Taiwan, a melting pot of cultures, styles, and tastes


— by Beth Habian, Features Editor

I was sitting in the office of the Taiwan Visitors Association watching a video designed to entice travelers to visit this self-proclaimed “stopover destination.” Colorful, exciting images flashed on the screen — beautiful footage of the vibrant cultural festivals, the unique costumes of local tribes and the stunning natural beauty of this lush island. All I could think at the end of the presentation was, “Wow, I want to go THERE!”

The odd thing was I was attending this presentation in an office in Taipei, and it was the end of my week-long visit to Taiwan.

Unfortunately, on my visit I didn’t get to see the parades of lights that draw thousands of visitors to the annual Lantern Festival, which begins on the 15th day of the year’s first moon (January or February), and I had just missed, by days, the international ceramics festival that takes place in the town of Yingge each October. There were no aboriginal village visits and we had no opportunity to see the famous sea of clouds at Alishan.

What I did get, thankfully, was a glimpse of a country on the cutting edge but with a traditional cultural core, offering world-class cuisine; friendly, welcoming locals; innovatively designed luxury properties with a great sense of aesthetics and attention to service, and a society that was at once foreign and somehow familiar.

City sights

Our tour began in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city. I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore, but as we drove past 7-11s on every other corner and ran into American businessmen in hotel elevators, I wasn’t too sure we were all that far away! However, turn a corner and look down an alleyway, and the familiarity would begin to eke away. Beautiful old temples topped by billowing incense smoke, carrying the prayers of the devoted heavenward, mixed with modern skyscrapers and smartly dressed businessmen and women rushing here and there.


Taipei is an extremely modern city boasting a mix of things from around the world (you can buy Birkenstocks on one street or stop in a grocery store a few blocks away for dried fruits from Vacaville, California), but it also is deeply rooted in its traditions.

One of our first stops in the city was Longshan (Lungshan) Temple, located in the Wanhua District (visitors can take Taipei’s MRT, or mass rapid transit, to the Longshan Temple stop). Built in the early 18th century and rebuilt numerous times to repair natural and unnatural destruction, this temple is one of the oldest in Taipei.

Like many temples throughout the country, Longshan is a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist and folk beliefs, with effigies of hundreds of deities — a result of the integration of the religions of the various cultures which at one time or other held power over this island nation.

I would highly recommend a visit, whether it be to view the beautiful traditional architecture of the complex or to observe the faithful who come in droves to worship here.

Another popular stop is any of Taipei’s many night markets. Locals and travelers alike stroll the lighted streets in the evening to enjoy snacks offered by innumerable outdoor vendors, to pop into a streetside herbalist’s for a recommended cure or to partake in a foot massage to ease away the day’s stress. It’s a great place to people-watch and can be a fun introduction to the out-of-the-ordinary gastronomic options of traditional Taiwan.

Perhaps the most famous attraction in Taipei is the National Palace Museum, which houses an incredible collection of Chinese national treasures.


Following an increase in fighting between the National and Communist armies in China in 1948, a good portion of the Chinese art treasures once held in Beijing’s Forbidden City was sent to Taiwan for protection.

Among the pieces sent were the “cream of the crop.” Today, the museum’s collection includes the world-renowned “Jadeite Cabbage,” which, because of its popularity, is being moved to another gallery room in the museum to allow better circulation and viewing opportunities for the many visitors who have in the past crowded the small display in which it was held.

This is a magnificent piece, exquisitely carved from a single piece of green and white jadeite, but in my mind’s eye — perhaps because of the pride of place associated with it — it was an enormous piece, so I was surprised by its small size. The entire sculpture could be held in your hand.

This month, Taipei’s National Palace Museum (phone +886 2 2881 2021, www.npm.gov.tw) is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its sister museum in Beijing by introducing three special exhibitions. Items on display will include paintings, calligraphy, ceramic works and books from the Sung Dynasty (c. 960-1279) — the first time that these items will be available to the public for viewing. The end of this year will also mark the reopening of the museum after its extensive renovation.

The main exhibition hall is open every day from 9 to 5. Entry costs NT$100 (US$3) per person.

Outside Taipei

Taiwan’s natural splendor draws many travelers each year, so we traveled outside of Taipei to take a brief look at the rural landscape.

Flying to Hualien, we continued by car for an hour to the entrance of Taroko Gorge National Park. White marble cliffs rose dramatically from the river, creating a stunning backdrop.


