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Though most visitors to Taiwan savor the fine food there and the treasures in artistic Meccas such as the National Palace Museum, those who love adventure, gorgeous scenery and a deeper connection with the old culture of China will head for the hills, and the lakes, and the gorges, for that matter. After several trips, I feel any spirited traveler will want to get out of the capital and head for, at least, two or three spots outside.
(Note that 10 percent service charge is added to most hotel and restaurant bills in Taiwan, so you need not tip).
Sun Moon Lake
My first choice south of the capital city is this famed spot, where wealthy Taiwanese (including the late dictator, Chiang kai-Shek) aim to have their country homes. In addition to relaxing at this lovely lake in the shape of conjoined circular sun and a new moon, there are several interesting spots to visit, and a dozen or so good hiking trails. Three newish temples, constructed between 1938 and 1965, are worth looking at. The most famous is Xuan Zhuang (1965), named for an eminent monk of the Tang Dynasty who brought documents from India to help establish Buddhism in China. It takes about 90 minutes to drive here from Taichung Airport, or from that town's rail station. If you are interested in Buddhism, you may want to visit the enormous Chungtai Monastery, located in Puli, almost exactly in the geographical center of Taiwan. Self-described as a fusion of elements from East and West, the huge religious center's building draws people who enjoy meditation from many parts of the globe.
Staying at the Lake
The most beautiful modernist resort I have ever seen, The Lalu (tel. 049/285-5311; www.thelalu.com.tw/en/menu_e.htm) sits serenely lakeside, a smoothly cool chunk of elegance that refreshes the spirit with its clean lines and soulful ambience. Taking up the space where Chiang kai-Shek's old retreat used to be, the almost new (2002) resort was designed with Zen in mind and has only 61 large rooms, each with lake view and balcony, as well as ten villa apartments. Facilities include a spa, fitness room, spacious library, and a stupendous 60-meter (about 180 feet) heated, lipless pool. Chinese, Japanese and western restaurants, poolside teahouse, and bar. Rates start from NT$12,300 (about US $380). Location: 142 Jung Shing Road, Yuchr Shiang, Nantou, 555 Taiwan.
Also on the lake, but in town, is the new Del Lago (tel. 049/285-6688; www.dellago.com.tw), eight floors of elegance with twins or doubles from just NT$6,600 (about US $204). Cool modern ambience, with an indoor/outdoors restaurant serving very good mixed-regional Chinese meals.
Famous for its twisting, hair-raising road, which clings to the sides of the cliffs and pierces them with dozens of tunnels, Taroko Gorge (www.taroko.gov.tw/english/) is the site of an international marathon every November. But most visitors come just for the gorgeous scenery, and for hiking beneath the steep sides of the 27 high mountains in the national park here. Among must-see spots are the Tunnel of Nine Turns, near where you can get out and walk a short distance if you like, your bus or car meeting you farther on. At one point, you can look up at the Jueilu Precipice, which rises 1,666 meters (5,466 ft.) above the riverbed, higher than the USA's Grand Canyon (1,620 meters, 5,315 ft.). The highway is part of the Central Cross-Island Highway, built by the Army in the 1950s at the order of the Nationalists, worried about a possible Communist invasion from the mainland. Two hundred and twelve worker/soldiers lost their lives carving it into the cliffs, and they are honored at the Eternal Spring Shrine, rebuilt from an older shrine near the waterfall of the same name.
If you are visiting the gorge in October, check out the International Stone Sculpture Festival in nearby (90 minutes) Hualien, where the regional airport is located. At any other time, you can visit the Hualien County Stone Sculpture Museum (tel. 03 822 7121; http://stone.hccc.gov.tw/en/index.htm, open daily except for two festival times. Exhibits change every three months. Admission is NT$20 (about US 60 cents), free to senior citizens and small children. Location: 8 Wen Fu Road, Hualien.
Staying in Taroko or Hualien
The best place to stay in the gorge is the Grand Formosa Taroko (tel. 03 3869-1155; www.grandformosa-taroko.com.tw/home/english/index.htm), a Regent hotel, with 1950s dÂ¿cor and amenities, including a good restaurant. Double or twin rooms start at NT$6,000 (about US $185). Location: 18 Tian Hsyang Road, Shion Lin Village, Hualien County 972.
In Hualien, the best hotel is the Chinatrust (tel. 03 822 1171; www.chinatrust-hotel.com), one of a dozen around the country owned by a huge banking concern of the same name. Twin rooms start at NTS $4,800 (about US $148). Facilities include a pool and two restaurants, featuring western and Cantonese food. The all-you-can-eat buffet lunch is really good, and costs just NT$380 (about US $12). Location: 2 Yohng Shing Road, Hualien.
Between Taipei and Sun Moon Lake
On your way to or from Sun Moon Lake, you might enjoy stopping off in Sanyi, about two-thirds of the way south of Taipei, the center of Taiwan's woodcarving industry. In addition to seeing the dozens of shops selling wood items along Shuimei Street, you should check out the Museum of Wood Sculpture (tel. 037-876009; www.mlc.gov.tw/english/index.asp) (1995) here. The shops have a wide array of items, traditional and modern, including religious figures and native designs, and so does the museum. In the latter, unfortunately, a couple of pieces and a big chart seem to be the only objects bearing English-language descriptions--the rest are in Chinese. Open daily except Mondays and certain holidays. Admission NTS $60 (about US $1.85). Location: 88 Guangshen Shincheng, Guansheng Village, Sanyi Township, Miaoli County.
On January 29, 2006, the Chinese New Year is the country's most important holiday, with three days of festivities. All the fun stops on February 12, with the Lantern Festival marking the end of the 15-day New Year period.
A couple of practical hints if you go: To save a little money, latch on to a free Tourist Pass at a Travel Information Service Center at the international airport or by asking the Visitors Association at the contact points given below. It lists discounts at over 150 places (restaurants, resorts, museums, attractions and shops) on such things as, for instance, a meal at the famous Green Leaf Restaurant (free fruit) or purchases at the National Palace Museum shop (10 percent) or meals there (15 percent).
By late 2006, authorities say, the new High Speed Railway will be in operation, the trip from Taipei to Kaohsiung (in the extreme south) taking only 90 minutes. Tests of 300 km. per hour (about 186 mph) have already been held. This will provide the possibility of day trips from Taipei to Taichung or Kaohsiung.
The Golden Foundation Tours (e-mail: email@example.com; www.gftours.com.tw/gftours.asp) people will organize your trip to Taiwan, saying they cater to all price ranges and every kind of special interest.
The international dialing code for Taiwan from the USA is 886. More information on the country is available at the website of the Taiwan Visitors Association, www.taiwan.net.tw or the North American version, www.go2taiwan.net. You can also phone or email their office in New York City for advice and brochures: 1 East 42nd St., New York NY 10017, tel. 212/867-1623/34, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: the TVA plans to move to new quarters a bit farther west on 42nd St. in the near future.
In addition to the country's leading international carrier, China Airlines, you can get there from North America on EVA Airways, another Taiwan-based outfit and also nonstop from the US West Coast. Other airlines, offering one-stop or two-stop services, include American (code sharing with EVA), ANA, Asiana, Continental (code sharing with EVA), Cathay Pacific, Delta (code sharing with China Airlines), JAL, Northwest, Singapore, United, US Airways and Varig. Be sure to check out such sites as Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), where in mid-November, early December round-trip nonstop flights to Taipei were offered for $828 by China Airlines and $899 by EVA Airways from Los Angeles, for example.