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Exploring Taiwan


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POSTED: Sunday, March 22, 2009

The best bet for exploring Taiwan is to settle into one of Taipei's world-class hotels and use the bustling city as a jumping-off point to tour the country's diverse regions. Choose between the five-star Grand Formosa Hotel, located within walking distance of several notable sites and high-end shopping. Or stay at The Grand Hotel Taipei, a traditional Chinese architectural gem, perched on a hill overlooking the city and just minutes from Shihlin Night Market, a “;must see”; on all Taiwan travel itineraries.

               

     

 

FLIGHTS AND HOTELS

        While many locals speak English in Taiwan, it's a good idea to have your hotel write the names of all the locations you plan to visit each day in Chinese so that in the event you run into a non-English-speaking taxi driver, you can simply show him your destination.
       

» China Airlines: Taipei is the hub for China Airlines and offers flights to virtually every location in Asia and beyond; www.china-airlines.com.

       

» The Grand Hotel: www.grand-hotel.org

       

» The Grand Formosa Regent Taipei: www.regenthotels.com/taipei

       

 

       

Spend your first day in Taiwan getting to know the Taiwanese culture. In the late morning, head to Longshan Temple, open daily in the heart of old Taipei, to marvel at the temple's renowned wood carvings, stone sculptures and ornate bronze work. A multidenominational temple, Longshan is consistently packed with hundreds of worshipers making offerings of fruit, incense and spirit money.

After visiting the temple wander outside the main gates to the left and get lost in old Taipei. Turn the corner and discover street side markets selling knickknacks, tea and delicious Taiwanese “;street eats.”; If you are up for it, walk about seven blocks, or take a quick cab over to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a massive monument erected in 1980 to honor the late president.

The monument features amazing architecture and a giant statue of the honored leader. Since Taiwan became a democracy in 1997 and the Nationalist party lost the election in 2000, fewer Taiwanese travel to the monument to honor Chiang but now come to enjoy the enormous park, making it one of the best spots for people-watching and to view firsthand the striking changes modern Taiwan has been through. At press time, there was much talk of the Taiwanese government changing the monument's name to “;Democracy Hall.”;

In the afternoon, take a break from Taipei's busy streets and escape to the world-famous National Palace Museum. Perched on a hillside with other ornate buildings on the outskirts of Taipei, the magnificent museum is home to some 620,000 treasures with pieces dating back nearly 5,000 years.

Even more fascinating than the elaborate artwork and artifacts are their stories. Many of the museum's most prized treasures ended up in Taiwan prior to Communist control of mainland China in 1948. When the change in power became imminent, the National party sent thousands of cases of treasures to Taiwan for safekeeping. The museum grounds are also home to several cafes and restaurants, including the renowned Silks Place restaurant, making this stop an excellent choice for lunch or a mid-day snack.

Finish your first day at the extravagantly original Five-Cent Driftwood House Restaurant, an enormous restaurant erected out of iron, clay, driftwood and stone in the form of two dancing Tao aboriginal girls. The earth-tone building designed by Taiwanese artist Hsieh Li-Shian resembles something Antoni Gaudi might have designed. Inside the massive restaurant, which seats more than 800 people, every inch of the building's surface is decorated. You will find several spiral staircases connecting the floors and a mini-lake complete with aboriginal canoes. The food at Five-Cent Driftwood House is a wonderful introduction to Taiwanese food and is all served family-style on handmade pottery created by Hsieh herself.

 

The charm of Jioufen

On your second morning in Taipei, preferably a weekday to avoid crowds, wake up early and take a half-day tour to Jioufen and the northeast coast of the island. If you are willing to spend a little extra cash, book a private driver through your hotel to take you to this unique historic mountain town. The tail end of the hour-and-a-half drive out of Taipei is along the rocky coastline of the East China Sea, past wind and sea chiseled rock formations in the two-toned coastal bedrock, be on the lookout for rocks that resemble actual images. Turn off from the coast and head up Taiwan's version of windy Lombard Street for 20 minutes until you reach the base of Jioufen nestled in the lush green mountainside.

Jioufen is the picture-perfect Chinese town one would only imagined existed in Hollywood. Plan to meet your driver at Geding Parking Area above the town so you don't have to backtrack though the town when you are done exploring. Spend the next hour or so working your way through the pedestrian-shop-lined street that winds its way up the hill. While there are many unique tea houses to choose from for lunch in Jioufen, seek out Skyline Tea House to give your feet a rest while enjoying a traditional Taiwanese meal overlooking a spectacular distant ocean view.

After a long day of sightseeing, return to your hotel and recoup for a few hours before heading out for a late dinner and tour of Taipei's infamous Shihlin Night Market. For dinner, make it a casual night and have your hotel direct you to one of Ding Ta Fung's three locations in Taipei. Cited by the New York Times in 1993 as one of its “;Best Restaurants in the World,”; Ding Ta Fung makes every dumpling to order. With a host of young, hip, attractive Taipei locals as your servers, Ding Ta Fung will not disappoint, serving some of the best dumplings in the world.

No earlier than 9 p.m., head over to the night market and get lost in all things Taiwanese. With a host of smells, tastes, and souvenir bargains, if you are only going to check out one market in Taipei, Shihlin is the one to visit.

 

Soak in a medical spa

On your last day, relax like the Taiwanese by checking into the spa at Chang Gung Medical Memorial Hospital. While visiting a spa inside a foreign hospital may sound questionable, the facility's sleek and immaculate decor rivals top resorts in the United States. Upon entering the spa, you will fill out a medical questionnaire, have your blood pressure taken and meet with a doctor licensed in both Western and Chinese medicine, who prescribes your unique combination of essential oils. From that point on, forget you are in a hospital and enjoy one of the best spa experiences in the world. Soak in a private tub of your prescribed oil mixture and then finish off with an hourlong massage that will leave you begging for more and questioning why we don't focus more on preventative healing back home.

In the afternoon, head to Taipei 101 for some serious retail therapy. With nearly 200 shops in the mall at the base of the skyscraper, almost every high-end designer is represented. The mall is also home to many restaurants and an excellent food court. When you need a break from shopping, head up to the observation deck at the top of the building for an astonishing 360-degree view of Taipei and, for architecture buffs, a glimpse of the world's only exposed mass damper, basically a gigantic ball of metal that hangs in the center of the building to minimize its sway.

If, after three days, you are still seeking more of Taiwan, extend your trip and pick your activity. With an enormous amount of geothermal activity there are many Japanese-influenced hot springs in the North, hiking around the picturesque Toroko Gorge in Hualien, romantic Sun Moon Lake in Taichung and beautiful white sand tropical beaches of Kenting on the southernmost point of the island. No matter which region you pick, Taiwan will continue to surprise you with its beautiful people, landscape and ever-changing culture.

 

Noel Pietsch is a Honolulu-based freelance travel writer and local business owner.