Friday, June 15, 2018

the best of Taiwan

In three short weeks, we will get on an airplane bound for Seattle, and as the wheels of the airplane leave the tarmac, we will officially close this chapter of our lives. Six years. When all is said and done, we will have spent six years of our lives on this small island.

Amazing and terrible things have happened in those six years; my father suddenly passed away, we had our daughter, we adopted a dog, we paid off our debt, we saved a lot of money, Sean became a teacher, our nanny stole from us and bailed on us two weeks before I was supposed to return to work after having Ruby.

I could go on and on.

While I still in no way consider myself an expert on Taiwanese history or culture, I do consider myself an expert on one thing-- how to have a great time in Taiwan! I have made it my goal over the years to see as much as possible. In that way, we are very different from our expat friends who get on an airplane and leave Taiwan every chance they get.

After six years, this is my list. From all of the experiences I have had-- the road trips, the scoot adventures, the train trips, the bus trips-- this is the best of Taiwan.

AN AROUND THE ISLAND ROAD TRIP
In February 2018, we took a 9-day road trip around the entire island of Taiwan with our 9-month-old daughter and awkward dog. We stayed in Taipei, Hualien, Taitung, Tainan, and Alishan. Renting a car in Taiwan is super cheap, and it is a great way to see more remote areas of the island like the East Rift Valley and the central mountain ranges. Keep in mind that you can drive around the entire island of Taiwan in less than a single day, so daily drive times on a cross island road trip do not have to be very long. I think a lot of people are intimidated by the idea of driving in a foreign country, but in Taiwan, people drive on the right hand side of the road and the laws are not all that different from those in the United States. The only thing to be aware of is the scooter traffic!


HIKING THE BITOU CAPE TRAIL

The northern coast of Taiwan is breathtakingly beautiful. The green undulating mountains meet the blue-green Pacific Ocean. Bitou Cape Trail is one of Taiwan's northern most points, and the short hike is a fun and easy way to enjoy the scenic views. The hikes itself would only take 30-45 minutes if you didn't stop to admire Taiwan's beauty, but then again, isn't that the entire point? We spent 2 hours casually strolling the trail and stopping plenty of times to enjoy the mountain and ocean panorama. Tip: come early to avoid the crowds and congested parking lot. 


THE EAST RIFT VALLEY
Taiwan is a giant mountain range. Along the east coast, there are the coastal mountains that hug the Pacific Ocean, and there are the central mountains that form the spine of the nation. Wedged in between those two mountain ranges is the East Rift Valley. The views in the valley are out of this world, especially because this valley is a stop over on a great butterfly migration! A bicycle path runs the entire length of the valley, and this is easily the No. 1 recommendation I have for people coming to Taiwan!

SCOOTING THROUGH SHEIPA NATIONAL PARK
Sheipa National Park takes up quite a bit of central Taiwan. On the west coast, there is one entrance to the park, the Guanwu Recreation Area. On the east coast, there are two more entrances. Many people enter the park on the east coast in order to see or climb Snow Mountain. From Hsinchu, you can follow Highway 122 all the way to the top of the national park. The drive takes about 3 hours one way and is absolutely stunning. The road winds through a bamboo lined river valley all the way above the clouds to the high peaks of Taiwan's central mountain range, which includes a temperate rain forest! No trip to Taiwan is complete without scooting through its gorgeous mountains.
  
SPENDING THE NIGHT IN TAROKO GORGE
Taroko Gorge is nestled in the mountains of Hualien County. It is a beautiful gorge carved out by a blue-green gushing river. This place is so wild and remote, and every time I go, it looks different due to earthquakes and typhoons. There are many hikes and day trip opportunities in the gorge, but my favorite experience was when we splurged and stayed at the luxury resort in the national park itself, the Silks. The resort can arrange a driver to take you through the park or loan you bikes so that you can visit nearby attractions.

HIKING IN ALISHAN
Before we moved to Taiwan, I bought a Lonely Planet Taiwan guidebook, and the very first place I wanted to visit after looking at the book was Alishan, so naturally, it took me six years to finally get there. Alishan is smack dab in the middle of Taiwan. Alishan is not a mountain, but a ridge of mountains. There are beautiful hiking trails, old Japanese trains and railways, and funky mountain villages. Here, the air is fresh and cool. This is definitely on of my favorite places in Taiwan, and I am so happy I got to spend five days exploring it in 2018. 

THE PINGXI SKY LANTERN FESTIVAL 
Most of my favorites are natural wonders. However, this is the one cultural event I participated in that really moved me. Every year, there are a series of sky lantern releases in the hills near Taipei that coincide with the nation's Lunar New Year celebrations. This annual festival is super crowded and a pain to get to, but it is also totally worth it. The one time we made it, it was raining so hard some of the lanterns could not even get airborne. It was still a really cool experience though! Tip: catch the shuttle bus to Pingxi from the Taipei Zoo.