Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Wonders of Orchid Island

This article was published in the July, 2012 issue of Verve, the inflight magazine of EVA Air.

In terms of both location and lifestyle, Orchid Island, or Lanyu as it’s known in Chinese, stands apart from the rest of Taiwan. Situated 62 kilometers off Taiwan’s southeastern coast, its battered, rugged landscapes bear testimony to the relentless onslaught it receives from the wind, sun, and Pacific Ocean. And the people who live there, relatively isolated by their remote location, enjoy a rich, timeless culture that has more in common with life in the Philippines than mainland Taiwan.

Stunning Scenery

Sparsely populated and largely undeveloped, Orchid Island is dominated by its landscapes. Steep grassy hills and rough outcrops of jagged volcanic rock rise, sometimes from the water’s edge, to grand heights. Elsewhere, the weathered coastline has a starkness to it that, though it might not properly be called beautiful, is about as striking as scenery ever gets.

Most of the tourist brochures will direct you towards rock formations that resemble animals and, in one case, a battleship. These features are impressive, especially Dragon Head Rock, but the more enduring sights are to be found along the many footpaths that give you better glimpses of the island’s rough bays and ragged capes.

The best way to see it all is to travel along the main road that runs around the island. If you rent a scooter at the airport or ferry harbor, you’ll be able to complete the journey in a few hours. Quite a lot of people follow this hurried schedule, as it allows them to fly to and from the island and see the main attractions in a single day. Unless you’re severely pushed for time, though, you’d be advised to stay longer and properly take in the island’s charms.

There are a few roads and footpaths leading inland, but as they’re generally not well maintained, they might not be appealing to all visitors. One of the better roads winds its way inland near to Yenyin Village on the eastern side of the island. It leads towards the weather station, where you can get great views of the entire island. Further south, there’s a footpath to Lanyu Pond. The locals say it’s a challenging walk, so it might be best left to keen hikers. Remember to take sun cream, a hat, and plenty of water with you if you go for a walk, as the temperatures can get very high in June.

Yami Culture

Most of Orchid Island’s permanent residents belong to the Yami aboriginal tribe, and their distinctive culture is one of the main reasons why Taiwanese people venture out to the island. Unlike the rest of Taiwan’s aborigines, the Yami are fishermen and their various festivals and ceremonies celebrate that heritage.

For hundreds of years, the most important time of the year for them has been flying fish season. During this period, huge schools of flying fish swim through the waters off Orchid Island, and the Yami fishermen work hard to catch as many as they can. They still go out to sea in traditional, handcrafted vessels that are painted white with red and black patterns. These boats have become a symbol of the island and appear on many souvenirs. By visiting Orchid Island in June, you should be able to the real boats in action.

At this time, there should also be several boat launching ceremonies on the island. These are very important events, and hundreds of local people might come together to take part in the proceedings. The men wear their traditional costumes, which consist of little more than loincloths. They sing songs, pray for safety and a good catch, and then then pull angry faces, shout, and make gestures to scare away evil spirits. While that’s going on, the men will hit the boat before lifting and throwing it into the air. If you get the chance to see a boat launching ceremony, you shouldn’t miss it. Unfortunately, the exact dates of these events are often not advertised months in advance, so ask the owner of your hotel or hostel. People are very proud of their culture, and they’ll likely be very happy to help you.

Another interesting feature of the local culture is the practice of building houses underground. The Yami constructed their homes like this for centuries as a way to protect themselves from typhoons and the summer heat. Underground homes didn’t meet with the approval of Taiwan’s former leader Chiang Kai shek, however, and after he visited the island, people were forced to move into new, above-ground houses. There are still a few traditional homes left in Yenyin Village on the east of the island, and you can see a recreated underground home in the Lanyu Museum, which is just south of the airport in Hungtou Village. The museum is also a great place to learn about Orchid Island’s boats and fishing culture.

Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
During the summer months, Orchid Island is an ideal location for snorkeling and diving. The warm waters are perfect for swimming in, and they’re also brimming with plants and animals. Not far offshore, coral reefs provide the perfect home for sea snakes and well over a thousand species of brightly colored tropical fish. If you join an organized snorkeling trip, you’re guaranteed to see a spectacular display of underwater life.

Those with scuba diving certification can venture further out to sea. The highlight for divers is a sunken cargo ship that now supports a vibrant coral reef system. At these depths, in addition to the fish and snakes, it’s also possible that you might see green turtles swimming by.

Scuba and snorkeling businesses, where you can hire equipment and guides, can be found all over the island. They’re especially plentiful on the west coast where the best diving spots and snorkeling beaches are located.

The Wildlife
Animal life is just as plentiful back on land. The most visible and numerous creatures are the goats that roam freely across the island. During your time there, you’ll see them wandering along the roadside, scampering up cliffs, and sitting in bus shelters. There are even stories of them finding their way into hostels and homestays.

Anyone venturing inland along the hiking paths will undoubtedly see large spiders and lizards on their way, but the land animals that attract the most visitors are the birds. Photographers and birdwatchers flock to Orchid Island every year to see the wide range of species that make their home there. The bird they most want to see is the Lanyu Scops-Owl, a small and very rare brown owl that can only be found on the island. You’ll be lucky to see one yourself, since they generally hunt at night, but brightly colored birds such as the Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and the Ruddy Kingfisher are not an uncommon sight.

What you need to know

Getting there

By air – Daily Air operates six flights between Taitung and Orchid Island every day. As the planes are small, seats are limited so make sure you book tickets well in advance. Flights last about 25 minutes, and a return trip will cost you NT$2,690.

By sea – Ferry tickets are slightly cheaper, NT$1,040 for a one-way ticket, and NT$2,000 for a return. However, trips last around two and a half hours, and the conditions can get very bad. Call Gold Star Ferries on 089 280226 to ask about dates and times of travel. There is no fixed schedule as the boats only run when the seas are calm and there are enough passengers. Ferries should run regularly in the summer, when the seas are calmer and there is greater demand for seats.

