Don't stop me now
Anyone planning a trip to Taiwan could do worse than seeking the advice of Janet Hsieh. The 32-year-old host of the Discovery Channel's Fun Taiwan has been presenting shows about tourism on the island for more than 10 years.
Taiwan is a fantastic spot for activity holiday enthusiasts, offering everything from surfing to rock climbing. And Hsieh, a former model who was brought up in Texas but moved back to Taiwan to reconnect with her heritage, is an activity junkie.
'You have everything here that you get in Australia, only in miniature,' says Hsieh. 'We have rainforests, reefs, great hiking, the desert - all these things in a convenient, compact package. Oh, and we also get snow.
'And because Taiwan is small, with three major airports and a bullet train, you can zip around and see everything really quickly.'
Hiking around Taipei
For a healthy weekend break or at the start of a longer trip, Hsieh recommends hiking in the lush, visually arresting countryside around Taipei. The capital's best architecture was built by Mother Nature herself, and comes in the form of the immense Yangmingshan National Park. This symphony of mountains, tall grasses, bamboo forests and sulphurous hot springs can be reached quickly by bus or taxi from downtown Taipei. It's a haven for hikers, birdwatchers or anyone who simply wants to relax in one of the many spa hotels whose suites contain bathrooms that pipe natural hot spring water straight into the tub.
'You have to see the city, but I would recommend Yangmingshan if you really want to appreciate the beauty of this part of Taiwan,' Hsieh says.
Yangminshan's best-known walks, which most locals can point out on a map, are a spectacularly easy flat trail named Butterfly Corridor, which winds along the side of a mountain and which, during summer, allows visitors to spot up to 151 species of butterfly.
There's also the more strenuous 1,120-metre climb up Mount Qixing, northern Taiwan's tallest peak. Qixing is an extinct volcano, and the hike to the top takes you past bubbling geysers and natural hot springs.
Water sports in Penghu
For windsurfing, kayaking and snorkelling, Hsieh recommends Penghu, an archipelago of almost 100 islands in the Taiwan Strait, west of Taiwan.
Accessible by a short flight from all three of Taiwan's main airports, Penghu boasts turquoise water, several hundred kilometres of shoreline with more than 100 beaches, breathtaking sunsets and a tropical climate. Being extremely windy in the winter and spring, the islands are Taiwan's top windsurfing destination at these times of year. Summer is hotter and calmer, and a better time for snorkelling or, for the more leisurely traveller, renting out a glass-bottom boat.
'Penghu has fascinating marine life. You will see tiny seahorses and really interesting forms of coral,' Hsieh says.
She also recommends kayaking around the islands 'to look at the incredible geology of the place'.
Penghu was formed from solidified lava from a volcanic eruption. The islands are lumps of basalt magma, which, because of the way the lava cooled and a great deal of sea erosion, have settled into unique shapes. One island, named Chixi, has a cliff face of tall, undulating columns that resembles a waterfall. The archipelago also features countless small caves.
There are hundreds of small guest houses around Penghu. Proprietors customarily renovate their hotels along a theme. Hsieh says that, in the past, she has stayed at guest houses that were renovated to resemble a French chateau and a Roman villa, and one where the rooms resembled Bedouin tents.
Rock climbing in Longdong
Starting from Taipei, take a taxi or train to Longdong. This is a well-known diving and snorkelling area in northeast Taiwan that Hsieh says also offers the best rock climbing.
The sandstone rocks along the coastline, Hsieh says, are notable for the range of abilities they cater for, from beginners to very serious climbers. 'I am not a technically brilliant climber, but I love going here because there are a variety of routes I can manage,' she says.
People interested in finding out more about climbing here could pick up a copy of Rock Climbing Taiwan, by Matt Robertson, which details 579 sport and traditional routes around the cliff faces.
On his website, www.climbstone.com, Roberts offers to help people find Longdong guides. The site also contains detailed directions to Longdong and information on options for eating and sleeping.
Trekking in Smangus
For adventurous walkers who can sacrifice luxury accommodation for a night or two, Hsieh recommends Smangus, an aboriginal village deep in the thickly forested mountains of Hsinchu county in the northwest. Smangus is around four hours' drive from Taipei along narrow and sometimes treacherous roads. It is famous for its beautiful, ancient red cypress trees, which are estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. Smangus was the last village to be connected to Taiwan's electricity grid, and life there continues along the same lines as it always has, with hunting and farming forming the backbone of economic life.
The local tribe, part of the native people who predate the arrival of Han Chinese to Taiwan, are called the Atayal and dress in bright, multicoloured kaftans and headscarves, often with painted faces. 'They are extremely friendly and trustworthy and always keen to guide tourists on a hike,' says Hsieh.
'Trekking in Smangus is like walking through an enchanted forest. It is silent apart from singing birds and barking deer, and you pass under thick canopies of trees towards the ancient cypresses.'
In winter, the cherry blossoms bloom. 'Very often the road to the village is closed due to landslides, so ask around before you plan to go there,' Hsieh says.
Cycling in Taidong
Taiwan is a cyclist's paradise and the major cities are full of bike hire shops. The roads around the island's coastline are flat and often sparsely populated. The picturesque and unspoiled east coast is popular for road trips. For beginners, Hsieh recommends a 22-kilometre route around the small city of Taidong. This road, known as the Circle Path, takes in coastline, rice paddies, ravines and craggy cliffs.
Fitter cyclists can try the 165-kilometre route from Taidong along the coastal Highway 11 to Hualien, the site of Taiwan's famous Taroko Gorge, a marble-walled canyon.
Cycling on a major highway sounds dangerous, but Hsieh says you can bike 100 kilometres without seeing a car.
Getting there All three major airports (Taipei in the north, Taichung in the centre, Kaohsiung in the south) have direct flights from Hong Kong
Where to stay
Regent Taipei, No 3, Lane 39, Section 2, Zhongshan North Road, Tel: +886 (2) 2523 8000. Rooms from HK$1,890 a night. Has an excellent spa, and staff speak good English. The concierge can arrange anything you need, including drivers and instructors. regenthotels.com
Landis Resort Yangmingshan, 237 Ger-Zhi Road, Yangmingshan, Taipei, tel: +886 (2) 2861-6661. Rooms from HK$1,181. A hot springs resort in quiet countryside, a short drive from Taipei. yangmingshan.landishotelsresorts.com
Villa Romana, 581 Hsiwei, Makung city, Penghu county, tel: +886 (6) 927 7429. Rooms from HK$737. A three-unit inn. villar.com.tw
Papago International Resort, 107 Sinsing, Chihshang town, Taidong county, tel: +886 (89) 861 111. Rooms from HK$2,600. A luxury spa and hot springs complex. papago-resort.hotel.com.tw