Written by Peregrine Travel Centre SA team member Lisa.
When you think of a holiday to Asia – what comes to mind? A shopping trip to Hong Kong or Singapore, the beach stays in Thailand, or the food and culture in Vietnam.
What if I told you that you could have it all in one place?! Taiwan.
The tiny island off the South East Coast of China is not a commonly talked about tourist destination. But why? Everyone in Asia seems to know what it has to offer. It is a popular destination for Chinese, Korean and Japanese people. Why not westerners? Visitors to Taiwan seem to have been everywhere else first, yet Taiwan has so much to offer. Access is easy via the normal asian flight hubs or from Sydney or Melbourne with China Airlines direct to Taipei.
Food, nature, beaches, shopping, culture, temples, skyscrapers – Taiwan is an eclectic surprise of the senses. To make it even better it has an efficient transport system and it is extremely clean! Taiwan is half the size of Tasmania,while having the population of all of Australia. However, it does not feel crowded. People are polite and friendly and if you are not good at speaking Mandarin then they all have phones and are willing to figure out what you want to say to them.
Taipei is your usual bustling Asian city; it has all of the latest designer brand shops mixed in with local marketplaces. Night markets are scattered through the capital city, the locals enthusiastically make their way through the colourful stalls to get their dinner. Anything from BBQ meat and veggies through to local delicacies of Oyster Omelette and Stinky Tofu, there is so much on offer. For a more relaxed vibe there are various restaurants around offering all sorts of different cuisine. Dim sum or dumplings are a specialty. If you do nothing else while in Taipei, make sure you try a mango or strawberry shaved ice. This overflowing bowl of flavoured ice, sorbet and fruit will take you to icy fruit heaven. Also, the Taiwan created Boba Tea with its milky black tea and sweet tapioca balls in the bottom – delicious!
As a vegetarian, there were various Buddhist restaurants around catering purely to vegetarians. Interestingly they do not eat onion or garlic. The street stalls were more challenging to get a vegetarian meal as most food was made in meat stock; but green onion pancakes, fried rice, vegetable noodles or fried tofu were readily available.
Visit Taipei 101 which used to be the tallest building in the world. Now ranked second, it is known for its panoramic views but also the shopping experience contained below it with all the international brand name stores.
But the real beauty is away from Taipei in the countryside and smaller cities. A fun day trip from Taipei is the Yehliu Geopark, full of natural formations of eroded rocks by the sea. The formations have been given names such as the Queens Head and Loveheart and there are well mapped out walking trails that lead to each one.
From Taipei you can travel down to Hualien by train. It hugs the coastline revealing how close the Pacific Ocean is to this small island. The other side is a rugged mountain range that runs along the centre of the island.
Hualien is an energetic place with a massive night market full of food options. From here you can travel to the Danong Dafu Forest Park, where they have established a National Park full of walking trails and bike paths. Hire a bike and enjoy the natural scenery through the man-made forest that now attracts much birdlife. The hikes and walks through the canyons and National Parks are unique and picturesque, from an easy walk through to challenging hikes through the mountains. The Taroko National Park, with the landmark Gorge carved by the Liwu River, is near the town of Hualien. There are lots of options for hikes of different lengths and difficulties. The Swallow Grotto (Yanzikou Trail) has an easy walk through the beautiful canyon, and also the Shakadang Trail which follows an aqua stream to a Truku village.
If that is not enough you can go to a spring onion farm and cook your own green onion pancakes, or you can go to a local whisky distillery and sample the local amber liquid. Private hot springs throughout the area make for a relaxing stay, the water temperature is perfect for rejuvenating the body after an active day out.
Back towards Taipei, on the coast, is the township of Jiufen, a former gold mining centre. The old buildings line the hillsides along with tea houses and quirky shops.
I also visited Pingxi, known as the place to set off a sky lantern into the sky. The old city has many vendors selling snacks and lanterns – which you can paint with a personal wish or message.
Down the west coast, the highlight is the large and majestic Sun Moon Lake. The only natural lake in Taiwan, it is named for the shape its outline forms. Multiple ferries take passengers across the lake to various points, on the other side it is reserved for water sports and a morning kayak is perfection on this quiet and tranquil side of the lake. Around the lake there are bike paths to explore each part.
For a more spiritual getaway you can visit the Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Puli. A massive complex full of different Buddhist statues and a resident nun can give you a tour with some enlightenment along the way. You can go explore a fishing village in the Changhua County, pick your own oysters or clams and eat a seafood chowder on the beach.
Down the Southern coast are the beaches, picturesque, aqua blue water and stunning white sand and not crowded with tourists. The Kenting beach is one of the most famous, located on the southern tip of Taiwan. Many bars playing music, night markets and restaurants make this feel more like it’s Hawaii and not Taiwan.
Taiwan is an underrated destination but with so much beautiful scenery to see, friendly people and amazing food (which is extremely kind to the budget) – what are you waiting for?