A beginner's guide to Taiwan
Some people mistake it for Thailand.
To others, it's best-known for exporting electrical gadgets (think of all those plasma TVs, computers and smartphones stamped with the label: Made in Taiwan). Its disputed political status - is it an independent country or a "renegade Chinese province"? - further clouds Taiwan's global image.
Yet, blessed with tantalising scenery (from snow-dusted mountains to palm-fringed tropical beaches), a culture fusing the ancient and high-tech, and its own finger-licking-good foodie scene, Taiwan - sovereign nation or not - is arguably Asia's best-kept travel secret.
And unlike its big, notoriously bureaucratic brother to the west (China), Australians and New Zealanders don't require visas to explore "Ilha Formosa" (the Beautiful Isle), as Taiwan was coined by 16th century Portuguese sailors.
Taiwan has a similar population (23 million) to Australia. Almost three million live in Taipei, which, in big Asian capital terms, is pretty clean, green and pleasant; helped, in part, by the MRT, a slick and efficient metro system servicing a caffeine-fuelled metropolis where Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples sit cheek by jowl with neon-lit, scooter-strewn streets that evoke Tokyo or Shanghai.
Looming 509 metres, and resembling a giant bamboo stalk, Taipei 101 is the city's modern icon, the world's tallest building until Dubai's Burj Khalifa shot past it in 2010. It affords spine-tingling views from its 89th and 91st floor observatories (the lift hits speeds of 63km/h). There's a high-end mall in the tower's lower floors.
The National Palace Museum is Taipei's leading cultural draw; flaunting the world's finest collection of Chinese art and antiquities that once belonging to China's imperial families.
The booty was shipped to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang nationalist government was hounded off the Chinese mainland by Mao's Communists in 1949. Both parties saw Taiwan as a Chinese province and considered themselves China's sole legitimate rulers.
After decades of sabre rattling - sparked by China's threats to invade if Taiwan proclaimed independence - cross-Strait relations have improved, with bilateral trade booming and 2.5 million mainland Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan annually. However, the unresolved "Taiwan question" and "One China" issue continues to stir emotions and political debate.
What isn't in dispute is Taiwan's status as one of the great Asian food meccas. You can feast on sushi, sashimi, tempura and teppanyaki - a legacy of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945 - but it's the melting pot of Chinese culinary influences that hold sway.
Mainlanders first emigrated to Taiwan around the 15th century, and it's said that when Chiang fled China, he brought with him the country's best chefs. The result? Tastebud-tickling treats for all budgets, from fancy banqueting in opulent, Michelin-starred restaurants to hole-in-the-wall canteens down Beijing-style hutongs (laneways), or grazing atmospheric night markets for shopping and snacking.
At Shilin, the busiest of Taipei's myriad souks, stores sell clothes, electronics and quirky keepsakes, while vendors rustle up juicy Shanghainese pork dumplings, oyster omelettes, pig blood cakes, spicy sausages, fried chicken, cutlets, braised pork rice, barbecued cuttlefish - it goes on! - average dish price NT$50-100 (NZ$1.90-$3.82).
Wafting through every market is the pungent aroma of stinky tofu (fried fermented bean curd), a love-it-or-hate-it Taiwanese delicacy.
Easier on the palate (and nose) are desserts like baobing (shaved ice topped with fruit and condensed milk), papaya smoothies and bubble milk tea, a cool, refreshing drink loaded with chewy tapioca balls (pearls).
THE MIDDLE GROUND
For a more traditional brew, take the MRT, then a gondola, up to Maokong, a village nestled in the verdant southern hills overlooking Taipei. Crammed with teahouses serving pots of oolong (and other flavours), this is one of Taiwan's oldest tea-growing regions, and, with its undulating, wooded trails, edged by tea plantations, a lovely place for hiking.
So, too, is Yangmingshan National Park, on Taipei's leafy northern edges. Spend an afternoon here, strolling, bird-watching and flower-gazing, then soak in the sulphurous hot waters of nearby Beitou, which emerged as a spa resort during the Japanese occupation.
Formed by the collision of two major tectonic plates, tremor-prone Taiwan is dotted with bubbling, soothing springs. Some are public baths; others are housed in five-star resorts on the island's rugged green alpine spine, which sports more than 200 climbable peaks over 3000 metres; the highest being 3952-metre Mount Yushan (Jade Mountain).
Fringed by temple-speckled hills, Sun Moon Lake is Taiwan's largest body of fresh water - and a romantic spot for a cruise.
Taroko National Park is flush with vertiginous marble-walled canyons, cliff-top pagodas, exhilarating hiking routes and suspension bridges that bring to mind Indiana Jones.
Northern and highland Taiwan can get chilly in winter (December to March), but year-round heat is virtually guaranteed in Kenting National Park, a beautiful playground hugging the island's southern tip.
Yellow sandy beaches, warm turquoise waters, tropical fruit groves and forests brimming with butterflies and monkeys are features of a park used as a filming location for Life of Pi, which won Taiwanese-born Ang Lee a best director Oscar.
Coral reefs off Kenting seduce divers and snorkellers, though the best marine adventures edge smaller Taiwanese islands like Penghu, Lanyu and Green Island, which was a penal colony during Taiwan's dark days of martial law and political repression (1949-1987).