Since both ferries and planes can get cancelled when the weather gets too bad, you should be aware that you might have to stay on the island a bit longer than you originally planned. There shouldn’t be many cancellations in the summer, though.

Getting around

Orchid Island is a small place, and if you’re fit and healthy it’s possible to get around on foot. If you want an easier option, you can rent scooters or bicycles from the airport or harbor. It’s unlikely you’ll get asked for a driver’s license if you ask for a scooter, but unless you’ve got experience riding them, Orchid Island isn’t the safest place to do it due to the strong winds.

Where to stayMost of the accommodation on Orchid Island comes in the form of hostels and homestays. Rooms are generally simple and inexpensive, and you’ll find places to stay in almost every village.

For something more luxurious, try the Orchid Island Leisure Hotel, which is just north of the airport in Yeyou Village. Double rooms in the hotel’s old building start at NT$1,800, while in the new building, they cost NT$4,800. For reservations, call 089 732032.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Nantou's Unsung Treasures

This article was published in Verve – EVA Airways’ in-flight magazine – in September, 2011.

Situated in the mountainous heart of Taiwan, Nantou is a county of colossal peaks and heart-stopping scenery. While the jewel in the region’s crown would have to be the idyllic Sun Moon Lake, those who travel through Nantou will discover a land of dense forests, hot spring resorts, and gorgeous mountain destinations.

An Alpine Paradise

Known locally as “Taiwan’s little Switzerland,” Chingjing Farm is home to some breathtaking views. The scenery is a bizarre but beautiful mix of European and Taiwanese sights, in which fir trees and lush, green, Alpine meadows sit side-by-side with terraced tea plantations and precipitous valleys. Located 1,750 meters above sea level, Chingjing Farm has a relatively cool climate, and it rarely gets above 25 degrees. However, it’s easy to get burned when you’re this high in the mountains, so remember the sun cream – especially if you’re with children. To enjoy the scenery at its best, wake up early in the morning, when the sky is usually at its clearest.

Chingjing Farm’s pastures are usually occupied by large flocks of sheep grazing on the abundant grass. Although sheep are generally recognized as being skittish creatures, the animals here are incredibly tame and even allow people to pat their heads and stroke their fleeces. Twice a day from Thursdays to Tuesdays, there’s a sheep-shearing show featuring shearers all the way from New Zealand. The performance is entertaining and mildly educational, and it’s definitely one for the kids. All in all, Chingjing Farm really is a family-friendly location. Not only is it rare to get this close to animals in such a safe and clean setting, but there also shows with expert horse-riders and the walking paths here are short and enjoyable.

If you have enough energy left at the end of the day, you might want to spend some time stargazing. The altitude, coupled with the lack of city lights, means that you’ll get a fantastic view of the night sky.

Days spent in Chingjing could hardly be described as strenuous, but for something even more relaxing, head a few kilometers down the road to the Lushan Hot Springs. The waters here are without color or scent, and they’re supposed to be beneficial for those suffering with skin disorders or high blood pressure. If you want to take a dip, there’s a pool at the spring head, or you could head to one of the town’s many hotels. It is possible to spend the night in Lushan, but the surroundings are much nicer back up in Chingjing Farm.

Both locations are fairly easy to get to as regular buses run up and down the mountain from Puli. The trip to Chingjing Farm takes less than 1-1/2 hours and buses stop at the entrance to the Lushan Hot Springs area on the way. Puli itself is easily reached by bus from the Taichung High Speed Rail Station.

The Rooftop of Taiwan
At 3,416 meters high, Hehuanshan is one Taiwan’s tallest mountains. It’s also one of the island’s most accessible 3,000-meter-plus peaks, as the road that winds its way through Chingjing Farm continues on almost to the top of the mountain. It actually reaches a height of 3,275 meters before descending eastwards into Hualien County and the beautiful Taroko National Park.

On a clear day, the scenery here is nothing short of spectacular. In the early mornings, you’ll often find yourself looking out over a rolling sea of clouds that fills the valleys below you, and when the clouds clear, you’ll be met by perfect blue skies set against long, green mountain ridges.

Having come so far, it would be a shame not to stretch your legs and scale one of the many peaks in the area. The trailheads for both the Hehuanshan Main Peak and Shihmenshan can be found in the Wuling Car Park at the highest point on the road. Neither path requires that you be a particularly experienced hiker, but since it’s a 4-hour round-trip to the top of Hehuanshan, you do need to be fairly fit to take on the challenge. Shihmenshan is a much easier proposition, and most people are able to get up and down in under 45 minutes. If you do make your way up into the mountains, make sure you bring warm clothes as the temperature can drop very quickly, even in the summer.

You can get to Hehuanshan from Chingjing Farm by bus, but there’s usually only one service a day, so unless you’ve got your own transportation, you should think about spending the night in the Hehaunshan Cottage. Be advised that it can get busy, especially on weekends, so call in advance to book a room – 04-25229797.

Forest Hideaway

If you’re looking for calm and serenity, The Hsitou Forest Recreation Area is the place to come in central Taiwan. The forest stretches across 2,500 hectares of land in southern Nantou, and its scale and dense growth of trees ensures that the area retains a sense of tranquility even on busy weekends.

A number of trails leading around the site, and they range in difficulty from the very easy to the long and arduous. You don’t need to worry about accidentally stumbling onto the wrong path, though, as everything is well signposted in both English and Chinese. Depending on where you walk, you’ll come across plantations of tall conifers, the swaying stems and fluttering leaves of giant bamboo, and ginkgo trees, whose leaves will begin to turn a deep yellow in late September to early October.

