Taiwan flies under the radar as a unique getaway option from Singapore, but there is plenty to experience on this small mountainous island. On a recent visit, KATIE ROBERTS discovered two destinations that deserve a place on your itinerary.
A direct flight from Changi Airport puts you in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei – at the northern point of the island – in around five hours. It’s well worth spending a few relaxed days here or using it as base for further exploration to the south.
What to do
Taipei is a buzzing, energetic city: there are temples, museums and shrines to visit, a thriving art district, wonderful food to try and markets aplenty. You’ll get a sense of the country’s chequered history and notice the influence of Chinese, Japanese and European cultures. The metro system, like that of Singapore, is efficient, clean and easy to navigate. Away from the crowds, a walk through the narrow back alleys is fun, with many chances to stumble on random street art, cute cafes, hair salons and jewellery shops.
Film buffs might like to check out an art-house flick at the Taipei Film House. Located in a historic colonial building that was once the US Consulate, it’s now home to a movie theatre, café, gift shop and regular film festivals. For a monthly “what’s on” guide, pick up the Culture Express pamphlet or visit cultureexpress.taipei (choose “translate to English”).
It might be touristy, but the landmark Taipei 101 – Taiwan’s highest building at 508 metres – is the place to get a bird’s-eye view of the city and surrounds. Like the rest of the island, Taipei sits within tree-covered mountains, and many of these areas – Yangmingshan National Park, for example – are easily accessible from the city and offer hiking, sight-seeing and great views (english.ymsnp.gov.tw).
Don’t miss the night markets (Shilin and Linjiang, to name only two) for dinner, snacks and the chance to rub shoulders with the locals, any night of the week. Or, plan dinner at the landmark Silks Palace restaurant after a visit to the National Palace Museum, and get stuck into Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisine, from affordable dim sum to a nine-course traditional feast. This is as authentic as it gets – I recommend the Champion Beef Noodles!
Where to stay
There are plenty of choices, but if you’re looking for value for money in the five-star bracket, consider the Regent Taipei. Centrally located, a 45-minute ride from the airport and five minutes from the MRT, the Regent offers quality international-standard accommodation.
Here’s what you can expect:
• A mix of room categories, including larger rooms to accommodate families. Rooms feature beautiful marble bathrooms, massive tubs (with rubber ducky!), fluffy bathrobes, Nespresso machine, cable TV and in-room snacks with a taste of local flavours.
• A huge buffet breakfast spread. Don’t miss the local option: a flaky shaobing pastry with scallions; sandwich a piece of grilled salmon inside and wash it down with warm soy milk!
• Spacious rooms in the exclusive Tai Pan Residence and Club on the 18th and 19th floors. These allow access to a private lounge with sweeping city views, and complimentary butler, Wi-Fi, snacks and happy hour.
• A selection of amazing restaurants and bars, which offer a choice of Chinese, Japanese, Cantonese and Western cuisines.
• The recently launched Regent Academy programme, featuring 10 guest experiences that offer an insight into local culture, history and lifestyle. Choose from a private cooking session with the Regent’s star chef, a walking tour of the old town, Dadaocheng, or, for wannabe performers, a voice lesson, song recording and performance with the hotel’s in-house band.
• An outdoor roof-top swimming pool. A gallery of international boutiques, from Hermes to Piaget to Tiffany and more.
• Indulgent treatments at the in-house Wellspring Spa.
Mountains and beautiful forests run down the centre of the island, providing many options for hiking, which is probably why it’s such a popular activity. Did you know there are 286 mountains in Taiwan with peaks over 3,000 metres? One easily accessible and not-to-be-missed destination is Taroko National Park, which boasts stunning gorges and trails.
What to see
The drive from the train station into the park is a jaw-dropping introduction to some world-class scenery, as the road snakes through gorges with sheer drops, which fall into the twisting and winding Liwu River below. Goats perch precariously on soaring ridges, seemingly comfortable with the vertigo-inducing heights.
There are numerous walks throughout the park – provided you’re armed with a map, most are easily self-guided. Taroko is a popular place for tour groups arriving on large coaches, but with some agile walking you can probably overtake the big groups and have the mountains to yourself. Many of the trails are under 4km, making them suitable for children. There are cascading waterfalls and swing bridges spanning the river gorges that everyone will love.
Trails to look out for include the Lushui-Heliu Trail, only 2km in length but an ancient walk that was once a hunting path for Taiwanese native aboriginals. It features views worthy of a National Geographic cover, with cliffs and waterfalls, and tunnels that comprise sections of the mountain thoroughfare built by the Japanese in the 1930s.
The Shakadang Trail is 4km long and offers stunning scenery and more views of the road and its ingenious construction; comparisons to the Swiss Alps are inevitable here. The short Swallows Grotto walk includes a swing bridge across the gorge that may set some hearts racing. Elsewhere, a 40-minute drive from the hotel rewards you with spectacular views from Qingshui Cliff and its sheer drop into the Pacific Ocean below.
Where to stay
There are some simple hostels and camping facilities within the park but by far the most comfortable option is Silks Place Taroko. Built in the 1960s to house foreign dignitaries, the hotel is minimalist and discrete, blending seamlessly into the environment. The hotel is located in tiny Tianxiang Village, once the crossroads of two important mountain passes.
While there are several trails to explore in the vicinity of the hotel, you may not want to leave! There’s a rooftop pool, with spa baths overlooking the gorge where you can sit in your swimmers and listen to the rushing water and – weather permitting – enjoy a starry, starry night. While couples will find seclusion and time out at Silks Place, it’s very well set up for families. Complementing the rooftop pool is an indoor basement pool with children’s pool, a huge games room, kids’ club, rooftop tennis court and aboriginal dance performances in the evening.
Of the different room types, I stayed in the Garden View Suite (in the Retreat wing), an enormous room with king-size bed, huge bathroom with massive tub, separate shower and toilet, dressing area, tea- and coffee-making facilities and, in the refrigerator, complimentary face masks!
Food is a highlight at the hotel and there are three dining spaces offering international and local cuisine. Ask about the traditional dishes and vegetables used by the tribes that once called this area home. The exclusive Retreat Lounge is open to Retreat guests and offers all-day drinks, afternoon snacks and breakfast. It’s a lovely space to chill out, with comfortable lounges, relaxed atmosphere, beautiful mountain views, and a fireplace for cooler evenings.
Tip! Independent train travel is simple in Taiwan. Signage is in English, tickets are easily purchased and distances are relatively short. We reached Hualien Station, a town near Taroko, in about 2.5 hours and at a cost of around S$20 – there are some great coastal views, too. From there, it’s about a 45-minute ride by taxi to the hotel.
Taiwan’s street food favourites Cruising the evening markets is an essential part of any visit to Taiwan. Indeed, many locals don’t bother to cook dinner at home because the street food is so good – and cheap. Taiwan has a thriving agricultural sector and much of the produce is home grown.
Don’t leave without trying:
• Scallion pancakes (scallions, or spring onions, are ubiquitous here)
• Oyster omelette with a local signature sauce
• Beef noodles by the Regent Taipei – a signature delicacy and winning dish at the 8th Taipei International Beef Noodle Festival (noodles are taken very seriously in Taiwan …)
• Taro ice-cream with shaved peanut brittle wrapped inside a crepe and topped with coriander. (Don’t even think about removing the coriander; you must try eating everything together!)
• Bubble milk tea with tapioca (non-tea options are available, too)
• Steamed dumplings (xiao long bao) – this is the home of Din Tai Fung, after all
• A pineapple pastry to take home as a souvenir
Looking for an adventure? Try a road trip in Western Australia