There’s a pretty good chance you’re reading this on a Taiwanese-made gadget – the little islands off the coast of China churn out most of the world’s technological goodies. But if digital industry isn’t your idea of a good time, never fear, Taiwan also has some of the most staggeringly beautiful landscapes, vibrant cities, friendly locals and world-class fusion cuisine in Asia. It’s a burgeoning travel destination, but if you’re quick you can avoid the crowds and discover a tranquil beauty that’s definitely ‘Made in Taiwan’.
1. Taroko Gorge
It’s hard to make geology sexy. Rocks aren’t usually all that exciting. Layers of strata tend to bore. But the Taiwanese are lucky to have Taroko Gorge – a winding maze of compacted marble cliffs, huge cut-out tunnels burrowing straight into the mountain, rushing rapids far below and towering green mountains eclipsing the sky on all sides – that’s one of the coolest canyon systems you’ll find outside of Nevada.
Known as one of the 7 Wonder of Asia, it’s basically the perfect setting for a James Bond car chase (or a grassroots Intrepid adventure). For you culture vultures, there are also a number of temples hidden among the mists and forest valleys. Xiangde Temple in particular is a must-see: a layered Buddhist pagoda rising from the trees in a flash of red and gold. Cars can’t reach Xiangde, so it’s just as serene now as it was when built in 1968.
2. The food scene
When people think cutting-edge cuisine, fine dining, finger-licking street food and fabulous fusion, they don’t think of Taiwan. But all that is beginning to change. Taiwan has exploded as a foodie hotspot in the last few years, with award-winning chefs setting up shop in Taipei and night markets to rival anything in Thailand, Japan or Singapore. Head to Ningxia and lose yourself in the smell of soy, smoky chargrilled chicken, sesame and fermented tofu.
Because of the island’s colourful history, its cuisine is spiked with flavours from China, Japan and Portugal.
3. Qingshui Cliff
You know that scene in King Kong, when the film crew sees Skull Island for the first time? Qingshui has a similar vibe. These plunging jungle-covered cliffs knifing down into the blue waters of the Pacific are like something from a by-gone age. Which makes sense, as scientists have dated the rocks here as some of the oldest in Taiwan. They’re a brooding series of coastal bluffs, with great photo opportunities around every bend.
The only evidence that they’re not a set from The Lost World is one tiny homage to human ingenuity: a coastal highway that clings to them about halfway up the slope and winds down the coast from Chondge to Heren. It’s one of the most spectacular drives you’ll ever take, with the cliffs looming above you on one side and a sheer 120 metre-drop to the ocean
4. Country life
Taipei’s neon glow is your first stop when flying into the country, but it’s the rural cities and counties that often offer up the most surprises. South-east of the capital you’ll find Yilan, a thriving cultural centre and home to several traditional whiskey distilleries. Taiwan isn’t the place you’d expect to find classic single malt scotches, but the spirits here are gathering a rapid following around the world for their smooth flavour.
Head further north along the coast and you’ll reach Jiufen, a gold-rush town surrounded by the rock formations and hoodoos of the Yehliu National Geo Park. After a long day exploring these natural wonders, chatting to locals over street food and cheap beer at Jiufen’s Ximending Night Market is the perfect way to unwind. Wherever you go, it’s hard not to be charmed by the warmth and hospitality of the Taiwanese people. Despite the looming presence of China on their doorstep, their upbeat optimism and broad smiles are infectious.
5. Sun Moon Lake
The jewel in Taiwan’s crown is undoubtedly Sun Moon Lake. Legend has it that a Thao hunter was chasing a white deer when he stumbled through the trees and saw the water. Since time immemorial the lake has been an abundant source of fish for the surrounding region, as well as Taiwan’s most famous natural attraction. What really sells this place, though, is the setting: lush mountain peaks and cloud-covered hills surround the lake and dawn mists rise off the water.
For cyclists there’s a track circumnavigating the lake that has been named one of the top ten in the world by CNN. And obviously with the supply so close to hand, finding fresh seafood couldn’t be easier. If you really want to see the lake at its best, though, rise at dawn – when the light is right the lake and surrounding mountains come alive in subtle shades of pink and purple.