Wherever you decide to walk, you’ll find the forest teeming with wildlife. Don’t be surprised to see squirrels leaping from tree to tree or to hear birdsong throughout the day. If you’re on one of the longer, steeper paths, you might also catch sight of families of monkeys playing in the trees.

To allow elderly and disabled visitors easier access to the park, there’s now an electric buggy available for hire from the campsite office. You will need to make a reservation at least seven days in advance. For further enquiries, call 049-2612210.

Getting to Hsitou is fairly straightforward as regular tourist shuttle buses run between the Taichung High Speed Rail Station and the recreation area. Accommodation is also easy to find as there are a large number of hotels in the area.

Waterfalls and Tea

Shanlinhsi, or Sun Link Sea as it’s generally called in tourist brochures, is known for its tea and its waterfalls. The Taiwanese love their tea, and the oolong leaves grown in the region are reputed to be among the best found anywhere on the island. Due to the purity of the air here, tea grown in this area is particularly smooth and has a slightly sweet aftertaste. To try it for yourself, just head into one of the tea shops you’ll find alongside the hotels and restaurants at the center of the Sun Link Sea Forest Recreation Area.

The relatively small recreation area is joined together by a series of short, wooden-decked pathways. None of them should take more than an hour to complete, and the scenery they pass through is very picturesque, especially during fall, when the leaves of the maple trees turn a bright red. The waterfalls in the area are all easy to get to, and the most impressive of them is the Qingyun Waterfall, which cascades down a 116-meter-high rock face.

A regular bus service links Sun Link Sea and Hsitou.

The Jewel in the Crown – Sun Moon Lake

For years, Sun Moon Lake has been Taiwan’s number one honeymoon destination, and it’s not difficult to see why. Its picture-book beauty is enchanting throughout the year and at all times of the day. In the sunlight, the sparkling, blue waters of the lake contrast perfectly with the surrounding tree-lined mountains, and when clouds envelop the landscape, the scenery takes on a more intimate and romantic atmosphere.

There are a number of interesting sights around the lake, including the massive Wen Wu Temple, the smaller, beautifully decorated Hsuanchuang Temple, and the Tsuen Pagoda. Climb to top of the pagoda for the best views of the lake – it’s especially nice to come here in the evening to watch the sun set over the horizon.

Sun Moon Lake is also an important center for aboriginal culture, as the area is the historical home of the Thao tribe. Large numbers of aborigines still live here, and you can find traditional crafts and foods in the lakeside town of Idasho.

To get to Sun Moon Lake, take the tourist shuttle bus from the Taichung High Speed Rail Station.

The Hengchun Peninsula

This article was written for the Travel in Taiwan magazine. To read the published version, follow this link

Isolated, sparsely populated, and largely undeveloped, The Hungchun Peninsula is a world apart from the rest of the country. Although dominated by the bright lights of Kenting, it’s also home to an incredible range of attractions and highlights that includes barren coastal grasslands, towering sand dunes, and small farming villages that time has forgotten. The East Coast stretch, in particular, shouldn’t be missed.

I didn’t know anything about any of that, however, until a few weeks ago. Before then, my stunted spirit of adventure and curiosity had only taken me as far as Erluanbi, which isn’t very far at all. It all changed when I found myself at a loose end in Kaohsiung and decided to take a road trip. Setting off from Kaohsiung, I drove south to Checheng for the start of a looping route that would take me around the entire Hungchun Peninsula.

The first, and probably most important, thing to say about this drive is that it’s not short, and there are a lot of places to stop off at along the way. You can definitely do it in a single day, but if that is your goal then try and plan out your trip before you set off. You can’t visit every tourist stop along the way, so pick out the two or three you most want to see, and leave the rest for another time.

After grabbing a bit to eat in Checheng, I hit Highway 26 and headed south. It wasn’t long before I passed signs for the National Museum of Marine Biology. I’d definitely like to check out the museum, but I wanted to see the rest of the peninsula more, so on I went. The first sizable town you pass on the route is Hungchun. It’s an ancient settlement, and there are signs in both English and Chinese leading you through the town to its old gates, but in all honesty, there are far more impressive sights further on.

South of Hungchun, rolling, inland hills make for a picturesque drive, and it’s easy to make good time down the wide, well-maintained Highway 26. It was tempting to plough on all the way to Nanwan, but I decided instead turn onto road 153 and head southwest to a little coastal town called Maobitou. The turnoff is on the left just after the 29km sign; it’s marked by a huge tourist hoarding bearing the number 153 and a few names in Chinese. The roads after this point aren’t exactly straightforward, and having a good map will come in handy. I’d recommend getting the Kenting/South-Link Highway map in the orange, Map King (兜風地圖王) series, as it covers the entire Hungchun Peninsula in detail.

Although small, Maobitou Park has some gorgeous coastal scenery. The cliffs here are made of dark, craggy rock and jagged coral formations, and they’re topped by dense outgrowths of coarse plants and mangrove thickets.

Retrace your path back to Highway 26 and continue on to Nanwan, which is a bit of a local mecca for water activities like jet skiing and riding banana boats. Stuff like this is great fun if you’re with friends or family, but if you’re on your own, like I was that day, then riding a banana boat would just be a bit weird. Nanwan’s also a great place to stop if you’re feeling hungry, as there are a string of cheap restaurants to lunch in.

There are more restaurants a couple of kilometers down the road in Kenting, and I stopped for lunch in Smokey Joe’s Café. You’ll pay NT$400-500 for a meal and a drink, so it’s a bit more expensive than other places in town, but it’s got a nice atmosphere and good service, and the Tex-Mex food they serve is delicious. You’ll find it at the far end of town next to the Howard Resort Hotel.

