Ready to get out of the city and see a bit more of the island? Somewhere away from the crowds and the traffic and the pollution? Here's a suggestion: Take in the relatively unspoiled east coast of the island for a refreshing change of pace.
By Joshua Samuel Brown
The Portuguese sailors credited as being among the first Europeans to lay eyes on Taiwan called it Ilha Formosa or "Beautiful Island." Of course, that was a long time ago, before the industrial revolution, when there was a lot more natural beauty in the world for those who managed to live past childhood. Nowadays, few refer to Taiwan as Formosa, and most people who visit Taiwan on business, spending most of their time in Hsinchu or Taipei, would raise a skeptical eyebrow over the meaning of the original moniker.
"Beautiful Island?" one might ask from an air-conditioned taxi while surveying the urban industrial sprawl on the road from the airport to Taipei. "Those Portuguese sailors certainly were a romantic bunch...or drunk."
And indeed, they might have been, on both counts. Nonetheless, Taiwan's west coast -- a strip of wet, flat land suitable for growing rice, papayas and semiconductor factories -- was probably not where our long-gone seafaring friends had their eyes pointed centuries ago when they coined the name "Formosa." More likely, they were gazing upon the awesome splendor of the island's eastern flank, the point at which Taiwan's breathtaking mountain ranges, lush and green, teeming with flora and fauna, crash abruptly into the endless blue ocean, forming daunting cliffs and foaming white water punctuated by a handful of sandy beaches.
On a map, the distance between the northern and southern tips of Taiwan seems short, roughly the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And if you take the Sun Yat-sen Freeway, which is basically Taiwan's answer to California's I-5, the comparison is pretty accurate. But a trip down the east coast is a different matter entirely, more like doing the SF-LA trip sticking entirely to the coastline.
The road is quite drivable, for those with the nerve and the stomach, but you should allow yourself plenty of time -- time for picture taking, time for silent reflection on the beauty of creation, and time to practice ancient yogic breathing techniques to stop your hands from shaking after the inevitable near head-on collision with one of the speeding gravel trucks that periodically cross the double line to pass on a blind curve. For those disinclined to attempt the occasional feat of automotive derring-do, trains run from Taipei to Taitung on a regular basis, and airplanes are frequent and affordable as well.
Ilan and Suao
The first city we pass through on our way southward down the coast is Ilan. Local culinary specialties include cow tongue cookies (neither cow nor tongue), pressed duck (very salty, good on a bagel with a schmeer of cream cheese -- bring your own bagel and schmeer), and pickled plums. A mere two hours from Taipei City, Ilan is a popular weekend getaway for harried executives seeking relaxation.
While not famous on the international spa circuit, the Leo Club (Toucheng, Ilan County, Tel: 03-9780782) is regarded among Taiwan's in-the-know crowd as one of the best getaway spots on the island. Unlike many Taiwanese hotels, which seem to aim for a kind of Liberace opulence, the d?cor of the Leo Club is designed in accordance with ancient principles of fengshui, allowing the resort to meld with the area's natural scenery. Also of note is the vast collection of ornate lion carvings kept at the Leo Club, by some reckonings the largest such collection in the world.
Not far south from Ilan is the port city of Suao, best known for Suao Lengchuan, the only natural cold springs in a nation filled with hot springs. The cold springs are especially popular in the summer months, and a quick dip will brace you for the long and winding road ahead.
Hualien and Taroko Gorge
Further along, we come to Hualien, a quaint little city known mostly for its marble quarries and proximity to Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's number one tourist attraction.
For most people, Hualien is only a waystation en route to the Gorge, but the city is an interesting enough place to spend an afternoon. One of my favorite spots to hang out in Hualien is the Guofu Market, an unassuming street market boasting a wide array of interesting victuals not readily found elsewhere. Seafood abounds, of course, so feel free to try some of the smoked shark sold at stands along the street. For the truly adventurous, there's a stall that sells live sea urchin, fresh from the sea. Eating urchin roe served at a sushi bar is one thing, but sucking it fresh from the shell is quite another -- something bound to increase your standing among your Chinese companions. Like Chow Yun-fat said to Mark Wahlberg in the classic cop film The Corrupter: "You wanna be Chinese? You gotta eat the nasty stuff."
Its entrance just a few miles north of the city, Taroko Gorge is Taiwan's number one tourist destination, offering amazing photo opportunities and scenic hikes ranging from the easy (the 1.9-km Eternal Spring Shrine Trail) to the more difficult (6-km Lotus Lake Trail), to one- and two-day treks deep into the mountains. The park is also home to temples and monasteries, the most famous being the Chankuang Temple, a four-story Zen Buddhist monastery with a view of the mountains that may well leave you in stunned silence.
Located in the heart of the gorge on the Liwu River, the Wenshan hot spring is one of the few totally natural springs left in Taiwan. Three pools of varying temperatures are carved out of the rock of the cliff, and the natural hot water bubbles out underneath the river itself. The river is pristine, fast, and usually cold, making for some pretty bracing post-soak swims. Should you decide to spend the night in Taroko, the Grand Formosa Taroko (Tel: 03-8691155) offers fairly swank accommodations. But if you decide to head back to Hualien for the evening, the city offers lodgings all across the quality-price spectrum. The top tier includes seaside hotels on the city's eastern edge, with room rates of NT$3000 or more.
