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You may have always thought of Taiwan as a Chinese business capital with Taipei as the main draw card. What you may not realize is the diversity of this island and the type of visitors it attracts. From scuba diving and surfing to ecotourism, birding and wildlife tours, Taiwan is an interesting dichotomy -- on the one hand a serious financial and manufacturing center and on the other a unique vacation destination.

The island of Taiwan lies some 110 miles off the southeastern coast of China. The blending of Hakka, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese cultures has produced a rich cultural and social framework, not to mention sensational food. Lying on the western edge of the Pacific "rim of fire," Taiwan is also a volcanic hot spot (some 20 dormant volcanoes) giving way to some of the world's best and most abundant hot springs with just under 100 of them to choose from. Other natural highlights include the sheer cliffs at Taroko Gorge, the waterfalls and gorges along Nanshih Creek, the Alishan mountain railway, Jade Mountain (the region's highest peak), the beaches of Kenting, Sun Moon Lake, East Rift Valley and the offshore islands of Kinmen and Penghu.

Even if you are visiting Taiwan on business and only have a short amount of time for sightseeing, you can still take advantage of the island's natural attractions. Within one-hour's drive of central Taipei, you can get to Yangmingshan National Park with its beautiful cherry blossoms in spring and dormant volcanoes year round (hopefully). Here you can bathe in a traditional hot spring or watch butterflies and exotic birds. Just beyond the mountains of Yangmingshan you will come to the northern coast where stunning coastal rock formations created by wind and water rise out of the sea, formations like the Queen's Head Rock of Yehliu and others that resemble shapes and objects. Less than one hour south of Taipei is the aboriginal town of Wulai, home to more hot springs, beautiful scenery and the indigenous Atayal aboriginal tribe

All State Travel (tel. 626/854-1636; www.enjoyingtaiwan.com) is one of the few U.S. travel companies specializing in Taiwan. For a quick getaway and introduction to Taiwan, they have a special four-day Taipei Holiday priced from $699 per person plus a fuel surcharge of $118 based on double occupancy. The price includes round-trip economy class airfare on Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles, three nights' accommodations at the Taipei Fortuna Hotel (rated by the Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China as "Five Plum" tourist hotel), airport transfers and daily American breakfast. Add $50 when traveling on a Friday or Saturday. This package is valid for travel until June 5, 2007.

Their "Touch your Heart" hot springs package includes round-trip economy class airfare on Singapore Airlines from L.A. (other departure cities are available), two nights' accommodations in the Spring City Resort in Taipei's Yang Ming Shan National Park, one-day usage of the facilities at the Family Outdoor Hot Springs, daily buffet-style breakfast and transfer from airport to hotel. This trip is priced from $799 plus $118 fuel surcharge and all taxes. Valid for travel from now until June 5, 2007 and from August 21 to December 5, 2007. Asia Classic Tours (tel. 800/717-7752; www.asiaclassictours.com) has a 12-day Classic Taiwan trip that includes round-trip international airfare from L.A. or San Francisco, all domestic travel within Taiwan, breakfast daily, airport transfers, English-speaking tour guides, eleven nights' accommodations based on double occupancy and cultural entertainment and performances. Highlights include Confucius Temple, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, National Palace Museum, Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, Tainan, FoguangShang Buddhist Monastery, Aohsiung and Taroko National Park. The trip is priced from $2,158 plus air taxes. Add $598 for single supplement.

There are about 18,400 species of wildlife on the island, 20% of which are considered rare or endangered species. Among these are the land-locked salmon, Taiwan mountain goat, Formosan rock monkey, Formosan black bear, blue magpie, Mikado pheasant and the Hsuehshan grass lizard. The government has established six national parks and 13 national scenic areas to preserve the best natural ecological environment and cultural sites. Birding is extremely popular here, with several companies offering organized birding trips. Birding Taiwan (tel. 604/538-1676; www.birdingintaiwan.com) has a 14-day "Endemics, Fairy Pitta and Lanyu Island" birding tour from May 7 to 20, 2007. The tour is priced at $3,650 per person based on double occupancy or $4,100 for a single room. Led by Simon Lao, the Chairman of the Wild Bird Federation of Taiwan, this tour takes participants to the major bird habitats of the west coast, central mountains, Taroko Gorge, southeast, and Lanyu Island. It includes 13 nights' accommodations, breakfast daily, transportation, and additional opportunities to sample Taiwanese culture and cuisine. They are also running tours in July and November in 2007.

For a change of pace and a dose of adventure, Taiwan Surf Tours (tel. +886/952-910-985; www.taiwansurftours.com) offers seven-day surfing safari trips to Kenting, located near Kaoshung, one of Taiwan's best surf beach areas. The package includes airport transfers, six nights' backpacker style accommodations (such as bunk beds), daily breakfast, escorted transport in a VW vans to various surf spots and night visits to Kenting's popular night markets. Based on four surfers in a group, the price is $410. Or stay in a two to three-star hotel (based on double occupancy) instead for $501 per person. Meals are additional and can range from inexpensive local style to western style food. The typhoon months of July to October bring high surf and epic waves. During the rest of the year the surf is of a good size and pretty consistent.

Fantasy Travel Service (tel. +886-225-045-145; www.traveltaiwan.com) is a local based travel company that can provide in-depth tours around the island that take in historic sites, temples, places of natural beauty and cultural centers. Tailor-made tours can be designed to meet your special interests including birding, Buddhism tour, gourmet food, and tea culture. Their four-day tour departs every Wednesday from Taipei and includes three nights' accommodations (one each at Howard Plaza Hotel in Taichung, Howard Plaza Hotel Kaohsiung and Parkview Hotel In Hualien), breakfast and lunch daily, and visits to sites including Wenwu Temple, Tse-En Pagoda, Lio Ho Night Market, the Love River, Ami Culture Village, Taroko Gorge and Tunnel of Nine Turns. This tour is priced at $434 per adult and $373 for accompanying children. Add $109 for a single room. A similar five-day tour that includes all of the above plus visits to Lukang historical and cultural town, Chi Shing Beach, Oluanpi Light House, Kenting National Park and Puli is priced at $443 for adults, $355 for kids and $121 extra for a single room.

Viator (www.viator.com/Taiwan/d778-ttd) offers a wide selection of half and full-day tours and excursions in Taiwan. Tour options include:

  • Taroko Marble Gorge Tour -- a 10-hour tour including round-trip 30-minute flights from Taipei - $153
  • A half-day Northern Coast tour including Keelung City, Keelung Harbor, Buddha Statue, Yehliu Natural Park and Queen's Head - $28
  • A half-day Wulai Aboriginal Village Tour - $38
  • A half-day Folk Arts Tour in Yingko and Sanhsia -$31
  • A half-day Yangmingshan National Park and Hot-Spring Tour - $38

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