Kenting is really a nighttime town, and if you’re around after the sun goes down, you’ll find the main street filled with people and a lively night market. Daytimes, though, are fairly quiet, so after eating I went back through the town and headed for the Kenting Forest Recreation Area and the Sheding Nature Park. If you enjoy nature then you’ll find both destinations great places to stop off at. Which one you choose really just depends on how much time you have, as the Kenting Forest Recreation Area is far bigger than the Sheding Nature Park. I went for the latter option and had an hour-long walk through narrow caves and open grasslands.

Sheding isn’t well-signposted, but you can easily get to it by driving a few kilometers past the clearly marked road to the Kenting Recreation Area. If you follow the road along after Sheding, you’ll come out on Highway 26 at the eastern end of Kenting. You might also get a sight of some rare wildlife – I was lucky enough and totally amazed to see a beautiful golden brown deer run across the road about 10 meters in front of my scooter.

About 10km down the road, you’ll pass Erluanbi, which stands as mainland Taiwan’s southernmost point. A lot of people come here to walk and take pictures of the views, but I was eager to head on up the east coast. I’d never traveled along that stretch of road before, and it wasn’t long before I was mesmerized by the scenery. Wide, flat expanses of grass and heathland dominate the surroundings, the only breaks coming where the vegetation has been worn down to reveal the hard, rust-red earth underneath. To enjoy the landscape more fully, stop at Longpan Park or Fengchuishan, which you’ll find about 5 and 8km north of Erluanbi.

About 20 minutes north of Fengchuishan, Highway 26 stops. You will meet it again further along the route, but the road only continues in isolated sections. The end of this stretch is marked by Jialeshui, a tourist destination that apparently features some incredible rock formations. If, like me, you decide not to go, then don’t drive all the way to the end of Highway 26. Instead, about 5km north of Fengchuishan, start looking for road 200甲 on your left. Follow it along till you meet road 200. If you need gas, then turn left and head inland for a few hundred meters. I don’t remember seeing another gas station for at least 30 or 40km, so it’s not a bad idea to fill up.

Your gas needs met, head west and then north along road 200. You’ll soon pass the town of Manzhou and then it’s another 20km to the next stop off point. The lush, gentle hills and beautiful, rural countryside give you more than enough things to look at until you get back onto Highway 26 and arrive in Gangzai. This town is home to some colossal sand dunes, which are sometimes advertised on roadside signs as the Gangzai Big Desert. The largest of the dunes must be at least three or four stories high, and I don’t think there’s anything quite like it anywhere else in Taiwan. Some of the townspeople have set up businesses renting out jeeps and quad bikes that you can drive over the sand, but after spending so long sitting on my scooter, I was happy just to get out and stretch my legs with a walk.

Back on Highway 26, the scenery is once again breathtaking. The road hugs the meandering coastline and looking north, you’ll see promontory after promontory standing resilient against the power of the sea. This section of the highway is about 10km long and terminates at the beginning of road 199甲, which takes you back inland. The first place of interest, Xuhai, is only a few minutes down the road and you should look out for a small 3km side road leading to the Xuhai grasslands.

The longest of the walks at the grasslands should take about an hour finish and will lead you past a small herd of thankfully tame rather long-horned cows. You wouldn’t need to walk that far, however, to enjoy a wonderful elevated view of the coastline you’ve just driven up.

As you head further inland, the 199甲 meets up with the 199, which will take you all the way back to Checheng. The road’s about 25km long and takes you past shallow hills and rice fields. It’s all nice enough, but it can’t really compare to the scenery you’ll have already driven past. If you’re running low on gas, there is a station about halfway along the road in Shimen.

Plan your route well and riding the Hungchun Peninsula makes for a fantastic day. There really is nowhere else in Taiwan like this, and I know I’ll be going back. There are new places I want to see, like Jialeshui, and other things I can’t wait to see again.


Waterfalls, beautiful scenery, hiking trails and gorgeous tea – it can all be found in Rueili, Chiayi County. An article I wrote about the area was published in the Taipei Times in September, 2011. To read the article, follow this link

Bitou: The Perfect Spot to See the Sea

Bitou Cape in northern Taiwan is home to some of Taiwan’s most breathtaking coastal scenery. An article I wrote about it was published in the Taipei Times. To read the article, follow this link

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Xinyi - Inside Out

Written for "Verve" - the Eva Air magazine

With its department stores and elegant restaurants, street performers and inviting avenues, the Xinyi district is the perfect place to spend your downtime in Taipei. And as the refined and oftentimes luxurious interiors contrast so perfectly with the vibrant, exciting atmosphere to be found outside, there are really two Xinyis for you to explore and enjoy.


Taipei 101

Standing an incredible 508 meters high, 101 is the world’s second tallest building, and it dominates the Taipei skyline. It’s not just the magnitude of the structure that captures the eye, but also the design features that make is so reminiscent of the bamboo that grows throughout Southeast Asia.

As with most of the world’s tall buildings, one of the chief attractions here is an observatory with excellent views of the surrounding city. There is a large, indoor area with souvenir shops, and if you’re lucky and the weather conditions are right, you’ll be allowed up onto a higher, outdoor observation deck.

The 101 complex also has an adjoining shopping center, where the vast majority of the stores are distinctly upmarket. You’ll find internationally recognized designer labels and a range of luxury items. There’s also a great bookshop with thousands of English titles, some fantastic restaurants, and one of the best supermarkets on the island – Jason’s. It stocks a wide range of imported produce, so if you’re in need of some home comforts, this is the place to come.

