Before last year I had never considered Taiwan to be a great travel destination. I didn’t think anything bad about it, it just wasn’t high on my list. I’m thrilled then that AFAR Magazine asked to work with me on a project there, otherwise I would never have found out how great a country Taiwan really is. There are though a few things I wish I knew before my first trip to Taiwan.
1. More than Taipei – The largest city and capital of Taiwan, Taipei understandably gets most of the attention overseas. It’s a large, vibrant city with lots to offer, so that attention is absolutely deserved. But as I discovered, Taiwan is a lot more than just Taipei, in fact one sees Taiwan as it truly should be seen only by leaving the metropolis. I learned that the country has beautiful landscapes, massive mountains through which visitors can hike, bike or even raft. There are also many other cities and towns around Taiwan that deserve attention in their own right. Tainan, for example, in the south of the country was Taiwan’s first capital and today is the cultural leader in art, food and all things quirky. My recommendation to all first time visitors to Taiwan is to absolutely explore Taipei, but add some time for the rest of the country as well.
2. Amazing Food – As it turns out, Taiwan is famous in Asia for its outstanding food, a fact that eluded me before my first visit. Translated, a typical welcome in Taiwan means “Have you eaten yet,” a firm cultural indicator if I’ve ever seen one. And I am happy to report that this reputation is indeed well earned. In Taipei you can find everything from amazing street food fare to high end restaurants featuring molecular gastronomy. One of my favorite places though was Din Tai Fung, a famous dumpling house where I enjoyed the best soup dumplings I’ve ever had. In the south of Taiwan, Tainan is known as the snack food capital of Taiwan and there of plenty of options from amazing mango shaved ice to small bites at the night market. Rural, hearty and traditional foods are found throughout the country though, and there’s nothing better than pulling up a chair at a local place and seeing what delicacies they chose to feature that night.
3. Lots of adventure – I love adventure travel in most forms, from biking along forest trails to unique experiences found no where else. I was pleasantly pleased to see that Taiwan excels in adventure travel, as long as you leave the big cities. Along Sun Moon Lake you can hike and bike hundreds of miles of trails, most of which feature gorgeous views of the iconic lake. The real prize though is Taroko Gorge National Park, a massive reserve famous for the huge, white marble boulders that line the steep canyon walls. The most popular activity there is hiking along any number of paths, weaving in and out of waterfalls and river views. If you’re a surfer, then you won’t be disappointed either since some of the best surf spots in the world are found in the southern part of the country.
4. Aboriginal culture – I’m sorry to say that I had never thought about Taiwan’s indigenous culture before my first trip, but I more than made up for lost time. There are 14 recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan and they span across the country, and each have a uniquely identifiable culture and set of traditions. One of the best ways I found to learn more about these groups was at the Museum of Prehistory in Taitung, where state-of–the-art techniques have been used to bring to life these original inhabitants of the island. Probably one of the best museums I’ve ever been to, the facility does a masterful job tracing the history of the indigenous peoples and sharing with the world their cultures. One fact that amazed me was that many experts believe that the Polynesian exodus from Asia to the South Pacific began with the aboriginal groups on Taiwan. It’s amazing to consider that relatives of some of the folks I met were part of the Polynesian diaspora, creating one of the most fascinating stories of human migration in the history of the world.
5. Tourism – Taiwan does pretty well when it comes to regional tourism. By that I mean the number of visitors from neighboring countries in Asia. But I was shocked to see very few tourists from North America or Europe there, yet I know for a fact that they flock to other countries like China, Japan and Thailand. I began to wonder about that, and I think it’s the same problem I encountered. A lot just isn’t known about Taiwan in the west. Yes, we’re aware (mostly) that it exists, but I doubt very many of my countrymen can name the capital city, let alone name anything else to do in the country. Given the amazing resources the country has and the fantastic experiences available, I’m surprised that the Taiwan Story hasn’t yet been told. I’m hopeful that more people from the US, Canada, England, Germany and beyond start to discover Taiwan, because it’s a special place that deserves as much attention as its more well known neighbors.