Taiwan’s stunning landscape is the result of constant geological activity over millions of years. Because of the continuing collision between the Philippine Sea Plate and the Asian Continental Plate, the island’s already impressive mountains are rising approximately four centimeters per year. Like other places located where tectonic plates push against one another, Taiwan occasionally suffers earthquakes. However, being on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” also brings one major benefit – an abundance of geothermal springs in which visitors can soak away stress.
Mineral-enriched waters warmed by the Earth’s natural heat percolate up to the surface at more than 100 locations around Taiwan. The precise total varies from season to season. Dry weather may cause an old spring to dry up, just as a landslide may reveal a new one.
Luxurious hotels have been built at some springs, allowing devotees to stay overnight and soak in the comfort of private suites. Others, by contrast, remain entirely undeveloped, and can only be reached by those willing to hike across rugged terrain. Every region in Taiwan is blessed with hot springs, so even if family or business commitments tie you to one city or county, adding a hot-spring experience to your itinerary should not be difficult to arrange.
From the international tourist’s perspective, Taiwan’s hot springs have certain advantages over their Japanese counterparts. Whereas segregation by gender and nudity are required at the majority of Japan’s famous onsen, swimsuits are worn at the majority of public hot-spring pools in Taiwan. Families can splash and soak together in these places, many of which are open-air and set against a backdrop of mountains and forests.
As in Japan, each hot-spring guest is expected to wash his or her body thoroughly before getting in the water. In many springs, the temperature exceeds 45 degrees Celsius, so before getting fully immersed, you should gradually acclimatize your body to the heat by scooping water and pouring it over yourself, then slowly lowering yourself in, one limb at a time. Many first-timers are surprised when told that after indulging in a hot spring, they should not shower before dressing, but rather let their skin benefit from the trace quantities of sulfur, sodium carbonate, and other minerals in the water.
Luxuriating in a hot spring isn’t the only fun thing to do in wintertime. Because crisp, dry weather is the norm, November to March also happens to be prime hiking season in Taiwan’s mountains. The highest of these, Jade Mountain (3,952 meters or 12,966 feet), happens to be Northeast Asia’s tallest peak.
Hiking is an activity that naturally meshes with hot springs, and visitors staying in Xinbeitou or Wulai – both of which are less than an hour from downtown Taipei – have an abundance of choices when it comes to trails. And for those heading to Guanziling in Tainan, there’s no better way of working up a pre-soak sweat than marching to the top of Mount Dadong, 1,241 meters above sea level.
During the Japanese colonial period, which lasted from 1895 to 1945, Guanziling’s turbid waters gained a reputation for being able to relieve fatigue and beautify skin.
Guanziling also happens to be where, on October 15 this year, celebrities, government officials, and members of the general public gathered to mark the passage of 300 years since the area’s hot springs were first mentioned in a written document. Between November 8 and the end of the year, Guanzi-ling is hosting a series of anniversary-related activities, including the tasting and sale of local fruit and coffee (grown in nearby Dongshan), feasts centered on barrel-broiled chicken (a renowned local specialty), plus attractive hot-spring-and-lodging packages.
These events are part of the 2014 Taiwan Hot Spring Fine-Cuisine Carnival (running from October 3, 2014 to January 30, 2015), which celebrates the pairing of top-notch food with the opportunity to pamper oneself in a natural spa. Bathers typically do not eat much before enjoying a hot spring, and so usually emerge with healthy appetites.
Other local events falling under the umbrella of the island-wide carnival are the New Taipei Wulai Hot Springs and Food Festival, the Nantou Hot Springs and Flowers Festival, and the Sichongxi Hot Springs Tourism Activity.
Wulai District covers more land than Taipei City, but because so much of it is mountainous, it has a mere 6,100 residents. A third of them are Atayal indigenous people, and for many tourists the area’s Austronesian culture and cuisine are a major draw.
Those on a budget will enjoy the free-admission public hot springs beside the azure waters of the Nanshi River. They are within walking distance of the main village, its restaurants and bus stop. If you are able to explore the district’s more remote corners, you will also discover excellent spots for birdwatching and butterfly appreciation.
Nantou is Taiwan’s only landlocked county, and should feature on the itinerary of all who visit the island for its unspoiled highland scenery, rich aboriginal culture, and charming leisure farms. Backed by the Nantou County Government and running from October 25 to February 28 next year, this segment of the carnival is being celebrated in two locations: Dongpu and the Beigang River Springs District.
Dongpu makes for an excellent overnight stop before exploring the New Central Cross-Island Highway, one of Taiwan’s most scenic high-altitude roads. The Beigang River Springs District is somewhat more accessible, being less than half an hour’s drive from the eastern end of Freeway 6.
Another good hot-springs location, Sichongxi, is located in Taiwan’s deep south, and is sometimes visited by those on their way to or from Ken-ting National Park. Like Guanziling, it was a renowned hot-springs resort during the Japanese colonial era, but it has never grown larger than a village. Located on Road 199 – along which you may well see more cyclists and Formosan rock macaques (Taiwan’s only species of monkey) than cars – it is an excellent base for exploring one of Taiwan’s most pristine regions.
Several of the hot springs joining the festival can be reached by Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Travel Service (www.taiwantrip.com.tw) or Taiwan Tour (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw), two bus systems tailored to meet the needs of visitors. Schedules, plus details of routes and fares, can be found on the websites.
For more information, visit the festival’s official website (www.taiwanhotspring.net; currently in Chinese only) or the ROC Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw). Alternatively, drop by any of the visitor information centers at each airport and major railway stations.
An excellent resource for those needing up-to-the-minute information is the tourism hotline at 0800-011-765. The hotline – with English, Japanese, and Chinese speakers answering the phones – is free for calls within Taiwan.