By Paul Benowitz
I started writing this piece at the end of January, upon returning from our 12-day, barnstorming tour, eight days of which was with Bill, our history buff, food maven, driver-guide.
Then, on February 6, Taiwan was shaken by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake, centered around the city of Hualien. (We’ve all seen the photos.) I thought, “Would readers still be incentivized to visit this beautiful, enchanting island?”
Taiwan is roughly 350 miles north-south, roughly half of that east-west, and corner to corner, the people are extremely friendly, helpful, and engaging.
Hualien and environs sits at the heart of the most majestic of Taiwan’s national parks, Taroko Gorge, featuring deep marble canyons, grottoes, rivers, mountains soaring to 11,000 feet precariously perched temples, and windowed tunnels for both vehicles and foot traffic. The hiking trails accommodate all skill levels. This was our first stop, with a three-day stay in the park.
Sandy and I next crossed a windy, snowy section of the central range (two-thirds of Taiwan is covered by mountains) to the Sun Moon Lake region. Taiwan’s largest lake, it is completely surrounded by mountains, and is sparsely dotted with charming waterfront towns, temples, bike paths around the entire 30-plus mile perimeter, and, of course, hotels from which to catch mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets.
Tainan, in the southwestern part of the country (if I may be permitted to use this reference) is Taiwan’s oldest city, and has evidences from many periods of colonization, including Dutch. Most notably, Japan colonized the island from 1895 to 1945, and their presence seems to have left its strongest imprint in Tainan. As an architect, I took note of two Japanese buildings from the 20s, a civic building undergoing restoration as their main art gallery, and the Hayashi Department Store, both bearing the unmistakable influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright himself built in Tokyo several years earlier.
North of Tainan is the 300-year-old multi-denominational Nankunshan Temple, so vast, that it feels like a small village. The intricate roof carvings alone, typical of Taoist temples, are worth several megabytes of photography.
Along the secondary roads to Taipei are not to-to-be-missed typical mountain villages. Their main streets are basically shopping bazaars, serving up all manner of “street food”, crafts, clothing, etc. Our lunches were often regionally varied street food, sampled and eaten, appropriately, in the streets. I felt I was summoning my inner Anthony Bourdain (but definitely not my inner Andrew Zimmern).
Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, is a vast, cosmopolitan city of three million people – double that when factoring in the greater metropolitan area. Taipei has an abundance of museums, a variety of neighborhoods, beautiful inner-city parks, historic house-museums, temples, the obligatory Taipei 101 Tower, and food, food, food, including in its renowned night markets. Five days barely covered the highlights.
The city has a convenient, exceptionally user-friendly rapid transit system (the MRT), facilitating self-guided visits to all reaches of the city and beyond.
The most visited site is the National Palace Museum, housing a rotating collection of over six hundred thousand pieces of art from antiquity, all the dynastic periods, and indescribable, mesmerizing hi-tech art. The history of how the dynastic art found its way here from the mainland, is well-documented. To art and history aficionados, the museum is a world-wide draw.
Longshan Temple, in the heart of the most accessible tourist area, is at the crossroads of every guidebook’s walking tours.
Yangminshan National Park, right outside the city and thus the most visited park in the country, was going to be our main destination for bird-watching. However, it was raining, and the mountainous park was completely cloud-shrouded so – we struck out – and no photos.
Taiwan, with its over 450 species of birds, is an international birding destination. However, at the not-too-subtle insistence of Bill, we saw Taiwan instead. Bill was right, of course. Ironically though, by the end of our trip, he had become a converted birder. He vowed to make birding an expertise, adding it to his incredible knowledge of place, history and food.
Most days, we received the English language Taipei Times, and there were always saber-rattling articles about the 800-pound elephant in the room — not the subject of this travel piece.
Our spot-on travel agent was Taipei-based My Taiwan Tour. Most arrangements were smoothly Skyped when our awake-time hours coincided. If you also plan to go on a vacation, you may consider working with a travel agent who will arrange your flights, accommodations, short term parking services, and other activities.
#1205 Lungshan Temple is cited as the best-preserved temple in Taiwan.
#9002 Majestic Taroko National Park
#0055 Wen Wu Temple terracing down to Sun Moon Lake
#2824 Sun Moon Lake
#1523 Hayashi Department Store
#4936 A repurposed municipal building in Tainan
#829 A dumpling crew puts on a show at a well-known Taipei restaurant.
#1644 The single most-photographed piece in the National Palace Museum is <Jadeite Cabbage with Insects,> a 19th-century carving.