. After breakfast I met up with Air Canada’s group of travel agents and tour operators visiting from Denver, Colorado, and we set out for a day of exploring.
Our first stop was in Thermal Valley. With steam rising from the bubbling hot springs, it looks eerily like a witch’s cauldron. According to a legend from the indigenous Ketagalan tribe, it was where witches lived. “Beitou” means witch. The hot springs in Beitou are the only ones in Taiwan with a powerful sulfur smell. The green sulfur springs are extra special as Beitou is one of two places in the world with the rare type of rock called hokutolite. You can’t soak in the steaming waters of the natural hot springs in Thermal Valley, but you can walk around them and get a wonderful steam facial. There are other soaking pools in Beitou, including at Gaia Hotel, where you can soak in the therapeutic water.
From Thermal Valley we took a 45-ride into the mountains. Before this trip I wouldn’t have thought of it as a hikers’ paradise. But I quickly found that is exactly what it is. We made a quick photo-op stop at the picturesque Golden Waterfall. There’s not real gold flowing from these falls, but heavy metal elements deposited in the riverbed give the cascading falls a golden hue in stark contrast to the luminous green grass surrounding the falls. While they are beautiful to look at, the high toxicity makes it unsafe to even touch the water.
Our destination for lunch and a few hours of exploration was Juifen, a quaint seaside mountain town about an hour from Taipei. The former gold mining town is known for its narrow alleyways filled with teahouses, food stalls, cafes and shops. As I walked through the crowds filling Old Street, I marveled at the street food, especially the sea snails, cauldrons of tea eggs and sticky rice.
For lunch we retreated upstairs at Siidcha. I devoured my lunch of green tea over rice with salmon slices as I sipped a hakka lei cha, which is an earthy drink made from grains. The teahouse was a wonderful reprieve from the crowded streets. Plus, we had a stunning view of Juifen and the sea.
After lunch I wandered around the old town mesmerized by the colorful lanterns and teahouses precariously perched on the mountainside. A local showed me the town’s secret tunnel as I was walking down what seemed like an endless staircase lined with teahouses, lanterns and apartments.
As I walked through the colorful Fushan Temple. The 200-year-old temple is where miners would pray Tudi, the Earth God, would show them the way to a rich vein of gold. The temple is an interesting blend of Japanese, Chinese and European decorative styles including angels, dragons and sea creatures. Fushan is a “temple within a temple,” as a larger structure was built over the top of it in the 1930s. I ended my walk near the rustic hillside cemetery with gargoyles guarding the resting places of the deceased to ward off evil.
That afternoon I got to do something really special. I wrote a wish on a sky lantern and set it free along the railroad tracks in Shifen. People freely go back and forth across the tracks in between trains whizzing by the crowded shops lining the alleys of Shifen Old Streets in the Pingxi region, famous for its Sky Lantern Festival. The train station with tracks running straight through the village was originally built to transport coal during the Japanese era.
We dined at Golden Formosa, the first Michelin-star restaurant in Taipei. It opened in the 1950s and is now run by the family’s third generation. It felt like the dishes of classic Taiwanese cuisine kept coming. I tried jellyfish, fish skin, water snowflake, abalone, oyster and scallop pancakes, fish, shrimp, noodles and fried rice.
I ended the night strolling through the Shilin Night Market, the largest and most famous night market in Taipei. It dates back to the early 1900s. We only saw about 30% of this market with stalls filled with everything from clothes to games to strange looking fruits like bell fruits and bitter melons. For street foods like fried chicken steak, a Taiwanese delicacy, the lines are almost always long. In the center of the market is the Yangming Theater and Cicheng Temple. I did take a few quiet moments to explore the temple built in 1796. It’s filled with intricately carved pillars and exquisite tiles. The temple was originally built by Fujian settlers and is dedicated to the sea goddess Matzu, who looked over fisherman at sea. While I was in the temple, several descents of those early settlers prayed and left offerings of fruit and bread. I found it so interesting there was peaceful place of prayer in the frenzy of the night market.
The next day, I was an early riser again and set out on a walk that turned into a hike up a mountain. I relished the solitude and the scenery I as hiked a steep incline through the trees that transitioned into a steep incline of stone stairs leading to the top of Danfeng Mountain. The expansive view of Taipei was worth the effort. As I was hustling back to the hotel, I realized I never felt unsafe and was perfectly content with a morning outing alone. As we checked out, I was wishing for just one more night at Gaia Hotel.
We explore Yangmingshan National Park, one of nine national parks in Taiwan. As I stood looking at the volcano of Xiaoyokeng, I could hear the howling of the sulfur and bubbling of the earth in the hot springs. I was mesmerized as I watched the swirling sulfur cloud rise and float along the landslide scar of the dormant volcano.
I would have loved to hike some of the park’s trails, but we only had time for a quick stop before heading over to the beautiful flower gardens of CKS Shilin Residence Park. There are flowers everywhere and it’s free. I wandered through the traditional gardens filled with flowers like roses and orchids. I giggled at the whimsical floral displays like a giant giraffe playing piano.
For lunch we stopped in at Cha for Tea. I drank bubble tea as I ate vegetable soup, green tea vegetable steamed dumplings and noodles. I capped off my last meal in Taiwan with a slice of black tea pound cake topped with brown sugar.
During our last stop, I got lost in ancient Chinese history in the incredible National Palace Museum as I admired the curio boxes, stunning jade pieces and evolution of the patterns and details attributed to the Ming Dynasty. There are nearly 700,000 ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks housed in the museum.
It was an amazing 48 hours in Taiwan. If you’ve never been to Asia, Taiwan is a great first stop since it doesn’t have all of the hustle and bustle of other major cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Phnom Penh. If you’ve been to Asia before like I have, I bet Taiwan will be a pleasant surprise.
When she can after the pandemic, author Jennifer Broome plans to return to Taipei for more hiking and exploring. Check out blog on Gaia Hotel for more on the tranquil and luxurious accommodations. This Taiwan trip was included in a blog on Three Places You Should Visit: Vancouver, Taiwan and Santa Fe.