In their haste to get from the skyscrapers of Taipei to the bucolic backwaters of Hualien and Taitung, many visitors rush through Yilan by train or bus. Yet this county in Taiwan’s northeast offers an intriguing mix of natural and cultural attractions.
Since the completion of Freeway 5 and the world’s fifth-longest road tunnel in 2006, driving time from central Taipei to the county’s principal city–also called Yilan–is seldom more than an hour. Every weekend, thousands of Taipei residents, as well as a good number of international visitors, board buses to Yilan, and head to the hot springs at Jiaoxi, the Lanyang Museum, or the National Center for Traditional Arts.
Some foreign visitors, however, are reluctant to venture beyond Taipei by themselves. It is true, after all, that outside the capital fewer people speak English and public transportation is not quite so convenient. To help tourists who venture outside the Taipei comfort zone, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has for several years overseen a selection of foreigner-friendly bus expeditions called Taiwan Tour Bus.
These tours enhance the visitor experience by providing not only transportation (including pick-up from major hotels, railway stations, and other points), but also guides who introduce local sights in English, Japanese, and Chinese. Those who sign up for a tour need not worry about mistakenly buying a ticket for the wrong destination or missing their stop.
The Taiwan Tour Bus system offers over 100 options, most of which last a full day. In every case, the price includes all admission charges and insurance. Very often, it also covers a delicious lunch featuring local delicacies. Gratuities are entirely optional.
Yilan’s most famous geographical feature is the Lanyang Plain. Named after the Lanyang River, the plain is a fertile flatland where rice, watermelons, and spring onions grow particularly well. But that is not to say the county lacks interesting topography. Well over half of Yilan is mountainous, and in the heart of these wooded uplands lies the 12,631-hectare Taipingshan National Forest Recreation Area.
For decades a key part of Taiwan’s once-mighty lumber industry, Taipingshan is situated between 500 and 2,000 meters above sea level. The plant and tree species here are typical of subtropical, warm-temperate and cool-temperate ecosystems. This rich foliage nurtures a stunning array of birds, beetles, and butterflies.
Much of the logging equipment brought here has been preserved, to the delight of industrial-heritage fanatics. Most visitors take a ride on what is called the “Bong Bong Train,” a narrow-gauge railroad originally built to transport timber, enabling them to enjoy close-up views of pristine glades as well as mountain panoramas.
Even for tourists willing to drive, getting to Taipingshan can be tiring. It is best, therefore, to let a professional handle the driving by joining the one-day Taiwan Tour Bus Yilan Taipingshan Nature Tour (NT$1,400 per person on weekends and holidays, NT$1,200 per person on weekdays; starts and ends in Taipei). This includes lunch and admission to the forest recreation area (which for adults is between NT$150 and NT$200) but not the Bong Bong Train.
People more interested in the oceans that surround Taiwan than the mountains dominating the interior will also find Yilan much to their liking.
Guishan Island is just 12 kilometers offshore but uninhabited; the Chinese name means “turtle mountain,” and the islet does indeed resemble a turtle. Between 1977–when the small civilian population was relocated–and 2000, the only humans who set foot on the island were soldiers.
To protect its delicate ecology, only those who obtain permits in advance are allowed on the island. Applying for these is best done with the help of a local tour company. For more information about the island and the nearby coastline, see the website of the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area.
Sailing around the island requires a lot less paperwork, and is a highlight of another one-day Taiwan Tour Bus outing, the Guishan Island Dolphin Watching and Seafood Tour.
Priced at NT$1,900 per adult (children aged 2 to 12 pay NT$1,200), the tour begins with a look around Lanyang Museum, a striking piece of architecture filled with historical and geographical information about the region. After lunch at Wushi Harbor, excursionists board a boat and head out into the Pacific. Almost everyone gets to see dolphins, and whales sometimes put in an appearance. Back on land about three hours later, the tour makes quick stops for taro ice and cake before returning to the capital.
Those who feel Yilan should not be rushed can join the Yilan Cultural Two-Day Tour (NT$5,300 per person on weekdays, NT$5,800 on weekends, including a night’s stay in the three-star Kavalan Hotel in Luodong). The itinerary satisfies gourmands and outdoors types as well as culture vultures. Of special interest are the Luodong Forestry Culture Park and the National Center for Traditional Arts.
The forestry park is where many of the trees logged at Taipingshan were processed. Bilingual information boards around the site go well beyond the history of logging in Taiwan, covering topics such as aquatic plants and the local dragonfly and amphibian populations.
Frogs and insects thrive in the park’s 5.6-hectare log pond, which is where wood was submerged to prevent it from warping or cracking in Taiwan’s hot summers. More than a dozen office and dormitory buildings date from Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan, and exhibits inside these highly photogenic structures depict the tough conditions in which loggers lived.
Luodong Forestry Culture Park is within walking distance of the town’s railway station. A bit further from the heart of Luodong, the sprawling National Center for Traditional Arts introduces a range of local art forms, including Taiwanese opera (which first emerged in Yilan County) and budaixi. The latter literally means “cloth-bag drama” but “hand puppetry” is a better translation.
Elsewhere in the county, but not on any Taiwan Tour Bus itinerary, is Taiwan’s foremost whisky producer, King Car Kavalan Distillery.
Since hitting the market in 2008, Kavalan has astonished whisky aficionados across the globe and scooped numerous accolades. The malt is imported from Scotland and Finland, but every other stage of the production process is done here. The distillery is open to the public, and admission is free. If you are driving, do bear in mind that Taiwan has one of the world’s strictest drunk-driving laws.
For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).