Taipei World Trade Center

Right next door to 101 is the main building of the Taipei World Trade Center, which hosts a number of internationally important exhibitions and trade fairs. Although it’s primarily a center for business, many of the events held there appeal to members of the public just as much as to industry insiders. The biggest exhibition on this month is Computex – Asia’s largest computer show. From May 31 to June 4, the biggest IT companies from around the world will join local manufacturers like Asus and Acer to display their latest products and innovations. For a complete list of exhibitions taking place during your stay, visit the TWTC website at

Eslite Bookstore

It doesn’t matter if you’re not an avid reader, the Eslite Bookstore has so many non-book-related stores offering such a wide variety of products that you’re bound to find something here to interest you. It’s definitely the place to go if you’re buying gifts for people back home, as there are dozens of quirky or high-end outlets offering everything from luxury writing tools to herbal teas to clever novelty items.

That said, it’s not called a bookstore for nothing, and if you are looking for reading material, Eslite should be your first stop. In addition to a wide selection of English-language books, there are also sections for French, Japanese, and simplified Chinese literature. There’s an entire floor of children’s books, and, if you’re after something a little lighter, there’s even a huge range of magazines from around the world.

Wining and Dining

Shinyeh 101

When in Taiwan, eat as the Taiwanese eat, and there’s no better place to sample the local cuisine than Sinyeh 101. Not only is the food sumptuous, but as the restaurant’s located on the 85th floor of Taipei 101, you’ll also be treated to some spectacular views.

Address: Floor 85, Taipei 101, 7 Xinyi Road, Section 5 Tel: 02 8101 0185

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon

No introduction to Taipei dining would be complete without mentioning the restaurant opened by “Chef of the Century,” Joël Robuchon. The food here, which is largely modern French cuisine, is simply exquisite, but what else would you expect from a man whose restaurants have picked up 26 Michelin stars? To avoid disappointment, make sure you book well in advance.

Address: Floor 5, Bella Vita, 28 Songren Road Tel: 02 8729 2628

Brown sugar

Brown Sugar is one of Taipei’s best nightspots. As a restaurant, it offers an international menu and an excellent choice of wines, and as a venue for live jazz music, it hosts sets from the cream of the local talent and musicians from around the world.

Address: 101 Songren Road Tel: 02 8780 1110

Eslite Beer Cellar

This is a fun and lively place with an overtly German theme. The waiters and waitresses dress up in traditional German costume, and the furnishings are simple and rustic. As well as the obligatory sausage and sauerkraut, the menu is packed with fairly unhealthy cheesy, meaty snacks. The real draw, though, is the locally brewed, German-style beer.

Address: Floor B1, Eslite Bookstore, 11 Songgao Road Tel: 02 8789 5911


Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store

The Xinyi district is home to some of the finest city scenery you’ll find anywhere in the world. There’s a genuinely eclectic mix of architecture that looks great in the daytime and simply stunning at night when the buildings are tastefully lit up with LED and neon light displays. The best places to take all this in are the broad walkways around Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store’s four buildings.

These spaces are also home to an array of street performers and craft stalls. There’s a fantastic range and variety of people plying their trade here, and on any given evening, you could see singers, portrait painters, gymnasts, and vendors selling all manner of interesting keepsakes.

The Vieshow Cinema Complex

The space outside the 18-screen Vieshow movie theater attracts a much younger crowd than is typically drawn to the walkways around the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store. While those areas have a relaxed charm and toned-down atmosphere, this one all about youthful energy. The street performers are louder and a little cockier, and with their clever and well-rehearsed dance routines, they generally attract a large audience. The crowds might be a problem in other parts of Taipei, where some people seem more than happy to push, jostle, and elbow you out of their way. In Xinyi, though, you’ll rarely see – or feel – this kind of thing.

Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall

With its yellow-tiled, sloping roof and meticulously ordered grounds, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall looks more like something you’d expect to find in an Eastern Bloc country than on the outskirts of the Xinyi district. But then, it was built in honor of republican China’s founding father, and work finished on the site around 40 years ago – 40 years in which Taiwan has developed almost beyond recognition.

History lovers should get a kick out of the exhibitions inside the building, and the hourly, changing-of-the-guard ceremony is well worth watching. More than all that, though, and the reason why the locals come back here again and again, is the fact that it’s just a lovely place to spend a few relaxing hours. There’s a real family feeling to the venue, and as it attracts the full cross-section of Taiwanese society, it’s a great place to people-watch and learn a little more about the culture in this country.

Stretch your Legs on Elephant Mountain

No matter where you go in Taiwan, you’ll never be too far away from lush, green mountains or hills, and Xinyi is no exception. Just a short walk or an even shorter taxi ride from the commercial center is Elephant Mountain. Despite the name, it’s not really a mountain as it’s only about 180 meters tall. That’s still high enough, though, to give you an incredible vantage point over the city.

Although the short, paved trail is fairly easy to walk, even for those who don’t do a lot of exercise, it is steep along the majority of its course, so climbing Elephant Mountain will be too strenuous for some. If you do make it to the top, you’ll find the views, especially at sunset, are well worth the effort.

Elephant Mountain is just one part of Taipei’s Four Beasts Mountain, the others being Tiger, Lion, and Leopard Mountains. It never gets very high – just 350 meters at the highest point – and there are paths leading from Elephant Mountain to the other peaks. Unfortunately, the signs and maps you’ll find en route are mostly in Chinese, but you can always ask one of the locals if you’re unsure of which direction to head off in. You will find bathrooms and resting points along the way, so afternoon- or day-long hikes are possible; just make sure you take enough food and drinking water with you.

The walking trails will also give you a good chance to see a selection of the local wildlife. It’s incredible how many different species can be found so close to the city, and birds, colorful spiders, frogs, bats, lizards, and even snakes can be seen on the slopes of Elephant Mountain. And as fireflies are still active in June, don’t be surprised to see a few glowing orbs flying around if you’re there after dark.

To get to Elephant Mountain, turn onto Songren Road from Xinyi Road, and then take the first left onto Songqin Road. Follow the road around a corner and past a small park, and when you reach the end of the road, turn left up a small hill, and you should find the trail head. It’s a lot easier than it sounds, and there are signposts to help you find your way.