The area had a feel similar to that of the gorges which surround the Yangtze but on a smaller scale; instead of riding on the river through the soaring peaks, visitors can enjoy their surroundings from the road as they drive along the Central Cross-Island Highway, by walking along the paved footpaths which run along the shoulder or by exploring any of the myriad hiking trails that traverse the park.

Our final stop was Sun Moon Lake, which we reached via a flight from Hualien to Taichung and a 1½-hour bus ride from the airport. (Bus service is available from Taichung as well as direct from Taipei, which is a 3½-hour journey. The Green Transit bus, or Feng Jung bus, leaves daily, every hour, from the Taipei MRT Jungxiao-Fuxing Station, while the Guoguang bus, formerly known as the TaiChi bus, has four departures per day from the Taipei West Station.)

There are a number of beautiful small temples surrounding the lake along with the landmark Pagoda of Filial Virtue, built to commemorate the mother of Chiang Kai-shek. Standing on a hill about 950 meters above sea level, the pagoda offers a panoramic view of the lake from its top. (While I did make the climb up the hill, which follows a paved path of switchbacks through lush greenery, the heat and humidity got the best of me and I had to skip the 48-meter climb up the steep staircase to the top of the pagoda.)

A variety of outdoor activities is available for visitors to this scenic area, including hiking, boating, biking or simply enjoying the view.

The food

As anyone who is familiar with my adventures knows, I enjoy eating. I don’t mean quantity, I mean quality. I am as content savoring a good meal as I am enjoying the sights and sounds of a new country. In Taiwan, I would be impressed… and challenged.

Taiwan offers visitors the absolute finest in world cuisine, from traditional Taiwanese and Chinese dishes to other Pan-Asian specialties and gourmet-quality fare from the Western world.


My first meal in Taiwan was perhaps my most memorable. At Taipei’s award-winning DinTaiFung (+86 [0] 2 2321 8928, www. dintaifung.com.tw), located at the intersection of Xinyi Road and Yungkang Street, we stood outside in the long line of diners waiting to get a table — even with a reservation — while hostesses wearing wireless headsets more suitable for an exclusive nightclub than a relatively casual restaurant seamlessly dealt with the controlled chaos. The wait wasn’t too long (on average, patrons are in and out in under 40 minutes — it’s not the place for a leisurely meal) and, boy, was it worth it!

My head was spinning as the waitress brought steamer basket after steamer basket of incredible handmade dumplings, and we devoured them as fast as they came. The variety and quality of the offerings were astonishing, and my mouth waters every time I think of this place.

A meal here is a bit more expensive than at other establishments in Taipei, about US$10 per basket of eight to 10 dumplings, but each piece is handmade at a mind-boggling pace and the taste is outstanding. DinTaiFung has a number of locations, with restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and even Arcadia, California, but this is the original.


And if you’re going to start on a good note, why not end that way as well? Our final meal in Taipei was at Paris 1930, an upscale French restaurant located inside the Landis Taipei Hotel (41, Min Chuan East Rd., www.landistpe.com.tw). After a week of 7- to 11-course meals of traditional Taiwanese food, which, though the quality of the ingredients was top-notch, I had a hard time enjoying due to the overwhelming number of gelatinous dishes that passed in front of us, I was ready for something I could sink my teeth into.

I’m not a big meat-eater, but the lamb, imported from New Zealand and prepared by an extremely talented Canadian chef, was fabulous. (Much of what you will find in restaurants in Taiwan must be imported.)

Meals here run around NT$2,500 ($75) for a fixed 5-course dinner, or you can choose individual items from a list of entrées averaging NT$880 ($27) each.

Finally, on the food front, there was one restaurant that was a standout not just for its food, which was enjoyable, but for its ambience. Wu Wei Tsao Tang (106, Sec. 2, Kung Yi Rd.; +886 4 2329 6707) is a peaceful oasis in the midst of downtown Taichung. This stylish teahouse, designed in a traditional style and decorated with artful antiques, transports visitors to another time. I forgot I was in the middle of a modern city and welcomed the tranquility that enveloped me here.

Fixed meals are available, featuring a mix of traditional and Western cuisine, for less than US$10, or you can simply enjoy a pot of tea and a sweet and soak in the atmosphere.

Where to stay

I used to be of the mind-set that a hotel is a place to sleep and grab a bite to eat in the morning, but over the years I’ve had the privilege of staying in some truly beautiful properties and I’ve changed my outlook.


Being surrounded by chic design, enjoying impeccable service and having a choice of dining close to “home” in world-class restaurants is nice. While I could never afford to stay in the places I’ve had the pleasure of staying in as part of my job, for those able to enjoy the splurge Taiwan has some luxurious choices.

