The major metropolis in central Taiwan, Taichung, a city of 2.75 million people, now has a proper international airport, making it possible to fly there directly from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and various cities on the Chinese mainland.
Many travelers who decide to bypass the busier airports at Taoyuan and Kaohsiung go on to explore the island’s fascinatingly diverse central region by rental car. But driving is not for everyone, and those who would rather not get behind the wheel in a foreign environment will be delighted to know there is an alternative to taking taxis or coming to grips with public transportation.
The Taiwan Tour Bus system (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw) is a tailor-made network of bus expeditions to scenic and cultural spots throughout the country. These tours enhance the visitor experience by providing not only transportation, but also guides who introduce local sights in English, Japanese, and Chinese.
Downtown Taichung is rightfully known for its museums, fine dining, and other facets of urban sophistication. Not far away, however, delightful natural beauty can be found in the outlying districts of Dongshi, Houli, and Xinshe.
Departing from various hotels in Taichung, as well as from the city’s high-speed and conventional railway stations, the Dongshi Forest and Xinshe Tour is a very full day that begins with a two-hour exploration of Dongshi Forest Garden. This 225-hectare recreation zone is as much a nature reserve as a formal garden. Because pesticides are not used, and the foliage is diverse, tourists are likely to see an exceptional range of insects among the cherry, plum, and maple trees.
After lunch, the bus makes a short stop at Xinshe Farm before proceeding to Annie’s Garden. Anyone who loves flowers will adore both places. Next up is a quick look at Baileng Canal, one of several waterways in Taiwan created during the 1895-1945 Japanese colonial occupation to expand agricultural output.
The tour is priced at NT$1,700 per person regardless of age; this includes lunch, afternoon tea, and admission to tourist sites.
For the same price, one can join the Shuili Snake Kiln and Puli tour. There is just one stop before lunch, at the Shuili Snake Kiln Ceramics Cultural Park. Tucked into a hillside outside the small town of Shuili, the kiln here has been turning out ceramic items such as roof tiles and liquor vessels for almost 90 years. These days, the site focuses on educating visitors about the industry’s history as well as teaching pottery skills.
The nearby town of Checheng thrived when the region’s hillsides were being logged; but when most cutting was halted a few decades ago, most of the population moved out. In recent years, however, more and more people have become interested in industrial heritage. A steady flow of tourists eager to see the physical imprint of the timber trade has rescued the town from its slump, and led to the opening of homestays and restaurants.
The excursion wraps up with two attractions on the outskirts of Puli. The first is the Paper Dome, a former church made entirely of recycled materials and located in Taomi, a village that recovered from 1999’s devastating earthquake by reinventing itself as an ecotourism destination. The second is Chung Tai Chan Monastery, the headquarters of an international Buddhist monastic order and a stunning piece of architecture. Some consider it the greatest achievement yet of C.Y. Lee, the man who designed Taipei 101.
If you like to be outdoors, consider signing up for the Houfeng Bikeway and Fine Arts Tour (NT$1,850 per person). This kicks off with cycling along the Houfeng Bikeway. Part of this scenic bike trail follows the route of a disused railway line. Before lunch, there is also a visit to the Chang Lien-cheng Saxophone Museum, which celebrates the remarkable achievements of musical-instrument makers in this part of Taiwan. For a while in the 1960s and 1970s, factories located in Taichung’s Houli District were producing one-third of the world’s saxophones.
After a midday meal, the bus brings sightseers to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (https://www.ntmofa.gov.tw), and then for afternoon tea at Taichung’s Calligraphy Greenway. The latter is a spacious public space filled with art, trees, and flowers – and fringed by restaurants, coffee shops, and cultural venues. The final element of the tour is a DIY session in which visitors can learn how to make taiyangbing or “sun cakes” – a sweet pastry with a malt sugar filling that has become one of Taichung’s most famous local specialties.
Crammed to the gills with genuine culture and antiquity, the pictureqsque town of Lukang (often spelled “Lugang”) is very different from Taichung. Although it is now hard to believe, from the mid-18th century to the last quarter of the 19th century, this town (which has a current population of around 86,000) was Taiwan’s second-largest settlement. Junks brought in migrants from the Chinese mainland, and shipped rice and other commodities from Taiwan to markets overseas.
Despite their business acumen, there was nothing local merchants could do to prevent the harbor from silting up, and the town’s fortunes declined precipitously at the end of the 19th century. Because growth and redevelopment ground to a halt, a great many of the mansions and shophouses built in Lukang’s heyday still stand.
An excellent way to get a taste of old Lukang is to join the one-day Lukang and Wanggong Intertidal Exploration Tour. After pickup in Taichung or Changhua, the entire morning is spent in Lukang. Highlights include Longshan Temple, a sublimely beautiful Buddhist house of worship, and the narrow but bustling lanes of what has become known as “Lukang Old Street.”
Lunch (included in the price of NT$1,850 per person) is followed by a half-hour drive to a point further down Taiwan’s west coast: Wanggong, an old-fashioned fishing village famous for its fresh seafood and shellfish cultivation. Tour bus passengers will learn about the latter first in the Wanggong Oyster Art Museum, and then by taking a close look at one of the oyster farms that dot the area’s tidal mudflats.
Useful Internet resources for those heading to Taichung include the city government’s website (http://eng.taichung.gov.tw) and the national Tourism Bureau site (http://go2taiwan.net). For background information about Lukang, Wanggong, and other attractions in Changhua County, see http://tourism.chcg.gov.tw/EN/. To read about the Puli area, go to http://travel.nantou.gov.tw. The 24-hour tourist information hotline can be reached by dialing 0800-011-765; calls made within Taiwan are toll free.