Taiwan hot springs
Taiwan's location in the geologically unstable 'ring of fire' gives it an advantage that makes the earthquakes almost worth it. No matter which part of the island they call home, most Taiwanese are within shouting distance of a natural hot spring. No reservations are necessary and many businesses don't even have telephones. The island has no fewer than 128 hot-spring 'zones'. Here are six of the most popular spots.
Sunrise Hot Spring, Green Island, Taitung (pictured)
Located on the southern tip of Green Island, a small volcanic rock off Taiwan's east coast, Sunrise Hot Spring is a fine place to watch the sun come up after a night of soaking. The spring is unique among Taiwan's natural spas and one of only three accessible seawater springs on the planet. According to some aficionados, seawater springs are highly beneficial to health, strengthening bone and muscle, lowering blood-sugar levels and increasing white blood-cell production. The spa is divided into two sections: natural-style ocean hot springs on the beach and Japanese-style pools.
Wenshan Springs, Taroko Gorge, Hualien
One of the most visited natural springs in Taiwan, Wenshan sits inside picturesque Taroko Gorge Park. No entrance fee, no hotels, no Mando-pop piped through loudspeakers here - just carved-rock basins beneath a sheer cliff next to the wild Taisha River, all surrounded by gorgeous gorges and greenery. Hot spring water also bubbles up from the riverbed, so enthusiastic locals often dam small sections to make hot pools within the cold current. Wenshan is a 2km hike from Tienhsiang, where the buses from Hualien stop.
The town of Jiaoshi, 7km north of Ilan city, is becoming a popular weekend getaway for Taipei residents looking to hang out, eat seafood and soak in the famed hydrogen-sodium carbonate spring waters - which are less odorous than sulphur-laden waters. Hot springs are the big local industry in Jiaoshi (dwarfing even betel-nut production), so expect to find spas of all types and price ranges, from public outdoor spas for NT$50 ($12) a head, to high-class Japanese-style wooden-tub joints such as the Osaki Hot Spring Hotel (tel: 886 3 9887299), admission to which will set you back considerably more. Jiaoshi is the only place you'll find a hot-spring-themed children's park (at the Art Spring Hotel, tel: 886 3 9882 0115), complete with hot-spring waterslide.
Wulai, southern Taipei
This aboriginal mountain village is a 30-minute bus ride from Taipei's Xindian MRT railway station and is famous for its carbonate spring waters, reportedly good for expanding capillaries and lowering blood pressure. Wulai is one of the best-known hot-spring getaways in Taiwan and in recent years has moved upmarket. Riverside day spas and hotels abound, with many on the expensive side. But the traditional communal pool next to the toll bridge across the river is still free. A good place for a room and a soak in Wulai is the Sakaenoya Spring Resort (85 Wen Quan Street, tel: 886 2 2661 6700), one of the newest hotels in town.
So large do the Beitou springs loom in the Taipei psyche that the area has its own line on the Taipei MRT (Xin Beitou). Thanks to their distinctive sulphuric smell the waters are said to be of the cho dan (smelly egg) variety, although they are also thought to be the best for the skin. Most hotels nearby charge a high NT$2,000-$8,000 for a night's lodging and spring use. But look out for the excellent public hot spring at the oddly named Anti-Calamity Park, admission to which costs a mere NT$50. Beitou is also home to Taiwan's hot-spring museum, which is housed in an old Japanese-era communal bath overlooking the mountains. One of the newest and more strangely named hotels is SweetMe Hot Spring Resort (tel: 886 2 2898 3838; www.sweetme.com.tw), which offers indoor and outdoor Japanese bathing.
Ma Tsao Hua Yi Tsun, north Taipei
Located on the far side of Yaming Mountain, this public spa is a must-visit if you have a free evening. Ma Tsao (tel: 886 2 2861 1771) is one of the most attractive outdoor spas in northern Taiwan, with Japanese-style pagodas and natural sulphuric pools. The men's section is the place for a taste of modern Taiwanese hot-spring culture: in addition to the usual salarymen who go for a late-night soak, Ma Tsao is popular with gangsters and gays. The gangsters are the ones with the black tattoos. But don't worry about being harassed: an air of tranquillity reigns. The springs also offer mud baths (terrific for the skin), a small hotel, individual tubs for rent by the hour and an outstanding hotpot restaurant. After rush hour, the taxi ride from the Jiantan MRT stop should take about 30 minutes and cost roughly NT$500.