Brooke Chenoweth makes the most of her first – and, by the sounds of things, definitely not her last – taste of Taiwan.
Taiwan is one of our closest neighbours, and with dozens of flights there from Hong Kong every day, each one taking less than 90 minutes, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’d never visited the place. I rectified that recently with a tour run by Country Holidays, and this island nation won me over pretty quickly.
My tour started in Taipei, and from there we drove three and half hours south to Hualien – the gateway to Taroko National Park. The scenery along this stretch of coast is stunning, the road rising higher and higher above the Pacific Ocean. There are countless spots to stop for photos along the way, including Qingshui Cliffs, but on the day of my trip south we saw nothing but fog and kept driving till we reached Taroko Gorge.
A Gorgeous Gorge
Taroko Gorge runs for 19km through Taroko National Park. It’s an incredibly popular spot with tourists, mainly for its spectacular natural scenery, but also for the easy hiking trails dotted along the gorge. Some of the more challenging hikes require a permit and a certain level of fitness. For those not in possession of either, it is possible to have a driver or taxi take you to the start of each trail, and either meet you somewhere along the way, or at the end. A number of spots are simply worth stopping for a look at the stunning rock formations and waterfalls. There’s an interesting history to the area and it would be worth travelling with a guide to learn more about how some of the hiking trails came to be.
We trekked the Shakadang Trail, a 4.5km trail carved out of the cliffs by hand by local Aborigines in the time of Japanese occupation. It’s a flat trail and easy enough for all levels of hiker. The water running through the Shakadang River below is crystal clear and a stunning blue-green colour, and this trail allows you to get up close and personal with the amazing rock formations and sub-tropical plants that line the gorge.
Swallows Grotto is another easy trail, and equally breathtaking – it includes caves, so hard hats are recommended (they can be borrowed at the entrance). The trail follows a narrow passage of marble and limestone, with vertical walls either side. Over millions of years as the cliffs formed, tiny holes were created in these walls and they’re now home to thousands of swallows, which swoop and call out as they fly through the gorge. It’s a beautiful spot but sadly its proximity to the highway – not to mention the sheer number of tourists – has driven many of the birds away.
After a day of hiking and driving (followed by more hiking and driving), Silks Place Taroko is a very welcome sight. This five-star hotel offers just about everything a weary traveller could ask for. Fully refurbished in 2010, Silks is a bit of an oasis – it seems to appear out of nowhere, right beside the gorge, and the rooms on that side have full-length windows where you can sit and watch the water stream past, or the birds and butterflies catching the breeze. When the mist descends in the evening, the effect is atmospheric and tranquil.
The hotel’s Wellspring Spa, also with windows overlooking the gorge, offers a selection of massages, perfect after a day’s hiking. Unfortunately, it was fully booked on the night of my stay, so I settled for a bath in spring water with natural salts, provided in every room. I followed this with an incredibly relaxing sleep in the biggest bed I’ve ever seen.
Another highlight of the hotel are its pools, including a heated indoor pool, with a separate kiddies area, and an outdoor rooftop pool, with four individual Jacuzzis. The Jacuzzis are a great place to kick-start the day, watching the swallows, and warming up before heading further up the mountain range.
Time to Climb
From Silks Place we continued inland and across the mountain range, which involved a lot of uphill driving on twisty, narrow roads. We did have to stop for deep breaths of fresh mountain air fairly frequently, but the scenery slowly changing from sub-tropical to alpine, and the ancient, giant cedar trees were good excuses.
We stopped to do some hiking at the base of Mt Shihmen, a 3237m peak with stunning views across the Huehuanshan National Forest and mountain range. Having failed to check the forecast ahead of time I was not expecting it to be five degrees, and was dressed inappropriately for both hiking and the weather. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be prepared when doing this kind of trip! Still, I made it to the top and it was well worth the effort. Having gone from 800m above sea level to that altitude was a struggle though, and if you’re considering doing any kind of serious hiking in the Taiwanese hills, I’d recommend staying further uphill and giving yourself a day or two to acclimatise. And did I mention you should pack warm clothes?
Escaping the fog and the chill that was rapidly seeping into my bones, we headed happily downhill. We stopped for lunch at Cingjing farm, in Ren’ai township. This area is like something out of a movie – with sweeping, Sound of Music-style vistas of the mountains. A few enterprising locals have capitalised on this ambience and built traditional chateaux, complete with European gardens, just in case you want to pretend you’re in the Swiss Alps and not the middle of Taiwan. Cinjing Farm is part tourist spot, part educational centre, with sheep, horses and peacocks on display. It’s a huge hit with kids and a great way to break up the journey. Lunch can be had cheaply at the markets next door.
We arrived at Sun Moon Lake by mid-afternoon, and on checking into The Lalu, the day’s driving and hiking suddenly felt very far away. Located on the lake’s Lalu Peninsula, the hotel’s location was once reserved for the holiday house of Chiang Kai Shek – and clearly he knew how to pick a prime spot.
The Lalu is a work of art as much as a hotel. Each room has a spectacular view, and the infinity pool on the ground floor looks as if it blends seamlessly into the lake below; the whole complex has a Zen-like vibe.
Determined not to miss out on a massage, I booked ahead at The Lalu Spa and it was well worth it: 75 minutes of sheer bliss in serene surroundings, as night fell over the lake. For the price (HK$1,000), I also got to use the spa facilities, including steam room, Jacuzzi, sauna and baths.
The food at the Oriental Brasserie was excellent – so many options and cuisines. There’s also a traditional teahouse on-site, by the koi pond overlooking the lake, and The Lobby Bar is great for sundowners or snacks. The hotel’s guest rooms are incredibly spacious and well fitted out, as you would expect from a five-star hotel.
One activity worth doing here is cycling – you can hire a bike from one of the many rental places in the town. It’s possible to cycle around the entire lake, a distance of about 30kms, or you can stick to the 6km of bike paths and enjoy great views of the water and the local wildlife. Another way around the lake is by boat; hundreds of small boats ferry tourists around every day.
There are plenty of hiking trails and family-friendly activities in the area too. Kids can try the cable car from Ita Thao pier, the scenic railway from Jiji, the Tan-nan Firefly Ecological Park, and woodwork at Checheng. I settled for a short trek to the top of Ci-En pagoda and was rewarded with permission to ring the giant bell at the top.
The Heart of Asia
Both The Lalu and Sun Moon Lake had a very calming effect on me, and it was with great reluctance that I left them behind for my flight back to Hong Kong. As a first-time visitor to this stunning country, there was something reassuringly familiar about the place. It’s similar to Hong Kong in a lot of ways, but very different in others. I appreciated the expertise and the organisation that came with being on a guided tour – not speaking Mandarin would have made the trip far more stressful if I’d attempted it alone! The proximity to Hong Kong and the number of flights a day make it possible to explore a little pocket of Taiwan over the space of a long weekend, and that’s definitely something worth doing as often as you can.
My tour was organised by Country Holidays Hong Kong. For more information on the 6-day Taiwan Scenic Splendour Tour (or one of the shorter or longer itineraries available), call 2525 9199 or visit countryholidays.com.hk.