Taipei, its environs offer look at centuries-old cities, stunning scenery

Longshan Temple, a three-centuries-old, ornately decorated temple is another of Taipei's scenic sites.

Photo by Taiwan Tourism Division

Longshan Temple, a three-centuries-old, ornately decorated temple is another of Taipei's scenic sites.

EVA Air, Taiwan’s international carrier, serves U.S. cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York/Newark, connecting them all with Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. The savvy mostly opt for Elite Class, a cut above economy but comparable to business class on most carriers.

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A history lesson for post-World War II baby boomers and a flashback for prior generations who remember Formosa and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, a visit to Taiwan is a revelation for all.

Cross-strait relations with the Beijing-based mainland authorities are increasingly amicable, especially since economically robust Taiwan is one of the biggest investors in mainland China. More than a million Taiwanese managerial and technical experts and their families live and work there. Another confirmation of warming relations: Mainland pandas now reside at the Taipei Zoo.

A veteran of several Taiwan visits beginning in 1965, I was startled at the changes, beginning with landing in Taipei. The international airport is a sleek facility, the roads proper thoroughfares and downtown comparable to the most modern anywhere. Even with a population of more than 2.6 million in Taipei City, traffic isn’t a molasses-like morass, undoubtedly due to its remarkable rapid-transit system.

Hotel choices run the gamut from backpacker havens to the classiest. A top pick is the centrally located Sherwood Taipei with its collection of antique Chinese art and European 18th- and 19th-century Oriental-themed works — even a Henry Moore sculpture.

Salient Taipei sites include the National Palace Museum housing the premiere international collection of Chinese art and artifacts. There are also the multifaceted Taipei 101, Asia’s tallest building, comprising a mall, unique “damper” system atop that controls building sway during Taiwan’s occasional earthquakes, and changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. The three-century-old, intricately adorned Longshan Temple is a must for photographers.

Shopping-wise, bargains are rare; current exchange rate is about 32 new Taiwan dollars to one U.S. dollar. But indigenous artisans produce singular treasures. The nonprofit Taiwan Handicraft Promotion Center offers four stories of wares ranging from jewelry to crafts and select teas. For souvenir trinkets and endless food snacks, it’s the Shilin Night Market, packed with residents who flock there after daytime shopping venues are closed. Arrange with hotels for a guide; the selection and negotiating call for some help.

The insatiable tourist won’t just stay in Taipei, however. A great day trip is a two-hour drive to Rueifang township, where one can explore Jioufen’s twisting streets lined with endless, contiguous shophouses and have lunch at the A-Mei Teahouse, gazing at the emerald East China Sea. Some Taiwanese menu items will certainly be firsts for Western visitors — cow viscera soup, a more-than-pungent fermented tofu and very lively shrimp ceremoniously dumped into boiling broth at your table.

Visiting the Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park caps that excursion. This park embraces territory in which Taiwan’s own version of the Gold Rush happened, and the old mining relics heighten the allure of the coastline and the mountainous local scenery.

Of note: Dining out’s an obsession with the Taiwanese and restaurants abound. Land and sea choices are endless and no components of those wasted. Vegetarianism is commonplace, so the enlightened need not want.

The Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival, also only about two hours from Taipei, is one of Taiwan’s major events. Plan to stay overnight at a hotel like the Evergreen Laurel Hotel located close to the action. Throngs of residents and visitors take over the downtown streets from late afternoon onward, first for the festival parade starting at 6:30 p.m., then a supper break and re-gathering seaside at 11 p.m. for the water lantern release that continues until about 2 a.m. The fireworks throughout are sensational.

Covering the northeastern corner of Taiwan on the Pacific coast, Yilan County is a popular holiday destination for Taiwanese and international tourists alike, a comfortable trip from and to Taipei on the Taroko Train to stay at the Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi. The resort is specifically designed for its hot springs setting, harnessing those waters throughout the property, including for guest rooms, indoor and outside spas, and swimming pools.

Families come for its recreation facilities and extraordinary breakfast and dinner buffets. There are nightly free opera presentations in a lobby the size of three basketball courts. Ask for a Western suite or sample the Japanese-style rooms: tatami mat “beds” and nearly floor-level seating. Also worth sampling is the single-malt Kavalan, a product of the King Car Whisky Distillery in nearby Yuanshan. It has outranked the Scots in blind tastings. Nearby also is the National Center for Traditional Arts.

Matsu is another highlight of Taiwan for Taiwanese and international tourists. It and other islands outlying the People’s Republic of China hold a honeycomb of tunnels, largely drilled out by the military at the height of tensions between the mainland and Taiwan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mainlanders still may only visit in transit to Taipei and may not stay overnight. Only day labor is permitted in Matsu, which was opened to tourism in 1994 after its military administration was lifted.

The fastest route is via UNI Air, an EVA subsidiary, from SongShan Airport in downtown Taipei. Flights are about an hour long. Transportation on the islands is by small buses and inter-island via motor launches.

Nangan and Beihai are the most-visited islands. The modest Hotel Coast of Dawn in Nangan affords striking views over the Taiwan Strait. On Beihai, there are just a few rooms available above a small café in Cinbi Village.

Visitors can join guided tours within a few of the old underground passageways. In Beihai, canoeing and kayaking are permitted, replacing the military drills of yore. A unique way to spend the afternoon is sampling the strong rice wine aged in one of Nangan’s caverns, Tunnel 88.

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