Nature's bounty in store for visitors

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am

Everyone knows that Taipei is the capital of Taiwan - but fewer travellers are aware that Tainan, on the southwest coast, is not only the oldest metropolis on the island but was also once the seat of government.

While Taipei is the commercial and political capital, Tainan - which was first settled in 1590 - embraces culture with alacrity, showcasing a fort constructed by Dutch colonisers, some of the very first proper streets laid out on the island, and a wealth of Matsu temples. However, the city is by no means a mere historical fossil, and a thriving economy has given rise to a swathe of glitzy shopping malls, hip bars and smart hotels.

Perhaps the most exclusive hotel in Taiwan occupies a unique position at Sun Moon Lake, which sits more or less in the centre of the island surrounded by spectacular forested hills.

The Lalu resort - an array of private villas, infinity pools and gourmet dining - blends perfectly into the landscape. While its room rates guarantee it an exclusive clientele, the area around is open to hikers, anglers, and mountain bikers, whatever their net worth.

The nearby Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village provides a well-interpreted glimpse of Taiwan's native tribes, as well as all the fun of the fair in an adjacent amusement park.

South of Sun Moon Lake, there is more of nature's bounty in store at the Alishan National Scenic Area, which stretches over 37,000 hectares rising to heights of 2,600 metres. It is not simply train buffs who appreciate the railway here, which in the course of just under four hours chugs up through tropical, sub-tropical, temperate and alpine zones.

The area is sparsely populated, but hosts small, thriving communities such as Ruili, which has long been a centre for cultivating tea, and is now taking on new life as a base for trekkers. While popular all year round, the crowds come in spring to admire Alishan's cherry blossoms, while autumn heralds the best sunrises and sunsets.

For visitors in search of a less strenuous but equally scenic tour of Taiwan, the answer is the South Cross-Island Highway, running from Tainan in the west to Taitung in the east. Motorists can easily cover its 209km in a couple of days, and hot springs and aboriginal townships are dotted along the way, making for some enticing rest stops.

The road reaches 2,731 metres at its highest point, the Yakou Tunnel, but along the way the twists and turns provide an endlessly changing and exciting series of panoramas, while the Heavenly Dragon suspension bridge at Wulu supplies the trip's most spine-tingling Kodak moment.

Apart from its well-developed road network, getting around Taiwan is surprisingly swift on the new high-speed train which links Taipei and Kaohsiung in just one hour, 40 minutes with a top speed of 300km/h.

Taiwan's offshore islands are perhaps its most overlooked attractions; to the east, Green Island is a magnet for scuba divers, while the Penghu Islands, off the west coast, offers sun, sand and sea. The archipelago is made up of 64 islands, although only one third are inhabited. Makung is one of the busiest resort areas, with a fully developed nightlife contrasting with the beach scene.

By comparison, Green Island - about 30km from Taitung - is less frenetic, and much admired for its pristine coral reefs and numerous tropical fish. While many visitors treat the island as a day trip, there's plenty to explore and enjoy there.

Taiwan's greatest geological marvel is the Taroko Gorge, which is the wildest part of the island. Formed by tectonic shifts more than 4 million years ago, its marbled canyons, towering cliffs that obscure the sun, and incredibly lush vegetation all add up to an amazing experience. The gorge is also home to abundant wildlife, including wild boar, macaques, and the Formosan black bear.

One of the best introductions is along the Mysterious Valley Trail, which runs beside the crystal clear Shakatang River. The river remains chilly year round and is a great solace to aching feet.

Finally, for visitors on a tight schedule who are not able to journey far out of Taipei, Pinglin lies about 20km southeast of the capital. Little more than a village, it is renowned for its aromatic, delicious - and consequently steeply priced - bao chung tea.

A vast array of tea-related souvenirs are on offer in the town centre, while the tea museum claims to be the largest in the world. But the real attraction of Pinglin is its surrounding emerald green mountains which make it so incredibly picturesque.




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