The first hotel at which we stayed was the Grand Hyatt Taipei (No. 2 Song Shou Rd.; www.taipei.grand. hyatt.com), located next door to Taipei 101, the 101-story skyscraper that houses a 6-floor mall, nightclubs and restaurants and offers two observatories (on the 89th and 91st floors) for extensive views of the city on clear days.

The hotel is designed in a contemporary style with an Asian flair and offers a variety of accommodations, from the Grand Twin or King (NT$7,650, or $231) to the ultraluxurious apartment-style suites which each come equipped with their own butler.

There is a selection of wonderful restaurants as well. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Pearl Liang, which features an innovative Chinese seafood menu.

Tip — as in China, it seems that beds in Taiwan tend to be on the hard side. At the Grand Hyatt, my bed was particularly firm, while others in my group had more comfortable mattresses. I’m not sure if the hotel keeps track of which rooms have firmer mattresses and which do not, but it might be a good idea to inquire upon making a reservation in case your preference can be accommodated.


Also in Taipei, the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza (201 Tun Hwa South Rd., Sec. 2; www.shangri-la. com/taipei/far easternplaza/en) is a 5-star property which caters to business and leisure travelers alike. The staff was incredibly friendly, and one employee I met, Dulcie, even ran next door with me to the grocery store to help me find dried sweet plums to take home! Room rates start at NT$7,250 ($219).

Finally, offering the ultimate in luxury is The Lalu (No. 142 Jung-shing Rd., Yuchr Shiang, Nantou; +886 49 285 6888, www.thelalu. com.tw), an exquisitely designed resort located on Sun Moon Lake. This incredible property is set slightly apart from the rest of the town — only a few minutes’ walk away but seemingly removed from the rest of the world. The sense of tranquility here was amazing. I could have sat out on my balcony listening to the birds and gazing at the calm lake all day.

In addition to a stylish lounge, several restaurants and a lovely gift boutique, the resort offers an on-site spa, which I visited on my own. Treatments here are quite pricey (my discounted massage, with tip, cost NT$4,396, or $132), but my wonderful 1½-hour warm-stone massage left me feeling completely relaxed.


Guests booking spa treatments are invited to enjoy the sauna beforehand (something which I chose to forgo following an incredibly humid day of sightseeing), then jump into the hot and cold plunge pools before being guided to the treatment room, which offers an amazing view of the lake. A cup of tea and a biscuit await (and a fire on cold days), and a bowl filled with rose petals provides a focal point below the massage table.

This all-suite hotel offers lakeside suites, designed to allow guests a view of the lake and surrounding mountains from anywhere in the room, starting at NT$15,500 ($466) per room, or guests can choose to book one of 16 courtyard swimming pool villas (NT$25,200, or $757), which provide the ultimate in privacy, each with its own fenced backyard, outdoor bath and temperature-controlled pool.

For something more affordable on the lake, Hotel del Lago (No. 101 Chung-san Rd.; phone +886 49 2856688, www.dellago.com.tw) is located just down the hill from The Lalu. Standard rooms start at NT$6,600 ($198) per night. We didn’t stay here but enjoyed a meal at its Café Juniper.

Planning your trip

I flew direct from San Francisco to Taipei on China Airlines (www.china-airlines.com), which consistently offers rates to Taipei for considerably less than those of other airlines. (In comparing flights on Travelocity, China Airlines’ economy rate for the nonstop flight to Taipei was US$761 as compared to $1,154 offered by Delta, which also offers nonstop service. For business class, rates were listed as $2,779 and $3,572, respectively.)


My 13½-hour business-class flight was comfortable (although don’t count on too many exciting movie choices) and the flight crew was very accommodating.

While my brief visit provided just a taste of what Taiwan has to offer, I did at all times feel comfortable and safe while traveling. As compared to neighboring China, traveling here, I feel, is a bit easier, especially for those who are on their own. In Taipei, signs are both in Taiwanese and English and, perhaps because of the preponderance of American businessmen in the city, many people speak English as well. (This is not as true, however, outside the city.)

For those not familiar with traveling in Asia, Taiwan might be a good first step to slowly ease into a different culture.

For more information on visiting Taiwan, contact the Taiwan Visitors Association (1 E. 42nd St., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10017; 212/867-1632, www.go2taiwan.net). If you are interested in receiving a copy of their promotional video, be sure to mention it in your request for materials.

Beth Habian was the guest of the Taiwan Visitors Association