TAIPEI – It’s no surprise that Israelis are drawn to Taiwan.
Like Israel, it is a small, democratic country, rich in culture and natural beauty that has transformed itself from an agricultural society into a thriving technology hub. The climate is warm, with an average temperature of 22 degrees Celsius – 18 degrees in January and 29 degrees in July. Its tropical climate is very humid, however, and during my early September visit with a delegation of Israeli journalists, temperatures were in the 30s with humidity levels reaching the 90s.
Also, like Israel, Taiwan has no shortage of sites and attractions for those seeking a unique travel experience.
Its capital, Taipei City, located near the northern tip of the 36,192 sq.km. island, placed 20th on BuzzFeed’s 2015 list of “53 Beautiful Cities Everyone Should Visit at Least Once” and also has ranked on CNN’s list of world cities with the “best food.”
A place where the traditional and ultra-modern co-exist and meld beautifully, Taipei has all the offerings of any international big city – museums, festivals, shopping, restaurants, culture, entertainment and more.
A hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus service offers two routes covering the city’s highlights, such as Taipai 101, which until being eclipsed by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010, was the world’s tallest building. Located in the heart of a financial district that also hosts a bustling nightlife, the 101-story tower has an observation deck accessed by high-speed elevator and an adjacent multi-level mall with hundreds of stores restaurants and clubs, including a branch of the legendary dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung, which serves more than 20,000 of the delicacies daily.
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Park covers 25 hectares and is home to the National Theater, National Concert Hall and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall – a national historic monument and official national cultural landmark that houses a library and museum documenting the former president’s life, as well as exhibits related to Taiwan’s history and development.
The National Palace Museum houses a permanent collection of some 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks, making it one of the largest of its kind in the world. Exhibitions are rotated every three months, with approximately 3,000 pieces on view at any given time.
Also not to be missed in Taipei is a visit to at least one of the city’s 14 night markets, which offer everything from exotic fruits (and the biggest pineapples you’ve probably ever seen) to bubble tea, snacks, clothing and accessories.
In addition to the many restaurants to be expected in a city known for its outstanding food, teahouses where you can sample and take home some of the many varieties grown on the island are everywhere.
So are shops offering inexpensive massages that have tourists lining up out the door. A colleague was very pleased with the massage he had in one of these spots. I, however, chose to go the luxury route and don’t regret one penny.
Though not a massage connoisseur, the “rejuvenating massage” at the five-star Regent Taipei’s Wellspring Spa was the best I’ve had both in both ambiance and result.
The private suite with dressing room, steam shower, city view and soaking tub with rose petals and snack and tea waiting for me when the massage was finished was impressive and the height of luxury. But it was Amy’s magical fingers, which worked problem areas where masseuses, physical therapists and doctors have failed, that made the biggest impression – after four weeks that have included schlepping suitcases home and lots of holiday preparations, no aches.
Shifen Old Street, about an hour’s drive from Taipei, is home to the annual Pingxi International Sky Lantern Festival, which attracts some 80,000 visitors. Commemorating the official end of Chinese New Year, the release of hundreds of thousands of lanterns symbolizes hope for a fortuitous future. The 2018 festival is scheduled for March 2, 2018. Even if you don’t make it for the festival, in Shifen, you can write your wishes on a lantern and release it into the sky year round.
Taiwan is home to nine national parks, one of which, Yangmingshan, is just outside of the capital. There, visitors can see the kilometer-long “Sulfur Valley,” created by a volcanic eruption at the southern end of the Datun Mountain Range, which is the source of hot-spring water for spas and baths in the area, such as the Beitou Garden Spa.
While one could easily fill an entire week exploring Taipei’s many alleys, sites and surroundings, Taiwan is much more than its capital and the rest of the country should not be missed.
Several tour operators offer organized trips to Taiwan out of Israel, while other tours can be booked out of Taipei. But in this tourist-friendly country, you also can feel comfortable exploring on your own with a rental car or private guide and driver. Travel by rail and bus, including a high-speed train that runs along the island’s west coast where most of the country’s population is located, is also convenient.
Traveling at a maximum speed of 300 kph, the train can get you to Taipei from Kaohsiung in less than two hours. Locals are friendly and eager to help, though finding an English speaker may take a few tries, especially outside the larger cities. Tourism officials are addressing this with campaigns to improve English services, especially in tourist areas.
ALTHOUGH THERE are no direct flights from Tel Aviv to Taiwan, getting there is simple. El Al flies the Hong Kong route non-stop six times a week with all the service and amenities you’ve come to expect from Israel’s national carrier and, beginning in March 2018, its new Dreamliner will be added to the route, bringing the travel experience to an entirely new level.