Now a stable, liberal democracy, Taiwan sees the occasional street protest, especially in Taipei, where placard-carrying activists rally (peacefully) against everything from China's claims on Taiwan to nuclear power plants.
THE OUTER EDGES
There are two very different sides to Taiwan. Fairly flat, built-up and industrialised, the west drove the island's transformation from rural backwater to Asian tiger economy, and is home to the historic, and recently spruced-up, port city of Kaohsiung (90 minutes from Taipei on a 300km/h bullet train). It's neighbour is temple-and-market-packed Tainan, Taiwan's oldest and perhaps most photogenic city.
The east, however, offers a window into old Formosa. Sparsely-populated, and dominated by lush coastal ranges, vast rice paddies and dramatic cliffs battered by the Pacific Ocean, it's made for soul-stirring road trips and bike rides (cycling has become one of Taiwan's most popular past-times with dozens of designated bikeways spanning the island).
The east also has Taiwan's greatest concentration of aboriginal people, whose descendants - thought to have Malay-Polynesian roots - arrived from neighbouring Pacific islands more than 10,000 years ago.
Although their influence was eroded - and genes diluted - by waves of Han Chinese (mostly Fujianese and Hakka) settlers, plus Dutch, Spanish and British mercantilists (who set up trading posts and forts around the island in the 17th century), an indigenous spirit survives, with the Taiwanese government recognising 14 aboriginal tribes.
The largest, the Amis, are predominantly farmers and fishermen who live in towns and villages between the cities of Hualien and Taitung.
Along the eastern seaboard, are aboriginal-run establishments serving rustic local cuisine (such as wild-boar tartar and sweet potatoes, stone-grilled seafood and betel-nut flower salads) plus folksy live music performances. Ancient hunting, fishing and harvesting rituals are toasted in a calendar of vibrant aboriginal festivals.
While Taiwan is heaven for souvenir hunters - jade and marble in Kaohsiung's plush boutiques, or handicrafts and pottery in indigenous mountain villages - it's the island's rich festival scene that enthrals many tourists.
Centuries-old customs and superstitions are celebrated by Taiwanese, young and old, in events charged by mysterious ceremonies, colourful costumes and a bevy of music, dancing and feasting.
Highlights include the Dragon Boat Festival, which sees teams racing intricately decorated vessels along the island's lakes and rivers, the Ghost Festival (Taiwan's spooky answer to Halloween), and Yenshui Fireworks Festival, which has been likened to Spain's Running of the Bulls (only with out-of-control fireworks instead of bulls).
Held on the first full moon of the new lunar year, the Lantern Festival sees night skies across Taiwan injected with tens of thousands of glowing paper lanterns (Hsinchu and Pingxi get plaudits for their displays).
And on an island where "eat often, and eat well" is a mantra, there's a plethora of gastronomic festivals. A favourite is the Beef Noodle Festival - held each autumn in Taipei.
The writer's trip was partially supported by Taiwan Tourism Bureau
FIVE TIPS FOR TAIWAN
1 Buy an EasyCard in Taipei. Like London's Oyster card, you pre-load it with credit and use it to travel on the capital's transport system. It saves time and money, offering discounted fares and means you don't have to keep queuing for tickets; easycard.com.tw
2 Avoid major tourist attractions, such as Taroko Gorge and Sun Moon Lake, on weekends and public holidays. The tour-bus crowds are usually immense.
3 Bring an English-Mandarin dictionary. In the cities, lots of signs and menus are in English, and many younger Taiwanese speak English. In the countryside, signs are nearly all in Chinese characters and spoken English is rarer.
4 Check the Taipei Times for the latest news, from Taiwan's relationship with China, to the fortunes of Taiwan's beloved national baseball team; taipeitimes.com
5 Free Wi-Fi is available across Taiwan via a government-backed scheme. Register online or at a visitor information centre in Taipei (bring your passport); itaiwan.gov.tw.
GETTING THERE Cathay Pacific flies to Taipei via Hong Kong; cathaypacific.com.
TOURING THERE Taiwan has good rail and bus services, especially along its western corridor. Public transport is more sporadic on the east and south coasts, where it's helpful to have your own transport or to join a tour.
Edison Travel offers a five-day round-island bus trip, with stops at key sights such as Sun Moon Lake, Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery, Kenting National Park and Taroko Gorge. From NT$15,900 a person, with four nights' five-star accommodation; edison.com.tw.
Howard Plaza Hotel, No.160, Section 3, Ren'ai Road, Taipei. Rooms from NT$4165. taipei.howard-hotels.com.tw.
Broadway Hotel, 250 Guangming Road, Beitou. Rooms from NT$3000. broadway-hotspring-hotel.com.tw.
Fleur de Chine Hotel, 23 Zhongzheng Road, Yuchi (Sun Moon Lake). Rooms from NT$9000; en.fleurdechinehotel.com.
Grand Hi-Lai Hotel, No.266, Chenggong 1st Road, Kaohsiung. Rooms from NT$9200; grand-hilai.com.tw.
Naruwan Hotel, 66 Lien Hang Road, Taitung. Rooms from NT$4510; naruwan-hotel.com.tw.
Silks Place, Taroko National Park. Rooms from NT$9000; taroko.silksplace.com.tw.
MORE INFORMATION eng.taiwan.net.tw.