Hualien to Taitung
Perhaps the most beautiful, and definitely the most curvaceous, stretch of the east-coast highway is the section that runs from Hualien to Taitung. While the road can be driven in three hours, there's enough to see along this stretch to make a full day of it. Aside from the non-stop wonder of creation's beauty that assails you from all sides, there are plenty of places worth stopping at. The "Cave of Eight Immortals" is an immense series of caverns that once held stone artifacts and other evidence of an ancient civilization. Now the passageways have been turned into shrines filled with beautiful Buddhist statues.
A bit further south lie the "Eight Fairy Bridges," an octet of graceful arches that form a span leading to a lovely little park filled with lizards, tourists, and fishermen. While there's a carnival-like atmosphere in front of the park, complete with stalls hawking overpriced food, T-shirts and postcards, the island itself is blessedly tranquil, and the arches themselves are well worth the visit.
Travelers wishing to see the laws of gravity flouted before their eyes should be on the lookout for the road sign about 25 km north of Taitung that proclaims "Water Running Up." While not as celebrated a tourist spot as the previous two, "Water Running Up" is well worth the brief turnoff from the main road. There's a small outdoor food court across from this wonder of nature, where you can buy excellent fried oyster cakes.
Closer still to Taitung city lies Shanyuan beach, where you can camp, swim, or even rent jet skis for the fairly exorbitant fee of NT$500 for 15 minutes. Seeming strangely out of place on a cliff overlooking a Taiwanese beach, the Zorba Garden restaurant (Tel: 089- 281276) is a quaint European caf? known for such non-Taiwanese delicacies as Italian bread (with olive spread and capers) and grilled lamb chops. Thusly wined and dined (or simply dined if you're driving), you're ready to continue to Taitung.
Taitung and Green Island
A small city proud of its aboriginal roots, Taitung is considered by many to be the most beautiful city in Taiwan. A newly built seaside park, complete with aboriginal sculptures, forests, and winding bicycle trails, covers much of Taitung's eastern flank, and those inclined to temple hop won't want to miss the Dragon Phoenix Temple and Pagoda on a hill overlooking the city. Should you decide to spend the evening in Taitung, the city offers the usual selection of cheap to expensive hotels, and even has a hostel (Gringo, Tel: 089-355565) for those traveling on the cheap. If you're looking for a place to relax for a few days outside the city, amid the scent of genuine California redwoods, the Hong Kwei Mu Wu or Redwood Cabin Lodge (Tel: 089-841639) is a lodge about 20 km north of Taitung, built of genuine redwood imported from America and Canada.
The final stop on our east coast tour is Green Island, a lush volcanic emerald off Taiwan's Southeastern coast with white sand beaches, coral reefs, and a good bit of historical significance as well. Aptly named, Green Island is covered with a thick blanket of plant life nearly everywhere, including the decaying remains of the infamous political prison that once made the island synonymous with repression. Arrivals come in three basic varieties: prisoners (there are still two active prisons on Green Island), friends and family of prisoners, and tourists. While the snorkeling isn't as renowned as in Mauritius or Boracay, the coral reefs that surround the island attract enough visitors to support several equipment rental shops.
Since Taiwan is a nation of hot springs aficionados, many people visit Green Island to experience the Chaojih Hot Springs on the island's northern end. Reputedly one of only three saltwater hot springs on the planet (the other two are in Japan and Italy), Chaojih is divided into two sections, the "natural" springs located next to the beach (three sandy bottomed circular pools of varying temperatures and one larger enclosed lagoon where the hot springs mix with the sea water) and the "spa," a more built-up area with fancy-looking faux marble pools and closer proximity to the snack bar and obligatory loudspeakers blaring pop music. Each area requires separate admission fees of NT$150 (NT$120 for students).
History buffs will want to spend a few moments outside of Green Island Lodge, the martial-law-era prison. While there is some talk about turning it into a tourist attraction, the defunct prison is not technically "open" to the public. Nonetheless, the prison attracts many visitors who stop outside its walls to reflect on how much life in Taiwan has changed since the days before democracy took hold, days when failure to toe the party line could land one an extended stay within. More adventurous souls might be able to make their way inside the prison itself through unlocked gates and crumbling walls, though such activities are neither advertised nor legal.
Accommodations on Green Island, while humble by Taipei standards, are both decent and cheap. Mr. Wong's Guesthouse (Tel: 0939-746120) has clean rooms, cable TV, and a balcony for viewing the island's famous sunrises. While Green Island is accessible by airplane, there are no direct flights to and from Taipei. The 18-seater twin prop planes that fly the Taitung-Green Island route make the small jets flying between Taitung and Taipei look downright spacious. There are also boats that head back and forth several times daily from Green Island to Fukang Harbor just north of Taitung, but visitors with weak stomachs should be advised that the 50-minute trip can be quite the ordeal in rough weather.
Should you survive the ride with an intact appetite and some time to kill before heading onward, Fukang harbor is an excellent place to settle in for a meal of freshly caught fish, a glass or two of Taiwan Beer, and some reflection on the place that inspired those sailors from afar to call Taiwan "Formosa."