The rapidly developing Xinyi district offers visitors to Taiwan a glimpse of the country’s future. It’s clean, convenient, and has bags of character; it is the perfect place to spend your downtime, and could easily become one of your highlights, too. Whether you want to shop and dine in air-conditioned comfort or hit the streets to take in the sights and sounds of the city, Xinyi has it all – inside and out.


An article written for the Taiwan Culture Portal. For the original, go to

There’s never going to be a shortage of places to go in Taipei when the sun goes down, and most of them are pretty nice. Fortunately for those of us who live up here, though, there are a few nightspots that offer something a little bit extra, and where a good night out is all but guaranteed. The vibrant, university district of Gongguan is one of those of those places, and it owes much of its appeal to the fact that the area actually seems to take on a life of its own after the sun goes down. The roads and lanes around Ting Zhou Road are packed full with restaurants, shops, bars, and food stalls; there’s so much variety, so many people walking around, and so much to see and do that it’s difficult not to get infected by the energy of the place.

In fact, Gongguan is comprised of so many different elements that it’s almost impossible to write about as a whole, so here it is, piece by piece.


The first thing you need to know about restaurants in Gongguan is that there are more Thai eateries here than anywhere else this side of Bangkok. In truth, it’s hard to tell most of them apart as they all seem to offer decent food at decent prices, but for me, there is one that stands out. It’s called 泰國小館 and you’ll find it on Ting Zhou Road. The décor really isn’t that great – it actually looks a bit like a cross between a poor person’s front room and a dirty backstreet shop – but you should overlook that, as they serve up cheap and fairly authentic food.

Over the last few months, brick oven pizza shops seem to have sprung up all over Taipei, so it should be no surprise to find one in Gongguan. It’s not the easiest place to find as it’s located down a little alley – Roosevelt Road, Lane 12, but it’s worth tracking down because the pizzas are fairly tasty and, at just NT$100 each, represent great value.

As you might expect, Gongguan has its share of restaurants selling hot pot, steak, and what passes in this country for curry. Now, I’m prepared to say it’s a cultural thing, but I don’t understand curry in Taiwan. I’ve grown up with good Indian cuisine, so Taiwanese curry houses with their dishes of chicken, breaded pork chop, or chewy bits of beef served in either a yellowish-brown or chocolate-brown sauce are a source of constant disappointment to me.

Anyway, on a slightly more elevated note, there are a couple of airline-themed restaurants on Ting Zhou Road, where diners sit on airplane seats and are served by waiting staff dressed as flight attendants.

Street Vendors

As if all of that wasn’t enough food, there’s also all the food stalls. Gongguan does have a pretty big and varied nightmarket where you can buy everything from sweet and savory snacks right on up to full-scale meals. As well as the inevitable dumplings, fried chicken, and spring onion pancakes, you’ll also find deep-fried breaded cheeses, sushi, Vietnamese cuisine, and, for some reason, barbecued duck’s head. It’s always good to sample local delicacies, but you also have to know your limits, and there are some foods that it’s probably better just to walk away from.

With these stalls, the attraction is generally the food rather than the vendors, but there are a few exceptions, and it’s hard not to turn your head and look when some girl with a squeaky voice keeps on saying “can can oh” (take a look). It’s not that these girls were born with squeaky voices; they just try to sound like pre-pubescent cartoon characters because, apparently, Taiwanese guys like that kind of thing. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.


It might not be the most obvious aspect of the neighborhood, but Gongguan does have a good bar scene. As seems always to be the case with Gongguan, there’s a wide range of places to choose from, and no matter how you like to drink your beer, you should find something to suit you.

If you head into the lanes behind XinSheng Road, you’ll find a few lounge bars where you can relax and enjoy a good Belgian beer. The best is probably Café Bastille, which has a good atmosphere, a great choice of imported premium beers, and a pretty good menu as well. For something a little bit cheaper and livelier, check out the beer garden near to the Water Park just off Ting Zhou Road. On summer evenings especially, there’s a great atmosphere, and it’s the perfect place to go with a big group of friends. Finally, there’s The Wall, which must rank as one of the city’s best live music venues. It’s located on the intersection of Roosevelt and Keelung Roads.


This is primarily a student area, so it’s probably not the best to come if you’re after high-end goods, but otherwise, there’s not much you can’t find in Gongguan. There are clothes shops and boutiques, sportswear stores, places to buy new and second-hand books, glasses, fashion accessories, and countless other things as well.

There are so many different things that could attract you to spend the night in Gongguan. In addition to everything written about above, there’s also a movie theater, a riverside park, and university grounds to wander around in. More important than any of the individual elements, though, is the fact that the area is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Almost everywhere you go, there’s be a fresh assault on your senses with interesting people and things to see, foods to smell and taste, and music pouring out of shops. Why not add to the variety, drama, and excitement and take a trip down there for yourself?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


At Taiwan’s northernmost reaches is a stretch of land known locally as Tiaoshih Haian – The Thrown Rock Coast. It got its name from the boulders and rocks strewn on its beaches. There are several of them, and they’re all well worth spending a few hours on. The beaches are gorgeous, but they’re not the area’s only attractions.

The beauty of this and indeed any coastline is always based on the interaction of land and sea. Waves are forced to break and crash as they reach the shore, and, in turn, this continual action deposits sand on beaches and pounds away at rocky promontories and cliffs. As you travel along Taiwan’s northern coast, you’ll be met with incredible views of lush, green headlands seemingly forcing their way out into the ocean, and of waters intruding into quiet bays. Nowhere is this interplay more evident than in Yehliu – the north coast’s crowning glory.

