The modern history of this island nation may be less than a century old, but its culinary and cultural traditions are as ancient as the imposing gorges in its national parks.
TaipeiThis bustling city is filled with treasures. The spectacular National Palace Museum is a timeline of Taiwanese and Chinese culture from Neolithic times. Much of the vast collection was spirited out of mainland China by Chiang Kai Shek, including intricate carved ivory and jade pieces that defy description. Every world-class museum has its signature piece - from the Mona Lisa at the Louvre to Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum. Here, it is a head of wavy-leaf bok choy carved from a single piece of mint green jade.
Another must-see is the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, a white pagoda in the center of immaculate gardens. Time your visit to include the hourly changing of the guard at the marble statue of him in the main hall upstairs. The museum downstairs includes his military medals and his 1955 Cadillac presidential limousine. The compound includes the National Theater, where more than 800 concerts and dance performances are held each year.
Longshan Temple is one of the oldest and largest in Taiwan, dating from the 1700s, decorated with gold leaf and dozens of gods and goddesses. It sits alongside the city’s oldest street, which is filled with vendors selling everything from cooked-to-order wild mushrooms to handicrafts. Street shopping continues until midnight in the city’s famous night markets, including the Guang Hua Digital Market, which specializes in brand-name electronics and cameras made in Taiwan.
Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building briefly, until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa grew higher. The observation decks on the 89th and 91st floors offer 360-degree views of the city, mountains surrounding it, and on a clear day, even a glimpse of the Taiwan Strait and mainland China beyond. There’s a shopping mall on the lower floors, many floors of offices, and a floor of restaurants. The seven-course tasting dinner at Shin Yeh 101 is non-stop plates in an elegant setting that combines modern and traditional decor and twinkling city lights outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Be sure to make reservations well in advance.
While gourmet restaurants are plentiful, especially in western hotel chains, the real treat is small, family-owned noodle shops and dim sum parlors. The most popular of these in Taipei is Din Tai Fung. Even with 100 tables (more or less) over four floors, patrons line up on the sidewalk as much as hour before it opens. Be sure to watch a dozen or more chefs preparing dumplings, visible through a glass walled kitchen.
Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan, and the granddaughter of the inventor teaches the process at the Chun Shui Tang Cultural Teahouse, part of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung, Taiwan’s third largest city. It is a carefully choreographed mix of precise amounts of sugar, whipped cream, brewed tea, and tapioca pearls - the “bubbles”. Also in Taichung is the Confucious Temple, dedicated to China’s philosopher and teacher, in the center of a peaceful garden.
Hot Springs resorts
The spa towns of Beitou, Jiaoxi and Beitang are less than 90 minutes south of Taipei, with public baths modeled after those in Japan and more upscale soaking in hotel pools. Some even pipe the spring water upstairs into special spa rooms. Unlike hot springs elsewhere, these are bicarbonate, not sulphur, so there’s no “rotten egg” smell. Even so, pools are often infused with green tea, chamomile, even kumquat, not for their delicate fragrance, but for an additional boost of anti-oxidant power. The Grand View Resort boasts a tony La Mer Spa, one of the few in Asia.
When visitors aren’t soaking, little museums beckon. The Beitou Hot Springs Museum documents the bathing tradition back to the Qing Dynasty, which built the first baths. The Taiwan Folk Museum offers artifacts from local tribes, called aborigines. Yingge is Taiwan’s pottery center, with more than 100 potters and shops, and a ceramics museum with locally-made copies of Ming and Qing porcelains.
Taroko National Park
Outdoor enthusiasts and scenic addicts will love this destination, for its deep gorges, waterfalls, hiking and biking trails, and picturesque pagodas and shrines perched mid-mountain. The Tunnel of Nine Turns is not for the faint-hearted driver. Stay overnight in Silks Palace, with its modern zen-like decor and a rooftop pool overlooking a thrashing river.
Silks and Landis are upscale Asian chains with properties throughout Taiwan. Eva Airlines also operates Evergreen Laurel hotels, named for its first-class Laurel service, which offers flatbed seats and on-demand western or Asian meals. Eva flies modern A330 and 747 planes non-stop between JFK/Taipei and LAX/Taipei. www.evaair.com
Visit the Taiwan Tourist Board at www.taiwantourism.org