A clean break from the past
Taiwan's second-largest city used to be a place you'd go to inspect a steel factory or watch container ships ooze across a grey harbour ringed by smog. That was 13 years ago. Today, travellers to Kaohsiung, still the island's southern anchor, can drink European wines at bars scores of floors above sea level as the smog parts for views from the mountains to the Taiwan Strait. There's a clean swimming beach just off the harbour.
Kaohsiung has reinvented itself as successive mayors have sought to rebrand the city of 1.6 million as a coastal, cultural and commercial centre that can compete with the larger, landlocked Taipei up north.
Kaohsiung still leans on heavy industry and is less affluent than Taipei; building owners more often pack rooftops with corrugated tin than with wine bars. But in fast-expanding pockets, the rebranding drive has quickly caught on.
'One reason is that Kaohsiung's natural advantages are pretty good, namely its mountains and the ocean,' says Luka Lee, manager of Harbor Villa, a 200-seat Thai-Taiwanese restaurant in the coastal Xizi Bay tourist area. 'It's also a big city and transport is convenient.'
Outdoor cafes and boat tours dominate the Love River district, music stores have opened outside Taiwan's most popular night market a few blocks from the main railway station, and almost every commercial object ever invented is sold.
Travellers can use the metro system as a compass. Rides average US$1, and station-area maps in Chinese and English are posted near exits. Stations offer free Wi-fi.
Start a trip at Xizi Bay on the east-west metro line. The bay is a fishing and yacht-docking part of the harbour, the world's 13th most active, and rimmed on one side by jungle-covered hills. Maritime museums and water toy shops speak to the neighbourhood's history.
'It's a pretty nice city. There's a beach and it's clean,' says Erik Nystrom, 64, a German tourist. 'I thought about Thailand, but [there are] so many tourists.'
The area can be toured by bicycle, as can much of Kaohsiung's harbour front. The 5.5-kilometre West Line Cycle Path, for example, intersects a wharf and runs parallel to the container docks. City-run bike rentals throughout town are free for the first hour and NT$20 (HK$5) for each half hour after that.
After a ride or swim at Cijin beach, head for the row of eateries for freshly caught seafood from late morning to late at night. Close by, a stroll past the cafes on Love River's landscaped banks brings the Holy Rosary Cathedral and former US officers' club into view. For another angle, take a 20-minute river boat trip.
By late afternoon, Kaohsiung's masses can be found in the many shopping malls, including Shin Kong Mitsukoshi just off the high-speed railway station, Hanshin, next to the city sports arena, the FE-21 Mega farther south or the biggest of them all, the Dream Mall.
The FE21-Mega tower, connected to the Sanduo Shopping District metro stop, features the top-floor Eslite bookshop that staff say carries 440,000 titles. The store is shaped to look like an amphitheatre. Young book browsers perch on the sides of centre-facing staircases to read.
The city's best-known shopping complex, the Dream Mall, is an anomaly in crowded, push-and-get-pushed Taiwan because of its almost unsettling spaciousness.
In the 10-storey shopping centre, where 500 merchants offer everything from motorcycles to Birkenstocks, there is a gym, cinema and tea house. It gets 18 million visitors a year, but that seems hard to believe as you stroll through its art-deco halls.
Beyond the malls, three music stores - Live Music, Rose-In Music We Trust and the Kuang Nan Big Wholesale - are open in the afternoons and evenings along Chung Shan First Road near the main railway station.
Zigzag through the nearby outdoor Liuhe Night Market for tropical fruit, live crustaceans or children's toys, to name a fraction of what the shouting merchants might sell. The 60-year-old market, voted Taiwan's most popular in an online survey last year, attracts up to 100,000 people per night.
For an upscale Chinese meal, the 1,000-seat, two-storey Hsiang Yu Lou Restaurant on Sanduo Fourth Road - which has had the same chef for 40 years - serves traditional food ranging from fried cashews for NT$90 to Peking duck for NT$980.
Around the corner from Hsiang Yu Lou, Kaohsiung's highest building, The Splendor, welcomes visitors to its 75th-floor observation deck with 360-degree views, to enjoy vibrant sunsets filtered through smog or clouds over the Taiwan Strait.
'The most interesting thing is Kaohsiung's evening sunlight,' says Chung Yi-tsai, 25, of Taipei, relaxing on the deck during a 10-day motorcycle tour around Taiwan. 'The city grid is also very neat and even, as you can see it lit up at night.'
The Splendor's Sky Lounge is on the 39th floor, and a lounge-grill on the observation deck lets customers spend more time on the roof of Kaohsiung. Alternatively, hop up to the Howard Plaza Hotel's 30th-floor Moon River bar for an expansive view of Kaohsiung's northern lights.
In the city's outskirts, near Fengshan, Lotus Lake draws travellers to its reflections of the late afternoon sun over the water and its monuments to local religions. Two 60-year-old pavilions, named after spring and autumn, honour the god of war, Kuan Kung; two others nearby resemble a dragon and a tiger. Paintings at the beast-themed pavilions depict heaven and hell to inspire heroism during one's lifetime.
Hsiang Yu Lou Restaurant
No. 85 Sanduo Fourth Road
Tel. +886 7 332 6788
Ya-jiao live-fresh seafood
Cijin District, No. 22 Miaocian Road
Tel. +886 7 571-6325
The Splendor Kaohsiung
No. 1 Tzu-Chiang Third Road, 37-85/F
Howard Plaza Hotel
No. 311 Chi-Hsien First Road