It’s amazing what a few thousand years of erosion can do, and in Yehliu, you get to see almost everything that it’s capable of. In the town’s geopark (admission: adults – NT50, students and children – NT25) there are rocks shaped like honeycomb, others like tofu, and one that looks like an angel’s slipper. Most spectacular, though, are the mushroom stones with their tall narrow pillars and large, wide heads. They were formed by the sea, wind, and rain cutting away the softer underlying sandstone, leaving a greater mass of harder stone resting on top. The most famous of these mushroom stones is the Queen’s Head Rock, which, when looked at from the right angle, looks amazingly like a silhouette of Queen Nefertiti.

It is a fantastic sight, but it’s now become so popular that on busy days, you’ll have to wait in line for anything up to an hour to see and photograph the thing. For me, it’s not really worth it, especially as the best parts of Yehliu lie elsewhere. The path inside the geopark leads you among the mushroom rocks and then further out along the promontory. After crossing a bridge, it’ll take you up a hill towards a lighthouse. A lot of people don’t bother to climb all the way up, but you really should. Not only will you get some great views of the area, but it’ll also help you escape the crowds.

For me, though, to find the best scenery, you’ll have to walk about half a kilometer east along the coast. The rocks there may not look like people or animals or forms of footwear, but they actually display the beauty of nature all the better for that. Some of the rocks here are fascinating, as they’re made up of layers of differently colored sand. Reds, whites, yellows, and oranges dip and rise, and swirl in elaborate patterns across the rock face.

There are also huge towers of stone where layers of yellow sandstone are sandwiched between thin sheets of darker rock. The latter has eroded much more slowly and is left jutting out into the air. And finally, there are softly undulating sections of rock that flow out towards to the sea. They’re great to clamber over, the slightly abrasive nature of sandstone giving your feet excellent grip. However, you should still be careful if you go near the water’s edge. Some of the rocks are very steep, and you can never really be sure that a big wave isn’t going to suddenly come and wash over the stone. Stay away from the sides, though, and you won’t have any problems. As the rock rises upwards away from the sea, it leads to what must have been an old army lookout post. It’s a wonderful piece of history, and it’s great to be able to crawl around the tunneled out cavern and look out towards the sea from the carved out windows.

If and when you get tired of geology, there’s still a lot more to see and do. Outside the geological park is Yehliu Ocean Park, where, for three hundred dollars, you can be entertained by dolphin shows. And what Taiwanese tourist spot would be complete without a row of stalls selling souvenirs and food? The specialty here is dried fish snacks.

A few miles down the coast is the Green Bay resort area. There are a few nice hotels here, but unfortunately, they control access to the beach. I’m told that anyone willing to pay the entrance fee will find a wild and wonderful world of water sports awaiting them. So, a banana boat and a couple of jet skis, then.

If you’ve still got some energy left, and if you’ve got a head for heights, there’s a place nearby where you can try your hand at paragliding. If you’re interested, just look out for the bright yellow parachutes and let them guide your way up the winding hillside road. Even if you don’t want to jump, the views from the launch site are incredible.

Yehliu has so much to offer, and it’s just one of many fantastic destinations on Taiwan’s wonderful northern coast.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Baguashan八卦山 is a great mass of hills and valleys that covers 22,000 hectares of west central Taiwan. To see everything it had to offer would take months, the more places you visit, the more you realize just how much there is left to see. From Changhua彰化 in the north, to Ershuei二水 in the south, the entire area is shot through with landmarks, theme parks, cycle routes, and hiking paths. It’s a beautiful area and I’ve been taking the time to explore just a little of what’s on offer. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Tianjhong Forest Park田中森林公園.

Baguashan is not a very tall mountain; in fact, it’s not really a mountain at all. The highest point stands at a meager 440 meters, and Tianjhong Forest Park doesn’t even get as high as that. That slight shortcoming aside though, the park seems to have it all; it’s really very pretty, it has great views, and, over its course, you walk through a range of different types of vegetation. The path is also suitable for regular hikers, occasional walkers, or those just out for a breath of fresh air.

As you set out from the car park, you snake your way up and over the first of a series of hills. The route is undulating enough to give experienced hikers a good workout, but doesn’t have any of the steep climbs that might deter less frequent walkers.

The slopes and valleys make for a picturesque trail, and after a few hundred meters you begin to get glimpses of the Great Changhua Plain. The view is marvelous, and from up high, looking down on the green paddy fields below, it’s easy to see why the area has been dubbed, “Taiwan’s major granary”.

Carry on walking and you’ll start to see signs for the Tea Trail. This is my favorite part of the route, and is perhaps the prettiest path I’ve ever been on. The tea plants are so well-groomed and neatly lined that they look more like the box hedges found in the gardens of European Manor houses. Their rich green color contrasts wonderfully with the orange earth and almost purple leaves of young pineapple plants.

Coming here is like taking a step back to a more simple time. There is a small village comprised of single-story red-brick houses, complete with courtyards and perimeter walls. I’m not sure what it is about buildings like this, the attraction of other, more elaborate structures, seems to fade over time, but I still cannot find these little houses anything other than extremely charming.

When your senses have had their fill, there’s nothing left but to return home a happier, and a more carefree soul.

Jhanghu, Yunlin County

Imagine riding a motorbike down a country road. Steep river valley walls fall away beneath you on one side, and on the other, dense vegetation covers the hillside. It’s a sunny day, and the scenery is beautiful. Suddenly, no more than 5 meters in front of you, a small bird flies out of the trees and is quickly pursued by a huge eagle, its wingspan easily measuring well over a meter across. The eagle plucks the bird out of the air and flies away with his kill.

All this happened a few weeks ago while I was riding on the roads beside Chingshuei River清水河. The gorges and plunging valleys that line the river are the perfect places to spot eagles, usually soaring high above you, but sometimes, if you’re very very lucky, they burst from the trees and nearly make you crash your bike.

