If you are the kind of person who prefers to focus on a smaller area but get to know it in real detail, Taiwan can be an exceptionally rewarding destination.
If you have only a few days in Taiwan and want to see as many of its gorgeous temples, engrossing museums, and breathtaking mountains as possible, signing up for a tour could be a wise move. But traveling long distances on a bus, with fellow tourists who spill out like soldiers storming a beach each time a stop is made, is not for everyone.
The Taiwan Tourism Bureau is promoting a series of International Spotlight itineraries, ideal for visitors who prefer walking and cycling to faster means of transportation, and who would rather acquire cultural knowledge than souvenirs; in other words, those who embrace the “slow travel” ethos.
The program hopes to encourage discerning travelers to go beyond obvious attractions like Taipei 101 and the National Palace Museum. In the words of the International Spotlight’s Chinese-Japanese-English website (http://intlspotlight.taiwan.net.tw), the key aim is “to let travelers get a sense of the lifestyle.”
This year, there are five regional programs plus two nationwide itineraries. Two of the former focus on the Taipei area. With a population of 2.7 million, Taiwan’s capital is big enough to contain everything a discriminating visitor might require, whether a wide variety of excellent cuisine, an invigorating foot massage, or coffee good enough to keep everything on track.
Getting from one side of the city to the other is quick and easy thanks to an ultra-efficient MRT (metro), good bus system, and inexpensive taxis. There is plenty to see and do: Fascinating art galleries, picturesque temples, bustling shopping districts, and a ring of mountains where hikers can find hot springs and fabulous birdlife.
The Northern Region I program highlights four districts of Taipei: Chengzhong, Dadaocheng, Da’an, and Beitou. All but Beitou are central, and in fact Chengzhong means “in the middle of the area surrounded by the city’s walls.” Taipei’s walls were demolished before World War I to make space for urban renewal.
Chengzhong has been dominated by government offices for over a century. But like Westminster in London, between the ministries lie culinary hot spots, an abundance of bookstores, and architectural-historic gems. Futai Street Mansion, Taipei’s old North Gate, and Zhongshan Hall are here. The last, built in the mid-1930s by the Japanese colonial authorities then ruling Taiwan to honor their young emperor, is now a concert venue bearing the name of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name). Tourists with a fondness for color and vitality will adore the nearby Ximending section of the city, where the young go to see and be seen.
In the late 19th century, Taiwanese oolong tea was in great demand in foreign markets, and Dadaocheng’s merchants grew prosperous supplying buyers as far afield as New York. Tea merchants still do business hereabouts, but it is the colorful stores on Dihua Street that best embody this riverside neighborhood’s traditional character.
Dadaocheng’s single most impressive building is devoted to religion rather than commerce. Bao’an Temple, a 200-year-old shrine where Taipei folk venerate a medicine god, is a treasure-house of art. The quality of its 1995–2002 restoration received an honorable mention in the 2003 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Conservation. If possible, visitors should time their visit to coincide with the Baosheng Cultural Festival held each spring. A stone’s throw away, Taipei Confucius Temple is an excellent place to learn about the philosophy that underpins the ancient culture of Taiwan’s Han Chinese majority.
Da’an District, two kilometers to the east, is noticeably more modern. Packed to the gills with stores and eateries, Da’an’s Zhongxiao East Road is Taiwan’s busiest shopping zone. Many excellent meals can be enjoyed in the compact Kang Qing Long neighborhood, so called because it includes Yongkang, Qingtian, and Longquan Streets. Here the streets are narrow and the buildings low-rise. Around every corner is an inviting tea house or secondhand bookstore. A branch – in fact, the original location – of acclaimed dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung can be found a few meters from the northern end of Yongkang Street.
The name Beitou derives from the language of the Ketagalan people, an Austronesian tribe that dominated the Taipei basin until the 18th century. They called this area “Paktaaw,” meaning “witch,” perhaps because of the spooky clouds of steam that rise from the area’s geothermal springs.
Invigorating hot springs can be enjoyed in more than a score of Beitou and Xinbeitou hotels, from the affordable to the super-luxurious. For an inexpensive hot-springs experience, head to Longnai Tang, a Japanese-era bungalow with two small indoor pools (one for men, one for women). Senior citizens soak here on winter afternoons; office workers come just before dinner.
To learn about the geological processes that created these spas, visit the Beitou Hot Springs Museum. The design of this hundred-year-old building was based on one of Japan’s most famous bathhouses, and the original bathing pool (no longer used) can be seen downstairs. It is one of very few buildings in Taiwan with stained-glass windows.
The Northern Region II program embraces Taipei’s Zhongshan and Datong districts, both of which offer much of what makes Taipei such a wonderful place to visit, including superb shopping opportunities and a splendid array of restaurants. The area also contains such attractions as the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, and the Lin Liu-hsin Puppet Theater Museum.
However, it is the further-flung elements of the program that will likely catch the most notice. In Xizhi, part of New Taipei City, visitors are introduced to the Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant. “Creative Taiwanese cuisine meets rustic tranquility” is how the Taipei Times summed up this revered establishment, noting that “the lush forest grounds… look more like a quiet spiritual retreat” than a conventional dining place.
Those who find the sheer variety of eating options in Taipei to be a burden will relish surrendering to the expertise of Shi-Yang’s chefs. Scrutinizing the availability and quality of fresh ingredients, they design multi-course set meals every bit as delectable as the surrounding mountain scenery.
Muzha, home to the Taipei Zoo and Maokong Gondola, is also where U-Theatre Ensemble performs at a hilltop venue reachable only by a steep footpath. This internationally acclaimed troupe has won rave reviews for mesmerizing drum-centered performances magnified by the natural setting.
For information about U-Theatre shows and other cultural events, plus all kinds of travel information, visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within the country).