Former Taiwan president Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong Mei-ling, had a favourite holiday spot: Sun Moon Lake, in the heart of Taiwan. There, they would revel in their solitude while sitting in Meihe Garden, enjoying unparalleled lake views. On Sundays, they would pray in their small private church, the Chapel of Christ, in the company of a young female guardian. When Chiang wanted to be alone, he would ask a boatman to row him out onto the lake on a starry night. Although the founder of the Kuomintang party died in 1975, followed by his wife just last year, the old boatman and the chapel keeper are still alive - and happy to tell people about their time with the famous couple. The Chapel of Christ sits in a grove, watched over by the church custodian. 'Come in, come in,' says a smiling, tanned, grey-haired woman as she sees us approaching. 'The furnishings here remain intact ... there are the seats of Chiang and Madam Soong,' she says, pointing to two wooden chairs. We stand at the doorway of the church with its Romanesque columns and, at her request, accompany her in prayer. 'For the mercy of the great Madam Soong,' she mutters quickly, eyes closed. She continues and we are trapped; we can't go in and we can't leave. Whether through the skills of craftsmen or by the hand of God, the church survived Taiwan's big earthquake of 1999 unscathed. The cataclysm wrecked cities and towns, including buildings at Sun Moon Lake. Part of Lalu Island in the middle of the lake, Taiwan's largest, was submerged. Located in Nantou County, the lake, which resembles the joined shapes of the sun and moon, is a three-hour drive from Taipei airport, through scenic towns and past cane fields. During their occupation from 1895 to 1945, the Japanese built a hydroelectric power station at the lake, increasing its capacity by diverting a stream into it. The railways and roads built during the construction now give tourists access to the area. The number of tourists visiting the lake increased after 1945, accompanied by the building of temples, hotels and restaurants. But it wasn't always like that. Sun Moon Lake was formerly the home of the Shao tribe, said to have discovered the lake while chasing a white stag. Attracted by the beauty of the area, the hunters moved to the lakeside. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Han Chinese and west coast plains aboriginal people began migrating to the area. Incursions by the Chinese, epidemics and relocation of the local people by the Japanese caused a sharp decline in the Shao population and today only about 200 remain in the area. The Shao still worship their ancestors at Lalu Island, which they believe is a holy land. They call the island the Pearl, the Japanese named it Jade Island, and after the war it was renamed Kuang Hwa Island. In a move to recognise the Shao tribe after the 1999 earthquake, the government handed the island back to the indigenous group and named it Lalu, the name of a Shao deity. The island, once the inspiration for many a poet, was also an attraction for young couples who sought out its celebrated Matchmaker Statue. Sadly, the partly submerged island is now a pale version of its former self; no one lives there and ancestor worship is the only officially sanctioned activity. Having taken the boat across the lake to see this historic site, it is disappointing to find it deserted and overtaken by weeds. Visitors are forbidden to land and can only stand on floating piers for a closer look. The Matchmaker Statue has been moved to nearby Longfong Temple. Chiang's villa, Hanbhilou, overlooking the lake, is another attraction. Originally built as a wooden house by a Japanese businessman in 1901, it became a hotel for Japanese tourists in 1934. Thirteen years later Chiang rebuilt it as his summer palace. He lived in one bungalow, his followers and staff in the others. While Chiang's bungalow is now a museum, the staff quarters were sold to a hotel developer in 1998. The following year it was destroyed during the earthquake, then rebuilt as the luxurious Lalu Hotel. Its designer, Australian architect Kerry Hill, lived in the area for three months to absorb the influence of its natural beauty, which is reflected in the six-storey hotel and several small villas. The hotel, which charges NT$3,000 (HK$755) for a standard room and up to NT$12,000 for a villa, attracts Taiwan's elite, including politicians and celebrities such as President Chen Shui-bian and media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Plenty of cheaper accommodation is also available. Visitors can stay in former fishermen's floating houses on the lake. Small and neat, they have been renovated to accommodate tourists and come complete with floating verandas, where visitors can soak up the sun or try their hand at fishing. Sun Moon Lake can be explored by boat and its surrounding landscape on foot along hiking trails or by car via the coast road, which is dotted with scenic spots and temples. These include the 46-metre Tsen Pagoda, built in 1971 in memory of Chiang's mother. It stands 1,000 metres above sea level and provides a breathtaking panorama of the lake. Back at the Chapel of Christ, the elderly woman says she can't remember when she started working at the church. 'I followed my husband here when I was in my twenties,' she says. Now in her seventies, she says she is happy to spend the rest of her days living at the back of the church and being its guardian. Asked if she wants to be photographed, she shuts the door in our faces and refuses to emerge. But suddenly, the door opens and she apologises, smilingly warmly, and shepherds us away from the chapel. Getting there: China Airlines ( www.china-airlines.com ) flies several times a day from Hong Kong to Taipei. From Taipei, Guoguang Motor Transport buses run directly to Sun Moon Lake. Boats can be hired from the Nantou County Boat and Yacht Business Association (tel: 049 2855054). A row boat costs NT$200 an hour. More information can be found at www.sunmoonlake.gov.tw .