Sun Moon Lake
Sun Moon Lake

Beauty Beyond the Mainland

Taiwan has its own unique cuisine, culture, and coastline

BYBob Cooper
Taiwan is like a celebrity’s kid brother who can’t escape his sibling’s shadow. They share the same name — Taiwan is the Republic of China and its “big brother” 112 miles across the sea is the People’s Republic of China. They share common traditions and holidays. They even share the same lineage, with 95 percent of Taiwanese tracing their roots to ancestors from mainland China.
 
However, Taiwan also differs from China in ways that make it a more attractive destination. It has much less pollution, less poverty (the average income is close to Arizona’s), and it’s a democracy with a woman president. Best of all, it’s a tiny fraction of China in size and population, which means you can digest much of Taiwan in a week without the crowds. Digesting Taiwanese food? Now that can be a challenge!
 
Food Adventures
The differences between Taiwanese and Chinese food — or at least the kind served in U.S. restaurants — will become apparent during your first meal in Taiwan. Each menu holds new surprises. At a buffet restaurant in the capital city of Taipei, for example, you might find items labeled Jellyfish Salad, Pig’s Ear Gelatin, Boiled Pork Blood Jelly, Crispy Intestine, Roast Pork Jowl, and Running Chicken Leg Slowly — apparently that chicken needed to run a little faster. Fortunately, you should also be able to find plenty to eat that doesn’t sound like a prop in a horror film for vegans. You might even surprise yourself and discover you have a taste for scallion pancakes, radish soup, and ingredients like sugarcane hearts and rose petals.
   
Hot-pot dining is hot in Taiwan. At a hot-pot specialty restaurant you order from a wide choice of broths, fishes, vegetables, and sauces, then cook them in individual or shared pots at your table. It might feel a little like bagging your own groceries, but it is fun.
 
Dumplings also are popular here. At a dumpling restaurant beneath Taipei 101 — one of the world’s tallest buildings at 101 stories and Taiwan’s top tourist attraction — 18 workers in a glassed-in kitchen rubbed 18 “folds” into each dumpling noodle to achieve the perfect texture.
 
How you wash down your food also is different in Taiwan. Rice and plum wines are on wine lists, and tea — especially oolong and green tea — is served at every meal. For dessert, plan on bubble tea, which originated in Taiwan.
 
Taiwan’s East Coast
High-speed trains zip across most of the 245-mile-long island country in less than two hours, but you’ll want to travel by tour van or car to explore the country at a more leisurely pace. Travelers interested in cities and sandy beaches would prefer the west coast. But to get away from the crowds, explore the less populated, mountainous east coast.
 
The east coast of Taiwan is a unique landscape with toothy green mountains and deep gorges, roadside teahouses and temples, terraced tea plantations and tiny cabbage farms. It also is known for its persimmon orchards and palm tree groves, and untamed forests thick with bamboo, tree ferns, wild hibiscus, and “elephant ear” plants with leaves the size of sledding saucers.
 
Catch a glimpse of the Pacific just beyond the rice paddies that checker the coastal town of Jiaoxi, a popular weekend getaway destination for Taipei residents wanting to soak in its hot-springs spas. Tourists also can spend a few Taiwan New Dollars here to experience goldfish nibbling their toes in foot-deep mineral-spring pools.
 
Don’t be surprised if you see cyclists of all ages on your journey. A circle route around the island has become a bucket-list item for many Taiwanese cyclists.
 
The “Road to Heaven”
Traveling south along the coastal road Highway 9 is similar to driving down the Big Sur section of California’s Pacific Coast Highway. The road rises, dips, twists, and turns dramatically along and above the coast, finally reaching Taroko Gorge, which is the highlight of Taroko National Park. A big bike race each October in the park is more evidence of the huge popularity of cycling in Taiwan. Racers climb 65 miles from a rocky beach in Hualien, eastern Taiwan’s largest city, to the 10,744-foot Wuling Mountain summit above the gorge.
 
This “Road to Heaven,” spiraling even more precipitously than the coastal road, narrows until it squeezes beneath hand-cut rock overhangs and through skinny tunnels, then widens again above the gorge. Along the way, frequent bridges cross the zigzagging Liwu River and waterfalls tumble from white marble cliffs.
 
In the upper reaches, the road rises above the tree line, revealing trails on grassy, boulder-strewn ridges populated by hikers in pairs and groups. Some choose to hike farther into the gorge, where the pine forests are filled with macaque monkeys, flying squirrels, and pheasants. Many hikers rest between day hikes at the five-star hotel or the youth hostel at mid-mountain.
 
Sun Moon Lake
While Taroko Gorge is literally and figuratively the high point of any trip to Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s other main natural attraction, is a close second. A boat tour will take you past floating peat islands in the pretty mountain lake. While here, rent a bike to explore the 18 miles surrounding Sun Moon Lake or hike an elevated boardwalk trail above it. The extravagant Wenwu Temple with its 365 steps — each marked with a day of the year — lead down to the shore.
    
The roadside teahouses, temples, and lush mountain-scapes along Taiwan’s eastern coast make a strong case for this often underrated destination, embodying the best of what Asia has to offer travelers.
BOB COOPER is a travel writer who has written about six other countries and six U.S. states for Highroads. 
Taroko Gorge / ©Bob Cooper
Taroko Gorge / ©Bob Cooper
If You Go
Drink Up: Two major attractions in eastern Taiwan pay tribute to popular beverages. The Pinglin Tea Museum explores Taiwan’s long tradition of tea production, dating to oolong tea exports to Europe and the United States in the 1860s, with exhibits in English. The Kavalan Distillery offers an excellent free tour (by reservation) of the massive complex where its award-winning whisky, bourbon, and sherry are made.
 
Taiwan Touring: Bus and van tours with English-speaking guides are offered by at least eight tour operators. Car rental also is a good option if you wish to explore the east coast. Road signs are in English and driving is on the right.
 
Practicalities: November to May is the best time to visit because the typhoon season lasts from June to October — and it’s hot in the summer. Dress is casual, crime is very low, the exchange rate is good (especially outside the cities), and most Taiwanese under 40 speak English. Find out more about Taiwan at eng.taiwan.net.tw.
 
 
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