Taiwan: The Hot-Spring Heaven

Winter is hot-spring season in Taiwan. It never gets truly cold in the lowlands, even in January, but a population used to daytime temperatures that are often above 32 degrees Celsius (almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit) begins to shiver when the mercury drops. This is when many citizens head to the hundred-plus locations around Taiwan where mineral-enriched waters, warmed by the Earth’s geothermal heat, bubble to the surface.

These natural spas are a result of the volcanism and tectonic action that created Taiwan’s stunning landscape. The volcanoes are long extinct, but the hot springs they bequeathed continue to amaze and delight visitors as well as locals. In terms of temperature, mineral content or scenic setting, no two are alike.

Taipei residents are fortunate in having on their doorsteps the springs of Xinbeitou. The sheer number of soaking options there, and the convenience of the capital’s MRT rapid-transit rail system, enable many people to go for a soothing dip on the way home from work.

Taiwan’s love affair with hot springs is in part a result of 50 years’ of Japanese rule, but the island’s springs are also a hit with Western visitors and expatriates. “My father is a hot springs buff, and when I was a child, we did countless hot-spring road trips in the Rockies. Because of him, I was always aware of and drawn to Taiwan as a hot springs destination,” says Nick Kembel, a Canadian writer/photographer based in Taipei. “I have many favorites, but we especially love taking our kids to Jianshi in Hsinchu County. It’s a short drive from Taipei but it feels remote, and the spas there are in gorgeous natural settings.”

From the international tourist’s perspective, Taiwan’s hot springs have certain advantages over their Japanese counterparts. Whereas segregation by gender and nudity are standard (and required) at 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. As in Japan, each hot-spring guest is expected to wash his or her body thoroughly before getting in the water.

Unfortunately, getting to most of Taiwan’s hot springs involves more than boarding an MRT train. Comfortable air-conditioned buses connect major cities with hot-springs towns like Jinshan in New Taipei City, but many foreign travelers hesitate when facing Chinese-language bus schedules and well-meaning yet monolingual drivers. As a result, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has over the past several years expanded and refined the Taiwan Tour Bus system. It now offers 101 routes, reaching into every part of the country.

Full details of individual tours, including where buses can be boarded and how reservations (which are essential) can be made, can be found on the Taiwan Tour Bus website. Prices vary;  they cover not only transportation and the services of a knowledgeable guide, but also admission charges and insurance. Most of the outings last a whole day, and often include a delicious lunch incorporating the best of the region’s cuisine.

English-speaking guides are not available on every route; where they are, there is sometimes an additional charge. If you see an itinerary that looks perfect for you and your family, but a suitable guide cannot be arranged, you can request a free audio guide (Mandarin Chinese, English, Japanese, or Korean). Every bus is equipped with free Wi-Fi.

Taiwan Tour Bus excursions kick off from Taipei, Taichung, and other places around the island, so if you expect to have a day free at the end of a trip made for business or family reasons, you are sure to find a tour option that works for you.

During the Japanese colonial period, Guanziling in Tainan was one of Taiwan’s most popular hot-springs resorts. Without a car, getting there from any major city involves a train and then a local bus. The Taiwan Tour Bus Guanziling Hot Spring and Cuisine One-Day Tour (NT$1,700 per person; NT$200 for children three or under, not requiring a separate seat) therefore makes the tourist’s life much easier. Pick-up is from various locations in Tainan.

The tour’s first stop is a landmark associated with the Japanese era. Since the 1930s, Wushantou Reservoir and its network of manmade waterways has been irrigating a vast expanse of southwest Taiwan. In Guanziling itself, there is plenty of time to wander through the little town and sample some rustic delicacies. The deep-fried locally grown mushrooms are especially good.

After a half-hour dip in the muddy and rejuvenating waters of Guanziling’s hot springs, excursionists are driven to Hero Hill for a spectacular view over the fertile lowlands that the Wushantou project transformed. The final sight is a natural curiosity called the Fire and Water Spring, one of at least four places in Taiwan where natural gas seeps out of the ground and burns throughout the year.

Ambitious but time-constrained visitors should sign up for the Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, and Dongpu Hot Springs One-day Tour, priced at NT$1850 per person and NT$300 for small children. When booking, visitors should check with the tour agency (contact details can be found on the Tour Bus website) because the tour direction may change depending on passengers’ preferences and pick-up points.

The tour usually takes in Tataka Anbu, a high-altitude scenic spot near Mount Jade, then proceeds along the New Central Cross-Island Highway to Dongpu Hot Spring. After lunch and a soak, there is a halt at Dream Works of the Mei, a farmers’ cooperative selling a range of plum wines and other delectable local products. The final stop is Xiangshan Tourist Center, where one can enjoy fine views of the best-known body of water on the island: the shimmering ornament that is Sun Moon Lake.

Another central-region outing that features wine-tasting and a hot spring is the Hakka Winery and Guguan One-day Tour (NT$1,700 for adults and children older than three; NT$200 for infants and toddlers). The tour begins with an opportunity to learn something about the Hakka people, Taiwan’s largest ethnic minority and a group renowned for their distinctive cuisine. Then it is on to a winery that also makes vinegar health drinks.

After lunch, the schedule moves at a slower pace. A full two hours are set aside for enjoying the hot-spring baths at Guguan. Very little energy is required to make the most of a hot spring. Taking the occasional sip of water from a bottle is advisable, but the typical bather hardly moves. Nonetheless, emerging from the water with an appetite is quite normal. Fortunately, this tour culminates with an opportunity to taste and buy taiyang bing or “sun cakes,” pastries filled with maltose. They are Taichung’s most famous specialty. Do buy some for the folks back home!

For up-to-date and comprehensive information about visiting Taiwan, please contact the tourism hotline at 0800- 011-765 (toll free inside Taiwan), or go to the Tourism Bureau’s website.