From Hong Kong, there are quick connections to not just Taipei, but also Kaohsiung, Hualien and Taitung on various carriers, opening a range of touring options such as flying into Taipei in the North and home from Kaohsiung in the South.
Take the train from Taipei to Hualien, from where you can go whale watching (we saw loads of something in the dolphin family) and visit the Kuang Long Museum – a stone and deep-water factory, which has a collection of antique jade and some cool dinosaur and astronomy exhibits the kids will love, as well as earthquake and typhoon simulations.
Not far from Hualien is Taiwan’s most beautiful site – Taroko Gorge. Located in the Taroko National Park, which covers more than 92,000 hectares in the northern section of the Central Mountain Range, the 19 km.-long canyon is composed mainly of marble and offers visitors endless spectacular views. Even on an island where natural beauty abounds, Taroko Gorge stands out.
Spend a night or two at the Silks Hotel and take your time getting up close to nature, exploring some of the gorge’s many paths and stunning waterfalls. The luxury hotel is situated smack inside the park with breathtaking views from every window and a rooftop lounge and infinity pool that look out over the gorge and mountains.
The resort offers a variety of classes for adults and children and has a branch of the Wellspring Spa. Don’t miss a morning hike up to the Buddhist temple next door. There are lots of steps, but it’s worth it.
Silks is the only lodging inside the park.
If you are looking for a more low-key experience at Taroko, several hostels are located just outside the park’s entrance.
Taitung County, perhaps best known for the month-plus long Taiwan International Hot Air Balloon Festival held every summer, is rich in history, nature, culture and heritage. Its earliest residents are indigenous people – Taiwan officially recognizes 16 indigenous tribes, which account for about 2% of its population.
Taitung is a good place to soak in the culture at places such as the Beinan Cultural Park, National Museum of Prehistory and experience traditional music and dance performances. It’s also a great place to get on a bicycle and explore.
It’s true what they say about riding a bicycle – you never forget how. Let’s just say the last bike I rode had foot brakes and no speeds, so I was a bit hesitant but am so happy I made the leap. The relaxing experience of riding on winding roads through acres of rice paddies with the sun setting behind the nearby mountains is definitely one for the bucket list.
Kids will have a ball at the Shin-Liu Farm, an ecological park in Guangfu Township, where they can learn about nature and try out the Ami tribe’s method of fishing known as Palakaw. The park has a guest house and restaurant, but you also can watch an Ami stone hot-pot cooking demonstration and then enjoy the meal.
Taiwan has five mountain ranges, and the Coastal Range and Central Range provide stunning backdrops with peeks at the Pacific Ocean as you make your way south between the two through an area rich in agriculture that locals have even nicknamed “the Land of Milk and Honey.”
In Fuli Township, you can stroll through fields of day lilies. There are 300 hectares of these flowers, which are harvested for use in teas, salads, soups and seasoning. Some 60 hectares are reserved for tourists to enjoy.
You can also pay a visit to the Chou family, which operates a soybean farm and guesthouse where you can make your own tofu, enjoy a traditional hot-pot meal and stay over for an authentic local experience.
Other places of interest along the way include White Sand Bay in Kenting, considered Taiwan’s most beautiful beach; the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium; and Pan’s Farm, where they make the Chinese delicacy “pidan,” or century egg – a duck egg preserved by immersing it in a mixture of water, salt and clay and letting it “preserve” for as many as 60 days.
Down on the southwest coast, the Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area is a water sports lover’s dream, ideal for windsurfing, sailing, snorkeling and other water and leisure activities. It also has a 12 km.-long roundthe- bay bikeway for biking and exploring the local ecology and culture. Like Shifen up north, the bay also hosts a lantern festival to mark the end of Chinese New Year.
It’s worth spending at least a night in the area at the Fu Wan Resort Leisure Farm, where a father-and-son team run a luxury guest house with high-end cabins and private villas, as well as a restaurant and award-winning bean-to-bar chocolate factory where they make exotic varieties such as Thai shrimp curry from local ingredients.
A note for kosher travelers. Pork and seafood dishes are a Taiwan mainstay. Other than Taipei, where the local Chabad runs the Taipei Jewish Center, there are no kosher options, though Chabad can deliver meals throughout the country on order.
Most restaurants offer at least one vegetarian choice and vegetarian and vegan restaurants are easy to find. The fruits are amazing and unique and the pineapples are the best I’ve ever had.
Whether a family vacation with the kids, a couple’s getaway or an adventure for the Israeli who loves to trek, there’s plenty to see and do in Taiwan; you might want to plan your trip before the secret gets out – especially about Amy.
The author was a guest of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv, the Taiwan Tourism Ministry and El Al Airlines.