A tour of Taiwan presents top food, temples and serene views


Pat Levy enjoys life in the slow lane while traveling through the East Asian country

Taiwan, an island off the southeast coast of China, occupied by nationalist forces after their defeat by Mao Zedong in 1949, exists in a geopolitical limbo. Taiwanese people are friendly, shrugging off China’s claim of ownership, and their engaging culture is easily enjoyed: unspoiled countryside; cities and towns with modern architecture but also a reverence for cultural traditions (Taoist temples are everywhere) and a climate that becomes tropically warm as you travel south.

A slow boat down the the Sicao Green Tunnel, Tainan

A journey can begin by bypassing the capital and heading south from the airport to Taiwan’s second largest city, Taichung. It is home to the stunningly designed National Theatre, with a quality shop dedicated to handicrafts and a rooftop sky garden, best viewed in the evening with the stars above you. Very different is the Miyahara Eye Clinic, built in the late 1920s when Taiwan was occupied and ruled by the Japanese, now famous for its cream parlor serving bizarre fruit-, tea-, coffee- and chocolate-flavored toppings; the kumquat and Ugandan coffee is unique.

The country’s oldest and best preserved city, Tainan, is further south along the coast and traveling there sees the vegetation becoming tropical, with frangipani, banyan and golden rain trees replacing the deciduous trees of the north. Next door to the Just Sleep hotel, a good place to stay, is Ten Drum Culture Village. Covering over seven hectares, the machinery, pipework and vats of a former sugar refinery have been incorporated into a cultural fun fair — drum lessons, ziplines, rock climbing and a drum orchestra performing in a warehouse-turned-performance space — set in a steampunk garden with vines climbing crumbling walls and exotic birds flitting around.

The ex-mining town of Jiufen

Tainan’s Anping Tree House, once a warehouse owned by a British tea merchant, is now colonized by a huge, spreading banyan tree which has consumed the original building. Rooms and passageways, roofed and divided by the tree’s roots, have an eerie presence, but a nearby pond with egrets and cranes is reassuring. Also in Tainan, the Sicao Green Tunnel is a touristy but tranquil boat ride along a canal under mangrove trees. Tiny crabs scuttle out of the way and black-faced spoonbills can be spotted in the vicinity.

Retail therapy in Tainan comes by way of the Hayashi Department Store, an art deco building from the time of Japanese occupation, now filled to the rafters with Taiwanese-made gifts, clothes and cute paraphernalia. On the roof stands a Shinto shrine, a café and evidence of shell damage from the Second World War.

Heading into the deep south, some 90km below the tropic of cancer, brings you to Kaohsiung and all-out tropical temperatures. In typical Taiwanese fashion, old buildings are repurposed and sit alongside ultra-modern architecture in the harbor area. Here, at dusk, I enjoyed an unreal boat ride down Love River with a gondolier serenading passengers with a passing version of old Elvis songs. A ten-minute ferry ride from the harbor accesses Cijin Island and the beautiful 300-year-old Tianhou Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the sea. From here, a stroll leads up to the 19th-century Cijin Lighthouse and a different downhill route goes through the remains of an 18th-century fort to the black sands of Cijin beach for paddling, volleyball and a beachside café and bar serving Mexican food, English craft beers and cocktails.

Tianhou Temple

Tianhou Temple

High-speed trains from Kaohsiung take as little as 90 minutes to make the 350km journey north to the capital and its two must-see sights: the National Palace Museum, filled with gold, jade and other treasures from Beijing’s Forbidden City and brought to Taipei in 1949, and Taipei 101, half a kilometer in height. From the skyscraper’s 89th floor, reached in 37 seconds in a lift speeding at 1,010 meters per minute, you look down at packed arrays of building blocks occasionally intersected with strips of green framed by hills in the distance. Outside, the wind whips through the barriers and there’s a gentle if imaginary swaying feeling; the gigantic yellow ball that stabilizes the building can be seen one floor down. At ground level, tiny robots bring food and crockery at Din Tai Fong restaurant and chefs can be seen rolling out the best dumplings (including vegetarian and chocolate ones) you will ever taste.

Looking out from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

Looking out from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

Amba Taipei Songshan is a hotel that ticks all the boxes: next door to train and metro stations; attractive bedrooms with superb views; a restaurant serving steaks grilled over a fire of longan wood. For a splash-out Italian meal, Bencotto in the Mandarin Oriental hotel will not disappoint, while fans of sashimi and sushi can indulge at Ibuki and take in mesmeric night views from the rooftop health club.

My last day consisted of a trip to Jiufen, a former mining village in the mountains. Its narrow streets are filled with shops, restaurants and serene views of the coast. A memorable end to the friendly island of Taiwan.

The article is in Dutch

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