The Chingshuei River runs down through Nantou and into Yunlin County where it has cut for itself a formidable path through the surrounding rock. The resulting scenery and natural geographical features are wonderful, and also not particularly well known. Yunlin County doesn’t get much of entry in just about Taiwan guidebook you could ever lay your hands on. There may be a few lines about Douliou, its biggest city, but not much else. While it may be true that, compared to the scenic riches of its neighbors, Nantou and Chiayi, Yunlin appears a little impoverished, the area is not without appeal.

The small town of Jhanghu樟湖would be one example. It’s a tiny little town, so small you could easily drive past it without a second thought, but it’s also home a gorgeous little gorge.

The feature may not be as spectacular as places like Taroko, but what it lacks in heart stopping drama, it more than makes up for in simple, rustic charm. A small road leads down to a dirt path and suspension bridge, from there scramble over the rocks down to the riverside.

Walls of well chiseled rock loom over your head, while strewn at your feet, lie a mass of colored, patterned rocks and boulders. Oranges, yellows and browns are the predominant colors and interesting bright pink boulders complete the scene. The views both up, and downstream are lovely and full of promise. The only problem, and the gorge’s rather glaring flaw, is that it’s difficult to move very far in either direction. A waterfall blocks your path in one direction, and the river, wide and deceptively deep, stops you in the other. There are stepping stones to make your route easier, but they’re far apart and unless you’re long limbed, or come during a dry season, you find it to be a step too far.

If you do manage to get across, the terrain waiting for you remains virtually untouched. Perhaps the greatest example of this was a tiny canyon, carved from tightly packed sand. It appeared like a miniature version of the gorge surrounding it. Were the area more popular and accessible, the feature would have surely been destroyed by a succession of curious hands and careless feet.

Pleasant as it is, Jhanghu is not a place where you could spend a whole day, but don’t worry about that, just a few kilometers down the road is another gorge, the Ten Thousand Year Old Gorge 萬年峽谷 and Caoling草嶺, Yunlin’s most well-known tourist destination.

To get to Jhanghu, take the Meishan梅山 exit from Highway 3. Drive into Meishan and then follow the signs for the 149 road to Huashan華山. Stay on the 149 past Huashan and keep going till you reach Jhanghu.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Coffee central: Huashan

In a country that prides itself on producing some of the world’s best tea, Taiwan’s coffee industry is grinding out an ever greater niche. Still regarded by many as a foreigner’s drink, the people of Yunlin and Chiayi are proud that in the hills of Gukeng Township古坑, the people of Taiwan are able to grow their own, high quality coffee beans. The area, which lies on boundary of the two counties, is called Huashan華山, and has been rightly nicknamed, “The home of Taiwanese coffee”.

The African Arabica beans grown here have a taste that is at first bitter, but which then quickly melts in the mouth into a rich, sweet flavor that has people coming from as far away as Taipei and Kaoshiung just to enjoy. It’s not just the coffee that they come for of course, the area has a nice market and amusements area, some fantastic scenery, and a host of paths and trails on which to take a stroll or hike. To get there, take the Meishan exit off the number 3 highway. Drive into Meishan town梅山 and follow the road signs for the 149 road into Huashan.

It’s impossible to write about the area as a single place, because there really are three Huashans. There is the daytime place where families, friends, and couples come to have fun and relax, there’s the hiker’s Huashan, and then there’s the nighttime place when the town really comes alive. The one thing that links the scenes together is coffee, the town, and especially its tourist activity, revolves around the stuff. Not only can you buy it, drink it, and eat it in coffee flavored foods, but when the beans are in season the air itself carries a trace of its unmistakable scent.

During the daytime, hoards of people make the trip up the mountain to eat lunch, or just enjoy the atmosphere. The town, with its narrow inclined roads, and surrounding hills and mountains is charming, and the views, picturesque. The market stalls are full of locally made products and foodstuffs, and it’s a lot of fun just to walk around and take in the sights and sounds of small-town Taiwan. There are also several roadside shops where you can try your hand at pottery. For a few hundred dollars you’ll receive clay and time at a potter’s wheel. You may not make the most attractive mug in the world, but you’ll definitely have fun nonetheless. Finally, and as you might expect, coffee is for sale about everywhere you care to look.

One of the coffee shops where you can spin the potter's wheel

There are a dozen walking paths around town where you can take a quiet stroll, many of them lead, or at least claim to lead, to something called Turtle Head Mountain. I’d love to tell you what it’s like up there, but even though I’ve walked the paths a number of times I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve never actually found it. The paths are an absolute riddle, and the signposts don’t seem to help too much. It would be nice to get up there one day, but until I do, the paths still make for an enjoyable walk.

For something a little more strenuous, follow the road past the market and on out of town. When you reach a sign marked with the Chinese, 華山五號步道 (Huashan, number 5 walking path) park your bike or car and head off up the side road. The start of your route is inauspicious enough, but don’t let that deter you, it soon turns into something really special. After walking for about 30 minutes you start to see some of the most incredible views of the plains beneath you. The scene is fantastic, but the path is quite steep, so unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys hiking just for exercise, you should probably save it for a sunny day when the clear view of the lowlands will more than make up for your exertion. Even on a cloudy day however, there are things out there to entertain you. The wildlife is lovely, especially the brightly colored butterflies.

Finally, there’s the nighttime Huashan. After the sun goes down, the scores of coffee shops and restaurants turn on their lights and the mountain is lit up in a bright incandescent and neon glow. It’s strangely beautiful, and on a clear night when you can see the lights of nearby towns and cities, the view is stunning. The shops remain busy well into the night, and it’s no wonder because evenings, when you’re able to sit in the cool mountain air and gaze down on the lights below you, are the perfect times to enjoy the town’s most famous product.

In almost every way, Huashan is lovely little town, the perfect place for a full day, and night, of food, drink, and fun.